Friday, March 27, 2009

Three is a Magic Number

Today marks the end of our third week commuting by bike. It's amazing how quickly and easily we have fallen into the bike pattern-- leaving home a bit earlier each morning than when we were driving the car and always first checking the weather reports to see if we'll need the rain tent or ear coverings under our helmets. Last night, it stormed and we had forgotten to put the bakfiets under its tarp. I panicked about midnight but didn't rush out to cover it up. I know it is incredibly sturdy and could handle the rainstorm (I've ridden it in the rain before), but I still felt a bit guilty leaving it out unprotected. I think I finally understand those fellows who love their sport cars so much they spend hours waxing them and take endless pictures of themselves standing in front of them, arms crossed over puffed-up chests, proud smirks crossing their faces.

It was a gray morning when we headed out. I was cheered, however, by the bright red of our rain tent and the warmer temperature, wearing a fleece instead of a parka. Riding along, I greeted the various school crossing guards we meet along our way (four), wishing them each a good weekend, and receiving good wishes in return. At one point, I spotted a fellow walking along the sidewalk with a bright pink toddler push bike swung over his shoulder-- the pinkness leaping out against the dank and drear. He spotted me and we did a quick, "Hey, cool bike" interchange that made me smile. The next block, one filled with cars parked one after the other, I enjoyed seeing our funny bakfiets and rider shadow dance up against the car sides as the sun hit us just right.

Each time I ride our bakfiets, especially when I think of how I would have likely driven in the past, I feel-- well, virtuous. It's the same feeling I get when I use the library instead of buying new books or when I bring along our reusable water bottles and shopping bags. It just feels good.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Biking & Scootering & Walking-- Oh, My!

Biking these past days has not been easy. People are fascinated by the length of the bakfiets and always ask how hard it is to ride. "Not at all," I've confidently answered, "It's such an amazingly well-made bike-- it's actually quite easy and fun." I then go on to talk about P's 1968 three-speeder and how when he switches over to the baks, how smooth and easy he finds it as well. However, the wind has been kicking up quite a bit these past two days and suddenly 'easy' wasn't so easy. Coming home from school yesterday, pedaling into the wind, I definitely felt the resistance and was pushing hard and moving slowly. It didn't help that I hadn't covered the box that morning and there is tons of grit in the street, left over from lots of snow. Early in the commute home, C got some sand in his eye which prompted much unhappiness for the rest of the trip. He hunched down low in the box, complaining that it really wasn't that much fun-- I guess the honeymoon period is over.

Today, we pulled out the red weather tent and the boys were happily shielded from the wind and street dirt swirling around my head. I prepared myself for some hard leg pumping and pushed on our way. We were confronted with a new issue today-- how we deal with Tuesday's pick-up of F. Normally, P does pick-up and drop-off of our third fellow, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, P has an inconveniently-timed class from 4:00-5:30PM and I need to rush over to get F before his school closes at 5PM. In the past, we were driving so I would rally S and C and we would drive over to F's school, unstrap from car seats, all climb out, get F, and then strap three boys back into car seats. Whew. Today, however, sans car, we needed to figure out how to pull this off.

One ginarmous obstacle in the pick-up of F is a hill, a very large hill, a hill that I struggled all last year to push a jog stroller up, and in no way could possibly think of conquering it by bakfiets. I thought of the practicality of riding until it got too steep and then pushing it the rest of the way, but with the weather tent, three boys in the box would be pretty squishy, and honestly, I wasn't even sure how well I could get up the hill walking and pushing. I felt committed to biking to the twins' and my school and figured that if we left early enough, we could ride the bakfiets home and then decide how to get F from there. When we reached home, the sun was shining, and I asked the boys how we should go get F-- I said we could walk, scooter, or go by car. I was feeling pretty tired, but when they voted to release their scooters from their long winter naps in the basement, I embraced the chance to remain carfree for the day and happily set off with a third scooter thrown over my shoulder and F's bike helmet in my hand. It turned out to be a wonderful end to the day. All three guys got solid outside time, soaking in some much-needed vitamin D, pumping their legs, and getting their ya-yas out. And as I walked behind them, I enjoyed the scene of these three helmet-clad heads and jeans-clad legs zipping along the sidewalk with joy.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Darn You, Rocket!

I can deal with Leo, June, Quincy, and Annie. My boys love them, and when it comes to choosing videos, I am supportive of their Little Einsteins' choice.  It has exposed them to some great artists and composers, and the boys make the connection between what they see and hear while watching this cartoon, and seeing prints of Keith Haring or Van Gogh out and about in the world and recognizing the classical music masterpieces the Little Einsteins lift phrases from and add their own lyrics.  P is less enthused by this kid's show since the fellas think these are actually the lyrics that 'belong' with Beethoven's Fifth or the Carmen Suite, etc.

