Category Archives: Fear and Prickly Things

What You Need to Know about Life, Death, and the Stories We Tell

Ghost bike placed in memory of South Christian High School teacher Rod VanDyke.
Photo: Karen Dunnam. This is a ghost bike, placed in memory of Rod VanDyke. Do note that this is only near the site of the accident – there was no sidewalk where he was hit.
Rod VanDyke was killed doing what he had done many times before: biking in to school for a day of teaching. In spite of Mr. VanDyke having lights on his bike and being in a highly-visible position on the road, the driver of a car coming up behind claims not to have seen him and hit him from behind at speed. What caught my eye, and made my heart sink, was discovering that the man who had been killed was part of my broader community, a colleague of my once-roommate’s husband. The headline read, “Police: Teacher killed in crash had lights on bicycle, was wearing dark clothing.”

Any child of God deserves to have his life treated with dignity, to have the story of his life – and of his death – told with integrity. But this doesn’t always happen. It’s time for us to have a conversation – about life, about death, and about the stories we hear and tell.

Telling a story well can be uncomfortable. So can hearing a story well. Rather than receiving the story as it’s told, we may need to look a little more deeply into our own souls and re-examine what are sometimes ill-considered knee-jerk reactions. This is all the more essential when the “characters” in our stories are flesh and bone.

An excerpt from the story mentioned in the headline above:

A South Christian High School teacher who died after he was hit by a car as he rode his bicycle early Tuesday morning was wearing dark-colored clothing but had lights on his bike, Ottawa County sheriff’s officials said.

Rod VanDyke, a math teacher and girls varsity golf coach, was riding southbound on 36th Avenue near Jasper Drive in Georgetown Township when he was struck from behind by a 1999 Acura also traveling south. The crash occurred shortly before 6 a.m. Oct. 7.

Sgt. Steve Austin said investigation showed VanDyke was riding in the road, more than 8 feet from the edge. He was wearing black and gray clothing, and his bicycle had lights on the front and rear. Deputies found an MP3 player and headphones near him at the crash scene, Austin said. He was wearing a helmet.

***

Last year, a similar tragedy happened when a teacher on his way to Hamilton High School was killed in a collision with a a semi outside the Tulip City Truck stop. His name was Josh Hoppe.

The crash was described this way:

Hoppe was driving about 6:20 a.m. south on M-40, south of the I-196 interchange, when police say a truck pulled out into his path from Tulip City Truck stop.

He died at the scene after his 2009 Ford Fusion hit the trailer, near the cab of the truck driven by 54-year-old David St John of Wellston.

As the community grieved over Joshua Hoppe’s death, the public conversation was quickly filled with anger and determination. People called MDOT, filled City Council meetings, demanded traffic studies, reminded the powers-that-be that others had died here, too.

The community honored his life and demanded an accounting for his blood. What they didn’t do was question his decisions or character.

Incidentally, the community’s efforts were successful. MDOT is planning to make safety improvements to the road in 2016.

***

In researching this story, I read over a hundred media reports of car crashes involving bikes and pedestrians. I was encouraged by how many of them were neutral, including only the clear facts of what had happened.

But many were not. Too many followed a predictable script, script that reinforces our desire to believe our world is fair and orderly, and that tragedies like this are either inevitable or crushingly just. But this script quietly argues for a status quo that sees valued members of our communities and families unnecessarily killed every day – and then blames them for dying.

We don’t need to accept a script that far too often condemns the dead. On the contrary, this is a script that needs to be rewritten, and we have a right to insist that it is.

This is the first in a series on the stories we tell about the people who use our common roads in ways that our culture considers unconventional. Next time, we’ll look at how to identify the specific scripts we hear so we’re better able to push back against them when appropriate.

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Make the Iron Hot (Wednesday’s Words)

Make the Iron Hot by Striking

I spent much of yesterday with the gentleman who advocates for passenger rail in Michigan, and this echoes the message of one of the things he said after a meeting – something about persistence overcoming resistance.

Tired as I am after a long, good day, this resonates. Let’s not wait the stars to align, let’s not wait to learn everything there is to learn or to eliminate every fear and every obstacle – let’s go. Let’s do. And let’s make the iron hot by striking.

We’re Not Even Trying

The housing inspector was going to be at our house at 9:00 a.m. sharp today, and my husband was gone for an early meeting. That meant that I had to make sure all three girls were ready for their day and out the door at 7:40 a.m. Sticking to the timetable was crucial.

In the swirl of

WHERE ARE YOUR SHOES???
and
HOW IS YOUR HAIR NOT COMBED YET??

