Monday, September 21, 2009

"Pedaling Revolution" by Jeff Mapes

A pedaling revolution! Where? Did I miss something? That word "revolution" is as abused and over-used as the word "confession." It is an attention-grabber that rarely lives up to its meaning.

Jeff Mapes is a Portland newspaperman who likes to ride his bicycle. He has seen an increase in the number of cyclists in his town and would like to think that a cyclist revolution is underfoot, so he decided to write a book about it.

He traveled to Amsterdam and Copenhagen and New York and Chicago and other locales where people bicycle more than other places. He interviewed bicycle advocates from Congressional leaders to ground-roots activists who like to bicycle naked. His book is thoroughly researched and offers a wide range of convincing and sensible arguments for bicycling, but it is wishful thinking to imagine that we are in the midst of a revolution that will overthrow the prevailing car culture or even make much of a dent in it.

He cites expert after expert who acknowledge that people's perception of the bicycle must change for it to achieve much more than cult status. People aren't naturally inclined to bicycle, they must be made to think it is a cool thing to do. Many of those experts concede that the masses can't be won over by practical arguments, or even money. Bicycle advocates were so desperate to increase their numbers they got Congress to dole out $25 million to four different communities a few years ago to increase bicycling in their region, all places that had Congressional clout--Minneapolis, Marin County, Columbus, Missouri and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Whether or not such measures succeeded, he does not report.

Many of the experts Mapes spoke to acknowledge that bicycling needs to be portrayed as "fun and sexy" to win converts. That would take an advertising budget close to the national debt to succeed. If that's what it takes, how committed would such converts be? There have been periodic upsurges in bicycling's popularity over the years, but they have all waned. Bicycling was the rage in the early 1900s, but it quickly died out.

The book cites numerous arguments for all to take to the bicycle, if only for personal health. Mapes regular refers to America's obesity epidemic and devotes a chapter to it. It has reached crisis proportions with 34% of Americans considered obese and another third classified as overweight. How could this have happened? The automobile is partially to blame, but the causes go much deeper than that. It can be traced to man's very nature, his inherent lethargy and inertia, the very same reasons people are disinclined to use a bike as their chief means of transportation, preferring the ease and comfort and status of the car.

Cycling advocates at one time regarded Cuba as a cyclist's nirvana. The predominance of the bicycle over the car was called a "Velorution"--that "revolution" word again. I can attest that it is a fine place to bicycle, as few people there can afford cars. Let them have money though and all those cyclists will quickly forget their two-wheeled companion. Such is the case with Viet Nam. When I bicycled from Hanoi to Saigon in 2002, the bicycle was already being drowned out by the motorcycle. Some 95% of the traffic in Hanoi and Saigon was of the two-wheeled motorized variety, when just a few years before it had been predominantly pedal power. And everyone I met on a motorcycle aspired to owning a car.

There is no pedaling revolution going on in emerging economies. India and China are prime examples. Once people can afford a motorcycle or a car, they quickly abandon the bicycle. And once someone has been spoiled by a car, it's not likely he will give it up. It so rarely happens in the U.S., that when it does, it is often reported in the press, as Mapes does himself. Isn't that quaint? Bike to work days in the U.S. are great successes. Most of those who participate love it and say they will make it a habit. Yeah, a once a year habit.

I wish I could be inspired by Mapes' book. Unfortunately, it is a lot of fine writing and reporting, but founded on wishful thinking.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The Last Station"

Friends: One of the hits of the recent Telluride Film Festival, "The Last Station," about the last year of Tolstoy's life, intrigued me enough to search out the 1990 novel by Jay Parini it was based on when I returned to Chicago. The Chicago Public library system had six copies and only one was checked out. When the movie opens there ought to be a long waiting list for those books.

The movie stars Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's incessantly nagging wife. She is concerned that Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer, has altered his will to leave the rights to his books to the public domain, rather than to her. Tolstoy renounced his life of luxury and privilege in his later years, something his wife did not wish to go along with. Their marriage of 48 years has deteriorated into non-stop bickering. Tolstoy can no longer take it and flees their country estate by train despite his faltering health. He takes refuge at a train station, where he dies, thus the title of the book and the movie.

The chapters of the book are alternately written by its main characters--Tolstoy, his wife, one of their daughters, Tolstoy's doctor, Tolstoy's young secretary and Tolstoy's chief advisor, played by Paul Giametti. The advisor and Tolstoy's wife are arch adversaries, each wishing to have their way with Tolstoy.

The movie is much more faithful to the novel than many such adaptions are, though it is not without some blatant alterations making it more palatable for mainstream audiences. Tolstoy's young, recently hired secretary is a nervous sort who sneezes whenever he has a case of the nerves, a cheap cinema ploy that the book didn't resort to. Tolstoy's wife is so incensed that he seems more loyal to his advisor than to her she occasionally accuses him of being homosexual in the book, though there is not a hint of that in the movie.

The author of the novel, Parini, says that most of those close to Tolstoy kept diaries and that he used them in his research. How faithful the book and the movie are to reality will no doubt be thoroughly discussed when this movie is released. Mirren is the movie's star. She said that of all the roles she has played, she only enjoyed one more--Elizabeth the First. Her performance could earn her another Oscar nomination.

There were no bicycles in either the book or the movie, even though Tolstoy has achieved a niche in bicycle lore similar to Einstein. They were both drawn to the bicycle in their later years, recognizing its great utility and many exemplary qualities. There are much published photos of both of them tottering along in glee astride a bicycle. Someone even wrote a book "Tolstoy and His Bicycle."

Later, George