Sunday, December 6, 2009

History, Injuries, and Social Diffusion

Utah Philips, a social observer and American Radical, once remarked that history is like a river in which we are all waist deep.  The idea of time (and it's inevitable by-product of history) as a river, the notion that time is a moving and active force that both shapes us and our surroundings, has never been more apparent to me than today.  3 weeks have passed without a blog post!  Yeesh!  Time has simply slipped away from me these past few weeks, or slipped over me as the case may be.  As so many grains of sand through the hour glass that is this year, heaps of new people, new places and new experiences have passed over and beside me.  So many places and smells and people now fading in the rear view mirror attached to my handlebars.      

First, a re-cap.  My time in Melbourne began with three days spent at my friend Kristen Murray's house in Ivanhoe, an outer-city suburb some 30 or so minutes from the Melbourne Central Business District (CBD).  After recovering from a fierce case of trans-continental jet-lag, I set about the work of finding an apartment.  I scoured local bookshop windows, perused the Smith St. Food co-op housing board, and posted requests on every local cycling forum I could find.  I quickly found a posting for a sharehouse in another outer-city suburb called Preston, so after a quick call I arranged a meeting for that night.  I bicycled down High St., a major north south thoroughfare that passes directly through the increasingly hip suburb of Northcote on my borrowed Kona mountain bike thinking, "wow.  This place must be in a pretty good neighborhood."  After 20 more minutes of riding and a substantial change of scenery, I realized I may have judged too soon.

Arriving at the house I met Russel and William, my two soon-to-be housemates.  Within minutes, my landlord Ben arrived.  A mid-twenties man with a slightly awkward countenance, Ben ended all his words with a slightly higher note than the words began.  He offered me a vodka drink with ice and a freshly squeezed lemon.  I accepted, and Russel and I and Ben and William listened to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" while we waited for a couple of Egyptians to arrive.  

I didn't take pictures of the place in Preston largely because it was unremarkable.  I didn't stay there long.  I took the room at the far north end of the house, clearly a later addition to the house that ended up really hot during the day and really cold at night.  Our refrigerator went out within the first week I was there, and we never could seem to make the ice-box not smell like sausages.  Still and all, It wasn't a terrible experience--Russel turned out to be an amazing man with a sordid past that included a bank heist that he got away with.  He later turned himself in.   I also found the plate glass window pictured above just a block or so from my front door.   Love me some Dr. King. 

But when a friend of a friend told me that a share house in Fitzroy North was up for sublet during the time of my stay, I jumped at the chance to move to an inner-city suburb.  My landlord Ben, who was generous with his vodka, gladly paid me back my last two weeks of rent.  I met him at the bakery he manages on Smith St. and he gave me two dozen pear, apple and pineapple pastries along with two fresh loaves of bread.  That on top of the two weeks rent.  He was headed to Mexico and San Francisco the next week and believed in good karma.  I told him I believe in that sort of thing, too.        

A thread of difficulty was woven throughout all of these experiences.  During my first five days in Melbourne, I sustained an injury to my hip.  I was playing polo (surprise!) when I had to put my foot down to keep from crashing into someone who cut me off on the court.  The impact created a tear in the laberum cartilage, that is the cartilage between the hip socket and the femur bone--but I didn't know that for some time.  I was riding roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) a day into and out of the city whilst still playing polo.  Soon, all this activity conspired to prevent me from walking without pain.  After a week of staying off the bike, I scheduled an appointment with a Physical Therapist, who recommended I see a doctor, who then sent me to a neurologist (where I got an MRI), which finally led to seeing an orthopedic surgeon.  Weeks of doctor's appointments later, the verdict was I could continue on the fellowship without serious injury to myself so long as I hold off on playing the bicycle polo for a couple months.  As I reported all this to a friend some days later, she said "you don't sound so happy about that!"  To which I could only reply, "It's good news, I reckon.  I just really love to play bike polo."   

The injury didn't slow me down too much...It's just there was more and more to do.  I continued to volunteer at the bike shed, but not as much.  I wanted to be there two to three times a week, because as most of you know I love old bikes.  What's more, I love teaching other people how to get old bikes working again.  And this is precisely what the bike shed is all about: teaching others to make broken bikes whole. 
I did make it down to the shed for a sort of commemoration some weeks back.  Earlier this year, the shed lost one of its most avid volunteers, a man named Thomas Orange.  You can read a bit more about Thomas and his contributions here.  The volunteers at the shed created a sort of collage to commemorate both the work of the shed and the central role Thomas assumed in that work.  All of Thomas' family came out for the un-veiling while food and drink and stories were shared for a couple of hours. 

One reason I was unable to go to the shed, and a major contribution to my recent busy-ness was an "internship" I started at Bicycle Victoria.  Internship implies work, though, and my role at BV was almost the opposite of work.  "Voyeur," I think, is a much more appropriate term to describe my role at Bike Vic.  I was assigned to Garry Brennan, an amazing man who works as the Public Affairs officer at Bike Vic.  He also works with the facilities team, a team focused on bicycle policy, bicycle advocacy and the development of bicycle infrastructure.

Mostly, I've observed the ways in which Bike Vic goes about it's work of advocating for increased bicycle infrastructure, the kinds of bike infrastructure it advocates for, and the relationships required to make advocacy effective.  This last point is pretty important--relationships.  Bicycle Victoria has a membership of over 45,000.  I'll type that again--45,000.  That makes them the third largest community based bicycle advocacy group in the world.  That also means they can claim a pretty vast constituency.  But perhaps most importantly, this membership base (and the subsequent volunteer base that emerges) means BV is able to afford to hire staff who are fairly adept at planning bicycle facilities and their implementation.  Bike Vic, then, can boast broad representation and expertise, which leads to the exertion of influence.  It is, of course, arguable (at least here in Melbourne) how expert or representative Bicycle Victoria truly is.  But one thing is in-arguable: they exert an incredible amount of influence over the development of bicycle infrastructure in Victoria.  Stay tuned for more on this idea of representation and power....