I decided that it would make best sense to drive the three blocks to school today so I could do my other two drop-offs directly from there. For five minutes I sat in the driveway, pulling forward and back as walkers passed down the sidewalk, waiting for traffic to clear. Once we were finally on our way, we passed a dad walking his pink-fleeced little girl to school. For five more minutes I worked my minivan through the traffic snarl outside the school to get to the elementary school drop-off line. As I clicked open the door, the dad and his little girl walked up to the kindergarten classroom.

For crying out loud, WE’RE NOT EVEN TRYING HERE. Walking this journey is obviously more efficient than driving, but some days it’s scary as hell. All those cars I was tangled in are in a HURRY, and trying to walk through an intersection with no crosswalk and no crossing guard and no anything at all but raw courage and a teeny flame of anger that we are so freaking uncivilized takes a lot of energy and a certain amount of disregard for one’s own mortality. And half the reason everyone’s in a car to begin with is that most of us don’t really want to contemplate death first thing on a Thursday morning, before we’ve even finished our morning coffee.

I’m tired of pretending that this is working for us.

I watched the video below first thing this morning. It’s an almost surreal foil to my maddening morning drop-off experience and I just can’t shake the contrast; it’s been on constant replay in my head all morning.

It brings you to the bike route that passes beneath the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where you can take in Gothic architecture and modern art and street performers playing Bach on your way to school. Take a look at all the different types of people – especially families – on all the different bikes passing through. And imagine – imagine! – if there were anywhere in America where you could have this kind of experience during your morning commute.

(If you don’t have a lot of time, consider clicking to the middle of the video – it’ll give you a good sense of what it’s about. You can read the original post by Mark Wagenbuur of Bicycle Dutch here.)

The Netherlands hasn’t always been a beautiful place to get around by bike. In the 1970s, they were every bit as auto-centric as we are now. They decided that it wasn’t in their national interests to continue down that path and made a change.

We can, too.

But we have to try.

So today I’m feeling all frustrated and ragey and like it is all futile, all of it, whatever it is. And so what I’m looking for from you is just this – your wisdom. What do YOU do when you feel like the mountain that stands before you is just too big?

A Place for Everything (Wednesday’s Words)

Place for Everything - Franklin

Our recent move has me feeling this little proverb pretty acutely. Since we’re planning to move again in a few months, we’ve limited ourselves to unpacking our frequently-used stuff. That has mostly worked, but a few times a week I find myself working myself into a frenzy trying to figure out where I stashed that seldom-used credit card or fuzzy wool socks.

This morning I saw mention on Facebook of another person running killed by a person driving. And it got me thinking about how this proverb, which we usually apply to order in our homes, is also applicable to order in our towns. Not knowing where things are creates chaos in my personal life; not having a place for all of our people in all their different ways of getting around creates chaos in a community.

When there are no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no bike lanes, everyone is jumbled up together like a junk drawer the size of your stock pot. Chaos is always aggravating. Sometimes, it’s fatal.

Lord, have mercy.

Mistakes You Can’t Take Back

There’s a parenting group that I’m part of on Facebook, a group of exceptionally thoughtful women and men who discuss everything from (not) sleeping through the night to endless potty training to what risks we let our kids take. It’s a good place.

This morning I was part of a discussion on what sort of risks we allow our kids to take, and I just loved what one of the parents said: we draw the line at mistakes you can’t take back (thank you for that verbiage, Janet). Falling out of a tree, okay. Falling off a swing, okay. Running in front of a car, not okay. Our actions have consequences regardless of our intent, and sometimes consequences are grossly out of whack with what we intend. This is one of the things we have to teach our kids.

This qualifies as Not Okay by any imaginable definition.
This qualifies as Not Okay by any imaginable definition.

Sometimes it’s one of the things we have to teach ourselves, as well.

In our country, we’re setting ourselves up for failure by creating spaces for mistakes we can’t take back.

An article on Bicycling magazine’s website has gone gangbusters since it was published on Tuesday, and it takes a really interesting tack in discussing this. (You can find it here.)

In this country, “I didn’t see the cyclist” is the negligent driver’s universal get-out-of-jail free card…When the driver says, “I didn’t see the cyclist,” that’s usually enough for everybody to call it a “tragic accident”—and we don’t want to hold people accountable for accidents, do we?…

You want to know what’s really tragic? We allow this to happen. We make excuses, and offer up empty condolences, and don’t hold negligent drivers accountable, all because we’re afraid that we, too, might be held accountable for not paying attention. For not watching where we are going. For fiddling with the stereo, or shaving, or texting, or just daydreaming while driving, and not seeing what we should have seen, had we only been paying attention.

