Archive for May, 2011

Drunk and disorderly

May 27, 2011

I have just drunk a bottle of wine and several cocktails, and really shouldn’t be posting on my blog. And I definitely shouldn’t be cycling home from central London, which I just did.

(If you’re one of my parents you should probably stop reading now. Actually, it’s too late – you might as well carry on.)

I know, I know. You can spare me the lecture.

The curious – and comforting – thing is, I feel much safer cycling home drunk than I would walking, or taking the bus, or almost anything else. When I get on the bike I’m back in my element. After all, I spend so much time cycling, and so little time walking, that I’m more comfortable on two wheels than I am on two feet. I’m actually not all that good at walking, as a matter of fact. My feet and legs and hips are all out of alignment, and I have all sorts of aches and pains that mean I have to be very careful how I tread. If I put a foot down in the wrong way, I sometimes wobble, or stagger, or have a sharp stab of pain. Walking is something I have to concentrate on at the best of times, and when I’m drunk …well.

Imagine a fish out of water. Yes? Flailing and flapping and gasping and spluttering? Now drop it back into the fish tank. It’s suddenly a creature of grace and beauty again. And that’s what I’m like. As soon as I get on the bike I’m fine. I’m back in control.

This goes back to what I was saying about muscle memory and subconscious movement a few days ago. That assurance I’ve begun to feel when I stop thinking and let my body and the bike carry me through a difficult knot in the traffic – I feel the same thing when I swing my leg over the saddle and clip my feet into the pedals when I’m drunk. I don’t have to think any more. I know I’m safe. Even when I ride a bit more recklessly, and throw myself around the corners, my body seems to have developed enough innate balance to be able to swing me out of it, or just not to let me lose control in the first place.

I seem to be a better cyclist when I’m drunk. I tackle obstacles like traffic and narrow gateways and raised kerbs more adeptly. I even seem to get up hills more efficiently. And yes, I have asked myself whether this is really the case, or just the misperceptions of a drunken imagination. I think it’s true. You know how you’re much less likely to hurt yourself if you fall off drunk than if you fall off sober? This is because your body is more relaxed, less inhibited. It just goes with the flow. And I think it’s the same when I ride drunk. It’s taken a good few years, but I now know how the road works so well that this knowledge has sunk into my subconscious. My conscious mind doesn’t need to do anything any more. In fact, it’s better off just keeping out of it. It’s when I start to think and plan and worry that things go wrong.

(I wonder if I’ll agree with myself tomorrow morning.)

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That Wage Slave Chick

May 22, 2011

Then:

Now:

Only three weeks to go. But who’s counting?

(I’m counting.)

Mind over muscle?

May 20, 2011

I went to a pilates class last night (I know, I know…). I expected I’d be very bad at it – after all, I don’t usually do any exercise other than cycling, which means most of my muscles are hideously contracted, none of my joints moves further than is required by pedalling and steering, and my whole skeleton is lopsided, thanks to carrying around an asymmetric bag full of heavy objects for three years.

To my surprise, the instructor, although she didn’t deny any of this, also didn’t condemn me entirely. Apparently I have “good muscle memory” and, even though I’m not remotely flexible, I picked things up quickly, and was OK at getting into positions and holding them once I’d figured out what they actually were.

I was fascinated by this. I’ve only really been paying attention to my body for the past three years, so I’m still getting used to how it works and what it can do. Because I spent most of my teens and early twenties sitting at a desk, the processes both of moving physically and of learning how to move are novelties – which means I notice them, and can analyse the hell out of them.

And I’ve been thinking about muscle memory, and how it’s learned, a fair bit lately. Ever since I started riding Evelyn, in fact, and noticed my body and riding style slowly adjusting to fit the new bike, in tiny little increments. It’s still happening, even though I’ve been riding it for months now. And this is how it’s been with cycling generally. I’ve found that I never stop learning or getting better. I got the hang of all the basic stuff – like staying upright, and riding at speed between two lanes of traffic – long ago, but the learning doesn’t stop there. Every now and then I become aware of some little tiny skill I’ve recently mastered, which I didn’t even know existed before.

