Category Archives: taking care of our planet

Bicycles and women: Engineering social reform

I have a new respect for bicycles.

This one in particular. I wasn’t alive in the 1880s, but this bicycle directly affected my life nonetheless. 

First modern bicycle
First modern bicycle on display at the Coventry Transport Museum

John Kemp Starley developed the Rover safety bicycle to replace the precarious large-wheeled Penny Farthings. The safer bicycle allowed more people across more classes to get around, and some of those people were women.  

Plaque reads: Engineering Heritage Award. The low-riding position and chain-driven rear wheel allowed this bicycle to be enjoyed by all. It also played a role in the liberation of women.

Can you imagine biking with a long skirt and petticoats tangling in and around the chain?

Around the same time that J. K. Starley was engineering a safer bicycle (and lessening the impact of fossil fuel emissions hundreds of years later), the Rational Dress Society formed in London, England to protest clothing that deformed the figure, impeded movement or injured a woman’s health.

Many people (men and women) didn’t like the idea of women traipsing about in pants.

How would they tell the genders apart, by gum?

But women of the time wanted or needed to get around, and the safety bicycle made it possible. If only they didn’t have to take their life into their hands every time they peddled along with long skirts dangling around a bike chain. The Rational Dress Society was right: wearing a long skirt while riding a bike was not only irrational, it was downright dangerous.

The demand was too great and the logic too sound. Society changed, and rather quickly for the time. Bicycles allowed women freedom of movement, both in terms of clothing and transportation, and that opened up other areas for them.

Without bicycles, changes to wardrobe might have been a longer time coming.

I doubt that J.K. Starley had women’s rights or environmental protection on his mind back in the 1880s, but those are the unintended consequences of his work.

I have a new respect for bicycles.

Four-year-old girl riding a small bicycle with training wheels.
Thanks to J.K. Starley, my daughter could smile with carefree joy (in pants) while learning to ride a bike that had the same features as his first safety bicycle. (Photo 1998)

Reconciliation: Respect and peace

In late October we visited the old Coventry Cathedral, eviscerated by Second World War bombs, and saw these decapitated stair steps.

Stairways that used to lead somewhere alone in the middle of a bombed out cathedral

War leads nowhere

The stairway remnants, alone in the vast emptiness of the bombed out church, used to lead somewhere, but now they don’t. War robbed them of their purpose.

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But the periphery of the cathedral serves as a testament to reconciliation. The cities of Coventry in England and Dresden, Kiel and Berlin in Germany have worked together to process what happened, heal the damages and reconcile with each other.

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“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconellos

The inscription below this sculpture reads: “. . . in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace.”

Better yet, let’s try hard together to skip the destructive forces part and simply live in the respect and peace.

 

 

Canada and America: Sharing feelings

A few blocks from where I live, this flag flies on a neighbour’s house.

Canada flag with stars and strips on the red sections

I saw it for the first time a few weeks ago, and I my instinctive reaction to it surprised me. For the first time in my life, the stars and stripes made me feel uneasy. 

The United States has been many things to me—fun, powerful, demonstrative, advanced, swaggering, egalitarian, right-seeking, loud, over-the-top, and occasionally a little insensitive—and it has made me smile, scowl, throw my fist in the air, cringe, celebrate or roll my eyes, but it has never made me uneasy. 

But the sight of our Canada flag combined with that of United States right now does not sit well. It is definitely not a “great again” feeling.

Especially when another flag that flies right behind that first one would not be welcome in many parts of that country.

Rainbow flag behind the Canada flag with stars and stripes

America, I’m worried about you, is all. I’m worried because that flag really does represent the truth of our situation. No matter how we feel about it, we are interwoven with you. The fates of our two countries are so tied together that we Canadians really need you and want you to succeed. Your place in the world is such that your actions have global impact, and we need you and want you to keep moving forward, upward, outward.

What’s happening now feels like the opposite: backward, downward, inward, like a balloon that has developed a slow leak.

