Monday, October 25, 2010

The Bicycle, and on Building (and Protecting) Your World

For myself and a number of my acquaintances, the desire to get a bicycle corresponded with experiencing what I can only describe as an early midlife crisis. Early, because it hit us some time in our late 20s. And crisis, because it was marked by a devastating discrepancy between what we were achieving in our lives at the time (impressive things, by society's standards) and the absolute lack of personal fulfilment derived from those achievements. Somehow, we were living in a way that did not make us happy, spending money on things we did not enjoy, and advancing along career paths we no longer believed in - yet saw no way of escaping after having dedicated huge portions of our no-longer-that-young lives to the education that led to those careers.

How does the bicycle tie into this?... I cannot yet verbalise it as eloquently as I would like, but I know for certain that it does. Maybe disentangling myself from one aspect of societal expectations and life's inertia made me realise that it was generally possible. Prior to getting a bicycle, I had made some radical changes in my life, and have continued to make others since. Those changes have made me considerably worse off financially, but the quality of my life improved. And most importantly, I feel that I have re-claimed my intellect and creativity, which I now understand was necessary for my sense of personal integrity.

When I ride a bicycle, I experience a heightened awareness of the extent to which we are the architects of our own worlds. Things don't just happen to us, as we like to think when feeling helpless about our situations. Whether we realise it or not, we orchestrate our daily experiences through a complex web of choices and decisions we make - which includes the choice to be passive and let our circumstances, or other people around us, shape our world for us. To live the life we want to live, we must actively build and protect it - not violently or smugly, but committedly and persistently, even if others don't understand us or criticise our choices. For me, this is an important parallel between cycling and life in general.

42 comments:

  1. Ah, what a good post. We also are moving along with bikes and life changes that others might not understand or value. Thanks for the beautiful bike blog.

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  2. I have always had bicycles, so my world was built around them.

    And how did I know it would be that color? You know you've been getting pretty good at this teasing slow reveal thing too. I'm not sure whether or not that's a healthy direction for your life to take.

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  3. Great post!

    - we've had some categorically similar experience, in that we spent most of our lives up to our middle twenties just kind of going with the flow, and since then have been very intentionally and directly trying to first of all discover the kind of life we really want to live, and then taking intentional steps to realize it.

    For us that has meant living in a much smaller place, making almost all of our own food (even staple stuff like stock and yogurt and breadcrumbs and hopefully soon canned veggies and fruits), spending more to live in a smaller place, because we like the small place better, and because now we're within about 1.5 miles of everything we do except work (about 4 miles), and disconnecting from some institutions and activities in order to give ourselves the freedom to pursue what we feel really drives our enjoyment of life and our feeling of purpose and meaning. We're starting to take some small steps towards an even bigger change, and that's a little frightening and daunting at times, but in the end, life is about pursuit. Once you catch something you like, it doesn't mean your life is done and you can just kick back and relax. With the people you love and the passions you feel in life, you have to keep pursuing them all the time, or they run off without you, sometimes without you even noticing.

    So far, it's been well worth the effort.

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  4. are you two-timing Linda? who is that bike??

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  5. One of the things I like most about riding a bicycle is the feeing that I am in control of my own destiny. I am using my bike to go faster and further than I could go alone, but I don't give up any of the freedom.

    John I

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  6. Okay, I see that the bicycle has stolen the spotlight from my philosophical ramblings : ) It is a Bella Ciao, sent to me from Germany last week. Will publish a detailed test ride report very soon!

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  7. I can really identify with these thoughts. Thanks as always for your insight and wonderfully clear way of expressing yourself.

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  8. I know I've gone thru something very similar. At 30, I was on my second career and burnt out with office work. Gave it up to be a stay-at-home dad.

    The bike has been re-discovering my freedom with my daughter and unplugging. We're eating mostly local, homemade food, getting rid of junk and generally simplifying. Our bicycles are part of that, but I think it's also a need to become less a part of consumer culture. Riding puts us in touch with new people and makes life more tangible and less of a commodity.

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  9. Johni - "I am in control of my own destiny"

    Not merely while you are riding it, but with a few tools and a little practice, when you aren't as well. With a few more tools and a bit more practice you can even begin to fabricate your own if you want. I built a frame with nothing but hand tools and hobby a torch. Even the torch isn't strictly necessary. A hibachi will do in a pinch.

