On the Road
A resident of Davis, California, Matt Biers-Ariel is a public school English teacher. The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast: Our Family’s Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike was published by Mountaineers Books.
Anything you learned about your family on this cross-country bicycle trip that surprised you?
This sounds clichéd, and it is, but I learned that if our ordinary family puts its mind to something, it can accomplish something extraordinary. I say this because even though we trained for almost a year, the ride was significantly harder than we anticipated. Not only was it physically demanding, but the mental strength required for two boys ages thirteen and nine to ride bikes across the country was surprising. They have retained this mental toughness in subsequent years.
Did the journey relate to your son’s Bar Mitzvah studies?
Though we keep a Jewish household, at age five, my son declared himself an atheist. He attended religious school for one year because when he was eleven, he had his eye on the presidency and had read a Gallup poll that while only 6 percent of Americans would not vote for a Jew, 48 percent would not vote for an atheist. He figured having a Bar Mitzvah would put him squarely in the Jewish category. After a year of learning Hebrew and memorizing prayers, he said, “If this is what I have to do to be president, forget it.”
Who or what is the Beast in your title?
The Beast was the tandem bicycle that I rode with nine-year-old Solomon, since he was too young to ride on his own. How did it come by that moniker? I did not own a tandem and they are quite expensive. Since this was to be a onetime adventure, I bought a used one on eBay. Everyone knows that tandems are purchased by men who want to get their significant others into biking; but after four or five rides the significant others are tired from yelling at their men to slow down, and sitting eighteen inches behind a sweaty male, well, you get the picture. About 99 percent of tandem purchases wind up like this, and people like me buy them cheap on eBay. The Beast was the 1 percent; it was a couple’s workhorse for twenty years, and by the time it came to me it wanted to be let out to pasture. It let its displeasure be known by breaking down at inopportune times.
What about the experience was most difficult to convey?
A book is essentially a vicarious experience a reader has of a writer’s life. I’m good at describing what’s going on in my head. I’m bad at describing the environment. How to express what a 101-degree temperature with 90 percent humidity feels like to someone who has never experienced it is as difficult as describing a rainbow to a blind person.
Did you have your own unique coming-of-age ritual?
I had a typical 1970s liberal Jewish Bar Mitzvah. I did it because it was what was expected of me. After the final prayer of the service, I vowed never again to enter a synagogue. How I later came to have a career in Jewish education and write Jewish books is another story.
Did anyone in your family censor any of the writing in the book?
No. They’re too busy with their own lives to care much about my writing. Besides, since my previous books cannot be described as big sellers, they figured even if I wrote about their deepest secrets, the secrets would be safe within the covers of one of my books.
Are there similarities between writing and cycling?
Cycling and writing are both activities where the bulk of the time one is alone with his thoughts. Both require resolve. If one perseveres through the impossibly steep mountains, the blazing deserts, the horrible first drafts, and the innumerable rejections, then he can succeed.