Biking Through the Winter

A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Brion O’Connor of the Boston Globe for an article about winter bicycling.  Aram Boghosian took some great pictures of me a couple of miles from my house on the Neponset Trail in Mattapan, Massachusetts. Only a few sentences from my interview appeared in the article, but we did it via email, so here it is:

Jessica biking from Milton to Mattapan on the Harvest River Bridge
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Is there weather that you won’t ride in?
My rule is that I don’t ride in rain under 40F for fun, though I’ll ride in pretty much any weather to get somewhere like a play or work or a friend’s house. I used to stop riding when it got below 0F, but one day it got that cold while I was at work after biking in and I couldn’t stop myself from riding. As I’ve gotten older, I’ll sometimes take my bike on the T home after working late or going to an event to which I biked, but that doesn’t happen more than a few times per year. Riding the bike is usually faster in the city.

Jessica and her bike on the Harvest River Bridge.
Jessica dressed for the 30’s on the Harvest River Bridge in Mattapan
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

What is the worst weather you pedaled in, and how did it go?
About 20 years ago, I biked home to Roslindale from a meeting near Kendall Square during a full-blown blizzard. I talked a friend into riding with me as far as Jamaica Plain. A ride of less than an hour turned into one of over two hours. We pushed our first car out of a snowbank right outside the hotel as we started off. The streets were closed. We cut through the Longwood Medical Area because we thought that the streets would be clearer. Ha! The wind was blowing so strongly across Longwood Ave. that though it kept the street clear, we kept getting pushed toward the curb. We had a tailwind on Huntington Ave. that it was blowing us so fast that all we could do was hold tight onto our handlebars and try to stay away from the trolley tracks. We had to walk up much of South Huntington as the snow had been getting deeper, but we pushed a couple of cars out on the way. I stopped at my friend’s house for some hot chocolate and to call my spouse. When I got home after pushing another car in Roslindale Square and getting warned by the police to get off the closed street, I had to lift my bike over the front fence because the gate was snowed shut. There is a video of that…

What changes do you make to your clothing to adapt to bad
Layers, layers, layers. If I have tights and jeans on my legs and a pair of socks over the tights inside of good boots, I can get by down to 10F with just a top, sweater, scarf, and a heavy, uninsulated windbreaker and a cap and/or the windbreaker hood under my helmet. I add ski goggles and a face mask if it’s much below 20F. I wore an insulated jacket a few times last winter.

Jessica wearing a wool skirt, boots, tights, and leggings
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

What are the most susceptible parts o the body, and how do you adjust?
It’s hardest to keep my hands warm. I’ve tried all sorts of theoretically warm gloves, but after a few miles on even insulated handlebars, my hands get cold. To put off their freezing, I use neoprene Bar Mitts on my handlebars, which cover my gloved hands with space for brake levers and gear shifts under them. I currently layer two or three pairs of gloves, with wool inside and something waterproof on the outside, but the best thing for hands is to climb hills, which heats up the whole body.

What changes do you make to your bike to adapt to bad weather?
I have one bike outfitted for bad winter weather. It’s a hybrid with 700×35 tires, pretty much the same size as all of my bikes, but with studs. Tires fatter than 700×38 ride up too much on fresh snow for me to keep control in traffic. Riding upright seems more stable, and I would never keep my feet locked to pedals on slippery surfaces. If it’s just cold or rainy, I’ll ride my road or commuting bike. All of my bikes have fenders and medium tires.

Is there a “guilty pleasure” or sense of accomplishment with
biking in weather that forces most people inside?
I like being the first one on a snow-covered street when it’s really silent. I also find that as cars park further from a snow-covered curb, the right lanes of a four-lane street, such as Hyde Park Ave. in Boston, become too narrow for cars and trucks and turn into bike lanes. And the city looks really beautiful when it’s covered by fresh snow.

