I’m in a Hurry . . . to Slow Down!
I spend most of my time here these days, sitting amidst piles of books and papers, never with less than three or four projects underway simultaneously.
I’ve begun a research push for a new book I’m working on. More to come on that when it starts to feel real. If things go well, I’ll have a draft by early next year. Meanwhile, I’m still writing a lot of essays for various others, either on local history, or in this case, for a small bicycling magazine in Santiago, Chile called Revista Pedalea. Regrettably, their website seems to have a virus and I can’t access it at the moment, but hopefully the Spanish version of this short piece will be back up soon.
I’m in a Hurry . . . to Slow Down!
As an urban cyclist for the past 40 years, I have seen the world around me change considerably. My initial impetus for choosing to cycle instead of using cars or public transit was my frustration with traffic congestion, underfunded and inadequate buses and trains, and a general impatience. I hate to wait! On my bicycle I could arrive at my destination in less time than going by car or bus, and I had none of the agony of searching for parking that my friends suffered through. As a young man, I would speed through city streets, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic with a sense of invulnerability, and by good fortune, I never suffered any serious collisions in all these years.
In the late 1970s mobile phones were only a science fiction fantasy. The internet had not yet emerged as a common space of communication (even if it was taking shape behind the scenes), and for many people it was still a point of new convenience to have an answering machine attached to their home phone. To visit friends it was common to go across the neighborhood to knock on their door to see if they were home, without knowing if they would be. In 2016, we hardly have time to see our friends. If we want to meet up it takes several emails and phone calls, and a dozen text messages, and finally we agree that our schedules will allow us to meet in three weeks for 20 minutes to share a quick coffee! What happened?
In the 1970s, the world economy was still largely nation-based with most of the goods for daily life produced within the boundaries of our own countries. In the last decades of the 20th century and first part of the 21st century, the world market completely altered our lives. Now, most of the goods we consume are produced in far-away factories across the ocean. Money is speeding around the planet 24 hours a day at light-speed, seeking the most profitable opportunities in every obscure nook and cranny. More people have been uprooted from their traditional homes than at any previous time in world history. The iron dictatorship of money pushes them to seek better economic opportunities within countries and across national frontiers (legally or not). Our own lives have been reshaped by these dynamics. Whether we relocated or stayed put, we too have endured an enormous “speed-up” of daily life. Especially in the past 20 years, our lives have accelerated in ways no one could have anticipated.
Where I live in San Francisco at the epicenter of the much-heralded “tech boom,” everyone is so busy all the time that friendships are fraying and many don’t have time for a “real relationship.” The speed-up we are living through is treated as somehow inevitable, like the weather, and in any case, our adaptation to it is necessary if we want to be employed and have “a future!” People rush from work to eat to sleep and have little time for anything else. The eight-hour day that our ancestors fought such bitter battles to establish is a forgotten relic of the industrial era. Nowadays it is common to work 12-14 hours a day, including the time commuting on wi-fi equipped buses and trains.
The bicycle has become a sanctuary from this madness. On my bicycle I am not plugged in. I am in my head, I control how fast I move through the city, and I can take any opportunity along my route to stop and talk with friends or passersby who I happen to encounter. While it is still true that I can cross the city faster on a bicycle than many can by car or bus, the bicycle has come to represent a different pace of life, a slower form of movement. In this case, ‘slow’ refers less to velocity than to a philosophy of life. In a world that pushes us incessantly to work longer, more intense hours, to spend more and more time dedicated to expanding our skills and making ourselves ever more employable, the bicycle provides a rare opportunity to “check out” of this rat-wheel and reconnect to our own thoughts. Moreover it allows us to fully experience the air, the rain, the sounds, and the smells of the City that we miss when locked in the glass-and-metal boxes that clog the streets while dirtying our air and water.
When bicycling we experience life directly, without the mediation of corporate or government propaganda on the radio that dominate the driving experience. We can talk to people we meet, find out what’s going on at a demonstration, a collision, a scene of police or political action, without having it framed and explained by editors working for the owners of society. Bicycling through urban environments challenges our intellectual capacities to interpret reality directly, to arrive at understandings and explanations based on our own ideas and immediate knowledge rather than relying on the hysterical and distorted reporting that passes as “news” in most of the “free world.”
Time slows down when you are lost in your thoughts. Bicycling is one of the activities that cost us practically nothing and yet gives us so much. We can step off the speeding treadmill of daily life for a precious half hour or more to taste the city’s forgotten flavors, to think our own thoughts, and to determine our own pace.
We living in a globe-spanning culture that wants to reduce everything to the degrading slogan Time is Money! Well, time has run out on that absurdity. Bicycling has helped us regain our independence. Let’s hurry towards a world where we can slow down and smell the flowers, have time to share a conversation with a good friend, and to fully enjoy life. For Full Enjoyment, Not Full Employment!