Bike Trailer Time!!

Ready to roll!

Ready to roll!

So, I have been waiting and waiting to be able write this post:  The weather is finally nice enough to break out the bike trailer!  I’ve mentioned before how much I love commuting to work on a bicycle, and Jen has mentioned why we love being a one-car family, so my enthusiasm for the bike trailer should come as no surprise.  This weekend, the weather in central PA was beautiful, and as if that weren’t enough, Jen took the one car on a trip to visit a friend in VA for the weekend, so if Pete and I wanted to go anywhere, we were going to have to either walk or go by bike.  (We don’t have a second child’s helmet for John yet, so it was also convenient that it was just me and Pete this weekend).

So, after working in the garden on Saturday morning and eating an early lunch, Pete and I got suited up and performed the necessary safety checks: filled the bike and trailer tires, checked for corrosion in the trailer frame over the past year, and ensured all the straps and harnesses were likewise intact.  It always takes me a little bit longer to assemble the trailer when I haven’t done it in a while, so Pete had to wait a little longer than he wanted, but he was excited to hop in and get his helmet on when the time came.  Naturally, when we headed out, our destinations were all free sources of fun: first, the giant playground, then on to the banks of the scenic Susquehanna River where we shared a snack of cookie bars (home-made, of course) and clementines (bought on sale, of course), and finally over to a smaller playground near our home.  It was a full, exciting day and it didn’t cost anything but time and snack supplies.

But wait–what about the cost of the bike trailer and the bike?  To be fair, the bike did cost a few hundred dollars, but it’s also basically my primary vehicle, and thus at least an order of magnitude cheaper than most other Americans’ primary vehicle.  The bike trailer also was not free; it cost 30 bucks.  I bought it a few years ago from a coworker who was selling it for her neighbor, and I’m pretty sure I haggled it down by 5 or 10 bucks.  Brand new, such trailers can cost at least $100-200 (much more for high-end models), and this one was in great shape (though a bit dusty from being in someone’s basement for a few years).  I have also used it (though not as often as I’d like) to carry things in addition to a child, like groceries from the store.  If I did this more often, I would make the bike and trailer investment stretch even farther, and save even more on gas and insurance.

Hopefully we’ll get that second helmet asap, and I can look forward to cruising around with the boys all summer long!

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Reusable chopsticks: killing two birds with one arrow

When I was studying at National Taiwan University in Taipei, I saw a pair of stainless-steel, reusable, portable chopsticks for sale at the gift shop.  Since at this point I was eating every meal with chopsticks (except, of course, for my glorious fantuan breakfast–more on that in a future post!), and they were only a couple bucks, I figured I would pick up a pair for a more satisfying and sustainable chopstick experience.

As anyone who has eaten at a Chinese restaurant in the US knows, chopsticks often come in the disposable variety, which are made of either bamboo or wood–often in a single piece that you break apart.  Well, when you figure that there are well over a billion people in the Chinese-speaking world, and almost all of them are using chopsticks for almost every meal, if even a fraction of those chopsticks are disposable, that adds up to a whole lot of timber.  In fact, I didn’t really think about this until I read a recent Washington Post article about how China’s use of disposable chopsticks is a major contributor to deforestation.  Although I didn’t realize the full scale of it at the time, back in 2008 it did occur to me that the more I used my reusable chopsticks, the more trees I would be saving.

However, to be totally honest, the main reason I liked (and still like!) using my stainless-steel pair is that it makes me feel like a real chopstick pro.  These things come in a little case, and to fit in there they each come in two pieces that screw together–like two tiny pool hustler’s cues!  Every time I use them, I feel like James Bond assembling a weapon, preparing to exercise my license to kill on a plate of dumplings or a dish of pad thai.  Jen feels this makes me look a little weird (rightly, I might add), so she has asked me not to use them at the Chinese buffet.  So sadly, they don’t see as much use these days.  I do still keep them in my backpack at work though, and have more than once used them in a pinch to eat my lunch when I forget to bring a spoon or a fork.  Jen probably did not intend her bean burgers to be eaten that way, but you have to make due with what you have.

As it turns out, you can buy reusable stainless-steel chopsticks online that seem pretty much identical to the ones I use.  Now after realizing the plight of China’s forests, I like to think using them is both fun and crunchy–thus killing two birds with one arrow (as the saying goes in Chinese).

Like two tiny pool cues...

Like two tiny pool cues…

Why I love commuting by bicycle

I was a junior in college when I learned to ride a bicycle. I asked a friend to teach me how, and it took about a half hour to mostly get the hang of the basics. After that, I practiced on my own and was riding to class every day by the end of the semester. Now, over ten years later, I still bike to work every day.

When I first started riding, I often ended up on the ground, with scraped up knees and calves. I stuck with it in large part because of a thought that I remember clearly hitting me from almost the very first time I pedaled myself without falling over: This simple little machine gives me super-human powers! All I have to do is put in roughly the same (or less) effort as I would to walk somewhere, and I can move myself three or four times as fast! I remember thinking “why isn’t everyone doing this??”

I’ve talked with others about this the delirious feeling of propelling oneself through space on two wheels, and it seems like most people experience something similar when they learn to ride a bike. The crucial difference, however, is that most people experience it as younger children and not fully grown adults. Sure, riding a bike is cool when you’re a kid, and it allows you to access parts of the neighborhood too far afield for walking, meanwhile letting you make a quick getaway if you need to. As you get older, I think this allure must wear off as the excitement of an even faster, even more powerful mode of transportation comes into view: driving a car. After waiting for years to finally earn your license, the fun and freedom of driving easily overshadows the humble old two-wheeler.

