Friday, October 9, 2009

Across the chasm

The renowned cult author, Robert Pirsig, wrote an article for Esquire magazine in 1977 about cruise sailing wherein he observed that people who had spent years and lots of money preparing for once-in-a-lifetime cruise sailing voyages often cut them short, disappointed and disillusioned, eager to get "back to reality" from their dream cruises that had turned into nightmares.

Here are a couple of excerpts that apply, directly or indirectly, to bicycle commuting, I think:

The house-car-job complex with its nine-to-five office routine is common only to a very small percentage of the earth's population and has only been common to this percentage for the last hundred years or so. If this is reality, have the millions of years that preceded our current century all been unreal?

An alternative - and better - definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components ...air...sunlight...wind...water...the motion of waves...the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike twentieth-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory life-styles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to.
Now, however, with a boat of my own and some time at sea, I begin to see the learning of virtue another way. It has something to do with the way the sea and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated, because there's no choice. You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and produces a certain change in values.
Taking responsiblity for my own transportation is such a liberating thing, and I think it's exactly what Pirsig is talking about. What the weather's going to do, how I have to dress for that, how long it's going to take to get to the office, how my legs feel and how steep the rises are, all these things are part of my "daily chores". Every hill is an opportunity to find the perfect gear to carry me. Headwinds are an opportunity to orient my direction to the cardinal points and get a better sense of my space on the map as I go home. That squeak in the chain means that I'm going to have drop it and lube it soon. My right knee is twinging a bit, better gear down. The way those clouds are moving means that the rain will be over in no more than 5 minutes.

Those cars going by me are big and hot. And heavy, really massive. They are big metal-and-glass parlors on wheels carrying large amounts of flammable liquid. Sometimes the drivers are aware of me, sometimes not. Most of the drivers don't seem too happy; a lot of them are distracted, talking on their cellphones.

As I sit here typing this post, two (count 'em) car ads have come on late night TV touting new cars with "driver-assist" technology. You know, computer-aided steering that moves you back into the land if you wanter, or senses when you're nodding off and alerts you. All this stuff is going to put just more stuff between the drivers who buy these (very expensive) cars and reality.

Pirsig is right. Dealing with reality, if made into a habit (and taken in manageable doses) is value-forming and -enhancing. Motorists have their "reality". In their world, what I do is crazy, dangerous, and even childish. (They wonder when I'll "grow up and get a car"!) In my world, what I do is entirely safe, fun, life-enhancing and (especially) real.

I do drive sometimes, when the situation demands it. (I will have to tomorrow.) So it's easier for me to understand the perspective of a motorist. But 99% of all motorists will not have my cycling experience. It's like we are on the opposite rims of a canyon.

1 comment:

Velo Hobo said...

How much of life do we do mindlessly? Driving, brushing our teeth, eating, “listening” to our loved ones. As cyclist we can do the same, just putting one pedal stroke in front of the other with our attention focused inward, glued to our internal dialogue. Cycling can be as much an exercise in mindfulness as a mode of transportation, but it takes effort to break old habits of thinking.

I’ve taken my computer off my touring bike for just that reason. My focus was on numbers and not the experience. I was casting judgments on my performance and labeling myself slow, unfit, behind schedule. Wasted time spent looking at my computer and making calculations and not fully engaged in the wonderful experience of moving through the world under my own power. I was not being in relationship with the other people around me, in cars, walking or on bikes, and certainly not in relationship with the world I was moving through.

Thanks for sharing,