Post #1711 • July 1, 2014, 8:43 AM • 1 Comment
As had been my habit, I was clutching a chain-link fence with two hands. Beneath my feet, a unicycle writhed. It had spent a few years in the basement, forlorn and gathering cobwebs. A few months ago I resolved that when the weather finally warmed up, stopped raining, and otherwise ceased pelting New England with its typical indignities, I was finally going to learn to ride the fool thing.
Falling off of a unicycle is much safer than falling off of a bicycle. When you do the latter, you either come down hard and gyroscopically on one side, or drop face-first over the handlebars. When the unicycle goes down, you land on your toes and stand up. The unicycle suffers an undignified, bouncing crash, but you step away from it with your grace intact, as well as your bones.
But you fall a lot at the beginning. The distance is trivial—that of half the height of the wheel, so not even a foot—but every time it happens, a part of your brain that you inherited from your Cretaceous ancestors lights up with warnings of dire peril.
FALLING FALLING FALLING it shrieks, all the way from the top of the descent to the safe arrival at a standing position a half-second later. When you're a kid, this is hilarious. When you're in your mid-forties, an innate biological conservatism begins to take over, and your body starts telling you that you're too old for this nonsense.
My long-term plan is to ignore that message, without dying.
The stretch of chain-link fence I hung from encloses a tennis court near my house, which is handy because it provides a 120-foot stretch of paved walkway and something to grab onto when the trip goes badly. Also, it's downhill a bit from the street so I'm not providing every passerby with impromptu physical comedy. Support poles for the fence ten feet apart give me progress markers, and I had gotten to the point that could travel for one or two of them before falling back on the fence. Pedal pedal pedal HANG, pedal pedal pedal OMG PEDAL PEDAL HANG. Over and over.
Last week, while in mid-hang, a truck stopped at the far side of the park and the driver yelled to me.
You know what your problem is?!
You keep stopping!
He pulled around to a closer part of the park, got out, walked down the hill, and offered his hand. He was a burly fellow, suited for the handyman work advertised on this truck.
Al, he said.
Franklin. It's a pleasure.
Not too many people ride those things.
I intend to be one of them.
You have to keep going. May I?
Please do. I handed the unicycle to him. One advantage of a mode of transportation with a single 20-inch wheel is that you don't have to worry about someone maliciously speeding off with your ride.
He held a fence post, steadied himself on the unicycle, and took off. Realization dawned.
Oh, you have to keep pedaling.
It was stupidly obvious. Forward motion itself maintains the balance. Without it you're essentially waiting around to fall over. I already know this—everybody already knows this—from bicycling. Slowing down below a certain speed makes you wobble. Why did I not think of that before?
So just do that, he said.
Start over there—he pointed at a pole on the fence—
and just go there—the next one, ten feet away—
no farther. Do it a whole bunch of times. Don't hang onto the fence, and don't try to catch the unicycle when it falls because you'll jerk your spine backwards. I'll bet that in twenty minutes you'll be going all the way to that pole over there. The next pole over, twenty feet away.
I thanked him. We chatted for a bit. Al splits his time between Boston and Jacksonville, where he has a boat. He sometimes wishes his kids were younger because they've lost interest in going out on it with him.
I gotta get going, he said as he offered his hand again.
Thanks for coming over here.
Sure thing. Don't give up.
Forget twenty minutes and twenty feet. Two minutes later I was riding the whole length of the tennis court. I had to cheer on my feet to remind them to keep pedaling—
Go! Go! Go! Go!—but I was riding. A few times the whole gist of the thing came together, and on a single, moving point of balance, I floated forward like a happy spirit.