Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Rider in the Catastrophe of Our Time

Art alone...

"Now we know that these partisans of clear and definite ideas are basically mistaken and that if their norms are valid for a bit of silicate, it is absurd to apply them to knowing man and his values as it is to claim familiarity with Paris through having read its telephone book and consulted its maps...Unless we negate the reality of a love or a madness, we must conclude that knowledge of vast territories of reality is reserved for art and art alone."
--Ernesto Sabato, The Writer in the Catastrophe of Our Time

"Beaten up by disbelief, I kept going because of inertia, which my soul rejected."

As long as I keep pedaling, my back pain is subdued. This seems to be true both acutely, on any given ride, as well as chronically, when comparing periods of riding vs. periods of non-riding. In the acute scenario, a fixed gear bicycle seems ideal, as the pedaling is both non-stop and compulsory. On that single speed exploration machine, my method is to find the position, cadence, and level of effort which results in a lower back sensation roughly analogous to floating in one of the natural whirlpools below Havasupai Falls. I find it through subtle adjustment and repositioning, but once I find move and bend into it, I know it, and the ride takes over.

In the longer term view, if for some reason I have to abandon daily bike riding for some period of time, for example, if a knee goes wonky, or even during a week-long vacation without a bike, my back begins complaining. Long walks in foreign cities for example 13 mile days in Paris seem to quiet it, but still, those lumbar L3 L4 L5 vertebrae don't seem very tolerant of more than a few days off the bike. They crave the rhythmic motion, the low-impact exercise, the running of calories and fluids through muscles and connective tissues, the certain range of stretching and relaxing that occurs on a bike within a specific range of medium effort. They complain if their craving is not satisfied.  

The parameters of successful lumbar pacification seemed to be position, cadence, and effort. At the correct levels, with a moderate but continued execution, they worked together. The level of effort required to achieve the desired effect seems to fall in a narrow range: hard enough to get a good aerobic workout, but not too hard to cause strain. That requires focus on an overall goal for the ride, rather than constant concentration on instantaneous heart rate or exertion level. Finding this balance on each and every ride is at the heart of the solution.

When I had back surgery several years back (laminectomy + microdiscectomy), I explained what was happening to my young kids with the story that an irritable old troll lived in my lower back, and that when he got mad, he tromped around my spine with a pick ax banging on my nerves, muscles, and bones, causing worsening pain. The story seemed to have stuck: the first question when I got home was, "Daddy, did the doctor get that mean old troll out?" He did, indeed. It was life-changing surgery for me. Activity is required to keep the troll away, however. Regular, low-impact, strenuous activities like riding a fixie for twenty miles at a good clip.

Stretching, too, with core strengthening exercises, planks, and balance drills, a regime which I plan to keep up the rest of my life. The first x-ray of my lower back told the story. The doctor reading it saw the story of a string of injuries from mountain biking, martial arts, football, bad lifting technique, etc, and told me straight that I was in for a long haul of aches and sciatica, and that there was no simple or surefire cure, but that strengthening my atrophied core muscles, particularly abdominals and the small but hugely significant multifidus in the spine, often helps. The multifidus, among others, is key to avoiding poor spine position from fatigue.

All these years of stretching and strengthening have done nothing to repair the damage to lumbar discs, the surrounding soft tissue, the nerves that were impinged and scarred, or to improve the poor structure of the lumbar vertebrae that I misused and abused. I'm more or less stuck with that reality. 

However, the exercise does directly work to keep the inflammation away. It appears to keep the nerves in a working, and non-irritated, state, which is what matters most. When the troll was at his worst, the only thing I could do was lay in one of a couple positions, in agony, with ice packs and max dosage ibuprofen. Opiates and muscle relaxers were of very limited help when my sciatic nerve went into major pain panic mode because runaway inflammation appeared to be the heart of the problem.

The vivid memories of those motionless days is strong motivation for me to figure out what works, and to keep doing it. Cycling, core strengthening, and walking are going to be part of my life as long as I can keep doing them. Stretching and core strengthening, position, cadence, and effort.

A section of "The Path Most Traveled" that still has lizards

On this particular ride, the one where I was getting reacquainted with my old wall lizard buddies on the noise wall in the photographs above, reflections on my strategies for dispatching the spinal troll were intermingled with thoughts about Sabato's writings and our present global human-caused catastrophes that seem so intransigent and entrenched.

Racism, violence, terrorism, these felt analogous to immobilizing sciatic pain. Whatever we do, whatever strides we may think we've made against them in the last hundred years, they keep coming back, apparently as strong as ever. X-rays of the patient tell the story: there may be nothing we can do structurally to alter the reality that we're stuck with a structure of a human world that's been misused and abused. There's no one simple or surefire cure. Every day it seems we continue to experience humans laying in the street in agony as the result of other humans.

What entered my mind next is possibly one of the constellation of ride-thought that feels so right in the endorphins of the momentary bliss of a longer ride in the warm December desert air, but which might not hold up later. So be it, they resonated with me in that setting, here they are. 

Like the parameters of my back pain management, humans c.2014 require a method for managing the seemingly intractable legacy of our history. So,
  • Position: forgiveness
  • Cadence: the relentless pursuit of understanding and justice
  • Effort: focus on the end goal of love and hope rather than on the irritants of the moment
I could easily stretch these analogous ride-thoughts beyond the realm of plausibility, so I will just try to wrap up with a few clarifying comments.

By treating forgiveness as a position, I want to clarify that I think forgiveness is strongest not when it's a singular event or response, but rather when it becomes a constant state of being. It works most effectively by being maintained relentlessly, prior to being wronged, while being wronged, and afterwards. 

By equating cadence with the pursuit of understanding and justice, I intend to connect them with a steady, unwavering pace of striving to understand while demanding justice for all. 

By connecting effort with an end goal of love and hope, I mean that these are only achieved long-term, and seldom in the moment. 

The human heart may be well and truly scarred by thousands of years of violence and injustice. A doctor reading the images of our tattered historic scrolls and comparing them with the news of the day would be justified in concluding as much, and telling it to us straight. But on this particular mid-winter bicycle ride, it seemed to me that by maintaining a position of forgiveness, while relentlessly pursuing understanding and justice for all, and keeping a focus on the end goals of hope and love, we might do better at overcoming the tendency of doing things which leave fellow humans laying in the street in agony.

This is going to require effective exercise, core strengthening and stretching, practice of the right muscles, particularly the seldom-used ones that are key to maneuvering into the position of forgiveness and to maintaining that position for the long haul without fatigue. We may not even know exactly what those are, yet. But, perhaps, waking up to the idea that the long-term goal is love and hope, we may just figure it out.

It's not only what you believe. It's also what you do. Hang on that ride.


  1. The fixed gear bicycle is also "evener."

    1. Great for the flatlands. Only as even as its user, though.

  2. Very nice post. Thanks for the thoughts.

    1. You're welcome, Marsha. Wishing you much peace + equanimity in cycling in 2015!


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