Sunday, May 11, 2014

Flow motion

There are a lot of roads to nowhere; many are fun and scenic places to ride bikes. Rare, however, are the collision of factors that tiptoe toward a more transcendent experience. On this day: A cold northwest wind, much cooler than we anticipated for the East Bay in mid-May. A steep, rolling backroad cut high above a gorge, waiting for the canyon to come to it. A 146-mile day ride over two big mountains and the physical reactions associated with that effort. Mile 89 — the gorge rises to road level and suddenly we're wending along a trickle of a stream. The grade is just uphill enough to always have to work for it, to never coast, and the route begins to trend southeast. Crosswind becomes a tailwind; I spin the pedals harder until I feel no air at all. The wind and I are moving in the same direction at the same speed. Everything becomes silent; even bike vibrations quiet, as though the wheels have lifted off the pavement. I feel everything else more intensely — the tension and release of leg muscles, the relaxation of shoulders, the hard leans into turns, acceleration against gravity. My hands, hot and calloused. My skin, chilled and sweaty. My breathing, soft and urgent. Everything else stands very, very still, as though I am moving in direct correlation with the Earth. Centered.

Just recently I came across the story of "Slomo." You may have heard about Slomo, as a documentary about him was recently featured in the New York Times and has since been brought up in discussions about the biology of bliss. Slomo is the alter-ego of John Kitchin, a 69-year-old former neurologist who has spent the past fifteen years skating the same stretch of boardwalk on Pacific Beach in San Diego. He's perfected an odd-looking technique of balancing on one leg for as long as possible, giving the appearance that he's skating in slow motion. This is effectively how he spends the majority of his waking hours. Skating up and down Pacific Beach. Every day. For fifteen years.

Ever since I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" last year, I've been fascinated by the different techniques people use to achieve, as Kitchin calls the state he's seeking, "The Zone." My friend who recommended the book plays the saxophone; some people paint or compose music, others ski, surf, run, ride bikes. Some people find flow in meditation and yoga, others while working an assembly line, still others engaged in pastimes as mundane as generating repetitive rhythms with their fingers. What's intriguing is all of these wildly different activities aim to achieve the same end. There are many short and long ways to describe "Flow" (the book is quite long.) But they way I see Flow is an alignment — to, at least briefly, tap into the pattern underlying the chaos of life, shed self-consciousness and all the baggage of ego and individual perception, and just be.

When I contemplate my happiest moments on a bike, patterns emerge — I am usually somewhere surrounded by subtle beauty, a place that feels remote, riding a road or smooth piece of singletrack that traces the contour of the land. The terrain is generally nontechnical, so I feel no stress, and requires my physical input to create motion — meaning long downhill coasting doesn't usually generate the same level of joy. Another integral component is the endurance factor. The accumulation of distance and effort wears down mental barriers and helps pry open the gateway to this state of mind. If I were to ride the wending contours of Mines Road at mile three of a day's bike ride, I would find the experience enjoyable, pleasant, still completely worthwhile ... but bliss, that only comes later.

On Saturday Liehann and I set out to ride from the start of a 50K trail race Beat was running in Oakland, and ride home via the summits of Mount Diablo and Mount Hamilton. We pedaled through the Oakland hills in cool morning air but then had to cross a long swath of freeways and crowded streets in Walnut Creek. I have a love-hate relationship with road cycling. I love how much ground I can cover and all the things I can see riding roads, but don't cope well with traffic, and sometimes other cyclists. Diablo was an unsettling experience. It was a beautiful spring day and there were lots of bikes on the road — which is great, but there were some tensions. I got a few derisive comments about my backpack and platform pedals (I get it, I'm a dorky tourist who likes my comforts.) There was one narrowly avoided head-on collision with a cyclist who took a sharp curve really wide. And the descent was just terrifying — mostly because impatient drivers pulled out to pass long groups of climbing cyclists and other cars, with no regard for those already in the lane, riding at 20-plus miles per hour downhill.

