Monday, September 7, 2015

On Achievement and Death and Stuff

This is a post about cycling further than ever before, but first, a bit about boredom:
"Boredom may lead you to anything. After all, boredom even sets one to sticking gold pins into may choose what is contrary to one's own's own fancy, however wild it may be...desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid - simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is rational...this caprice of ours....preserves for us what is most precious and most important - that is, our personality...the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop."  - Dostoevsky 
"We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom...A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vial impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase." - Bertrand Russell

Some people assert their own will by choosing naturopathy over doctors to treat their cancer, or by quitting their satisfactory marriages and careers to seek out a new mid-life adventure. I hope to make slightly more reasonable choices or certainly less self-destructive ones. According to Dostoevsky, I'm sucked into the western ideals of individuality over community, of standing out, which can make us foolish. Melting into the crowd isn't an easy option. Being one with the universe is a task for later when I've figured out how to sit still. And for Russell, who hit puberty in Wales as the Russian was drawing his lasts breaths, being able to endure boredom is essential for happiness. Seeking out excitement to avoid boredom just makes our pleasures less easily felt. He warns,
"pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely...certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony." 
In art, we'd call that degree of monotony an area of restraint necessary for the eye to relax.  It's why some beautiful gardens have an expanse of grass. But mine doesn't. I lean towards chaos.

I get antsy when I don't have a project. The house can be a mess while I deliberate what new task to take on next. My backyard took over for a couple years, and I have ideas of an off-grid home a few years off, but then what now? For better or worse, I'm obsessed with doing, finishing, accomplishing.

So I set as a project to find the limits of my cycling abilities - or, more specifically, the limits of my lungs and heart and other organs and muscles in a body as old and untrained as mine. I'll tell you from the get-go that I failed. But I'll get to that.

Before an annual camping trip with neighbours, I considered having my packed rental car, complete with youngest child, driven by a fellow camper so I could cycle the 137 km to the site. The longest I had ever biked before was 60 km, and I wanted to see how far I could actually go in one trip. I didn't train or prepare in any useful way - that would take the challenge out of it. But having a driver coming up my rear helped because I could bail at any time. It was about seeing how far I could get, not about getting to the end. That was key to the entire adventure. That, and a cell phone to call for help if needed.

This was a decision fraught with a ridiculous amount of anxiety. I tried to keep Epicurus in mind as I was deluged with worries: If pain is not occurring right now, then it’s not bringing pain except for tumults created by imagination, right? I am bringing myself pain, which is ridiculous! So stop worrying about flat tires, swerving trucks, strong wind gusts tossing me into traffic, some crazy guy attacking a lone female, heat stroke, complete organ failure, random loss of appendages, the list goes on. And there's always the old standby concern that, if I leave the house for any significant duration it will burst into flames. From time to time I was struck with absolute terror at the though of being killed in traffic and picturing my children coping with my death. I'd have to actively "X" out the thought and replace it with a vision of biking without incident. Thanks CBT. The fact that many worries are unfounded doesn't seem to lessen their intensity. At all. I actively ignored the looming date, and second-guessed my choice of directions - later to be intensified by many geographical advisors after-the-fact  "Why didn't you go this obviously better way?" serving to prove my instincts for direction weak.

So I said nothing to anyone about my hopes to attempt the journey until the last minute; I knew I would be easily swayed to give up before I started. I waited until two days before to ask a neighbour to drive and was almost deterred by her husband's concern about wind, and the night before, I told my kids and then immediately become openly worrisome and neurotic. It's like talking about it tapped the keg of concerns. And it was going to be a windy ride: 20 km/h headwinds until the final 30 k.

It's curious, in areas of insecurity, how much other people's attitudes can affect us.  The support of that one comrade, and my son's insistence that, "of course you can do it" were paramount to my leaving the house that morning. I have lots of people in my life - I'm sure we all do - who tell me why I can't possibly do this or that. I ignore the lot of them most of the time, but physical exertion is a weak spot for me, so their voices loomed louder than usual and took some effort to drown out. Some told me I couldn't join a women's ride group because I'm too slow, and others refused admittance to a guy's casual riding group because I don't have the necessary equipment provided by mother nature. I'm not recognized as a cyclist. Even the physiotherapist helping with my aging knees questioned me about my regular trips to Bamburg, a local marker of a hilly 40 k loop from our city:

"Oh so you drive there and then bike around."
"No, I don't have a car."
"Oh, so you live near there."
"No, I live a block from here."

Awkward silence. I just don't look like someone who moves quickly.

So I bike alone.

Armed with a banana, some nuts and raisons, water, my phone and wallet, brand new lights on my bike, and quality bike shorts, I kissed my kids good-bye and set off before dawn hoping to beat the heat of the day. I played music in my head to keep me pumped - possibly a skill developed in only those raised in the pre-walkman era. This one kept my cadence up:

Some think it's nutty not to train formally before a big ride - as if we'll fall to pieces if we don't work towards our goals gradually, but there are too many times the fear of being unprepared stops us from action. We think we can't do this or that because we're not quite ready. Then we dilly dally about doing prep work forever and never actually getting to the thing we actually want to do. I channelled Laura Secord who didn't train for her marathon bushwacking experience. She just got out there and started running through fields and forests.

