I’ve got the power

We are truly a funny old species. The existence of climate controlled cars and a million labour saving devices has persuaded us that we can’t get wet, mustn’t get cold, and that most activities are beyond the reach of our puny muscles.

Yet it is possible to ride a bicycle to work even when it’s cold, wet, and windy.

It is possible to mow your lawn, cut branches off trees, and cut up firewood all without the aid of power tools.

It is possible to calculate without the aid of a calculating machine – or so I am told – the calculating portion of my brain seems to have atrophied.

And that’s just the point, isn’t it? Power is a “use it or lose it” phenomenon.

Yesterday morning, amid dire forecasts for wind, rain, hail, and general unpleasantness in the Melbourne weather forecast, I elected not to ride to work the way I usually would, and instead texted a local friend asking for a lift. I waited, and I waited, but I got no response. I texted again. Then I called. All to no avail, because his phone was on silent and he wasn’t looking at it. By then it was time to leave or be late, and so I had to bite the cold, windy, wet bullet and ride. I donned my voluminous rain cape, my waterproof trousers, and my knee high boots, and rode off into the rain.

And you know what?

I enjoyed it. True, there were times when I thought I was in a scene from Finding Nemo. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” But by the time I got to work I was radiating the dedicated commuting cyclist’s extreme smug field. I was warm from the exercise. I had made it to work under my own steam in unpleasant conditions. I had power. I had self esteem. I was surprisingly dry. And my colleagues universally thought me insane – no change there.

Throughout the day the weather worsened and I swore I would beg, borrow, or if necessary steal a lift home, even if it meant coming in on my day off to pick up my bike. But by the time I was ready to leave everyone else had gone, the rain had stopped, and the wind had eased. So I rode home again, and this time didn’t even need the wet weather gear.

Here’s the thing: skin is mostly waterproof, and getting rained on is rarely fatal. Admittedly the weather in Melbourne yesterday was a touch extreme, and I would not have ridden in the 100kph winds we endured in the middle of the day. But even though the wind had settled, people were still aghast that I had done something so extreme as ride in the rain.

With decent wet weather gear, riding in the rain is no big deal, but we persuade ourselves that we need our climate control, our heating, our air con, and our isolation from the world. I persuaded myself that I needed a lift to work this morning, but when my lift failed to materialize, I rode to work just fine.

I had also persuaded myself that I couldn’t do anything about our treatment of asylum seekers. I’m just one person. Just one voice. One keyboard – albeit fairly strident. But I watched a friend become increasingly active, and it began to make my muscles twitch, until almost without thinking I stepped over the line and did something concrete for a family of refugees. Burning with their story, I came home and wrote about it, and in just over a week more than 700 people have read my piece about actually stepping up and helping.

I have power. One voice can reach many ears, if it’s willing to try.

Today I went to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Dandenong and signed up to teach computer skills there once a fortnight next term. Another thing I can do. And each person I teach can teach others in turn. I’m starting small, but who knows what impact this will have on the lives of the people our government wants us to abandon?

I’ve already noticed the impact on my cycling route of stopping to pick up the occasional piece of rubbish. I have power here, too.

We can walk or ride in the rain, much further than we think we can. We can pick up a little rubbish every day and leave the world a cleaner place. We can offer a little support to those most in need. And the magic of muscles is that the more we do, the more we can do. Which also means that the less we do, the less we can do.

So maybe it’s time to ask ourselves what we can really do.

What can you do?




Custom printed slings

After walking around my workplace today in a sling occasioned by careless and clumsy misuse of my arm muscles last night, it occurred to me (not for the first time) that I needed some kind of generic t-shirt printed. Something along the lines of:

“Yes, I hurt myself.

No, it was just a clumsy accident.

Yes, it’s quite painful.

No, don’t know how long it will be until it gets better.

Thanks for your concern.”