    Velouria - "Will publish a detailed test ride report very soon!"

    Well at least they seem to know what a fork is supposed to look like and where to put the brake lever, so they've got that going for them. What cranks are suppose to look like and where to put the fender stays, well, not quite so much. Look forward to it.

    Oh, yeah, good post.

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  10. I think that disentangling yourself from a lifestyle you do not want can be especially difficult when your education is highly specialised and everybody around you believes that it is impossible to find alternative work. I know lots of people my age in that situation now, and this idea of entrapment via specialisation almost seems intentionally designed into the industries they/we work for. That in itself is interesting to me, and I wonder whether there is any existent writing analysing this.

    kfg : )) I was only curious whether anybody would notice; it did take 3 posts for that to happen. But fine, I will stop experimenting on my audience. I got this bicycle as part of a barter arrangement directly from the manufacturer, and had some choice in the colour and components. Big surprise on the colour, I know. But for normal people, they do offer red and cream, as well as more cheerful shades of green.

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  11. kfg again - The fork yes, but the brake lever placement was altered by me. And I am okay with the fender stays (though the Co-Habitant is not), but agree with you about the cranks. I wonder how much of a pain it would be to replace them - namely, whether it would necessitate a BB overhaul, or whether there is a way to avoid that...

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  12. aahh so many great posts and so little time to comment....I heartily agree and looking at it from a perhaps similar angle, I think cars are a corrupting influence on human nature and warp our senses of self, society, space and place

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  13. Velouria - "I will stop experimenting on my audience."

    On the other hand, now that you've honed the skill to such a fine degree it seems a shame to let it go to waste. :)

    "the brake lever placement was altered by me."

    Actually, I was looking at the pictures on their website. We didn't always put the levers the wrong way 'round. Then for a long time it was strictly a bit of American weirdness. Then others joined in for some reason, probably having to do with the business issues of having to make and stock different brakes for different markets. Here their be safety noodge history mucking everything up for everybody.

    ". . .is a way to avoid that..."

    That'll depend on the specific cranks and what axle length they like for a straight chainline.

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  14. "I think that disentangling yourself from a lifestyle you do not want can be especially difficult when your education is highly specialised and everybody around you believes that it is impossible to find alternative work. I know lots of people my age in that situation now, and this idea of entrapment via specialisation almost seems intentionally designed into the industries they/we work for."

    ha! this is precisely the situation i find myself in. at least you're not confined to a small handful of cities. i can't leave my career because of the entrapment you speak of, and i can only stay in my career if i choose to live in one of about 1/2 dozen cities. it sucks.

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  15. somervillain said...
    "...at least you're not confined to a small handful of cities"


    On the contrary, I very much was. Not many university are constantly hiring researchers in my specific subfield. My imperfect solution was to find a job that would allow me to work from home some of the time, at the cost of living away from my husband for parts of the year. (First it was most of the year, then I negotiated shorter times by cutting my hours.)

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  16. I totally agree with this post. I'm also in, or just coming out of the age that you speak of, and have gone through similar changes in my life and career (or lack thereof, since I ditched it to be happier). Incorporating the bicycle into my daily life has made a HUGE improvement to my quality of life, and I do believe it's here to stay!

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  17. When I first saw this bike -- in the post about cars? I thought they were shots of you trying those Abici at the store in Portland. Because Abici do make a similar color. The seat tube angle on the Bella Ciao looks more hospitable to me than does the crazy steep one on the ladies Abici. The Bella Ciao are gorgeous.

    re this post: I knew academia was not right for me at 27. It took me bailing on three separate programs, though. and several years doing basically nothing to figure out what I should be doing. Oy! :)

    I think if I had not started riding a bike in NYC, I would have already gone back to Europe. The bike kind of countrifies the city in a weird way. Or humanizes it, at least. And of course, as a control enthusiast, it pleases me greatly not to deal with the vagaries of subway and car because essentially everything that drove me insane about New York is/was transit related.