I must admit that it’s fun to show up places and have people be surprised that I bike, but that happens to me all year, especially if I’m wearing a dress and/or heels.

Jessica dressed for a blizzard
After enjoying a bike ride through a snow storm in in Washington, DC in March 2014

My most pleasurable winter bike ride was a

Jessica dressed for a conference
Under the winter clothing

few years ago in Washington, DC, when I biked to a national bike conference from my cousin’s house on Connecticut Ave., a broad street which has no space on the edges and is usually bumper-to-bumper cars during rush hour. That Monday, an early-morning 4-6-inch snowfall closed the US Government, so the roads were almost totally clear of *any* traffic. With my studded tires, I zipped across NW DC to the meeting in the fastest time I’ve ever made. Not too many other people biked; outside and inside pictures are here.

I’ve been logging the conditions of bike paths and lanes in
Massachusetts since 1999. These 2008 recommendations from four winter bikers in my neighborhood give some idea of the variety of ways in which cyclists survive winter conditions. In a 2004 Harvard Gazette article about me and winter biking in a former life, the author captured my ideas in better words than I told her.

Time Traveling with Folk Music

Tonight, I heard Arlo and Sarah Lee Guthrie at the Berklee Performance Center on their 50DSC00880th anniversary of the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree Tour.  Arlo told some stories I’d never heard before, and I cried when he sang the song he wrote 50 years ago after he first saw the woman who later became his wife, illustrated with pictures of her them, and the kids over the years and the song written by Janis Ian to Woody’s lyrics about his mother singing to him.

DSC00864But memories of past encounters with Arlo over the years filled my mind.  My first date at MIT was a trip across the Charles with someone I had just met at a mixer to see the “Alice’s Restaurant” movie which had just come out between Woodstock and the start of school.  It was a class assignment for “Conflict and Community in America”; it seems we’ve done more of the Conflict and less of the Community than we should have over the past 45 years.

My next encounter was six years later in 1975 with my first spouse and two of our former housemates during a camping trip to Windsor Jams State Park.  Other than an encounter with a bear and her cub in the woods, the high point of the trip was a trip to Worthington to hear Arlo Guthrie and Steve Goodman play at an outdoor benefit concert.  Arlo sang Steve’s “City of New Orleans” at the piano, and I’ll never forget “Penny a point and no ones keeping score…”  I can still picture the open field, the park’s small but scenic gorge, and the bears in the autumn woods.

DSC00882Fifteen years later,  my second spouse, few-month-old daughter, and I saw Arlo during the Alice’s Restaurant 25th anniversary tour on the lawn at Castle Hill in Ipswich. I still have the t-shirt.

Ten to fifteen years later, Arlo sang with Keith Lockhart and the Esplanade Pops for a Fourth of July Concert, specifically playing the No Trespassing verse of “This Land Is Your Land”:
“On the fence there was
A sign that said, “No Trespassing”.
On the other side, it didn’t say nothin’;
That side was made for you and me.”

I got up close enough to see him singing, and it was a great day, even though I was alone.

Tonight, I bet everyoneDSC00881
had a story of how they had encountered Arlo and his music.  My favorite piece was the encore, where Arlo sang one of Woody’s last lyrics which he had himself set to music:

Dreaming With Einstein

Tonight, I saw Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams” at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. It is about Albert Einstein’s thoughts as he is completing his third paper of 1905, the one on Special Relativity, and contemplating the implications of his new interpretation of time as a dimension. His thoughts on the passing of time drift toward the creation of forking universes resulting from the multiple possibilities of each decision we make, and this makes me think more deeply about the changes I have made in my life. Or rather the one big change. Sometime I talk about how my gender change has rebooted my life, and I think that it has. In several ways, I have started over from the time 45 years ago when I first realized that I wanted to be a woman rather than a man. At the time, I didn’t think I could do anything about it, so I didn’t. I suppressed the urge as much as I could and carried on, pretty enthusiastically most of the time, with a “normal” life. I got married twice, the second time for 23 years, had a kid, had a fairly satisfactory career and more satisfactory life of activities, but I wasn’t quite myself.

