BookReview: Bicycle Diaries
by David Byrne, Viking Adult, September 17, 2009, 978-0670021147

When I think of David Byrne, I think of The Talking Heads. This book has changed that view completely. I now think of him as a World Citizen. He seems like an amazing person. And, he's more than a musician. The book is very well written.

I would never have thought of him as a bike commuter. He thinks of bikes as a means of transport and a way of keeping sane, which is the way I think of biking and why I started Freiker (now Boltage and KidCommute).

Byrne not only rides around town, he takes a folding bike with him when he travels, and rides around the cities he visits. This book is structured around these visits, but it's much larger than that.

Needless to say, I enjoyed this book immensely. I found myself over and over again saying "I totally agree with that." Byrne also takes me places I wouldn't visit on my own. He also presents ideas about art that are new to me. He got me in the door with the biking bit, and taught me much more as a result. Thanks, Mr Byrne!

[k108] I found that biking around for just a few hours a day--or even just to and from work--helps keep me sane.

[k114] It sounds like some form of meditation, and in a way it is. Performing a familiar task,

[k150] I must have gotten hooked on cycling early on: in high school I used to pedal over to my girlfriend's house in the evenings, which was at least four miles away, so I could hang out and smooch after I'd finished my homework.

[k162] And in the late 1960s there were race riots in the aftermath of which more whites left and the corner bars adopted what was called riot architecture. They don't teach this kind of architecture at Yale. It consists of filling in the windows of your establishment with painted cinder blocks and leaving a couple of glass bricks in the center.

[k843] People's lives were ruined, devastated, destroyed; their careers came to a dead end at the least suspicion. There were prison terms and torture without stated reason (where have I heard that one before?), and information and culture was heavily censored. And the food in the East wasn't that great, either.

[k912] It seems to me that this capacity for denial must have evolved out of a survival mechanism--some mental ability that helps one to focus and to exclude unhelpful news and distracting or diverting information when on the hunt or when courting. The skill and complexity of denial behaviors may have become absolutely necessary, at least at the time that they are needed--though sometimes later another point of view can be entertained and the truth confronted. Far from being a fault, a deficiency, this capacity for denial was, and still is, a much-needed survival mechanism--one that, perversely, makes us human. Do animals practice denial? Would a dog say, "Who, me, shit on the rug,

[k910] I can't possibly believe that people can perpetrate the horrors they do without justifying them to themselves, or better yet denying their existence entirely--or, as Hitler's secretary does, claiming that some eggs inevitably get broken to make an omelet. I think someone in the Bush administration may have used the same metaphor. It seems to me that this capacity for denial must have evolved out of a survival mechanism--some mental ability that helps one to focus and to exclude unhelpful news and distracting or diverting information when on the hunt or when courting. The skill and complexity of denial behaviors may have become absolutely necessary, at least at the time that they are needed--though sometimes later another point of view can be entertained and the truth confronted. Far from being a fault, a deficiency, this capacity for denial was, and still is, a much-needed survival mechanism--one that, perversely, makes us human. Do animals practice denial? Would a dog say, "Who, me, shit on the rug,

[k924] However, as powerful and irresistible as buzzwords and the like are, it is sometimes possible to resist them, or at least to be aware when they are being employed--whether for better or for worse. One can at least make a decision as to whether one wants to be or will allow oneself to be manipulated and/or self-deluded, or not. There are times when a certain amount of self-delusion is "good"--when it allows us to accomplish a necessary task, or create something unlikely or new. (If I'

[k930] The two biggest self-deceptions of all are that life has a "meaning" and that each of us is unique.

[k959] Ride a bike in Istanbul? Are you nuts? Yes . . . and no. The traffic here is pretty chaotic and there are a number of hills, but in recent years the streets have become so congested that on a bike I can get around the central city--in the daytime at least--faster than one can in a car. As in many other places I'm almost the only one on a bike. Again, I suspect that status might be a big reason for this--bike riding, in many countries, implies poverty.

