Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Long rides are revelations

Yesterday a friend from years back, reacting to the 3CR video I posted on Monday, observed that the music I chose had lent the ride a particular tone.  After watching it once through, she'd enjoyed muting the sound and experimenting with watching it again to different songs, and noting how the choice of music dramatically altered the feel of the journey.  She recommended that I give it a try, and pointed me to some songs that she'd found apropos.

My first reaction was to be flattered that she'd found the movie worth watching a second time, much less that she'd used it as an aperture through which to experiment with ways of seeing the world.  And her observation about the power of music rang true.  Years ago, before I discovered the liberation of commuting by bicycle, I'd spent 45 minutes a day in the subterranean anonymity of a Metro train, staring a thousand yards ahead of me through crowds close enough to touch.  Earbud cords dangling, I'd often passed the time by re-imagining the scene as something out of a movie, playing songs ranging from modern rock to trance electronica to Tim Burton-esque gothic meditations, and observing how the world changed from moment to moment.  There might be a well-dressed lady reading a book while huddled into a cranny of a packed car.  What was she reading?  Who was she -- what was her story -- and what was she feeling just then?  I could convince myself it was anything and change my mind in an instant, all by choosing a different sequence of notes to play as a backdrop.  With the proper music, I think one could imbue a Transformers fight scene with a convincing air of poignancy.  It's powerful stuff.

So, on a superficial level, I agreed with my friend's thought experiment: I doubtless could have told the 3CR story in innumerable ways simply by making alternate choices in iTunes.  Each of those choices might have elicited something different in the tale.  Indeed, anyone else on the ride would have chosen differently in narrating his own journey, much as he might have been looking in a different direction at a given moment and noticed a particular scene that resonated with him.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that, interesting though my friend's thought experiment might be on an intellectual level, it fundamentally misconceived what I'd tried to do.  It suggested, I think, that the tone of the story I'd tried to tell was on some level fluid and mutable, and that the choice of music was an arbitrary decision that led to a particular result.  On that theory, another choice might have been as valid or resonant, just... different.  But I couldn't disagree more.

There's an age-old epistemological debate about whether mathematics is invented or discovered.  That is, are the equations we've found to hold true mere human constructs used to describe relationships in the world as seen from mankind's perspective, or are they immutable truths that would exist whether or not we are here to consider them?  If no humans were alive ponder the question, would it make sense in any deep way to say that the principles of multiplication hold true?  Is mathematics an invented human notion or a revelation of fundamental principle?

What does any of that have to do with long bike rides?  To me, a surprising amount.  My friend's observation that the feeling and meaning of the movie I put together could be changed in interesting ways through the choice of tune struck me as suggesting that there was no "correct" music in any deep sense.  But for me, there was.  One of the most valuable things I've taken from long, solitary rides is that, when you have nothing but time to clear your mind and open your thoughts to the world, the journey impresses itself upon you in ways that are unexpected but powerful.  For me, that often takes the form of music.  When my mind is clear and I glimpse a falcon diving from the sky, I can't control the feeling of awe it creates, and what accompanies that awe is a feeling that translates itself into music -- particular music -- often inexplicably.

I'll never forget my first Ironman, in which, about 40 miles into the bike ride, profoundly alone in the alligator swamps of Maryland's Eastern Shore, I was suddenly overtaken by "Step by Step," a frivolous pop song recorded by boy-band New Kids On the Block some 15 years earlier.  I hadn't heard it in those 15 years.  But there it was, clear as day, and it was in my head for hours.  To this day, I can't hear that song without remembering a particular tree I'd been looking at when it came storming into my conscience.  And with that frivolous song came a feeling that, hey, this is an intimidating event, but it's nothing to get worked up about, and I spent hours in a mood that was veritably punchy, singing aloud to the firmament.

So, too, at 3CR.  The songs that I chose in that movie weren't random.  They weren't things I chose out of iTunes because I thought they were catchy.  No -- they were songs that were in my head for important parts of the journey.  They evoked a particular sense of exuberance and wonder that I felt while my ears were pinned back and I was flying along the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Well it's a great day to be alive...
A great day to be alive

I'll never be able to hear that song again without suddenly being back there.  The ride, the story, wasn't something I invented for this blog.  It was something that was revealed to me, hour by hour, and that I've tried to recount as faithfully and emotionally honestly as possible.

That exuberant journey took on a far different and more important tone when I learned the morning after the ride that Matthew O'Neill, a 33-year-old rider in the event, had been killed by a truck on the third day of the ride.  When I heard that devastating revelation, I spent the rest of the day, including the long train ride back to San Jose, on the verge of tears, and sometimes well beyond the verge.  I suddenly was back nearly 8 years ago, when I got the call telling me that my brother had fallen into the coma from which he never emerged.  I had all too clear an idea what Matthew's family and fiancée must have felt, and it destroyed me.  That, too, is part of this story, and the movie I created was the most profound celebration of life I could craft, while also being a violent cry of despair that such senseless a tragedy had marred this most life-affirming of journeys.  It was a tribute to the wonderful, cruel, ecstatic, senseless colors of the world.

Would you wanna, would you wanna
Come dance with me
Would you wanna, would you wanna
Fall in love with me
Would you wanna, would you wanna
Come dance with me
Fall in love with me
Come and dance with me

The truth is, the songs I chose could not have been anything other than what they were.  Nothing else would have represented the journey that I lived, the images that flicker behind my eyes, and the adventure I'll treasure until the end of my days.  Those songs chose themselves.

That's really the thing with randonneuring, and with long rides generally.  I don't know if mathematics is invented or discovered, but to me, long bicycle rides are revealed.  I've found that I can plot whatever course I want, but the fact is, when I get out on the road, I take the world as it is and the journey as it comes.  Hopefully I'll have my heart and mind open to it, whatever it brings.  And when it's done and I sit down to write about it, I'll tell what happened in a way that is as true as I can make it.  It's all I can do.

I'll see you on the road.