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  18. neighbourtease - I am beyond impressed you were able to tell that about the seat tube from the picture! Yes, it is a bit slacker. The general look of the Abici & Bella Ciao bikes reflects a very standard Italian city bicycle design, and that pastel-pukey green colour is also very common. Beyond these features, the Abici and Bella Ciao bikes are actually pretty different - something that surprised me even when I was told to expect this. I definitely think there is room for both of them in the US market; it is a matter of what kind of ride quality one is looking for.

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  19. Very keen observation, indeed! No coincidence that my renewed passion of biking is coinciding with a potential downsize in living, and giving away a ton of material goods lately. My daily reads include: http://www.missminimalist.com and http://rowdykittens.com. After being part of some formal 'environmentally-focused' groups, I've determined that the best way to promote change is one person at a time (yup). Big change will only come when regional culture demands it. Now if I can only make it cycling through the entire Chicago winter that's coming!

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  20. I love this post. I think that the current philosophy of moving away from the dominant culture is linked to bicycles, creativity, gardening, etc. and ultimately, results in those of us who are endeavouring in this direction being more self-sufficient and "fit" to deal with whatever society throws at us.

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  21. Great post! One reason it so resonates with me is that I made the most important realisation I ever made--the one which has dictated the course of my life ever since--while on a bicycle tour. And I can't begin to tell you how many other things I came to understand, and how many decisions I made--about disparate matters--while cycling.

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  22. Lucienrau said...
    "Riding ... makes life more tangible and less of a commodity."

    I think that's exactly right. Bicycling is a physical interaction with a physical world; it is an activity during which you have to pay attention; and you get to your destination entirely as a result of your own effort. It is the opposite of passive, as one would be as a subway or taxi or car passenger.

    Exertion -- the execution of strength -- is certainly connected to mental strength and focus, so it's no wonder that there might be a spill-over effect in the rest of one's life. I have often thought that this is true in my case; it has helped me make a terrifyingly difficult decision, and know that it will come out all right.

    These life evaluations rightly occur at any age, midlife or early midlife or later. I think bicyling can help us see that we do have some control over our environment, that we are able to move ourselves to where we need to go, metaphorically speaking. Specialization is the bane of an increasingly complex world. Specialization can feel like entrapment; I've worked in my shrinking industry long enough to feel that effect keenly. Bicycling, on the other hand, remains a simple act. You just get on and go and it can feel like freedom.

    I think some of the other posters are completely right-- on a larger cultural level, bicycling reflects a desire to connect more meaningfully and personally. Gardening/locavore culture/Americana/appreciation of craft/slow living, etc is part of the same larger social trend. I think it's great.

    And like others -- I can't wait for the review (and backstory) of the beautiful Bella Ciao!

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  23. Thankyou for posting on this topic, it's comforting to read that you put a lot of effort into "building your world". I'm at the stage it sounds like you were at a few years ago, feeling somewhat trapped in a career path that's leaving me underwhelmed and far from where I want to be. But reading this has made me realise (although I think I new it already) that it's up to me to make the changes in creating the world I want, and will hopefully inspire me to do so.

    Love your site by the way.

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  24. Great post - and I think for those of us who want to take a step back, reassess our lives and the effort we put into earning the mighty dollar/euro/pound, spending time on a bicycle is valuable time. Whether it's because it brings back that feeling of freedom you had as a kid on your bike, or whether it's the slower mode of travel and time to look at your surroundings and smell the air right here right now, or whether it's just because that while you're on a bike YOU are in control of your own destiny, speed, and space (far more so than in a car), bicycles somehow put us in touch with ourselves.

    Money's great. You need it to live, either at the budget or luxury end. But when you hit the midlife crisis at whatever age you do (in mine at the moment), spending time on my bikes makes me realise there's more to life than working like an idiot. I love my bikes. I love what they've added to my life, and what they've helped me get rid of. I might be heading for being worse off financially but my bikes make me rich.

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  25. "I might be heading for being worse off financially"

    The value of money is relative, not absolute. Nor is money at all the same thing as wealth. It is perfectly possible to improve one's financial status, to become wealthier, by acquiring less money.

    The automobile is the second most effective device for generating poverty that mankind has yet devised, and being number two it's doing that trying harder thing. Simply possessing one can be a serious burden and actually using it devastating.