[k1212] With some of the worst traffic in the world--the city has exploded in population in recent decades--one wonders why, with its agreeable Mediterranean climate, central Istanbul hasn't embraced the bicycle as a mode of transport. Aside from the hills I come back to status as the only explanation that fits. Sure, folks will say, as they do in New York City, "It's dangerous, and where will I park my bike?" Those questions get answered and rapidly rendered moot when there is political will--or when the price of gas is five times what it is today. They are really excuses, justifications for inaction, not real questions.

He is in Buenos Aires.

[k1233] I don't think it is any of those reasons. I think the idea of cycling is simply off the radar here. The cycling meme hasn't been dropped into the mix, or it never took hold. I am inclined to agree with Jared Diamond, who claims in his book Collapse that people develop cultural affinities for certain foods, ways of getting around, clothes, and habits of being that become so ingrained that they will, in his telling, persist in maintaining their habits even to the point of driving themselves and sometimes their whole civilization to extinction. He gives a lot of historical evidence--for example,

[k1240] Of course, in the era of total reliance on fossil fuels and global warming, Diamond's history lessons have a scary resonance. So, while we would like to think that people can't really be so stupid as to wipe themselves out--with the means of survival right in front of them--they can, and they certainly do. I'm not saying cycling is a matter of survival--though it might be part of how we survive in the future--but here in Buenos Aires it seems so much a commonsense way of getting around that cultural abhorrence is the only explanation I can come up with as to why there are no other cyclists on the streets. My cycling is considered so unusual here that it is newsworthy--it is written up in the local papers.

I like the way he speaks about music. He understands music at a very deep level as it is connected to culture.

[k1317] Nito attempts to tell me what the various cumbia CDs he gave me represent. He says, "The words are deep, important, like Leonard Cohen." Somehow I doubt that it is the appropriate analogy, as this musical style is usually the favorite of poor people, and it reflects their concerns, as rap did at one time in North America. But I can see what he means. There is deep poetry here, in the way we think of blues as being deeply poetic, within its self-imposed structural and verbal parameters. Others might claim that Tupac or Biggie Smalls were likewise unacknowledged deep poets working within the parameters of vernacular speech and phrasing.

[k1608] It's often said that proximity doesn't matter so much now--that we have virtual offices and online communities and social networks, so it doesn't matter where we are physically. But I'm skeptical. I think online communities tend to group like with like, which is fine and perfect for some tasks, but sometimes inspiration comes from accidental meetings and encounters with people outside one's own demographic, and that's less likely if you only communicate with your "friends."

[k1693] I suppose I value the perspective I get from a bike, and the freedom, more than I realize. I'm more addicted than I think. Well,

[k2421] I sense the world might be more dreamlike, metaphorical, and poetic than we currently believe--but just as irrational as sympathetic magic when looked at in a typically scientific way. I wouldn't be surprised if poetry--poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs--is how the world works. The world isn't logical, it's a song.

[k2527] I assume that for the German gentleman music is a sort of machine, a tool that facilitates dancing and some kind of release. Its function is therefore simple, clear-cut, and it either does its job or it doesn't. I imagine it's pretty context dependent too. Not too many offices have booming techno bouncing off the walls. Music, for him,

[k2735] Paradoxically, as it does get easier and easier to marshal all sorts of services from our phones or laptops and access limitless information, the interest and demand for the stuff that can't be digitized becomes greater: live performances, face-to-face gatherings, interactions, experiences, taste, tranquility. Those who frequent social networking sites come to value authenticity as a kind of compensation, since those qualities can be faked all too easily online.

[k2924] I can personally testify that making music and performing have kept me more or less sane and allowed me a measure of social contact I might otherwise never have had. (Viewing art, however, is not therapeutic, nor does collecting art have any morally uplifting value--but that's another topic. But the act of making it is.)

[k2934] There's an elaborate song and dance involved in passing for a professional artist. One needs to veil the sales pitch, for starters, and that protocol, those dance steps, must be mastered, as is true in any profession. But one can be mad and self-obsessed, can believe in other worlds and the influence of supernatural forces, and still be regarded as a respected, "sane" artist--no problem.

This begins a fascinating section on biking as transport.

