Changing old habits again

Published 7:49 am Friday, July 16, 2010

Back in 2005, as a series of hurricanes had roared through the Gulf of Mexico, gasoline prices started to spike. The reason, at least in popular rumor, was damage to deepwater oil drilling rigs.

At one point that summer, as rumors flew, there was even a short period when the story was that there would be an actual fuel shortage, something we haven’t seen in the United States since the 1970’s.

I was helping to run a lumberjack competition on the East Coast when I first heard that rumor. It didn’t strike me as all that likely to come true, but better safe than sorry: I called home and asked my wife to go fill up both cars. “And fill them again anytime the tanks get down to a half,” I advised.

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The rumor never came to pass and, by the time I was back in Minnesota, it already seemed like a joke.

It did, however, get me thinking about our national – and individual – dependency on gasoline, thinking enough that I actually tried to do something about it. My first plan was to change my driving habits: No more one-item errands with the car, no more driving home for lunch. If the kids wanted to go somewhere, they might just have to wait until we were going the right direction on another errand.

This was an utter failure.

Our lives and our communities are built around the automobile, and everything from a lifetime of habit to the distant location of grocery stores and schools weighed against driving less.

So I traded my large SUV on a small (although it felt tiny) sedan and cut my gasoline use almost in half. Without sacrificing anything except the pride of driving a large, luxurious vehicle, I felt like I’d made a difference.

This summer, with more Gulf oil troubles in the news, the idea of again reducing gas use is on my mind. It’s true that prices have been stable and there are no worries about shortages. But still, the reality is that we are going to run out of gasoline. Even if that doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I am almost certain I’ll live to see a day when it becomes scarce and expensive.

So I took the next step and bought a bicycle, which means another attempt at changing a lifetime’s worth of habits.

So far, the experiment is not going well. It’s not the bike. I love the one that the folks at Rydjor helped me pick out; unlike the decades-old brick that I had occasionally pedaled, this one is light, responsive and just plain fun. But it turns out that there are many excuses not to ride a bicycle to work or on errands: It might rain, it’s really humid, the traffic is scary out by the big box stores on 18th Ave. NW, don’t feel too well today, don’t have time … and the list goes on.

Still, I’m going to try to make it work for the rest of the summer. I can’t think of a single reason why bicycling isn’t a good idea, and I can think of lots of reasons why it is good. So perseverance is the order of the day.

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It was nice to hear from so many people about last week’s column, when I wrote about almost drowning myself through stupidity. Heard lots of stories from others who had similar experiences, and still others who gave me some good advice on how to not drown.

Bill Schaffer of Austin wrote me about the story of his own near-drowning at the age of 15, and how it inspired him to learn to swim. Not only to swim, but to become so expert that the Navy put him to work teaching others.

I don’t plan to take swimming lessons, but I do follow one other piece of advice that Mr. Schaffer passed along: “I still wear a life jacket when I’m on the water. You never know,” he wrote.

Right on.