One of the better programs overseen and engineered by Bicycle Victoria is the "Ride 2 School" (R2S) program.  R2S is funded by the State of Victoria, but staffed by Bicycle Victoria--a great example of why it pays to have good relations with political authorities.  I had the great pleasure of accompanying BV staffer Robin on a trip to two local schools, one of which had a R2S program and the other of which was interested in starting a R2S program. 
Robin led an assembly at school number one, pictured above, which culminated in the awarding of two bikes to two kids recognized for their commitment to commuting to school each day (awarded by the deputy premiere [or governor] no less!).  The kids were also awarded the bike because they are leaders in their school, both academically and socially.  This kind of positive reinforcement--the affirmation of positive behavior amongst young leaders--is meant to encourage/inspire other students to emulate their peers.  This idea is called "social diffusion," and it is a big piece of the behavior change model utilized by Bicycle Victoria in their efforts to get more people cycling more often.  For more on the behavior change model that Bicycle Victoria uses in their work, see the ideas of Dr. Doug McKenzie Mohr and his Community Based Social Marketing.

The second school--Good Samaritan Catholic--had an enthusiastic principal.  Mr. Bob, as he was known amongst his students, had a passion for cycling and a history with Bicycle Victoria.  Mr. Bob had been on the Great Victorian Bicycle Ride (which I just arrived home from yesterday), he was a Bicycle Victoria member, and he believes in the bicycle's power to positively impact young lives.  He had been at Good Samaritan since its doors were opened some 15 years ago, and he had been eager to begin a concerted effort at increasing the number of students riding to school for years.  So why had he waited so long?

The school is located on the frontier between Melbourne and the encroaching outback/bush, so development and construction has meant that bulldozers and tractors and semi-trucks have been a constant companion in and around the Good Samaritan campus.  He believed these conditions might lead to disaster for commuting students.  Fair enough.

It was these kinds of surprising factors that continued to pop up as I listened to Mr. Bob and Robin talk about creating a Ride 2 School Program.  I took note of the myriad responsibilities and concerns involved in making a strong program happen, and was amazed to see how many factors required tending:  
  • Bicycle Education was required: teaching kids how to ride safely to school was imperative, and you need teachers who are known at the school as well as outside experts to facilitate these classes
  • Starting with the older students, while meaning less numbers, would lead to better long term social diffusion.  It would also make the program initially manageable
  • A great number of new students at Good Samaritan are Iraqi immigrants, and their parents feel a strong sense of protection over their young people (they've arrived from a warzone after all).  This was a potential barrier that Robin and Mr. Bob agreed might take some time to surmount 
  • Bike parking would be a problem once the program took off.  A bike shed for parking would be required before the program started 
  • Parents often require a forum to voice their concerns about a new Ride 2 School program--facilitating this forum and hearing the concerns is critical to long term success 
This is just a sampling of the many common concerns among R2S schools.  In spite of the obstacles, or perhaps because Bicycle Victoria is handling the obstacles effectively, Ride 2 School now includes 250 schools across Australia--most of which are in Victoria.  Amongst reporting schools, over a 50% active travel rate was recorded.  This means that over 50% of students enrolled in Ride 2 School programs are either walking or biking to school.  This is quite impressive, I think.  It's also worth nothing that the State of Victoria requires Bike Vic to work with low-income schools.  Even more impressive.  Have a closer look at the numbers here.

Beyond life at BV, I've been busy with the regular assortment of bicycle subculture activities.  I worked at a checkpoint in an alleycat two weeks ago that was held with a "Bogan" theme.  Bogan, from what I understand, is kind of like redneck in the US--just without the implications of violence.  A little more like "good ole boy," I guess.  Regardless, each checkpoint was themed to be Bogan, which means the local race car track was a must.  Riders were required to do a skid into the pit area before we checked their manifest and sent them on to the next spot.  We left a bit unsure as to whether the field had in fact all come through our checkpoint, so we left them a little note. 

Per usual, the gathering spot was Pony Bikes.  As the riders crowded in, a crew from Brunswick Bikes assembled "roller racing" gear for a night of Gold Sprints.  I left shortly before the Gold Sprints began so I could grab some dinner. 
Unfortunately, I didn't make it back to the shop before the rain started.  I decided I was a fan of the warm, dry chair in my room--especially over and against the cold, wet seat on my bicycle.  As it turns out, the folk gathered in the alley made the rain into a part of the fun.  They frolicked in puddles, rolled around in the flooded alley while attempting to keep their beers upright, and generally embraced the terrible weather with a spirit of good fortune.  Bicycle people are the best.

Indeed....Time as a river.  Like a swift moving stream flowing through the cobbled alley behind the fixed gear bike shop, time has rapidly passed over my fully immersed spirit.  Stay tuned...


  1. words words words. and not one mention of the mighty digital device i put in the hands of the usps to be delivered to my dear siracusa! was it, perhaps, lost en route? or delivered to the wrong address?

  2. I got that thang, for sure. And man do I love you for sending it! I had to hit the road the minute it came, and I still haven't un-earthed it's digital splendor. I'll certainly let you know about the sensations I have when the musical stones are turned over in my mind.