This resonated deeply with me. As I go from car, to bike, to car, I find myself so frustrated with the careless driver rolling through the intersection… only to find myself forgetting to double-check a sidewalk before I turn. It really could happen to any of us, and the fact that I am not exempt from that is deeply sobering.

In the crash I witnessed this spring where the police officer pulled out in front of a woman in a minivan, the woman in the minivan was ultimately considered at fault. The crash occurred on a high-speed STROAD with multiple lanes. Visibility was poor, and – by design – cars were traveling too quickly to have time for an adequate response. Both of them were set up for failure, and the result was a mistake that neither can take back.

So what do we do?

I love it when a solution to a problem already exists.

[I]n the Netherlands accident investigations are required for every bicycle fatality…The intersection where [a child] was killed was closed by accident investigators, who painstakingly recreated the crash, as reported in the Boston Globe:

Along with clipboards and cameras and measuring tape, they brought with them an 18-wheeler and a child-sized bicycle. Over and over, they maneuvered the two around the corner, recreating the all-too-common “right hook” accident in slow motion, each time adjusting the truck’s mirrors or the angle at which it struck the bike.

…The Dutch response to the fatality didn’t end there. Remember that painstaking accident reconstruction? The intersection where young Hananja Konijn had been killed was redesigned within a month of his death. A mirror was installed beneath the traffic light to help drivers see approaching cyclists. A bike box was also installed, so that cyclists would be able to cross the intersection before a driver could right-hook them. And the bike lane was doubled in width by removing an automobile lane, and painted bright red.

How many people have been killed in the last two years on US-31 and Chicago Drive*? How many children have been hit near schools that we’ve never heard about because they didn’t result in death? How many of those deaths and collisions could have been prevented if we took a Dutch approach?

I think that perhaps we need to begin to care in a new way when these things happen. It’s clearly just not enough to care in the sense of feeling sad when we hear about yet another person killed on our streets, or even care in the sense of saying a prayer for the family or bringing over a casserole if we know them personally. (I’m not saying that we should stop doing those good things, of course.) But what if, the next time we heard about a person who has been killed, we go to our next city council or township board meeting and request an investigation? What if we called our legislators and asked them to sponsor legislation that would do exactly this?

What if we stopped viewing all these egregious tragedies as unavoidable side effects of the modern world, when they’re not?

The law holds us liable to see emergency vehicles who are running their lights and sirens because it’s not okay not to see them. One of our responsibilities, as drivers, is to SEE. Legislators have decided that it’s not okay for us to not see emergency vehicles, so we’re charged with the responsibility of seeing them. We could, pretty easily, extend this precedent to cover vulnerable road users (that would typically be people walking and biking and wheelchairing) as well.

That would be something that I would like to see.

*I should note that Chicago Drive has seen some recent safety improvements that reduce conflicts between people using the sidewalk and left-turning vehicles. This is AWESOME.

What Happened on the Way to School: What YOU Thought

Friends, I can’t thank you enough for your feedback on that post about how I was nearly hit near CJ’s school. I love that we can have this conversation as a community, and hope that those of you who prefer not to comment publicly will feel free to email me at tulip(dot)lane(at)outlook(dot)com.

Now, what you said. I pulled these both from the comments section and my personal Facebook page.

First of all, it’s clear that this type of experience is NOT unique to me. One of my thoughts in the middle of this experience was about why all this weird stuff always happened to ME. What am I doing wrong? Why doesn’t this happen to anybody else? Well. Let’s see what you said:

In the most intensive year of my life as a pedestrian (Chicago, 2011-2012) I was actually hit by a car once while running (minor thing, thank goodness) and had a car clip the front of [my son’s] stroller once. Yes. When you walk more, there’s more chance to experience this kind of crazy.

I’ll have to tell you about the time I was walking my kids to school and hit the trunk of a car with my hand while in the crosswalk because they didn’t give us the right-of-way…

I too have done something like that! Also, one of my friends said her normally calm husband finally walked out to the front of their house one day and yelled at the drivers going too fast to “SLOW DOWN” because there were kids around! Sometimes we just HAVE to speak up!

My takeaway is that when we get out of our cars, we frequently experience the public realm as a a hostile place. We don’t typically seek out confrontation, but when we travel by foot or on bike it seems to become unavoidable. That’s clearly a problem.

I think the fact that the driver had been confronted and punched in the face before is a huge red flag! She obviously drives in an aggressive manner and either isn’t aware or doesn’t care to change. I think you were right to confront her.