In my case, I had already been driving for a few years, and since I lived on campus it’s not like I had to drive to class or the dining hall or anything like that. So for me, riding a bike seemed fresh and exciting. It was a whole new way to get around that carried the bonuses of being quicker, easier, and way more fun than walking. Ever since then, bicycling has been my preferred way to get around. That is one of the reasons why I loved living in China and Taiwan. In the Chinese-speaking world, getting around by bike is something just about everyone appreciates, and traditionally it has been regarded as an affordable, accessible, efficient way for all kinds of people to get where they are going. I loved living in a culture like that, where someone like me fit right in–where pretty much everyone seemed to have the same intuition that pedaling is far more efficient and fun than walking. Not everyone bikes to work in Beijing anymore, of course (the pollution wouldn’t be nearly so bad if they did), but pretty much everyone recognizes the utility–and therefore the appropriateness–of the bicycle.

My bike in Beijing was an ancient “Iron Pigeon,” borrowed from my landlord. It had a single gear, weighed about 40 pounds, with basically nonexistant brakes. It was similar to about 90% of the bikes on the street. And guess what? They all worked the same way, and they all got their riders (plus a passenger sitting on the rack, or standing on pegs from the rear axle) where they needed to go. You could buy one for less than the equivalent of $20 US. There were also little bike repair kiosks all over the place, where you could pull in and get a flat tire patched, or brakes adjusted, or any other small repair done for usually less than a couple bucks US. Since I was living on a college campus, they also usually had free air compressors out for students and faculty to fill up their tires. The point is that in a culture that looks at the bicycle as an eminently sensible, efficient, and reliable way to get around, the space is set up to make doing so much easier for everyone (including separate traffic lights for bicycles).

My trusty steed: the ol' "Iron Pigeon."

My trusty steed: the ol’ “Iron Pigeon.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have such a culture here in the US, so using a bike to get around requires considerably more planning and foresight, but for those willing to fall in love with the fun and freedom of the bicycle all over again, there are enormous benefits. Here are just a few of the reasons why I will bike to work through rain and snow, until I’m too old to push the pedals:

  • It’s good exercise. I ride about a mile round trip every day, which isn’t much, but it’s more than I would get behind the wheel of a car.
  • Bicycle maintenance is far, far cheaper than automobile maintenance. Even if you keep your bike in peak operating condition by putting in a lot of maintenance, parts and equipment are still far cheaper than what you need for a car.
  • Zero cost for insurance
  • Zero cost for gasoline
  • It guarantees time spent outdoors every day. Granted, this is not so much fun in the cold and rain, but the warm summer sun easily makes up for it!
  • Makes it possible to have only one car for our household.
  • As I said, it’s just plain fun!

There are definitely some drawbacks to getting around by bicycle, and owning and operating a bike safely and reliably is not without its own costs. But, as my Chinese friends showed me, getting around by bike does not have to cost a fraction of what most cyclists in America assume–and far, far less than what the guy at the bike shop will tell you! There’ll be more to come on that topic later, but for now: the next time you’re stuck in traffic or paying your car insurance bill, think of how much fun you could be having on a bike instead!

If it ain’t broke, you don’t need a new one.

When I first started studying Chinese, I felt like somehow it just fit. I had found my niche–something that was difficult but that I really enjoyed, and that I was actually really good at. When I lived in Beijing, I realized this had a lot to do with the fact that I personally share a lot of values with Chinese culture more generally. One of the most obvious and interesting for me is cheapness.

At the risk of making gross generalizations, Chinese people are really cheap. This is not a negative stereotype. In fact, I really just mean that economy and thrift are highly regarded traits in traditional Chinese culture. Here is a good example:

The traditional Chinese view is that if something is working well enough, then it is working. Thus, you do not need something new to replace it. After I moved into the room I rented from an older Chinese couple, I noticed something about the table across from my bed: it wasn’t a table at all, but an old cardboard box with a decorative throw covering it. My first thought was, “Wow, this is really cheap. Why didn’t they just get a table? It’s not like they can’t afford it.” My second thought was, “Wow, what a great idea! This does exactly what a small bedside table is supposed to do, and it cost basically nothing. I didn’t even notice the difference at first.” The point was that something cheap or free did exactly the same job as something new and expensive.

Now, I’m not about to use a cardboard box as a table in my house because that’s just not quite acceptable in American middle-class society (plus I have two small boys who would crush it at the first opportunity!). However, I can still apply the principle “if it ain’t broke, you don’t need a new one.” Jennifer has mentioned before that we have an old hand-me-down coffee pot that all our parents frequently offer to replace. It is stained and dingy, and the warming plate is completed covered with rust. Weirdly enough, it still makes coffee the same way it did ten years ago. Since we only own it in the first place because it makes coffee, it serves its purpose flawlessly. This is why we refuse all offers to replace it. When the carafe breaks (which it will inevitably, since it’s glass) it will probably be cheaper to buy a whole new coffee pot than find a replacement carafe that fits. Hopefully we’ll be able to get another cast-off for free, and use that for even longer!

My room in Beijing (with cardboard "table" in the lower left of the frame)

My room in Beijing (with cardboard “table” in the lower left of the frame)

What other free or cheap solutions do you have for common household needs?