Really-- for the most part, I guess you could call me a fan of the show.  That was until this morning.  I took the bakfiets on an ambitious mission, riding all three boys to a playground in the next town over.  I actually didn't realize how ambitious it was until I was halfway there.  In the past, we had always driven there by car, and I never realized just how many long, gradual uphills there were on the way.   Even in first gear, I was pumping as hard as I could, my thighs screaming at me.   I was breathing heavily, starting to pant, when a three-year-old voice called out from the front box, "We need more power!

And because I was sweating and panting and wondering just why the heck we didn't just go to the local playground and how I was actually going to get us to our destination, I didn't appreciate F's mimicking of Leo's catch phrase from the show.  We did need more power. But it was just me, our bakfiets, and my nearly-40-year-old-out-of-shape legs.  

We did eventually make it to the playground and I gotta say-- the return trip home was sweet, cruising down all those long, gradual downhills, wind in our faces.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Helmet Hair

Since I have been writing a few posts about our new love, the bakfiets, a world of bicycle blogs has opened up to me. I am especially liking the ones that talk specifically about biking with kids and ones focused on stylish women biking. I am not one much for fashion. I am a pretty utilitarian dresser, and the older I get, the less I seem to care. I have a thing for chunky shoes, I honestly love fleece, and I vowed never to work a job that required me to wear stockings. Tights I can deal with; stockings never. It has been helpful that I've spent much of my professional life working in schools so there's never been the call for power suits and heels.

When I committed to becoming a bike commuter, I thought about the clothes thing for a moment. Would I be able to ride in my work garb? I figured the only adjustment I might really have to make would possibly be my shoes and I thought I could easily throw on my Puma sneaks, with a work pair in the box. These certain blogs, like this one, this one, this one, and this one, show women who are far better dressers than I am riding their bikes so it has given me confidence that I could pedal in most anything I owned. Plus, once we got the baks, we saw that it's built like a cruiser--I sit up straight, no hunching over, and there's no bar in the way between my legs so there's no fear about not being able to swing a skirt-clad thigh and knee across. I haven't felt the need to wear the Pumas; my regular boots and a pair of flats have worked just fine.

Being honest here--I did, however, give thought to the hair in a bike helmet dilemma. I didn't want to spend my work days with bad hair, flattened or sticking out thanks to the strapping on the hard casing each morning. A year ago I chopped off my ponytail and my hair has become increasingly shorter with each trip to the hair salon. So last week when I went in for my appointment, I made a decision with the bike helmet in mind: I needed a fully short haircut. So now my hair is cut up over my ears, although I do have a longer section swept over to the right, an asymmetrical style that I hope is less Flock of Seagulls and more sassy and cute. It's been cold enough in the mornings these past two bike commuting weeks that when I pull up to the bike rack at school, my head isn't totally covered with sweat. I've felt pretty confident pulling off my helmet, running a hand through my hair, and starting the work day.

And to honor our new biking commitment, I decided to treat myself to a brand new helmet. I've been riding around with my plain, black LLBean one (complete with black electrical tape) that is older than my marriage. The new one hasn't come yet and I will be sure to post pictures when it does arrive but it is definitely sassy and cute.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


It was a dark and stormy day at the office. OK, not really, but things have been particularly stressful lately. Happily (although I didn't know it at the time), I needed to leave work a bit early today to get C to his violin lesson. P has taken on the heroic job of being the parent-in-charge of music and those of you who know anything about the Suzuki method understand that this is no simple task-- far more than shuttling kids to lessons and remembering their instruments along the way. However, my wonderful husband went on an overnight adventure with our youngest to the city of his birth (P's not F's) so today, I was in charge of getting C to his one formal after-school activity. S often stays at school with me on C's lesson days (S's lesson is on the weekend), and he was none too happy to get dragged along to his brother's lesson, but such is life when you are not an only child.

I was rushing to get a letter finished, while acutely aware of the time, trying to estimate how long it would take to bike to the music school. Of course, actually getting my fellows out of school took far longer than I ever plan for, and I was sweating profusely before I ever got to pedaling just from the shepherding and coat and helmet wrestling. My teeth were clenched and I was silently cursing life when I pushed off from the ground, hopped on the seat, and pumped my legs. However, less than a block down the road, I suddenly felt different. The boys and I began an easy conversation (such a bonus with this front box!) and I could feel the sun on my face. Work fell behind me as I concentrated on navigating the streets and sometimes-less-than-patient drivers. Not sure of the time, I pumped my legs harder, feeling my thighs twinge and my breath quicken, and before I knew it--we pulled up to our destination. Scrambling off/out of the bakfiets, we made our way to C's appointed lesson room.