I think you did the right thing because when no one calls someone out for improper behavior, it is as if we are encouraging said behavior to continue…

I believe that pedestrians and bicyclists, by extension feel vulnerable and exposed. I applaud you for trying to strike up a dialogue. We need to do that more often and not feel like we were in the wrong even when it’s not our fault. We are quick to blame cyclists and walkers for pushing the boundaries when we do it often in our cars and don’t seem to notice that. (Emphasis mine.)

I thought it was interesting that everyone who commented thought that confronting her was an appropriate response, because I really questioned myself on this point. After I read that last comment above, I figured out why: In my gut, I felt like I was on the wrong because I had been crossing the street. This floors me. I, of all people, have so thoroughly internalized the message our surroundings give that I feel like I’m breaking a rule by crossing the freaking road? What the heck?

The question that remains is the most important one, though – was this conversation effective? And this is where I think Shelly absolutely nailed it:

…learning the genuine art of non-violent communication with these aggressive people is helpful, and can also teach others how to handle their unruliness and regain some humanity.

I don’t think our conversation was completely successful. It led to surface reconciliation, but I’m not convinced that she thought she had done anything wrong or processed that her actions had put me in danger. In fact, I think she may have still felt wronged by me because I acted like I didn’t think she was going to stop. (Gah. That still frustrates me, a week later.) The communication aspect is another post entirely, but I do think it’s key to the conversation. There’s a solid summary of the technique here.

I’m going to end with something Michael said – a reminder and challenge to both myself and all of you.

The more we walk and ride our bikes, the more considerate we will be around other pedestrians and cyclist. Keep up the dialogue.

A Crazy Thing Happened on the Way Home from School Today

20131018-092253.jpg

Two weeks into living in town, and I am LOVING my ability to get places on foot. We’ll talk about how awesome it’s been in coming weeks. But I had a crazy, crazy experience today that I just had to share.

I’d just dropped CJ off from school and was crossing the street right next to her school. It’s a crazy corner – it doesn’t have the fastest traffic of our walk commute, but people swing around the corner like it’s just a curve in the road. As I crossed, a very big, black SUV started swinging around the corner – and it didn’t look like she was going to stop. So I put up my hand – no, not my middle finger, my HAND – in a “Holy cow, STOP!” kind of way.

And she honked at me.

You have got to be kidding. (That’s what the guy walking behind me said.) So I walked over to talk to her. And here is where you say, “Meika, seriously. What the blippity were you thinking?” We’ll get back to that.

She hit the gas and accelerated past me, FAST. Total road rage; completely out-of-control.

Throwing up my hands, I started walking home but stopped after a few steps. Thirty seconds earlier, I had crossed that street with my six-year-old. She was dropping her child off at the same school. We do this every day, twice. How can I just let this go? What about everybody else who crosses this street, what about the KIDS who cross here by themselves every day? I decided to see if I could get a picture of her license plate so I could report her for reckless driving. Or something. I don’t know.

And that is when I got to talk to her.

I wasn’t planning to approach her; she pulled up to me. She was stopping, she said! Why did I hold up my hand like she wasn’t going to? She honked to let me know that she saw me! (Ahem.) I told her that honking sounds aggressive, always, that the way she swerved past me was incredibly dangerous, and that if she hit me with her beast I’d be dead. She told me that she’d had a lady punch her in the face before in traffic and was afraid that I was going to do that to her. In the end, we both apologized and treated it as a miscommunication.

So you remember the other day how we talked about our cars making us all into a bunch of Neanderthals?

[When we get in our cars], millennia of linguistic development and body language melt away, replaced with a blaring horn. No wonder we don’t like each other anymore.

We’re like a bunch of cavemen, grunting at each other in the dark.

Which brings us back to the “what were you thinking?” question, which is also what I asked myself on the way home as I was wondering why this kind of thing doesn’t ever seem to happen to anyone else. I came up with a few things, and here’s where I’d like your thoughts, too.

First of all, most of us don’t walk very many places; I’m walking much more now than I was just a few weeks ago. This may not be as unusual as I think for people who frequently walk.

Second, although I don’t really think deeply about it in the moment, I categorize this as bullying and feel as if I have a moral obligation to stand up to it for the preservation of our civil society. Seriously. It’s a hundred million little things like this that create our culture and set its tone. This isn’t how we’re supposed to treat each other. SO STOP IT.

Third, I have an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation and should probably be prepared to get punched in the nose someday.

So what do you think? What are some appropriate responses for a pedestrian who encounters a threatening driver? And what can we do as drivers to make sure that this is never us?