DUMB AND DUMBER: I celebrated New Year’s Day violently re-educating myself on how it takes a village to raise an idiot. The idiot, of course, was me. I started the day — and the New Year — with a morning bike ride. With absolutely no traffic on the road, the ride could not have been more extravagantly luxurious. But as I headed down West Valerio Street from Elings Park, a rogue stick somehow leapt off the ground, attached itself to my front tire, and then insinuated itself into the skinny crawl space between fender and wheel. From there, the stick — part of a branch as thick as a good-sized thumb — enmeshed itself in my spokes. When the wheel rotation brought this woody foreign mass in collision with my front forks, what had been a wonderful ride came crunching to an ugly end. Confronted with enough g-force to bend my forks three inches backward, my forward locomotion instantaneously ceased, and I was catapulted face-first onto the street. Luckily for me, a good Samaritan happened to be jogging by. Not only did he call 9-1-1 and my wife, but he kept me company. He kept me calm. When my body wanted to go into shock, he peppered me with enough “What’s-your-name-what-day-is-it-how-many-fingers?” questions to keep my mind tethered to Planet Earth. In that moment, this stranger became an important part of my village. Likewise for the EMT crew that did such a great job scraping me off the ground and getting me to the Cottage ER. And same, I should add, for everyone I had the good fortune to encounter at the new-and-improved five-star Cottage Hilton, where I was stitched up.
The village didn’t end there. Afterward, one neighbor up the street — a professional masseuse — offered me a massage. Another brought soup. Another dropped off a six-pack of beer accompanied by six straws. As for the idiocy, it wasn’t the accident itself. That was sufficiently freakish to lay further outside the realm of statistical probability than, for example, a meltdown in the spent-fuel-rod storage pool at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. According to my oldest sister, my idiocy lay in taking the ride at all. I should have stayed in bed and slept late just like everyone else on New Year’s Day, she scolded. By getting up so obnoxiously early, she pointed out, I was not just tempting fate; I was asking for it. No wonder the stick got me. But the doctors, nurses, and medical technicians — and pretty much everyone else — had another idea. Why the hell wasn’t I wearing a bike helmet? they wanted to know. When it came to gratuitous stupidity, they let me know, I was off the charts. When it came being lucky — I was still alive and could still count to five — I had just won the lottery.
And of course, there’s no good answer. Maybe it’s that when males of the species hit a certain age, their bodies accumulate a dangerous reservoir of a little-known but naturally secreted drug called fuggitol. People under the influence of this compound remain fully cognizant of the natural consequences of their actions but do them anyway. They just don’t care. For years, I wore a helmet like any responsible cyclist should. But then, I just stopped. Riding without one is the bicycle equivalent of skinny-dipping. It feels so great. And not that it matters, but helmets are inherently dorky. As a fashion statement, they inflict the same visual blight to one’s head as the fanny pack does unto one’s ass. Many moons ago, I took a stab at rectifying this problem. Riffing on the expression “brain bucket” — one of the cooler names for bike helmets — I enlisted an airbrush artist to design a helmet that looked like a giant pink cartoon brain with all its sculpted convolutions. It didn’t work out as planned. What I got instead looked much more like a pink lava lamp. It definitely got me noticed. It also got me a lot of comments. But it did nothing to address the dork factor afflicting helmets.
One might think the case for bike helmets was so open-and-shut it need not even be made. But it turns out there’s a raging controversy. Australia passed a law requiring cyclists to wear helmets in 1992 — in response to the sudden spike in head injuries accompanying that country’s equally sudden surge in ridership. Today, there’s a vigorous campaign to get the law repealed. Noted economists with impressive sounding names like Piet de Jong and Rune Elvik have released studies arguing that helmet laws cost society billions of dollars’ worth of lost health benefits because they discouraged prospective riders from getting in motion in the first place. There are studies showing — or purporting to show — bicycle-related brain injuries have continued to mount even in the face of such laws. And they have seized on a report showing that in the Netherlands — where almost everyone rides and almost no one wears helmets — riders wearing helmets are statistically inclined to get in bike accidents way more frequently than their population on the road would suggest.
I’m not sure what this proves other than there’s a study out there to support any position, no matter how contrary or counterintuitive it may be. The report I liked best showed that just as many people are sent to the ER from injuries they sustained in their beds as on bikes. In other words, you can’t hope to play it “safe” by staying off a bike. But it’s also not a coincidence that most people killed in bike accidents did not wear helmets. I hear there’s a new model out there made out of recycled cardboard — engineered to replicate the cartilage around a woodpecker’s neck — that can absorb three times as much g-force as a traditional foam helmet. Maybe I’ll try that. However dorky it looks, it can’t be worse than the neck brace I’ll be sporting the next few weeks. In the meantime, thanks a lot to everybody for everything, and I’ll try not to be such an idiot.