I didn't wear any fancy duds or pimp out my ride either. I did get a pair of good bike shorts because, since about 40, my butt fat has all gravitated around the corner to my belly - and, just my luck, just in time for a big booty to be in style too. Extra padding was necessary there, but then I just threw on a t-shirt and sandals and my stand-by helmet. And I thought of Marathon Man, and Dustin Hoffman copying Abebe Bikila's run without shoes. But Secord and Hoffman's character were running for their lives. I was creating a situation as if it were a necessity knowing full well it was a luxury. I had to convince myself of an importance for it in order to develop any motivation to go.

For me, the point of cycling is to go places. It's not to work out and live longer because we could die any minute. And it's not to work out to match the current beauty standard because we could be hated anyway regardless our quest for physical perfection. For me, it's all about getting off our fossil fuel addiction. If a middle age woman without any know-how can do over 130 k in a t-shirt and sandals, with a crappy bike, then maybe you can bike to work. Amiright?!

I was once told by a colleague that I could never be a department head because I don’t have a car, but people don't understand that we can get almost anywhere without a car. And we can bike dressed in our everyday clothes. Granted I still used a car to transport my camping gear and daughter, but with more of us cycling, we could definitely use fewer cars. We need to move under our own steam whenever we can.

The trip was also about finding my boundaries, but part of it was about getting over my fear of biking further from home alone – the fear of having an accident, but more a fear of boogie men out to attack me. People are mainly nice and helpful. There are some odd ducks, but the odds are in my favour. And, with the exception of a brief trek on a major highway, everyone moved over a lane to give me space. I was completely safe.

Part of the journey was because I turned 50. I'm in a hurry to do stuff because it gets a little clearer that any day could be my last. I'm still stuck on having a leave-behind, a legacy, even though I'm pretty convinced there won't be generations to come to remember any of this. With climate change, there’ll be no leave-behinds. Having kids or writing a book or erecting a statue will have no impact on future generations if there ARE no future generations because the planet has become largely uninhabitable by our species. This death is a final death.

But some thing can still make me feel like a kids again. When I listen to certain songs, I'm 17 again. And when I’m on my bike, I’m 10, riding to the corner store in my bathing suit with a nickel in my hand for a freezie.

Just beyond the half-way point, at 70 k in, my legs and lungs were fine, but my eyes started getting weirdly blurry, so I took that as a sign to re-fuel.  I stopped briefly to stretch, eat, and drink. I just had 23 k to get to the next city where I could sit in a Tim's to wait for the car if I needed to.

I was surprised that it wasn't the hills that got me but the long flat parts where there wasn't anything to mark the passage of time. I watched this in my head as I pedalled:

The music and videos come to me of their own accord, but cycling distances alone takes me to that wonderful zoned-out place where I often come up with entire concepts I couldn't possibly find in my hectic kitchen. Like if it's a coincidence that Rex Harrison played mentor to Eliza Doolittle then later played Dr. Doolittle. Weird. It's a state that can't be as easily achieved with another cyclist there - if they try to have a conversation or if I feel pressure to keep up or have to wait at every turn. That modicum of attention somehow destroys access to the internal world.

And then there's the beauty of the scenery with light filtering through the trees, and the cows cheering me on up the hills. Montaigne said,
When I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
Prolonged activity allows time to get sufficiently bored to actually start paying attention to the details of the world. Those magnificent details!

But the trip was also about reaching a goal even if I didn't want it to be. My mom died in her 60s of cancer, and my sister got cancer in her 40s. I always expected to die young, and I've been ever impatient to finish things because I might be dead tomorrow. I update my will regularly and leave behind instructions in case I die whenever I leave for a trip. It's not the case that I'm living fearful of death, but that I'm living authentically recognizing that it’s right around the corner for all of us. My son sometimes asks me if I’m afraid to die, and I worry mainly, as a single mom, if they’ll all be okay without me – it’s been my primary worry for the past 21 years. Not just financially, but will they have someone to go to when they feel misunderstood by the world. But other than their future, I think I'm okay with it.

And the trip was also about sheer endurance. We need to suffer in order to grow. We need a bit of adversity in our lives - challenges, and since we've had it easy for so long in this time and place, we sometimes need to create personal challenges. Nietzsche wrote about wishing difficulty on others so they can find the strength to fight. It's not about training to cycle, but about training to get in there. Staying in there for that hill creates the means to stay in there to keep on about climate change and injustices and politics even when most people seem completely apathetic.

And then I saw the sign for the campsite and started singing:

And suddenly I was Rocky at the top of the steps, and Sarah Conner bein' badass in T2.

I felt completely fine at the end. I wasn't sore at all, but I was tired of doing the same thing for so long - almost 7 hours of riding plus a lunch break on top: that's a full work day!

I made it the whole way without being rescued, so I still haven't found my limit.

There will be time....

A hawk hanging out at our campsite.


It's curious... actually it's not at all curious... but I posted my bike trip from Runkeeper on Facebook, and I also updated my profile picture that was ten years old. The profile change got 12 times the likes as my journey.  Being able to keep my casing reasonably smooth trumps actually being capable or useful.  So if you want to impress others, stay skinny, smooth, and symmetrical. Doing stuff carries a more personal reward.


Unknown said...

I loved reading this post! I stumbled across your blog I think almost 2 years ago and I do enjoy reading your thoughts and words! Always thoughtful and thought provoking. This post resonated with me as we are in the same demographic - still at the point of being capable and useful and able to challenge ourselves. And painfully aware that the clock is now half-past and winding down. Can it be re-wound? That is part of the challenge isn't it?

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Stephen!