The compliment came as I was in line at the coffee shop following the big Saturday ride. The South Bay was still warming in the fall sun, the marine layer yet to burn off and most of us clacking our way to the cash register had 100k in our legs. What else people are meant to do with a Saturday morning I still can’t fathom.
The woman who struck up the conversation was a few years my senior and had the glow of someone who due to a recent change in life circumstance was taking a fresh bite at the apple. I recall her comparing herself to a hothouse flower—fragile, in need of tending. And that’s when she took note of my appearance, and rather than poke fun at the splashes of primary colors that made me garish as a child’s toy, she praised me for being so fit and getting such good, vigorous exercise.
It’s possible one of us was flirting with the other. I’m bad at these things, so I’m still not sure. As much by personality as upbringing, I chafe under direct compliment as if there’s something unseemly about the possibility that I might have done something of note. Modesty is, for me, a genetic trait.
I turned to her, and because I’m most comfortable when I can make others laugh, said, “Lady, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t exercise.”
Before I had a chance utter the next thought in my head, her eyelids pulled wide in amazement. She hadn’t expected me to disagree.
“But you’re so fit and trim!” she replied.
I quickly added, “Oh, see, fundamentally, I’m still just 10 years old. All I do is go out and play with my friends.”
We’ve learned that truth is an antidote to what ails us less and less frequently. Which is to say while I was making a joke of something dear to me, it is a truth that only wears the robes of funny. It is in absurdity that our humanity is shown with real compassion. This is a strange world and what feeds our souls so that we can take on the rest of the crap we must do, well if we treat what is dear to us as a bit silly, then it’s harder for someone else to use it against us; after all, to ridicule what has just been ridiculed is to arrive too late for the party. And the difference between silly and serious can come down to the lens through which we look.
Had the coffee shop not been taken over by three dozen similarly clad bikers, I’d have been as out of place as a bug in a Michelin-starred restaurant. But that’s the thing; to most of the world we are Gregor Samsa, the cockroach in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. While we may have started as human, we’re no less alien (a cyclist who has never raced is still in the top fifth percentile fitness-wise of all Americans) than an insect. The distinction is that we’ve made our peace with being the subject of a Kafka novel.
There’s no way to explain to a non-cyclist what I get out of cycling, why I would devote the equivalent of a part-time job to pedaling a bicycle down roads I’ve ridden dozens of times before. It’s not like I am seeing something new. At least not outside. But inside, where all the real changes happen, each day is as different as creation itself. No one ride makes much of a difference, but when I add them all together, I can look back and see a transformation.
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