As we rode away from the mountain, I thought this road ride was a mistake. But as we passed into more rural areas, I began to perk up because it was still a beautiful spring day, traffic became far less of an issue, and the joy of distance was beginning to set in. We devoured chips with Coke and Gatorade while propped against the window outside a gas station in Livermore. (Liehann said, "I feel so classy," and I said, "This is the best part of bike touring. You just don't care.") Then it was on to Mines Road, rolling through the remote heart of the Diablo Range.

By the time we descended into the San Antonio Valley, I had savored a few moments of bliss and felt genuinely excited about the next section — turning directly into that 20 mph northwest wind and climbing the steep backside of Mount Hamilton. We were north of a century and pedaling a section of road that climbs about 2,500 feet in five miles — punishing, but wonderful. I rode up to the closed observatory on the peak, gazed out across far horizons, and put on a thin wind jacket for what promised to be a frigid descent. My surly Mount Diablo demeanor had turned into a big dopey Mount Hamilton grin. When I thought about the reasons why, I thought about Slomo.

Slomo's lifestyle is based in advice to "do what you want," and one of the best parts of life is a freedom to do so. That freedom is a privilege, no doubt, but it takes courage, too — the courage to seek those things that spark passion, and do them for one reason — the sake of doing them. Life of course is more complicated than a quest for bliss, and Slomo's philosophy of a simple, individual path to happiness certainly has a lot of detractors. But it's an important thing to consider, especially after rare moments when the slate of self-consciousness is briefly erased. Questions like, "what is a life?" and "what does it mean, to do what you want?" 

17 comments:

  1. Well said, Miss

    ReplyDelete
  2. I struggle with the do what you want philosophy almost daily. I so want to quit my soul sucking job and write and hike and run, but I am old now and face getting older impoverished straight in the face. what to do, what to do.
    As for the zone, I remember fondly my long marathon training runs. There were times when minutes went by smoothly and like a dream. Haven't found that in any other activity.

    ReplyDelete
  3. https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow . It is interesting listening to him too. I love Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow concepts.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "I got a few derisive comments about my backpack and platform pedals."

    Really? Sounds like a few people weren't in the Flow, unless their flow is to belittle others. I'm always grateful to see others out exercising, no matter how they look.

    I finally found some dry trails this weekend, so I got to experience a bit of flow in between stretches of pavement. Next weekend more trails should be dry. Finally!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Really, "do what you want to" sounds so millennial. It's just the kind of thing I hear from young people in the workforce who think they are entitled to a promotion after six months just for being on time!

    Sometimes in life we have to do things we don't want to do; we are adults, not toddlers throwing a tantrum about what we want for dinner. What the story of this guy kind of fails to focus on is that he had a LONG and lucrative career as a freaking neurosurgeon, and now CAN "do what he wants to" because he has a pile of money to draw from. He's basically simply "retired." Taking that and translating it into "we don't have to do anything we don't utterly LOVE" in life is a fallacy. It's great for him that he's enjoying his retirement, but he's more a poster child for "work hard for a long time, then relax" than he is for "follow your bliss."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Before his story became more widely known, most people on Pacific Beach thought Slomo was a crazy old homeless guy on skates. He could just as easily be a crazy old homeless guy on skates. It doesn't take a huge nest egg to do what he does.

      But that's not really the side of the story I was focusing on either. I'm more fascinated by the reasons why this particular activity is what he wants to do. I'm not so naive as to believe that everyone can just do what they want all the time. But I do believe society would benefit from a population more engaged in activities that spark passion and connection, at least *some* of the time. Dr. Kitchin admits he was miserable for 30 years, and he could just have easily turned into a miserable old guy sitting on a couch alone in a giant mansion, screaming at talk radio and angry at the world. Privileged societies are full of this kind of lifelong misery. So yes, I do believe that people should spend a little less time thinking about what they "need" to do, and a little more time thinking about what they "want" to do (and answer this question as honestly as possible, even if it means living out life as a "crazy homeless-looking guy on skates."

