One of my coworkers asked me the other day, immediately before tea-time, if I had always been bike-obsessed like this or if it was a new thing. And, given that I was fetching the teacups for teatime, I had to say that no, there’s a bike-a-versary, it’s coming up, and I’ll explain the long story later, but it’s just about time for tea and my response wouldn’t fit in the time allotted. And I thought about that and realized it’s quite a long story and that I might as well write it down.
I grew up in a Midwestern middle class family. My parents drove to work every day for most of the time I was growing up. I remember this. They’d always complain about traffic, about how stupid the drivers are. Sometimes there would be accidents or traffic jams. My mom had some back problems that driving was making worse, which caused its own set of problems. And there was no really good alternative. There were no trains. There was bus service, but it was like most midwestern towns… almost, but not quite, useless. My dad had asked around his office to see if there was any carpooling options and nobody was. If there was an express bus that would take people to their jobs, it would only run during rush hours, so it wasn’t at all practical for my mother to take because she couldn’t come back home if one of us were sick or whatnot.
Meanwhile, my Aunt Cindy lives in the Chicago area, where they do have trains. She would take the Metra to work every day, where she could read instead of curse at the drivers. And she’d drive a few miles to the Metra station, which turns out to be a bit tricky for a car because she would drive it no longer than a mile most of the time. So I always knew, I guess, that there were alternatives possible.
And I was fairly obsessed with the idea of there being a future with good alternatives. Self-driving cars. Highways with overhead wires for electric cars with trolley posts. Electric cars. The near impossibility of undoing all of the decades of ‘progress’ and returning to neighborhoods where there were streetcars. Even though the actual easy solution, at least within my life, was much simpler.
I remember in high school when I was questing for a driver’s license. My parents didn’t want us to get our licenses until we were good and ready for them, which meant I didn’t get mine until I was 17. But it was important to have a license. That was part of who you were. My dad had a clear preference for red sports cars. I somehow picked this up. So I figured that one of these years, I’d be able to get myself a nice sports coupe of my own, nothing too elaborate.
The summer before I got my license, I biked to work. I worked two part-time jobs, one making pizzas, one making computers. And I did get fairly good at biking within the limited confines of permissible cycling… they had bike lanes and sidewalks in a few places… and so I’d bike on the sidewalk. So I could bike to work, or to the music store or a few other places. If you wonder why there’s a cyclist riding the wrong way on the sidewalk and you almost hit them while you drove out of a parking lot, it’s because most people’s parents were like mine and that was how we were told it was safe.
But that summer, I was in decently good shape without really trying. I remember running a good distance uphill and thinking that this was not how I usually was. That moment stuck in my head.
In college, it was stupid to drive around school… but my brother and I shared a car so that we could drive ourselves home on the holidays and stuff. Mostly I’d bike to class, except if it was raining or too snowy. I didn’t realize just how small the town really was and that the distances I considered car distances were actually bike distances. I also didn’t realize that biking in the rain and snow was simply a gear consideration. I remember a moment with particularly rich colors where I had a conversation with my now-ex-girlfriend that started with “now, don’t be mad..” and ended with me mad and just wanting to get out and bike or something so I wouldn’t feel quite as mad.
After college, I maintained the idea that I might one day buy a sports car. But my parents let me have the oldest working car since they didn’t need it anymore. And my bike was pretty well worn out, so it ended up on the balcony, then I left it by the dumpster for someone to take when I moved out of my first apartment.
Now, I’m a bit hesitant to get too detailed into the next part. Not because it’s actually especially hidden these days, but simply because I don’t want you to get the wrong idea… or, even worse, get the wrong idea and make someone who is experiencing what I experienced worse.
There’s two kinds of really intense depression that a person can get. One side is situational. It’s from things like being bullied or loosing a loved one. The other is something inherent deeper in the brain. If you’ve been in and then out of those dark places, you tend to understand where it started to begin, where the point at which things actually turned around, and when you were mostly in the clear. Except that you can’t create that inflection point, it’s just a way that you end up keeping track of things afterwards. So you can’t read what I have to say and tell your friend, who has been grappling with the medication for bipolar disorder that they just need to do some yoga and get a bike. Or, similarly fat-shaming. Just because I went from fat to healthy doesn’t mean that you should buy that person in your life a bike and guilt-trip them into riding it.
At this point in my life, I was just out of dealing with the situational sort of depression. I was not yet savvy enough to dismantle the things-which-weren’t-said about the drama of the office I was working in and left a job maybe six months to a year later than I should have with some accompanying trauma that took me a while to get over. I was also fresh out of an experience of allowing psychology to convince me that the road to not feeling like crap was a pill.
But I had just found a new job and things were looking up. But I was the heaviest I’d ever been. I would get out of breath walking uphill. And there was this dark cloud hanging over me still. Plus we had just replaced my hand-me-down car and I was driving my wife’s hand-me-down car to work, about ten miles away and that car was getting less and less reliable and not looking forward to the idea of having spent money on two cars, one right after the other. Nor was I particularly affectionate about the idea of spending more and more and more money on the car I had.
Now, the thing about actually changing is that there was a snap decision moment. I’d walked into a bike store, tried out a nice-looking bike, texted my wife to let her know what I was considering, went on a test-ride, got the go-ahead, and finished the transaction. This was June 24th, 2007, and I try to remember to do something around it every year, because that’s when things changed for me.
But it wasn’t a snap decision. Dawn had told me months prior that I could ride to work from where I was. I’d turned down a job because it was an hour-long drive without any possible alternative form of transportation. I knew that I could bike uphill with great ease in that summer where I was working two jobs and biking to both of them. I knew from my Aunt that there were alternatives. But it was my decision. It was really only obvious what happened in retrospect. See, I’d figured it would be a way to finally get some exercise and a way to save money. I didn’t realize that it would change my relationship with the world.
Having my first bike stolen after I didn’t even own it a year was really what cemented things. See, this is also only something I can see in retrospect, I knew that I was on the downward spiral in those days before the bike. Not especially quickly, but with every circle around the loop, I knew it was going down and where it was going to end. The end was still years off in the future. Getting the bike halted that trend, but then having it stolen right before winter began but not replacing it until spring came was a sharp descent into madness. So I replaced the bike early in spring and then got back into riding. And, ever since, things have been different.
There is no longer much of a mental thumb in the catalog for a “If it’s time to buy a new car, here’s what it is” car. I don’t actually know most of the time where the gas prices are. When my wife needs to go out of town, she’s free to take her car and I’ll get around just fine on my own. One of the questions that required an affirmative answer the last time I hopped jobs was “Can I ride my bike to work safely and not have to worry about where I put my bike?”
It’s different to leave a world of driving everywhere, even a mile to the grocery store, as opposed to living somewhere where it’s completely normal to bike and where a decent percent of the population has never obtained a license and most people who have a car don’t drive it but once a week. I rejected something that, although my countrymen won’t ever actually admit it, we Americans worship with more fervor and esteem than we hold God.
This is why I speak with the light of the Born Again. On the other hand, as I’ve found if I stop biking for more than a day or two and my brain starts to act up. I’m not as smart. I’m not as cheerful. It’s really unpleasant and I know that I have to get some riding in or it’s going to get worse. I will ride through bone-chilling rainstorms, which is about the worst that we get here. If we had worse, I’d get studded tires and ride through it. So I don’t really have a choice anymore.
There was the point in time where I was showering and soaping up and realized that… waitaminute… that used to be flabby and rounded, and now it’s all hard muscle and well-defined there. No. I really have no interest in going back to where I was.