2019-02-02

I Like Being Physical

There was a rather good TED Talk a while back about the way bicycling can change your life. To be fair, putting it that way is a modest amount of hyperbole. Also to be fair, the man who gave the talk seems to favor social spending on bicycle paths, which is certainly a debatable political opinion. Still, the TED Talk is fundamentally a good one. 

Here it is:


What resonated for me about this presentation was the speaker's attempt to describe to non-cyclists what it's like ride your bike all over the place. People who like to ride bicycles will recognize what he's talking about immediately. People who seldom ride bicycles will not have as great an appreciation for what he says.

But the idea itself is good, and accurate. Let me take a stab at it.

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When you cycle at higher speeds - fitness biking speeds - the sound of the wind blowing past your ears is one of the major sensory perceptions you have. When that sound is combined with the sound of passing cars, there is quite a lot of auditory "rushing" going on during a bike ride.

You won't always notice that rushing, though, because if you intend to ride safely, then much of your attention must be devoted to road conditions, to searching your field of vision for cars, for road debris, for dogs or wild animals to go running across the pavement in front of you. It's not harrowing, but it does require a good part of a person's concentration. 

Finally, if you're in the zone, what remaining mental energy you have left is devoted to having your mind wander. Everyone's wandering mind goes to a different place. Some of us like to appreciate the scenery around us, some of us like to quietly meditate as we ride, some of us like to go over our recent experiences, or our mental to-do lists... Whatever it is that you tend to think about, you'll think about it on a long bicycle ride.

So, between the rushing sounds and riding safely and letting your mind wander to enjoy the ride, bicycling can occupy your thoughts completely. It is a totally immersive mental and sensory experience, and it's not uncommon for cyclists to finish a long ride as mentally exhausted as they are physically

I vividly recall being in this mental state early on in my cycling experience, riding up along a sparsely populated, but somewhat industrial part of town. It was a Sunday morning, so there were few cars around and most of the factories and warehouses were closed for business, for the day.

The trains were still running, however, and as I rode, a train was passing along, in the same direction I was going, parallel to the road. As it passed, the wind died down and there was a lull in traffic; so the air suddenly grew very quiet. All I could hear was the sound of my breathing, the gentle hiss of my bike tires riding along the road, and the sound of the train passing by.

What struck me at that moment was how quiet the train was! Once the engine had passed, all I could really hear was the sound of the train cars, and train cars do not actually make that much noise. There was a small amount of metallic squeaking as the joints between the cars flexed over the train tracks, and perhaps a little rattling of cargo in some of the cars. Other than that, it was an incredibly quiet situation.

It occurred to me at that moment that if I were driving alongside the train in a car, the quiet that surrounded me would be imperceptible. Instead, my ears would be full of the sound of the car's engine, and whatever music or radio program was on the speakers. Even if I had turned the radio off and rolled my windows down, the wind blowing into the car would be the dominant sound. The peaceful, gentle creaking and swaying of the train is something I never would have noticed in a car.

On a bike, it was obvious. And wonderful.

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The point of that possibly convoluted example is to illustrate the simple fact that we perceive the world differently on a bicycle than we do in a car. We perceive it differently still while running. Every method by which you choose to interact with the world meaningfully changes your perception of that world. I'd go so far as to say that someone running or cycling on the road exists in an entirely different world than a driver traveling the same road at the same time, at least in a psychological sense. 

There are so many things that make this true. Consider, for example, our perception of changes in elevation. Unless you're driving a car with a very weak engine, driving over hills is barely something to balk at. Other than changes to your field of vision, there is no major difference between driving uphill and driving on even terrain. On a bicycle or in a pair of running shoes, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Running or biking uphill is hard, and slows you down; running or biking downhill is easy, and speeds you up. Having changes in elevation reflected in your own physical effort changes the way you perceive hills and the surrounding terrain. In a very real sense, a hill means more when you're not driving.

Yesterday, I ran through a park, where a large group of grade school children were playing as part of a field trip of some kind. Little children were running around all over the grass, and as they did so, I heard many of the young girls making high-pitched squeals. It triggered my memories of being in grade school and hearing my classmates make similar squeals, and it made me smile and laugh. In a car, I would not have heard those squeals, and my perception of those kids would have been limited to sight. My memory wouldn't have been triggered. I wouldn't have smiled. I wouldn't have laughed. 

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We miss so much of the world when we spend our time cooped-up in cars or stuck in front of television and computer screens. There are little things going on around us all the time, and it's amazing how many of those things we simply miss out on because we're not experiencing the world on a firsthand basis.

You need not run or bike in order to experience this, of course. You can have similar experiences walking or hiking or riding a scooter. I think it's great to be active and athletic, but that's not really the point of my post today. 

As being inside becomes increasingly more comfortable and entertaining, we're gradually changing our relationship to the physical world. In many ways, this is a tremendous boon. I, too, enjoy being comfortable and having a roof over my head. But I also like getting outside and having fun. I like hearing the sounds and smelling the aromas of the physical world. I like having a personal, one-on-one relationship with the world. I appreciate more than just architecture and convenience. I like the sunlight on my face and the wind in my hair. 

I like being physical.

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