I guess what I’m saying is, in the words of one of our Canadian icons, Red Green: “Remember, I’m pulling for ya. We’re all in this together!”

Really thinking about plastic

Plastic: useful, convenient, ubiquitous, ugly, persistent . . .

My son reminded me of the daunting presence of plastic when he took this photo of a whale made of plastic found in the ocean.

Beauty crafted out of refuse in Bruges, Belgium.

Art installation - Whale made out of plastic found in the ocean

The art of my friend’s daughter, Jennifer MacLatchy, makes me think about the terrible beauty of plastic. She makes art out of what she gathers from the Atlantic Ocean near her Nova Scotia home.

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It reminded me of the plastic we found on my Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip to Bolivia six years ago. I wrote a post then about an imagined future world where our descendants wallow in our discarded plastic grocery bags. Read it here: Paper, not plastic.

piles of plastic garbage found on construction site

 

I’ve been really thinking about plastic and the price we pay for its terrible beauty.

How do I use it now? How could I change how I use it and recycle it?

There are other ways. There are better ways.

I want to live like Jane too

Seven years ago I wrote a post entitled I want to live like Alex. It was a tribute to a man I admired. Last week Alex’s wife, Jane, died and over the past week I have found myself thinking, “I want to live like Jane too.” They were a twosome in so much of the good they did in the world. Together the quiet but powerful pair took action instead of waiting for others to take care of things, they spoke up even when it wasn’t the popular option, and they fulfilled needs.

She died on her ninety-third birthday and, like her husband before her, it was standing-room-only at her celebration of life. Like her husband before her, the church filled with an overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly of people whose lives she had touched.

All those people were there because, if the world were full of Jane McKeagues, the world would be a peaceful, joyful, love-filled, strong, just place.

If I lived like Jane, I would greet everyone, always, with a big smile and make each person feel that he or she was the most important person in the room. I would travel often and engage in spontaneous, curiosity-driven conversations with people to get to know them and to get to know what I could do to help them. I would speak truths quietly so as to engage, not offend.

If I lived like Jane, I would embrace reading aloud to enrich the experience of books. I would think deeply about what I have read and lived, and I would tell stories to inspire people. I would speak when necessary, but only with the fewest number of the most impactful words.

If I lived like Jane, I would tell people how grateful I am for their friendship. I would challenge my body, my mind and my spirit throughout my whole life. I would honour myself, but care for my family with deep devotion they never doubt.

People have been known to ask “What would Alex do?” when faced with a difficult situation. Now they ask “What would Jane do?”

Because we want to live like Jane too.


Please read my other Alex and Jane stories and be inspired!

I want to live like Alex

Seeing the mountain

 

 

 

Failure to communicate: A lesson for our galaxy from Sesame Street Martians

As a child I giggled out loud every time the Sesame Street Martians encountered another Earth object and tried without success to understand it or communicate with it. The ringing phone? Still cracks me up all these decades later.

But these days, when I despair about the harmful actions people are taking in the name of hate-driven agendas, I think those Sesame Street aliens illustrate part of the problem. Groups of people from the same galaxy but different neighbourhoods can’t figure each other out. Research in books leads to wrong or incomplete conclusions. Even if two groups stumble across a common word or phrase, the true meaning of what that sound communicates is misunderstood.

Sometimes the misunderstanding and miscommunication leads to a distrust so profound that people murder each other because of it, without remorse and sometimes with glee. 

Sesame Street doesn’t provide the solution, and guaranteed there is no fast and simple one. But if the Martians spent a little more time on the ground with the Earth objects, instead of just descending now and then in their spaceship, they would figure out what a cow, a cat and a chicken really look like.

Perhaps the modern transportation and communications system of our big galaxy will allow people from different neighbourhoods more time to just be together. Then, perhaps, in time, understanding will grow and everyone will learn that a ringing telephone needs to be answered.

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