Outside the room, waiting for another student to finish, I got to watch my fellows in action, happily chatting away with a fifth grader from their school. Totally undaunted by his 'advanced' age and size, it reminded me again of what a cool school community they belong to where they would actually know a fifth grader, and he would be kind enough to respond to their many questions with patience and good humor. Then at the lesson, I was amazed how receptive C was to each suggestion the teacher made, just how hard the process of learning this instrument is, how he needs to stretch and hold his fingers in new and ever-more difficult ways. This little fellow, who often struggles when things don't go exactly right, was making mistakes and trying again, over and over with little fuss, and seemingly enjoying the challenge. S, first occupied with a word search, asked me to play a few rounds of tic-tac-toe which we did, silently communicating, trying not to distract C from his teacher and task.

We later bakfieted home through the rush hour traffic, our box heavy with our school bags, a violin, and some newly-bought groceries. Waiting at our apartment door was a lovely surprise: six whoopie pies, left by two friends who saw my posting of this on my Fb profile today. Once eating dinner, we put on our newest CD-love, and suddenly none of us could stay at the table and up we jumped, twirling, clapping, shaking with abandon. We sang out the Spanish words we recognized: playa, gallina, luna, pollito, lapiz, cante, cante, baile, baile. And that is just what we did--Baile!

And as I listen to Mi Luna over and over as I type, I think what a bike ride, an unexpected act of kindness, good music, and some enthusiastic living room dancing with two wonderful-six-year-olds can do for your soul.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Keeping the Magic Alive

When C and S were four, we visited a very close friend from Peace Corps who lives in Sarasota, Florida. Said friend is from a wonderfully fun Irish American clan, and we enjoyed a few of her extended family's St. Patrick Day's gatherings over the years. Recently, while P and I were lamenting the fact that there would be no spring vacation for us and particularly no spring vacation down in Sarasota with L, the boys were remembering the morning they woke up at Auntie L's home on St. Patrick's Day and her milk had turned green. Imagine! Auntie L explained that the leprechauns must have snuck in and done such a deed-- the same leprechauns that must have visited my home as a kid since I remember that March 17th green milk as well. Yup, from my childhood I remember the pale green milk in our silver metal milk pitcher (my mom hated the plastic milk jugs on the table), Shamrock Shakes from McDonald's, and--oh yes, the ads for Cookie O'Puss, Carvel's lame attempt to make yet another seasonal ice cream cake out of the same darn whale mold, but clearly I digress...

So yesterday, while shopping for groceries, P decided to try to keep the magic alive. There was only one catch-- a very observant six-year-old was shopping with him.

C: Hey, what's this? [pointing to a bottle of green food coloring]
Dad: I don't know. It must have been in the cart already when we got it.
C: But why is on top of the other items?
Dad [knowing he's doomed by the logic, replies lamely]: Well, maybe it just fell in.

Skip to this morning

3 yr old: The milk is gween! The milk is gween!
C [initially excited, but quickly puzzling aloud]: Maybe the leprechauns used the green dye that we bought yesterday to color the milk. Huh. Well, yes, because you see, Santa is real because we get presents. And the Easter Bunny is real because we get baskets. So the leprechauns must also be real because the milk is green.

So this morning, we almost lost Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the leprechauns in one fell swoop. But it seemed clear to us, C wanted to keep certain childhood magic alive for himself just as much as his parents do.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Car-Free Weekend

We are realistic that we cannot ditch our car completely. There's no way we could ride a bike to our local-ish Trader Joe's nor could ride to visit good friends in a neighborhood on the other side of the city. We've lived with just one car since we became car owners, and in the past year or so since moving to New Haven, it has been a bit of a juggling act with one car-- but we've done it. I have to give a shout-out to friends who were generous in giving rides when necessary.

As the boys grow older, they have some commitments of their own so it isn't just about my schedule or P's schedule but five family members' schedules. These schedules sometimes conflict and we need to be in different places at the same time. Some of these places are not within walking distance nor is there a solid public transportation option here. We made a conscious choice to rent in this neighborhood so that P could walk to grad school, but if we were to try and buy a house-- it is most likely that we would need to look elsewhere, and also most likely we would end further away from the school where I work and S and C attend. However, long ago we committed to remaining a one-car family for as long as possible. And now likewise with our brand-new cargo bike, we have a new mantra: If we can get there by bike, we are going to ride.