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  26. What an interesting discussion. There's not really a causal link, but a year after I started riding, I quit my high-paying law firm job to work for a charitable organization. There are many smaller changes that I'm sure are linked to biking, such as being more aware of where my food comes from and paying a lot more attention to my neighborhood. Getting around by bike definitely brings me closer to the kind of person I want to be and life I want to lead.

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  27. Also, I forgot to say that I totally identify with the lack of fulfillment that can come with following society's expectations for educational and career success. The older I get (yes, early midlife crisis) the more I realize that life is too short to value empty prestige. I spent all my young life working toward "success" and now I'm trying to figure out what would really make me happy.

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  28. Wow... such an interesting post but it makes me feel so old. I'm 15 years older than you are and it is just bizarre to hear (all of) you talking about leaving behind your "young lives" of your mid-20s. Trust me: you are still in your "young lives" -- and that is a wonderful thing! Way to go, Velouria, for making big changes in your life so early while it's still easy to do so (relative to how hard it can be later). Me, I became a single mom in my late twenties (talk about not conforming to society's or my family's expectations) and that TRULY trapped me into a career path -- or rather, an income path that had to include solid health benefits, paid sick time, and an understanding boss. What I did or did not want out of a career just simply had to be set aside. That's been quite hard. Seventeen years later, I am realizing that very soon I will be able to make lifestyle choices for myself again... only I can't get there from here. The major career changes that would have been so easy to make in my early thirties are no longer options for me in my mid-forties. To me, as someone new to cycling in mid-life, a bike represents a certain act of defiance and independence. There are roads that are closed to me now, but THIS isn't one of them, by gum. I suspect that the symbolism of getting around "on my own steam" is a big part of it. Anybody else know what I mean?

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  29. Anon - Oh, I am no longer in my late 20s, that was just when the crisis began to happen. Am now a big girl of 31 : )

    Children and relationships introduce entirely different types of complexity into everything. My parents made a life-changing decision when my sister and I were young kids that was much more risky and difficult than what I am whining about, and I'd say that they still have not recovered from the way in which it overturned their entire world. Each of our situations is unique, with its own set of complexities and conflicts - both internal and external. Discontent and distress are so difficult to quantify and compare. We all get our own special doses of it.

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  30. Your last paragraph reminds me of David Harvey's concept of "the right to the city" - the idea that all people should have the right to collectively shape their city. You might be interested in reading about it:
    http://readings.connect.theasintheas.org/files/2010/05/righttothecity.pdf

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  31. Hey Velouria,

    Didn't mean to imply that "I've got it worse than you" in my message above -- quite the opposite. I meant to applaud you for going for what you really want, now, rather than waiting. I wish I had taken MORE risks when I was in my early thirties. And, of course, I wish I'd ridden my bike more! I honestly think that would have changed some things.

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  32. oh I din't mean to imply that you were implying that... (this is getting mixed up in my head!)

    Patrick - thank you for the link, I will have a look.

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  33. ". . .people should have the right to collectively shape their city."

    Ironically, in America this idea shouldn't even be questioned. It is foundational; and libertarian.

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  34. what you're going through will all make sense if you read this fellows book. http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-be-Free-Tom-Hodgkinson/dp/0241143217
    your discovery of the bicycle is just the start. throw away your television! nick in sussex

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  35. Anon - I haven't had a television for years : )

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  36. Some American intelectual said someting like "Not wanting is as good as having". Earning less, and feeling richer is very realistic!

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  37. How encouraged I am by reading all these thoughtful comments by you youngish folks. I have cycled all my life, especially since college graduation, over 40 years ago, and I was always the odd girl out, took a lot of ribbing about cycling where others would only drive. After 200,000 plus miles and loads and loads of money saved thru minimal car use, I am retired from 35 years teaching, and I can certainly identify with all your comments about cycling and freedom, independence, care for the earth, good health, and profound connection to spirituality. My Trek 520 (1985) and I have shared 70,000 miles and are still constant companions.

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  38. Great entry and as one who has had the bike love thing for many years, it rang a lot of bells. You might also enjoy my daughter's recent blog post on Love and biking in Boston:

    www.oldmanupthemountain.wordpress.com

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  39. ... most of all, I like your sensitivity and intelligence.

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