This was after the (roughly) fiftieth repetition of my somewhat embarrassing tale of muscular woe. Each inquiry was kind, well meant, and faintly embarrassing, and many of the people around me wound up hearing the tale rather more often than they cared to (ie once). Fortunately tonight my husband came up with an idea whose time has clearly come:

Custom printed bandages, slings and casts.

I envisage an ordering process that starts with type of injury, proceeds through body part, pain levels, expected recovery time, and finishes with a catch-all thank you message.

Something like this:

“Yes, I <pulled/sprained/cut/tore/broke/severed>

my <neck/arm/wrist/leg/knee/ankle/foot/toe/entire body>.

It was a <skiing/snow boarding/cycling/running/psychotic team sport/random act of startling clumsiness> injury.

It’s <not too bad/a little sore/quite painful but I’m trying to be brave/utterly agonising/worse than sitting through question time in Parliament/way hay look at the pretty rainbow unicorns eating painkillers what did you ask me again?>.

It’s going to take <no time at all/just a few days/the rest of my natural life, don’t remind me it’s driving me MAD>

before I can <ski/snow board/run/ride/beat people up and call it a sport/walk like a normal person/pretend to be coordinated> again.

Thanks so much for your <concern/sympathy/cruel mockery/open mirth>,

it really makes me <feel better/despair/want to stab you in the eye with my bandage fasteners (Man! Those things could do you a real injury!)>.

I think we may be onto a winner here. If I can just find a few days in a row where I am sufficiently uninjured to commercialise it. Ouch. Mind that floor. It’s deceptively flat and unimpeded.*

(With apologies to Rowan Atkinson, I can never resist that line.)

Giant Yellow Duck 1, Weather Gods 0

Today was a long day. After a late night last night and an early start today, we had parent-teacher interviews from 4 until 7pm. This process fascinates me. I have 5 minutes to see each set of parents, usually with the student present. Sometimes I have a series of scattered bookings and time to talk more deeply. Sometimes, as tonight, I have bookings every five minutes for long, long stretches, and emerge from the process utterly spent.

As the night went on I used my short breaks to keep an anxious eye on the weather bureau’s radar page, watching the rain arrive and settle in for a protracted stay. As it became clear I was going to get wet on my ride home, I briefly contemplated cadging a lift. It was a toss up between staying warm and dry and chatting in my friend’s car on the way home, and getting cold and wet but shedding the day’s tension and stress with every pedal stroke.

In the end the stress relief won and I suited up for the ride home. I have a large yellow rain cape that makes me look like a giant yellow duck, and plenty of very bright lights, so I wasn’t worried about visibility in the traffic, and I stay fairly dry from the knees up.

As I left the building I took a moment to commune with a fellow cyclist – a rider far more intrepid than I, who averages about twice my speed and rides for almost 3 times as long. We shared rain avoidance tips, compared bikes (His: lean, fast and serious. Mine: an armchair on wheels.) swapped good wishes for the journey home and whooshed off into the night.

I started to sing my favourite boppy song (currently “Love is Easy” by McFly  – it’s very difficult to feel miserable in the presence of this song) and took my usual gentle approach to the ride, magnified slightly by the need to keep an eye out for particularly deep water and wheel-snatching mud holes. I safely navigated the building site where they have changed the footpath on an almost daily basis for last six months, wresting my back wheel free of the mud, and I scooted down a local side street, on the home stretch now but also hitting that point where water from my helmet was dripping down onto my nose in a most uncomfortable fashion. Also my legs were starting to get cold.

Then I saw it.

A shape on the fence I was passing turned to study me, as if wondering what strange manner of large yellow creature was disturbing the peace with splashing noises and flashing lights, and I was suddenly eye to eye with a large tawny frogmouth. It watched me impassively as I sloshed by, with a curiously contemplative air.

By the time I got home I was warm and tired on the inside, cold and wet on the outside, and energised by my chance encounter with this charmingly enigmatic bird.

In a car I would never even have known he was there.

Power Up!

