Lately, I’ve been thinking about narrative. As a high school English teacher, I talk about narrative with each book I teach. Generally, in Western literature, stories move in a linear fashion. In non-Western literature, we often read stories that are circular, beginning and ending in the same place, though of course there is character growth along the way. Without character growth, all narratives would be totally uncompelling.
I teach my students a simple formula to understand how this character growth occurs. It works like this:
Conflict equals Drama
Choices create Conflict, which equals Drama
Society, Personality and Family drive Choices, which creates Conflict, which equals Drama. To put this in a more complex way, aspects of our society, personality and family each contribute to the choices we make, which create conflicts in our lives. It is these conflicts that make drama exciting to read.
All ride entries into rideblog are narratives, and most of them are circular. I begin the ride, and end it, in the same place. What makes each small story compelling, then? It must contain some of the qualities listed in my equation so that I can create a bit of drama, or my 12 regular readers would be long gone!
So, let’s start with Society. Friday, I visited Western Washington University with my students. Western is a large school, with about 20,000 students.
As such, it has a healthy biking culture, though our guides pointed out that u-locks and beaters were the way to go, as there is also a culture of bicycle theft on campus. I particularly enjoyed a glass case in the library with a biking-oriented display.
It seems amazing to me that I never noticed such a fervent interest when I was a non-cyclist. Was it simply not there, or have other folks been as excited about bikes all along, as I am now ? At any rate, college may be a good place to become involved in biking culture, but it doesn’t seem to be a good place to own a bike. I kept an eye out for nice bikes all five days that we toured schools, but I never really saw a bike worth photographing, out of the thousands tethered to bike stands at the nine schools we visited.
The funny thing is that last summer, as I was awaiting the arrival of The Raleigh, I travelled with my students to England for 10 days of touring famous sites. While there, we visited Cambridge. We punted on the river Cam, saw the clone of Newton’s apple tree, admired the glorious architecture, and even stopped to say hello to Stephen Hawking (no, really). We also saw hundreds of interesting vintage bicycles. Looking closely, you can see at least three parked against the walls in this photograph, which doesn’t contain a single bike rack. Imagine how the racks looked!
At one point in our tour, one of my students turned to me and said sternly: “Hey, stop ogling bikes like they’re men!” It was a rather well-timed comment, as I was just passing a gloriously preserved Raleigh Tourist with rod brakes, a full chaincase and a pretty wicker basket. I could have taken hundreds of photos of beautiful vintage bicycles, had I known more about what I was observing. Yet here in the US, the campus bikes were the usual cheap, ugly Walmart garbage, or thoroughly destroyed vintage Schwinns.
Our society doesn’t really value bicycles, even though they are a fun, practical, cheap means of transportation. For the most part, the kids at Western weren’t knowledgable about what they rode. The only reason most students had bicycles was because they couldn’t afford a car.
College campuses today make it much easier, at least, to live without a motorized vehicle. Buses run to grocery stores in town, I noticed, something that was literally impossible at my own college twenty years ago (there was no public bus service). In fact, the first time I rode a bus to get groceries in college was during my junior year abroad… in England.
Personality: Upon arriving back home after our day trip to Bellingham, I was delighted to take a quick bike ride.
I’ve always enjoyed cycling. In college, I was even on the bike team, briefly (that’s a story for another time), riding a steel Peugeot. Boy, how I envied my teammates on their super-modern, lightweight aluminum bicycles! Now I wonder which model Peugeot I had. I parked it one night locked to a bike rack, but didn’t put the cable through the front wheel. Of course, the wheel was stolen, and I eventually gave the rest of the bike to a male friend who could make better use of it.
Today, I ride bikes almost solely for pleasure, and never to compete. Sitting in a car all day long is very hard on my body, but even worse is actually driving that car. Riding a bike may not completely erase my pain, but at least it makes my soul feel better, which is as important as my body. I suppose, after a week supervising children for 12-24 hours a day, ending with a two-hour drive, most people would want to just relax. It says something about me that I find a seven-mile ride relaxing, of course. It also says something about me that I did it on my Dutch bike, stopping frequently to take photographs, instead of riding a race bike twenty miles in the same amount of time!
The day was no longer brilliantly sunny, but it was important to me to get out and ride while I could. With my family situation, I must ride when I can. The Boy isn’t old enough to ride more than a few miles with me (and truthfully, he isn’t that interested in riding anyway: no more than a normal child), so when he’s with me, I have to supervise him. The Beloved isn’t my husband, so he doesn’t usually watch The Boy, unless all the kids are here — then sometimes I can sneak a ride in as they play. I’m grateful to have as much free time as I do. It’s one of the few benefits of divorce: built-in babysitting!
I could never have made these rides, had I not gotten divorced. My ex was the sort of person who needed us to do everything together. He once took white water kayaking lessons, but then refused to go out on the water because I wouldn’t take lessons as well (I hate, hate, hate swimming, and hate, hate, hate moving water even more). The last big argument I remember us having was over training to run a marathon. At the time, I was running about five miles three-times a week. He was a big time runner, training for half-marathons and running nearly daily. He wanted me to train to do a marathon with him. When I said I didn’t ever see myself running that far, but that I could train to do a half-marathon with him while he trained for the whole marathon, he threw a serious tantrum and refused to do any running with me at all. If I were still married, I would never have been able to take rides the way I do, or to publish accounts of them that didn’t include him.
As for the ride itself… well, it was the Cedar River Trail, from mile 4.5 to mile 8, and back again. The weather was mediocre: warm, but not sunny. I enjoyed the ride, but saw nothing exceptional or, well, compellingly out of the ordinary. Except this sign, posted on the Cedar River, about 20 feet in the air:
Since I have never seen anyone on the river this time of year, I’m not sure who the sign was for. I found it funny, probably because it was asking boaters to make choices, or end up in serious drama.
In the end, what makes a ride compelling or uncompelling isn’t the trail, or the weather, or the bike, but the rider. Why did I ride that evening, as opposed to all the other things I could have done? Why do I ride at all? It’s the complex answers to these simple questions that drive my narrative, and bring us full-circle. I feel like I’ve touched on just the fingertips of the story… but that’s the beauty of life instead of art. There’s no finite number of pages on a blog, and the narrative, like the character, can continue to grow.