[k3272] There are more New Yorkers riding bikes than ever. And not just messengers. Significantly, a lot of young hip folks don't seem to regard cycling as totally uncool anymore, which was definitely the case when I began to ride around in the late seventies and early eighties. I sense that we might be approaching a tipping point, to invoke that now clichFIXMEfffd(C)d term. New Yorkers are at the stage where they might, given the chance and the opportunity, consider a bicycle as a valid means of transportation--if not for themselves, then at least they will tolerate it as a reasonable means of transport for other New Yorkers. They might eventually try it themselves, and certainly they will accommodate it. They might even support and encourage it. So, with some tenuous optimism, I decide it might be time to try to give the biking-as-means-of-transport idea a little nudge by organizing some kind of public forum on the subject.

Byrne strikes me as a Real New Yorker(tm): impatient and aggressive in that NY way. Not in your face, but willing to ride your bike around a town that is ruled by taxis, limos, and other crazy NY drivers.

[k3369] In the end, the event, which took place in October 2007, was successful, though I think it ran a little too long. We erred on the side of caution and maybe had more "acts" than we needed, as we were worried that we might not have enough content. We had plenty. It moved along fine but once in a while even I wanted to hit the fast forward button.

I totally identify with this idea. However I run stop signs in Boulder if no one is there. I won't run red lights. I get frustrated when I'm stopping for a stop sign and motorists are trying to be courteous by signaling me to ride through. It confuses things, because you often can't see their signaling. Too many riders assume they have the right of way when they don't crating problems for traffic flow in general.

[k3372] I might be unrealistic, but I think that if bikers want to be treated better by motorists and pedestrians then they have to obey the traffic laws just as much as they expect cars to, which isn't saying much in New York. Bikes should have to stop at red lights and stop signs. Certainly if cars are expected to, then cyclists should too. Bikes should ride with the flow of traffic, not against it. And if there is a bike lane, the cyclists should stay in it and not ride in the middle of the street or on the sidewalk.

[k3428] When I'm feeling optimistic I believe that the exhilaration, freedom, and convenience I experience as I ride around will be discovered by more and more people. The secret will be out and the streets of New York will be even more the place for social interaction and interplay that they are already famous for. As others have mentioned, the economic collapse of 2008 might be a godsend. A window has opened and people might be willing to rethink the balance of quality of life.

[k3455] I don't ride my bike all over the place because it's ecological or worthy. I mainly do it for the sense of freedom and exhilaration.

[k3534] Here are more of Pealosa's thoughts, from a piece he wrote called "The Politics of Happiness": One common measure of how clean a mountain stream is is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It's the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people. . . . All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We're telling people, "You are important--not because you're rich or because you have a Ph.D., but because you are human." If people are treated as special, as sacred even, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society.

[k3549] Pealosa tends to link equality, in all its forms, with democracy--a connection that is anathema to many in the United States. In his words, "In developing-world cities, the majority of people don't have cars, so I will say, when you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing democracy. A sidewalk is a symbol of equality. . . . If democracy is to prevail, public good must prevail over private interests." He goes on to say, "Since we took these steps [in Bogota], we've seen a reduction in crime and a change in attitude toward the city." I can see why. When there are constantly people on the streets the streets are automatically safer.

[k3570] Since the onslaught of the automobile in the middle of the last century, and the efforts of its enablers, like Robert Moses in New York, the accepted response to congestion has been to build more roads, especially roads that are high speed and with limited access. Eventually it became clear that building more roads doesn't actually relieve congestion--ever. More cars simply appear to fill these new roads and more folks imagine that their errands and commutes might be accomplished more easily on these new expressways. Yeah, right. People end up driving more, so instead of the existing traffic levels remaining constant and becoming dispersed on the new ribbons of concrete, the traffic simply increases until those too are filled. That's what New York and a lot of other cities are realizing now. The old paradigm is finally being abandoned.

[k3645] I'm in my midfifties, so I can testify that biking as a way of getting around is not something only for the young and energetic. You don't really need the spandex, and unless you want it to be, biking is not necessarily all that strenuous. It's the liberating feeling--the physical and psychological sensation--that is more persuasive than any practical argument. Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors, and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn't feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure. Observing and engaging in a city's life--even for a reticent and often shy person like me--is one of life's great joys. Being a social creature--it is part of what it means to be human.

Via Rob 05/08/2010