We have long been considered a little odd where we live. Years ago we cut down (and up) a dead tree with handsaws, and fended off no fewer than 5 offers of chainsaws from our neighbours. The idea that we chose to do it under our own steam was perplexing. Never mind that the noise, stench and danger of petrol powered chainsaws was off-putting, it was actually quite satisfying to physically engage with our environment. Yet this was seen as quite peculiar in our little street.

Add to that our bizarre insistence on being a one car family, our strange propensity to mow our lawn with an ancient hand mower, our curious fascination with the bicycle as transport, our stubborn refusal to buy a large plasma TV, and our neighbours simply don’t know what to make of us.

My husband has been building a cubby house out of mostly recycled materials. Today I gave the floor a second coat of paint while working on my mindfulness. I could feel the cool breeze on my cheek, smell the violets and narcissus blooming nearby, and revel in the warmth of our unseasonal sunshine. When I came inside for a break I was browsing The Conversation when I found an article by Dr Alessandro Demaio, arguing that our physical health and the health of our environment are inextricably interlinked.

The article put into eloquent words something that I have always believed but never fully articulated – that we are a part of the world, not separate from it. That cars and big houses and plasma screen TVs serve to divorce us from the world, bit by bit. That being out in the world, using active methods of transport, growing your own food, and preserving our environment are fundamentally satisfying because they build the health of our world, our communities, and even ourselves.

I know this at a visceral level when I have been out on my bike. I feel it deep in my bones when I am weeding my veggie patch. I see it on the faces of the people I chat to as I ride around our local streets. Yet the pull of the car is strong. The urge, even on a bright sunny winter’s day like today, to collapse into the car and drive the 2.5km to school is strong.

The desire to eat junk, to buy more stuff, to build ever larger houses and consume ever more resources seems a little like an addiction to narcotics. We know it’s bad for us. We know the first buzz will be replaced by a gradual decline, that we’ll have to constantly up the dose to achieve the same high, that it is consuming our bodies and will very probably be fatal, yet we are inevitably drawn back to that road.

That’s why articles like Dr Demaio’s are so important. Before I was even halfway through it I was spurred to go outside and weed my garden. And I am about to ride to school to pick up my girls, with their scooters in my cargo bike so that they can scoot home with me.

Like a child faced with an endless supply of lollies, the temptation to eat myself sick is intense. But I know that the taste of fresh air is sweeter, in the end, than those bright red lollies could ever be. If I can show my kids the truth of that, then maybe, just maybe, the world will change. One bike ride at a time.

Image manipulation

For some years now people have been telling me I “must be soooo fit“, simply because my default mode of local transport has been a bike. Not for every trip, but as often as I can I will take the cargo bike out to do the shopping, or ride to school to pick up my kids.

Back when the youngest was still in childcare I would pick up the older one in our Christiania bike (a big trike with a box on the front for the kids or the shopping), and then ride across to childcare to pick up the youngest. As a round trip it was only around 5km, but I was doing it twice a day, 3 days a week. They were very short distances, so I didn’t think of myself as fit.

Then I took up riding to work more regularly, and got to the point where  I could take the kids to school on their bikes and then ride to work and back myself.  I figured I was a little fitter than before, but they were still only short distances. My work ride is around 11km round trip, and while that would be a fair old walk, cycling is a vastly more efficient means of transport – there’s a lot of rolling involved.

Compared with my husband who rides to work every day and regularly does 60-100km rides on the weekend, I still didn’t think much of my fitness – I was still very aware of my tubby belly, and of how red faced and puffy I got on the hills.

Self image tends to get locked in during childhood, and I grew up pretty much a bed potato – getting as far as the couch would have been too much effort, especially when there were all those lovely books to read. I would periodically take the dogs for long walks, but I never did anything much to work up a sweat.

PE classes at school confirmed that I was hideously slothful and unfit, as they set us running around the oval as fast as we could as a “warm up”, by the end of which I would be collapsed in a wheezing heap turning a fetching shade of blueish purple. Then the real work would begin. No. Physical activity and I were not friends.