For example, over the past few weeks I’ve been noticing how I balance the bike (and myself, and the-bike-and-myself-as-one) when I’m going round corners. As soon as I started riding Evelyn I found I could corner at a much sharper angle, and could lean the bike much closer to the floor than I’d been able to do on the Condor. (I don’t know why this is – probably some combination of Evelyn being more my size and my having been too worried that the Condor was about to fall apart under me to take many risks with it. Mind you, I built Evelyn myself, so I don’t particularly trust him either.) Once I’d been doing this for a little while I started to analyse it as it happened, to try to understand what my body was doing and feeling and thinking to be able to pull these new manoeuvres – because I certainly hadn’t thought them through, or consciously planned them in advance. My conscious mind had had nothing to do with it.

So my brain and I started playing catch-up, and watching what my body was doing. When I pull one of those tight corners, I:

  • flick my hips away from the direction I plan to turn, in order to turn the bike from the seat tube rather than the head tube
  • tighten my inner arm, by pulling my elbow in or back, and dipping my shoulder, making the inside edge of my body much smaller than the outside
  • tilt my neck slightly to one side, so that I effectively pivot around the crown of my head

There’s more to it than this, but I haven’t figured it all out yet. I still want to know how it is that I manage to stabilize the bike so much on the outside edge of the curve that I feel comfortable leaning so far over into the centre of it. I suspect my thighs and hips have something to do with it, but for all I know it could have something to do with my ribcage or my triceps. Nothing surprises me any more. I’m already amazed by what my body comes up with when I leave it to its own devices. After all, who would have thought I’d use the crown of my head to balance?

I’m reminded of this post, on one of my favourite blogs, where the author (a dancer) muses on “the differences between conscious thought and body memory”. Reading what she writes about dance, I keep finding parallels with the way I cycle. There are some crucial differences, of course, but there are so many similarities. She writes:

You have to focus on being present […] and on controlling your movement, but you can’t be intellectual about it. […] You have to know. And the knowing comes from your body. […] You can’t intellectualize the centre of gravity or push it too far. If you do, you will splat. So, you don’t. You just do it, somehow, and there you are.

Yes. Exactly.

Except there are differences. Her movement is based on a planned routine, the music, the rhythm, the choreography. Mine is improvised in response to dynamic and highly unpredictable factors such as the traffic, the weather (I will approach the same corner in a different way if the ground is wet, for example), the weight and bulk of the packages in my bag. (Nonetheless, the power and grace and control and discipline I feel when I cycle often reminds me of what I imagine to be the exhilaration of dance.)

I’ve been assuming that, whereas my unconscious movement is belatedly followed by an attempt to intellectualize the process, for a dancer it would be the other way around; she would understand a movement rationally, and drill it repeatedly, so many times that it eventually sinks from her conscious mind into her muscle memory, and she can do it without thinking – much as I find my way around London instinctively, without picturing the map, or remembering the street names.

But, when I reread what she says, I find that it works both ways. She starts from drilled ‘principles’ (“Sit this way. Initiate from here. Inhale on the up.”) In time these become hardwired into the body, so that balance and movement happen the way they are supposed to without any conscious intervention. But then, when she tries to correct moves that have sunk to the level of muscle memory, much as when I attempt to understand what part my neck muscles play in keeping my balance as I corner, she runs into problems. The body has its own ideas, and it isn’t necessarily going to share them with the mind. At least, not without a struggle.

Perhaps it’s not so much ‘muscle memory’ we’re talking about, as ‘muscles with minds of their own’. As I become more and more accustomed to the way my body negotiates the bike, the road and the traffic, I believe less and less that all movement originates in my conscious mind. There are certain tricks I’ve consciously taught myself (e.g. when passing through a tight gap, first assess whether you will fit, then concentrate on getting the left bar end as close to the lefthand vehicle as possible; forget about the right one – if you try to focus on both you will wobble), which have now sunk into muscle memory and become second nature. But there are even more tricks that my body has evolved on its own, and with which I occasionally surprise myself. In this case my conscious mind lags a long way behind.