When I realized that I could carry off the change, in 2003, I started consciously moving toward the point that I reached eight years later, when over the course of a year, I started living my entire life as a woman. Unexpected results included looking and acting lots younger than I am. Tonight I realized that I have in many ways restarted my life where it was 45 years ago, with no partner but endless possibilities in front of me and the freedom to indulge in *all* of my diverse interests, including a few that I didn’t know that I had, such as strong interests in drama, singing, religion, and civil rights. Even five years ago, I would never have guessed that some of the major interests in my life would be going to a play a week, singing in a choir and a chorus (and being an officer in the latter), going to church every Sunday (and teaching theology and serving on committees), and getting involved in inclusion in American astronomy (two more committees). This on top of ongoing commitments to open space (chairing a greenway council) and bicycling (riding 20 miles a day and more committees). I even have more real friends than I have ever had in my life. My old path was rewarding in many ways, and my new path is rewarding in some of the same, as well as more. So I’ve lived in a small-scale multi-verse and hope to come out wiser from having been able to live through both sides of a choice I first made almost three-quarters of my life ago.

Bicyclism, not quite a religion, but…

Theodore Parker Unitarian Church in West Roxbury, MA

Last Monday night a group of us from my Unitarian-Universalist church discussed writings of Unitarians who are also Buddhist or Christian . As a teenager, I drifted away from belief in a god while trying to hold on to some sort of Golden Rule Christian ethics, so I sort of, sort of qualify as a Christian Unitarian.  I haven’t totally rejected the tradition, and while reading a biography of Theodore Parker, a nineteenth-century minister at our church in West Roxbury, as well as a number of his sermons,  I find a lot to think about and follow in the tradition of activist Unitarianism based on the teachings of Jesus without the millennia of added baggage which he preached to the “farmers and mechanics”  in what was then the outlands of Boston.

Then we moved on to Buddhism, which several in our group practiced seriously.  They told of multi-day silent retreats, strict discipline, and solitary meditation, detaching oneself from the world to see what is and is not.  After hearing about these practices, I  started to wonder why I was never attracted to practicing meditation when it worked so well for people.

After enjoying a bike ride through a snow storm in March 2014
After enjoying a bike ride through a snow storm in March 2014

As we were leaving, I realized that once again, I was the only person who biked to the discussion. That seems to happen a lot, and I realized that bicycling was my practice, that my meditation is not detaching from the world but becoming hyper-aware of it.  I’ll call this comparable practice, “Bicyclism”.  Just about every morning, no matter what the weather (and it’s been challenging a few days this winter), I dress appropriately–warm, but cute, or at least not too threatening–and head into the world of cars, trucks, trees, geese, and rivers, for a 45-60-minute trip across the city on my bicycle.  I try (and maybe have) to be  totally in the moment

Sometimes, one ends up in the emergency room, as I did in 2012
Sometimes, one ends up in the emergency room, as I did in 2012

and aware of everything around me.  Every so often, I command my tensed-up shoulders to relax, because though not everything that I encounter is non-threatening,  the whole experience feels better when I can be calmer. There are, however, real penalties if this concentration is lost, adding a bit of reality to this meditation.

I’m surely not the only one who feels this way, though there is often no bike but mine parked at the various events and meetings I attend. I never realized before that while there are lots of reasons to ride a bicycle–exercise, fresh air, closeness to the environment, low carbon footprint, and others–in the end, I bike because I bike.  The journey is the reward.  Riding a bike is what I do to live a full life as well as to get places.  I am a Bicyclist.