Oh, I can’t help myself
when I feel this way
I want to be someone else
When I get this feeling
it gets in my system
I can’t put the brakes on
Icehouse, Can’t help myself


Then I took up running, and although my running style and speed owe more to Cliff Young than to Cathy Freeman, I quickly found my fitness and strength took a sharp upwards bound. Still, I was painfully aware of how much shorter and slower my runs were compared to my sister’s.

Today I was idly flicking through the paper and noticed an article that said most people exercise less than 3 times a week. So I did a quick mental total:

Saturday: 2 hours of yoga.

Sunday: personal best run distance of 4.55 km, with hills.

Monday: 4.17km run with some serious hills – some kind of torture!

Tuesday: nothing.

Wednesday: 11km cycle commute, plus a little over 3km of walking across campus during the day.

Thursday: 6.4km ride up and down Wheelers Hill to the fruit & veg shop and back UP the hill with a 20kg load of shopping (on a 40kg cargo bike). (For those who don’t know, Wheelers Hill is STEEP.)

Tomorrow there should be a run of around 4.5km, time and weather permitting, then Saturday will be another two hours of yoga.

Somewhere, somehow I think I left the couch behind. I think the trick was building the exercise into my life, rather than making it something I take time out to do. Because I do a fair bit of riding – even though they are short distances – my base fitness has been creeping up. While I wasn’t looking I became a fit person. But what do I see in the mirror? The tubby belly and the tired eyes.

You know what? My belly is allowed to be a little tubby. After 4 pregnancies resulting 2 babies and a fair amount of trauma, my curves are a badge of honour, not a mark of shame. And my eyes? They have reason to be tired. Things are tough right now. But none of that defines me.

It’s not easy to change your self image – especially the negative parts that have been fired on the coals of adolescent insecurity. I am hoping that my self image will morph gradually, the way my fitness has.  Meanwhile when I am cruising to work on my bike, or concentrating on the slap of my sneakers on the pavement while I watch the galahs wheeling overhead, I am rebuilding myself, inside and out. Wish me luck!

Energy in = Energy out?

Under stress it makes sense to pull back on all non-essential activities. Whether we’re recovering from illness or dealing with trauma, we have limited resources. Spending energy on something that is pure recreation might seem frivolous, or even selfish. This relies on a solely physical equation: Energy in = energy out. It’s logical to try to cut out anything that uses up energy.

Recently I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress, both physical and emotional. I have (mostly) responded sensibly – curtailing my cycling, skipping choir practice to rest, and going to bed early rather than going out with friends.

As the stress increased, I found myself itching to get back on my bike. One day, only a little over 4 weeks after major surgery, I couldn’t rest because I was twitchy from the day’s traumas. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more to sleep, but I was buzzing from all the adrenalin and stress toxins screaming through my system.

“Stuff it!” I thought, “I’m going to do the school run on the bike.” BOOM. Instant energy boost. Wait. What? Physically unwell, lacking energy, feeling miserable, so I spent energy. And I got back more than I spent. Intuitively that feels a little like handing over $20 and getting $50 change. It doesn’t happen. It must have been a mistake. It certainly doesn’t happen twice!

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re breaking
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance
Why can’t we give love that one more  chance
Why can’t we give love
Give love give love give love give love
Give love give love give love
Love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves

But it turns out that the human mind is a peculiar beast. So is the human body, come to that. Sometimes you need to take it out of itself and distract it in order to break the cycle of stress and fatigue. If you are weak and have no energy, you need to build your muscles by working out at a sustainable level. And if you are stressed and have no energy, you need to build your coping muscles, by doing things that make you feel good.

In some ways it’s like providing your body and mind with a blueprint for happiness. You get stuck in a cycle of trauma and misery, so you tell your body: “Feel that? Good, isn’t it? That’s what feeling happy is like. Want some more?”