This weekend, P and I took on a silent challenge. We never really said it aloud but as we mapped out our days, we decided to leave the car parked and go strictly by bike (hence another week of school lunches without those Trader Joe granola bars the boys have become crazy about).

Here is what we did by bike:
  • C's and S's music lessons-- bakfiets, round trip 3.2 miles
  • F at a birthday party in the next town over-- bakfiets, round trip 5. 2 miles
  • Grocery store run-- bakfiets, round trip 5.2 miles
  • Dinner take-out pickup-- bakfiets, round trip 2 miles
  • P off to work (church)-- on his inherited 1968 English Rudge, one way 1.9 miles
  • S and boys to St. Paddy's Day Brunch-- bakfiets, one way 1.1 miles
  • Tooling around downtown New Haven on both bikes, checking out the parade plus the trip home-- at least 3 miles
All-in-all, you can see we never ventured particularly far, but without the baks, a few of those trips would have been car trips. P and I are normally up for walking, but that doesn't work with six-year-old (x2) and three-year-old legs and temperaments. The bikes were particularly handy when it came to wandering downtown for the St. Paddy's Day Parade. We could scoot through streets that had been blocked off to cars, didn't encounter any of the parking hassles, and we were able to make quick get-aways when some of the parade scenes got a bit, uh, hairy for our taste.

Another huge advantage to now owning a bakfiets-- a whole world of cargo bike blogs have been opened to us! Many thanks to the new folks stopping by my blog and commenting, including MamaVee, DrMerton, and Henry in Amsterdam.

OK, I know I have been gushing, but what can I say-- I am in love. And in the words of the immortal Freddie Mercury, "I want to ride my bicycle..."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bakfiets Commute Week #1

Do you remember those classmates from high school who submitted a picture for their yearbook page, proudly standing, often with arms crossed, in front of their cars? Back in the day, I never got that. First, I didn't own my own car and secondly, I just never understood the total car love. However, I feel like one of those kids these days. I love my new bike. I find myself constantly tempted to take photos of it, bring it up numerous times in random conversations, jump at any simple inquiries about it, etc.

This week marked our first car-free commute and it went well. In retrospect, the week after turning the clocks ahead might not have been the best time to begin, but I was so happy to have healthy(ish) children and see the end of the ice banks on the street that I just jumped at the chance to ride. Plus, the boys were as enthusiastic about traveling by bakfiets as I so off we went. Commuting by bike does take a wee bit more thinking and planning each morning. We need to leave the apartment somewhat earlier to arrive at school on time, hence the bad timing with the end of Daylight Savings. Normally, we never need to wake the boys in the morning. They are up in plenty of time for a laze around, then breakfast, dressing, etc. but with the time change, the boys were sleeping well past 7PM. Most times, especially on a weekend, this would be cause for a grand celebration. However, on school days, we often head out of the house at 7:50AM and my fellas are not particularly quick movers, especially in the AM. S was staying in bed until 7:40AM each day this past week (even with some kind coaxing) so getting out, fed, and dressed, in time to ride to school became a race. We left each day after 8AM but we managed to be on time-- with a couple of the morning rides feeling not particularly leisurely, as I was acutely aware of the time, pumping my legs harder, and beginning to sweat, despite temperatures in the 30s-40s.

The first day we rode, I made one big mistake. With the sun actually out, I just didn't realize how cold it would be on the ride and the boys spent the first bakfiets school commute with their mittened hands clamped over bare ears. Knowing my guys' personalities, I thought I may have sunk myself then. If the first school ride wasn't fun, they may well be hesitant to do it on a regular basis. Thankfully, it was warmer riding home later that afternoon so the uncovered ears posed less of a discomfort. For the rest of the week, we layered the fellows in sweatshirts and they wore their hoods up over their heads, which fit under their bike helmets and kept their ears toasty. We also decided to utilize the snazzy weather canopy we purchased with the bakfiets so they wouldn't get blasted by cold breeze or get wet from the one day with a slight drizzle. The downside to the canopy is that the boys have less room in the box, and given that they are already six, they really can't sit up straight on the seat with helmets on without pushing up against the rain tent. Instead, we flipped up the baks seat, put the seat pad right on the box floor, and had them sit directly on the 'ground.' They were a bit cramped in there, especially the day I had to add not only their lunchboxes and my school bag, but also one booster seat (the other booster was strapped to the bakfiets back, thanks to the heavy duty bungee cord already attached to the bike) they needed for a field trip. However, they didn't complain about being too jammed in there and it reminded me of toddler days when they rolled all over each other like puppies. On Thursday's ride home, S had borrowed a stuffed toy rat from a friend and he and C spent the entire ride, putting the stuffed rat on each other's helmets, squirming around and laughing. When I was reading numerous reviews of the bakfietsen, one guy commented that lots of people asked him if his kids needed to sit still when he was riding so the baks wouldn't be thrown off balance. He explained that his crew could be doing handstands in the box and he could still ride fine and this, I realized, was true for me now, too.