Bicycling Home After Hearing Laurie Anderson Live

Laurie Anderson at Harvard’s Paine Hall

This afternoon, my friend Orissa and I heard multimedia (“That way they can’t pigeon-hole me.”) artist Laurie Anderson speak at Paine Hall at Harvard, where I have heard quite a few interesting concerts, but nothing quite like the music-free words we heard today. Just about everything Laurie says is musical (and sculptural and literary and cinematic), so we left very inspired to think about how we live in the world. Over the decades, I have heard Laurie Anderson play music and tell stories (and both at once) live in several concerts, but this one was all visual and spoken. It was also great to find that my friends Orissa and Corwin love her ideas as much as I do.

One concept that especially impressed us was that of avoiding being boxed in by straight lines (and I would also consider curved lines or any other boundaries). I spend my days staring at the world through

Laurie Anderson and concept drawing of listening through elbows.

the windows of screens: the morning news on the tablet before I even get out of bed, Facebook, email, and occasionally Twitter (I have 3 accounts) through the day, and in the ultimate parts of my job, a full vision of the entire universe by figuring out the positions and motions of objects through space. Maybe the only way to grasp that grandeur is through a window where I can examine it one planet, star, or galaxy at a time, not through images, but by the properties of the photons detected by telescopes scattered around surface of the Earth and space nearby. So maybe we need boxes.

laurie_andersonBut we also need to spend time outside of the box. Orissa and I both bicycle, and as we walked toward her nearby house, we thought about how being on bicycles frees us from simple geometry. Our constantly revolving feet move us forward through time and space. As I rode home from Cambridge to Roslindale through misty rain, I felt the ghostly presence of past trips, especially the time that my then-spouse and I biked home from the Observatory to Brookline on some of the same route I rode tonight and collapsed champagne-drunk on the floor.

After riding past the Beacon St. apartment where that ride ended 40 years ago, I crossed the dike at Longwood Station into a more distant past on Frederick Law Olmsted’s footpath along the Muddy River, with the mist dulling the sounds of motorized vehicles on the Riverway carriage road almost to the level of the horses and buggies which used the road 120 years ago.

Still further along, I rode on the bridle path along the Jamaicaway which was paved the year before my daughter was born, remembering biking there with my second spouse and a pregnant friend soon after the first undercoat of pavement went down 25 years ago.

So trips through space become meditative trips through time as I’ve traveled the same routes just about every day for decades, through all sorts of weather and the changes in topography that accompany it, through encounters with other path users (cyclists, pedestrians, geese, ducks, and the occasional great blue heron) on the paths, through a battle with aging that so far I’ve fought to a draw, and through involvement with other people who have come into and out of my life, making it more complete


On Sundays, my theologically-liberal Unitarian Church includes an offertory hymn which ends “In faith and hope and charity,” a common Christian phrase which causes me, as a spiritual non-believer in any sort of a “higher power,” to think about whether I have faith in anything. The more I think during my two hours per day of bike commuting, the more I realize that my life as an individual actually relies on faith in a lot of things.

Biking in traffic, by Lee Toma
Biking in traffic, by Lee Toma

Most immediately, my ability to travel in the world requires a faith that the other road users will not try to hit me. This faith is tried more often than I would like, but when I talk to non-bicyclists, it is one of the foremost of their concerns. Less than a month ago, a woman backed her car out of her driveway rather suddenly, and due to my limited evasive possibilities due to other traffic, she hit me and knocked me off my bike. I was bruised a bit, but with only a few very small cuts and an intact bike, I accepted her profuse apologies and went on to ride another 15 miles that day. But every day, I negotiate Boston’s Landmark Rotary and the intersection of Comm. Ave. and the B.U. Bridge expecting motor vehicle drivers to play by the rules and try not to hit me, and so far, they have not. Accepting that I ride because of this faith is a bit hard to deal with, but no matter how good bicycle facilities are, there are times when you just have to take other road users for granted.