This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure

Queen – Under Pressure

So this week I’ve done a whole lot more cycling. I took time out to go to choir practice. I organised coffee with a friend today when I really should have been getting stuff done. And it was all 100% worth it. I am calmer and more in control. I can laugh at the annoying things my kids do, instead of exploding. I can move past the stress and get on with my life, even though the cause hasn’t disappeared.

It’s really easy, when things get challenging, to say “I can’t make time to look after myself. I have to look after everyone else.” It may sound terribly altruistic and brave, but in reality it’s a road to nowhere. If your own heart and soul aren’t intact, how can you support anyone else? You wind up making mistakes, and causing more suffering to the people around you, than if you’d taken that hour to sit by the pond, ride your bike, or go to choir practice.

It turns out that you have to spend energy to make energy. It’s not only sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.


Christiania bike
Freedom on wheels

This week I am chafing against the enforced sluggishness of my physio’s ruling. “Stay off the bike for a week,” he opined.  “Give it time to recover.” With a rather unhappy knee, I also don’t have the option of long walks, so I am stuck with driving everywhere. Once I did this as a matter of course, but now that I am used to riding everywhere, I find the car almost unbearably stifling. (Literally so in this weather – a pleasant 28 degrees outside turns the car into a solar oven. Hopelessly poor design.)

Every time I pull into a car park I am struck by the number of other people doing the same – even in the relatively quiet suburban shopping strips that I much prefer over vast chasms of commercial despair. (What? That’s not what you call Chadstone?) Cars come. Cars go. Cars zoom along every street and byway. Cars take us round the corner to the milkbar. A few blocks down to the supermarket. Down the road to the railway station. Vroom, vroom, vroom, in air conditioned, almost hermetically sealed comfort, with the stereo booming.

This is what we do. It is very nearly who we are. Surgically connected to our cars, so that we are completely  incapable of doing without them. Yet it utterly disconnects us from the world. I still pass the same crossing supervisors every day – but they never see me. You don’t realise from inside a car, but it’s quite difficult to see people inside cars these days. All you get is reflection. It’s no good waving at someone you know on a bike, or standing at a pedestrian crossing – unless they recognise your car, they’ll have no idea who you are, if they even see that you are waving. All they’ll see is shiny glass and metal.

Visiting a friend in the UK some years ago, his car air conditioning was automatically on, even though the outside air temperature was 22 degrees Celcius. Open vents would have been delightful – we were driving in the Yorkshire countryside, so there wasn’t much pollution to worry about. But air conditioning was a matter of course, even in the north of England where it rarely reaches a temperature we Aussies would consider hot.

Here, temperature-control (or climate-control as it is hyperbolically known – would that it truly were) is the norm in most new cars. We want our environments strictly controlled, heedless of what we lose in the process. That sense of connection with the world is fundamental to our understanding of it, and our connection with the systems that sustain us. I recently heard David Suzuki argue that the greatest mistake environmentalists have made is in depicting the environment as distinct from us. “We are the air. We are the water. We are the earth. What we do to them, we do to ourselves,” he declared.

On a bike I understand that at a visceral level. I can feel the air pumping in and out of my lungs. The weather becomes a creature with which I interact, instead of a remote concept that I never really encounter directly. I am forced to plan for wet weather, hot sunshine, or frosty mornings. Yet none of them, barring the occasional freak hailstorm that comes bearing golf balls, are enough to stop me from riding. I have friends who happily ride through snow in a European winter, where cycling for transport is a normal way of life.

A huge percentage of our car trips are less than 5km. Most of us could be doing them on a bike trivially easily. Of those who physically can’t manage that, many would be fine with an electric bike. For the longer trips, a combination of cycling and public transport would usually be fine (although I won’t deny that the public transport network could use a wash and brush up). We could so easily be a cycling culture, but we are puzzlingly resistant.

Cars enslave us, and the puzzle is that we happily let them. I can’t wait for my knee to recover so that I can be free again.

PS. My knee injury is from too much kneeling on hard floors, so don’t go blaming my bike! :)

PPS. This was written some time ago, so please excuse the mismatch with the seasons. My knee is now fine.