But this is actually restful in some ways. I’ve learned to trust my body, and its ability to manoeuvre me through the tiniest gaps at the most awkward angles. There have been several times lately where I’ve misjudged the size of a gap, or the movement of a vehicle, and realized that I have to put a foot down, or graze my shoulder against the side of the bus I’m passing – and then my body surprises me, by finding a way to wiggle through it after all. Back in the days where I used to size up each gap mathematically (“Will I fit? Can I turn at an angle that tight?”) things went wrong much more often. Now I just relax, and let my body do its thing. And enjoy the surprise when it succeeds.

Oh, this is ridiculous!

May 19, 2011

I am sitting here feeling that horrible stuffy stir-crazy feeling you get when you haven’t moved from the sofa or opened the window for a whole weekend. It’s laced with guilt and a generous sprinkle of self-loathing. My head’s full of blancmange. I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. I knew a desk job would do this to me.

But then I just realized – today I started the day with 50 fast lengths in the pool. At lunchtime I cycled a couple of miles to the shops and back. After work I walked at least a mile to a pilates class, did pilates, walked back. True, none of that’s particularly strenuous, and it doesn’t compare to a few hours on circuit, but still – for most people today would count as a fairly active day.

This just confirms my suspicions that couriering has ruined me for normal life.

Notes from a desk job

May 16, 2011

(In the spirit of procrastination.)

I couldn’t resist. After all, sitting at a desk for fifty hours a week is almost as novel to me as being a cycle courier is to you lot. (And yes yes, I know some of my readers are actual couriers. But I’m pretty sure they’re not the ones who account for the massive spike in views I get during office hours.)

It’s strange concentrating on the same activity for so long. If you get into a good groove, there are fewer distractions, and the time passes far more quickly. If your concentration lapses and you start to daydream and procrastinate (like I’m doing now), then it suddenly starts to drag intolerably.

I get hungrier sitting still than I do riding around. Or maybe I just notice the hunger more, because there’s less physical exertion to distract me from it. I remember this from desk jobs long past – the impossible-to-ignore tummy rumbles at 11.30, only four hours after breakfast, and far too early for lunch.

In fact, I think the lack of distractions will prove both a blessing and a curse. I’ll probably be more productive with a whole day to devote to writing, rather than snatched hours here and there, when there are half a dozen other things screaming for my attention. But it’ll also be much harder if I end up trying to do this with a hangover, or period pain, or if I have something big preoccupying me. I won’t be able to calm my mind down with traffic.

There’s no one to talk to. I quite like the solitary nature of couriering, but at the same time, I have the whole of London to keep me company, and if I need to vent my spleen, or complain about the weather, or talk about the hilarious thing that’s just happened to me, it’s usually pretty easy to find someone who’ll nod and smile. Just now a particularly beautiful cat walked through the garden and for a moment I really wanted to phone or email or text someone to tell them – then I realized that would be completely pointless and no one would care. It’s not the cat that’s the important bit. I think I just feel cut off from the entire world. It’s very quiet here.

I’ve just realized that the last time I spoke to another human being – in fact, the last time I spoke – was when I paid for my early morning swim at 6.30. If I hadn’t gone swimming, it would have been my housemate, at 10pm last night.

You get surprisingly cold when you don’t move.

Every hour or so I stand up, to make a cup of tea or go to the loo, and my legs and hips feel terribly stiff. They will probably stop working altogether if this continues.

It’s boring! Sitting in the same position, with the same view, doing the same thing, for eight hours a day – and probably more, now that I’ve wasted half an hour writing this. How does anyone manage to do this for an entire career?