In daily life, we often rely on the good will of others: that merchants will treat us fairly, that laws will be applied equally to all, that people will basically behave nicely toward each other. This faith makes our society work, but it is not a blind faith. We have to each do our part and believe. Theodore Parker said in 1858, ““The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But sometimes we need to push it in the right direction.

IMG_1765And then there is my life’s work, the study of the universe. In the end, you have to accept science on faith. Many parts of our model of the universe make proven predictions, but there is always a bit more that we don’t quite understand, and it requires faith that we will to keep studying it. I love finding new situations (like rings around planets, planets around other stars, or that galaxies further away are accelerating instead of moving steadily) and helping others model them so that we can find new rules, or applications of old ones, to understand them.

So even in a godless person’s life, there is a lot of faith in the center, often based on what we want our reality to be rather than what it currently is.

A New Life

Why “TransCyclist”?  The “Cyclist” comes from my major identity in life, as a person who gets around metropolitan Boston on her bicycle and tries to make it easier for other people to do the same.  I bike for health, for the environment, and because it’s a lot more fun than other means of getting around.   I ride quite a bit every day and think a lot about bicycles as transportation and life style and political statement.  I try to set an example as someone who almost always bikes to get around (which I found out by Googling is sometimes called “transcycling” for “transportation cycling”), though what I really want to teach people is that choosing the means by which you make any trip should be a conscious decision and not just default to the use of an automobile.

The “Trans” part is more complicated.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading (“The Thoreau You Don’t Know” by Robert Sullivan, most recently) and working on a project (New Brook Farm) concerning the Transcendental movement in mid-19th Century America and the ideas concerning community and living in the world which it promulgated.  And then there is the feeling that the bicycle transcends its status as a mode of transportation into a way of looking at and living in the world.  Last but not least is my recent transition from male to female and the ensuing change in perspective and ways of relating, many of which are taking me by surprise.

I’ve rebooted my life, and enough interesting things have happened that my friends are saying that I should write a book.  I don’t think that I am disciplined enough to do that, so I’ll try blogging on a regular basis and see what happens. Maybe if I write things down, I’ll be a bit less long-winded when I try to tell stories orally.

Thanks to Bekka from Bikeyface for inspiring me to get started.

[originally posted December 16, 2011]

Poetry Sunday

April is National Poetry Month, so the Theodore Parker Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts makes its first Sunday “Poetry Sunday”.  After a little practice reading poetry in public at the Longfellow House National Historic Site at the first Thursday Brown Bag Poetry Lunch, I put together a poem from my favorite poet which is somewhat pessimistic about our place in the universe with a response provoked by some events of the past few weeks, one of which is significant to me and one of which helps us understand how the Big Bang happened.

from “Margrave“, by Robinson Jeffers, from “Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems”, 1932

The earth was the world and man was its measure, but our minds have looked
Through the little mock-dome of heaven the telescope-slotted observatory eyball, there space and multitude came in
And the earth is a particle of dust by a sand-grain sun, lost in a nameless cove of the shores of a continent.
Galaxy on galaxy, innumerable swirls of innumerable stars, endurd as it were forever and humanity
Came into being, its two or three million years are a moment, in a moment it will certainly cease out from being
And galaxy on galaxy endure after that as it were forever…


Jessica with bangs

“Bangs” by Jessica Mink, 2014

How do I measure my place in such a universe?
Days after a change in hairstyle for which I’ve waited years,
Came new observations of the  beginning our universe?

How do I measure my place in such a universe?
The space and time through which I bike in a day, or in one life?
Or swimming through the words of great thinkers of our past like Theodore Parker or Plato?

How do I measure my place in such a universe?
Knowing we’re on one of many planets circling one of many stars,
in one of many galaxies, in one of many universes,
In the end, is there any practical difference in scale between our universe and ourselves?

So the best we can do is to inhabit our own world,
To make our selves the best we can be,
To share with those who inhabit our tiny part of space,
And together make our own purpose.

Sunday, April 6, 2014