There is something completely freeing about commuting by bike. I feel like I am interacting more in the world when on the cargo bike than when enclosed in the car. My senses are heightened: I pay closer attention to my surroundings, I feel and smell more. The bakfiets is still a novelty sight for most folks so we get comments along the way, and I can greet people and answer a quick question while gliding by. The route to school we've been riding is different than I took by car and it has been a good choice. At one point, I cross a busy street but there is a light there and I simply take my time and move more fully into the center of the lane than I normally do when riding along the right. I am not crazy about taking left turns, but again, I stay patient, signal, and just wait until there is plenty of space ahead.
On Friday when returning from work, I stopped at a light and a car inched up right beside me, closer than I was comfortable. I felt myself immediately getting defensive and annoyed and ready to spew some negative comment about the driver with the cellphone up to her ear that I probably would have let go if I were in the car. But when the driver rolled the window down to ask if I was heading straight or turning, I felt ashamed of my first reaction. When I explained I was going straight, she waited for me to go ahead and when the lane allowed, swung past me on the left. While pumping my legs the next blocks, I recognized a lesson learned. In the car, I would likely have been annoyed and righteous, but being out on the bike allowed me this positive interaction with a driver with whom I initially was ready to do battle.

And now for my favorite shot of the week--

A set of twins, a guitar, a violin, and some good books for the road:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday cruising

Always look out for a convert-- their (my) zealousness is often far more ardent than others'. I get this and I am trying not to be overly annoying about my absolute love for my bakfiets and running errands by bike. There are other folks who have lived a biking existence for far longer than the week in which we have owned this beautiful cargo bike. However, after two weekends of enjoying our new vehicle, I cannot help but crow about how excited I am about the new-found freedom and FUN this bakfiets has introduced to our lives.

For over four weeks, we were plagued as the fellows struggled with fevers and ear infections, then vomity stomachs and weakness brought on by days with no food intake. When the sun came out, the temperature rose, and the snow melted yesterday-- it was such a profound gift, but S was still too lethargic to get out of the apartment. So when P returned from bakfietsing with C to violin lessons and the bookstore, F and I took a long, meandering bike ride together with Big Bear, his beloved stuffed animal, strapped in beside him on the seat. We stopped at some public greenhouses to check out the plants, made some loops around a park, explored some streets we hadn't ridden on before, and finally hit the playground. One huge advantage to having the box where the boys (and bear) sit in front of me is that F and I could chat the entire time. He pointed out things he noticed and I could--safely-- see what he was pointing to and make my own comments about our passing surroundings.

Then today-- a momentous occasion! As S seemed to have more energy this morning and the sun beckoning, I got out fleece jackets and bike helmets and into the bakfiets all three climbed. This was the first time in eight days that S could leave the house, and this was the first time we got to test the bakfietsen sellers' claims that the box could hold three kids. It did and beautifully! F and S settled on the seat and C, cushioned by a blanket, settled in the front with a new drawing book, pad, and pencil. I pulled up the kickstand, pushed off with my leg, and on to the seat I jumped and truthfully, riding with the three was as smooth as riding with just F.

I decided to head for the bike path--- however, we needed to ride some busy roads to get there. I've found that each time I am out on the baks, my confidence has grown and today, I felt completely comfortable on this route. After some time on the path, we decided to push the adventure and hit the downtown. Again, if you had asked me a few weeks ago if I would ride there the first time taking all the boys on the bakfiets, I would have definitely told you that I wouldn't be ready for that. But I was. And it was good fun. We stopped in to see P at his work and then hit a shop for water and chips (right now the boys are allowed to eat anything they want at anytime; after dropping so much weight from their skinny selves, their dad and I just want to fatten them up). A lovely man strolling with his daughters stopped to ask about the bike as we were gearing up again outside the shop. After asking permission, he took a picture of the boys strapped into the bakfiets since it was the first he had seen. I am hoping that it won't be his last....