Stay Still
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” -Ernest Hemingway

Pedaling any more than 30 minutes might be the distinction between "cycling" and "riding a bike" depending on the severity of your perspective. But the difference I've found, as I've doused myself in longer rides, is that an incarnation in the saddle happens anywhere beyond that time.

Given the social distancing restrictions, I've only ventured out on solo rides in rural Connecticut, something I've grown to embrace for the solitude and chance to single-mindedly focus on the world around me. Like a walk in the woods, these rides along newfound roads, are a reprieve and escape from all happening in the world right now.

The serenity it creates feels valuable, like a commodity most are searching for right now. Occasionally the lull of my thoughts, my mind only focused on the road beyond my handlebars, is peppered with an acknowledging cyclist passing in the opposite direction. More often than not there's a wave or a nod in appreciation for the sport or, at the moment, an appreciation for community from afar. One of us may be climbing with grimace while the other is descending with grin, but no matter there's almost always a wave.

There's a hill nearby that I loathe. A twist of 12% grade around red farmhouses that ends on a rolling 5% grade. On most of my rides this is the last push before a mostly flat finish. But there's always that last hill. On a ride recently, already spent from pushing things harder than usual, I ascended in lowest gear as another cyclist used gravity to his opposite advantage.

I raised my hand meekly for a wave and inaudible hello, as the man cheered what I thought was "stay still."

Are my shoulders moving too much? Should I strengthen my core?

As a newly (self-)minted amateur, my mind often wanders to what I'm doing wrong. Or what I could improve. Riding a bike seems simple enough, until it isn't. Pedal strokes, interval training, heart rate zones, functional threshold power, climbing speed, bent elbows, seat positioning. The literature on ways to shave seconds from your times is endless and I've tried to focus on riding more to get better.

But sometimes you hear something, or think you hear something, and you meditate on it for the rest of your ride and some of the next. Stay still. Stay still. Stay still. Away from distractions of modern life, our minds are free to repeat one phrase as a zen-like mantra. To find peace in being alone and sitting on a bike for no particular reason other than entering that ineffable state of just riding.

So whether it's riding a bike, taking a walk, or baking bread, now strikes me as a time when we can look for those moments of our day to engulf ourselves in a physical experience and stay still and listen.

But hey. Maybe, he said "nice hill."

Ride a Bike
The US needs bike parking spaces like these from Tokyo.

Our shelter-in-place mates have in recent weeks become our only true physical mates. For many, Zoom happy hours abound, as do online classrooms and virtual family gatherings. But the true physicality of connection has largely been shut down. In place of social (physical) interactions, people seem to be finding a rhythm of digitally close, physically distance connects. Alternatively some of us are learning to exist as introverts, or rather to be alone.

Time ticks on after all, though the outside world seems to have stopped and erupted into crisis.

Some are choosing digital paths for being alone, while others are finding physical, non-digital activities more preferable. Be it a sourdough starter, a new scarf, a walk through the woods, or a compendium of poems, explorations of selfhood and creativity are drawing many of us in, as a way of escaping out of today's reality.

I've had the fortune of committing more time to a hobby long on my list of "one day I'll get into that": cycling. Last year I purchase a gravel bike, with an itch to see New York by bike and one day take more serious rides in and outside of the city.

Cycling always struck me as a sports guild to which you must be admitted. Between the group rides (invite only) and branded lycra uniforms, the barrier to entry felt high unless you knew someone on the inside. The hardcore fixed-gear cyclists that I ran into across many NY bike-shops seemed to have a panache bestowed by riding fast and hard, with little regard for brakes and stop lights.

The pandemic has given rise to experiments in cycling for me. And so, over the next weeks and months I'll be documenting fatigued thoughts of cycling as a newly minted amateur.

More from Less [Book Notes]

A case for conscious capitalism as a team player in the fight against climate change.

McAfee suggests that market-based economics is to thank for a recent trend towards dematerialization, namely the decrease in raw material consumption from the earth.

When understanding dematerialization, think:

  • Our smartphones have replaced numerous “gizmos” (calculator, camcorder, clock radio, tape recorder, GPS device, camera, compass, etc.) and in the process shifted production towards more efficient use of materials (More from less…), p. 102
  • With the advent of fertilizers and improved agricultural processes, farms yield greater crop and animal product outputs than ever before. A startling statistic on p. 100 is that the average dairy cow’s productivity (milk yield per year) has increased by 330% from 1950 to 2015. (Still hesitant to make any claims on any improvement in treatment standards during that time.)
  • Tin cans - the aluminum can for soft drinks and beer has undergone a steady reduction in the amount of tin used (531% reduction overall from 1959 to 2011 -- 85g in 1959; 12.75g in 2011)

His framework for understanding the causes of this dematerialization can best be described as a trusting laissez-faire proponent with an ear towards underutilized policy prescriptions (such as cap-and-trade programs, revenue neutral carbon taxes, and nuclear energy research funding). McAfee argues that the cost-saving reward system of capitalism inherently leads us towards using less, because business want to make more profit (increase profits through higher revenues or lower costs).

I  enjoyed this book, not only for the economic theory and historical anecdotes throughout, but for the conclusion in which McAfee provides focus areas to use capitalism for good rather than evil. Ultimately the profit motive which defines free markets, has in many ways fueled cost cutting measures by businesses (manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) towards fewer and fewer materials used in production.

There is certainly a contradicting account of capitalism out there, suggesting that the many perils of our social system can be blamed by the profit greedy businesses. Towards the end of the book McAffee acknowledges the social perils that will come as jobs are outsourced not to other countries but to machines. The disconnection epidemic he mentions is foreboding, especially in the age of tribalism we now live.

His encouragement to seek out discourse and dialogue with others we disagree is an important reminder for everyone looking to develop their opinions on anything, from debates on domestic political elections to capitalism’s possible supporting role in saving the planet.