A sabbatical

May 15, 2011

On Friday I had one of those wonderful days on the road. Bike, legs, weather and traffic all in perfect harmony. Nice steady work, going to every corner of town, and a few of my favourite routes, and plenty of excuses for sprinting along the Embankment, and admiring the view from Waterloo Bridge (it’s the best bridge in town). A couple of half-hour slots spent hanging out with lovely people at Fullcity and on Creative Corner. Lots of nice food – and also a couple of moments of absolute paralysing dizzying hunger, which I usually just welcome as an opportunity to eat yet more nice food.

By 5.30 I was sore, sweaty, sunburnt, and so tired I could barely speak – but still grinning with delight.

And now I have to take a month off.

An offer came up that I really couldn’t refuse. Not that I didn’t assume for the first few days that I would refuse it. After all, I’m addicted to being a courier. There’s no way I could give it up for a whole month. But then various friends talked sense into me. It’s only a month, after all, and that isn’t so much time in the grand scheme of things, and the money I’ll earn will probably support me for 3-6 months in the future. For the first time in three years, I’m planning ahead.

So here I am. Sitting at the computer, as I usually do on a Sunday. Except that, on any other Sunday, I’d be looking forward to getting back on the road the following morning. Now all I have to look forward to is another five days of this, and then a single day off, in which I’ll probably cycle myself into a stupor, to make up for missing out all week.

It’s a beautiful day outside. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing, and the air is sparkling.

What am I going to do?

Well, I’m going to stop feeling sorry for myself, for a start. I quickly realized, when whinging to other couriers about my ill fortune, that I wasn’t going to get much sympathy for having to take a month off the road because someone had offered me lots and lots of money.

And I’m going to try and see this enforced lack of couriering as an opportunity. Maybe my poor neglected road bike will finally get a bit of action. And maybe I’ll be able to test out my theory that the reason city boys on carbon bikes keep overtaking me is that they have a better balance of exertion to rest – i.e. they spend all day sitting still and recovering, and do their exercise in concentrated bursts in the evenings and at weekends, whereas mine is spread out inefficiently over 50 hours, and I rarely get a chance to rest completely, and I’m constantly stopping and starting.

Also, inspired by this woman’s blog*, I’m going to start trying out new things. I’ve long wanted to get into climbing, yoga, track cycling, boxing, trampolining, modern dance, mountain biking, snowboarding, and even (I reluctantly admit) running, but for the last three years I haven’t had any spare energy.

But now I have. And, what’s more, my fitness and coordination have never been better (bear in mind I was the fat kid who used to skive off PE). I spent an afternoon mountain biking back in January, and was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I took to it. I’m not used to being good at sports, especially not the first time I try them.

So this could actually be lots of fun. Give me a shout if you want to introduce me to some new and novel form of energy burning.

But still…

This will be the longest break I’ve had since I started. It’s so long that I’m beginning to question whether I’ll still qualify as a courier by the end of it. Oh dear – am I about to have an identity crisis, on top of everything else? And I’m slightly worried that this is a sign that I’m beginning to roll down the slippery slope that began when I went part time. It’s ironic really. I know several people who’ve been trying for years to escape from the courier trap, trying to scrape together enough other work that they can go down to three days a week, and then two, and then one… For me it seems to be happening without my even trying. But I don’t want it to! I love this job. I’m nowhere near ready to give up. I still want to do it forever.

And I’m slightly worried about the effect this break will have on my blog. Not only will I miss out on all the little day-to-day anecdotes and observations – I’m also going to be trying to produce 4,000 words per day for someone else, so I’m unlikely to have much inclination to sit down and write another 500 for my own amusement.

So, we’ll see.

But I have no doubt that I’ll be back. Worry not.

_________________________________

*I’ve been meaning to email her and challenge her to a day on the courier circuit, but can’t work out how to get in touch via the blog. So I’m going for the cop-out option, and letting link-backs do their work. 🙂

Much as I love London…

May 3, 2011

Look at this.

No potholes.

No drain covers.

No traffic lights.

No cars.

No buses.

No fucking taxis.

No pedestrians.

No pigeons.

Just what I needed.