      Delete
    2. I was also fascinated by the fact that this guy just wants to skate. I can't imagine being happy doing any single activity over and over again (well, maybe eating, drinking and breathing). I think his simplicity is a testament to the complexity of humans.

      Delete
  6. Glad you discovered Mines Rd. If the doctors let me ever ride a bike again, I plan on riding there often, likely on a steel bike with racks and fenders, wearing wool jersey and a helmet with a bill, but likely clipped in. Cali roadie snobs be damned. As a self-actualized, older adult with roots in existentialism, I say we all have a choice.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous1:21 PM

    That's an amazing ride! to go from Berserkley to Los Altos in one day go up and down Diablo and Hamilton. The Bike elitists/bullies were probably not raised well by their parents and were spoiled brats.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Once again I'm recognizing your biking roads from my own motorcycle excursions.

    I coincidentally watched the Slomo piece just a little while ago. It got me thinking that I need to tune up my mountain bike and start exploring the trails around here. Road biking and running are both fun and good workouts, but nothing puts me into the zone like a good technically challenging trail ride. And I've barely done any mountain biking since I moved here a couple of years ago.

    I don't quite want to be Slomo -- there are things in life I value beyond the sensation of lateral acceleration as I carve through a turn. But I could stand to get some more of it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Jill,

    OT post. You mentioned Janeen in an earlier post,"What's Next". If that Janeen is also aka "Noodle", I recommend reading her Transamerica diary http://www.nodirectionknown.com/?page_id=2154 . She only posted 48 days and was going to write a book about the whole adventure. Well worth the read. Highly entertaining.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Joe, I'm pretty sure I read most of Janeen's diary at the time of her trip. 2011 maybe? Good stuff as I remember. Oh, my main camera use right now is from a Sony X100. A little more high-end than a base-line point-and-shoot, but a great affordable camera.

      Delete
    2. Yupper...Janeen did her ride in 2010.

      I'll check out the Sony X100 as your pics often look well exposed with good saturation. The eye of the shooter however, can't be purchased. Yours is super good.

      Delete
  10. That's one helluva a ride. You really seem to be a diesel that takes a while to warm up. And on platform pedals yet! Don't necessarily close your mind to clipless pedals, they really do add some efficiency and make you feel one with the bike. "Time", big in the pro ranks, makes some simple, secure-feeling models with a few mm of lateral float and a few degrees of rotational freedom so they are easy on the knees. They also make it easier to loft the bike over cattle guards! Just keep it in mind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am not opposed to clipless pedals. Any road/touring bike I've owned in the past seven years had clipless pedals. But I still have problems with nerve damage in my right foot, and I haven't found a pair of bike shoes that feel comfortable over long distances. I could keep looking, of course, but my feet hurt often enough as a runner that foot pain is not something I'm willing to cope with on the bike. Plus, I do have a habit of moving my feet around on the pedal to alleviate nagging leg aches, and I enjoy doing this on a road bike as well. If I ever decide to test my potential for fast road riding (I don't count this out), I would definitely use clipless pedals. But as long as I'm just touring ...

      The first time I saw someone loft their bike over a cattle guard was a friend I occasionally rode with in Missoula. I was in awe.

      Delete
    2. I don't know if you've tried Specialized shoes - they have "cush" in the appropriate places, they tend to fit American feet pretty well (wider forefoot, narrower heel than European shoes), they have 1.5º of varus built into the sole to compensate for pronation, and a metatarsal arch under the toes to help prevent pinched nerves in the forefoot. I suffered thru a number of different, ill-fitting brands, but Specialized seems to have figured out American feet.

      Delete
  11. Pure genius. Great quote! "This is the best part of bike touring. You just don't care."

    ReplyDelete