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Being Bikes

It seems inevitable that as researchers, we sometimes become our projects. For quite some time now, I have felt as if I am biking. I do not mean this as a simple verb indicating that I am pedaling a two-wheeled machine. Rather, a fundamental part of how I am understood in much of my world revolves around the not-insignificant amounts of time I spend reading, writing, thinking, talking, using bikes. When my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances see something bike-related, they often send it my way. This is appreciated, and has helped me to grow my research archive significantly. When friends have a question about what bike to buy, how to fix a flat, or where to find trail rides, I’m their go-to.

Overall this is nice, and I enjoy my alliance to bicycling. But sometimes I want to resist. Because to quote the most famous doper of the moment, “It’s not about the bike.”

Similarly to many others, biking for me has always been about something other than a two-wheeled contraption. Biking is a tool, often a convivial one of the sort celebrated by Ivan Illich. On a daily basis, it gets me around town with minimal fuss. In the past, it has been a tool for exercise and exploration. When I came to Davis, it became a space to overcome my fear of basic mechanics and repair.  In my research, biking is a means through which to feel the traction between bodies, technology, and nature.

It’s not that I’m in love with biking, so much as I love what biking can do for me. It’s good to think with, be with, do with.

This was originally written as a talk for a panel, “Get your theories up and running with lively machines” at the 2009 Society for the Social Studies of Science. Three years later, the marathon continues…

I am curious about the endurance of academic writing.  I sought to transpose exertion interviewing, interviews done with athletes as they train, onto academics, specifically graduate students.  I found that athletes would respond differently to questions in the moments of physical exertion than they would at other times.  I wondered, would academics do the same?  And what would the moment of exertion look like?

Turns out the loneliness of the long distance runner is nothing to the loneliness of the academic writing.  Writing seems to be a very solitary activity for most graduate students I spoke with.  They sit at their chosen location and encounter the blinking cursor alone.  Some choose to make their solitary confinement explicit by cloistering themselves away in an office or bedroom.  Others choose cafes, but speak of the necessity to block out the sounds and bodies around them.  Only the Internet connects.  Email, blogs, facebook, and chats connected some writers to other bodies.  However, they often framed these other bodies as distraction rather than helps.

Despite the straining distraction of the Internet, online interaction still seemed the best model for applying exertion interviewing to academics.  Catch them while they’re at their most productive, and intra-rupt!

I asked them questions.  What are you doing right now?  Where are you?  How do you feel?  Are you comfortable/uncomfortable?  Does anything feel particularly good or bad?  Their response time said as much as the pure text of their answers, though I cannot say I understand the meaning exactly. I also interviewed some of these graduate students in person, out of work mode, at local coffee shops, where I work a lot.

It turns out we graduate students often do research and writing in quite painful ways.  Marge Simpson once chastised Bart for making fun of graduate students, saying, “They’re not bad people, they just made a terrible life choice.”  The Ph.D. comic strip makes the pains of graduate student life into its main source of humor.  But is this pain productive?  Is academic work like the old saying goes, “No pain, no gain”?

A little discomfort can be a good thing.  Some graduate students expressed a desire to feel slightly uncomfortable when they wrote.  It made them more present in the moment, and less likely to fall asleep.  David works in his office at a “really big desk” in a wooden chair, ornately carved made especially for UC Ph. D. alumnus in urology Dr. Blake, which David picked up at a garage sale for $20—detritus of a messy divorce.  He describes the chair as “comfortable enough.”  “I am sometimes temped to get a cushion, but kinda like that I get uncomfortable after sitting for awhile.”  His mahogany desktop digs into his elbows after a few hours of work, but he likes this mild pain, as it keeps him present.  He also describes the bodily soreness he gets from evening weightlifting sessions as a sensation that “keeps me present.”  For David, the sensation of embodiment made manifest through slight physical discomfort links him to a particular present, a space and time in which he must be productive.

Another graduate student, Katie, engages in bodily practices that for most would be characterized as sacrifice or self-abuse.  She describes herself as “absurdly organized—it’s a sickness really” and is happy to have found the “one industry that rewards it.”  Like an embodied version of the comic strip, she laughs as she describes the many ways her work habits have “wrecked her body.”  She refuses the sacrifice narrative, though, saying “It’s predicated on this idea that I and my body are distinct things.  You know, the body sacrificed for the sake of the intellectual mind, it’s so stupidly Cartesian, the idea that you have to sacrifice corporal or mental health.  They’re not distinct things and you don’t own them.”  Katie’s rejection of the liberal humanist body is deeply personal and embodied.  But it is also troubled.  Her eighty hour a week work schedule inflicts exhaustion and her body talks back.  Days come when she just cannot do a thing, physically or mentally, due to sheer exhaustion.  She requires her body to say “no” rather than negotiate with discourses and practices of health.  She says, “I love this more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone.  I would rather die in my office at 35 than stop…”

For others, discomfort and pain was not a motivating factor.  Soreness came from studying, but they did not notice it until they moved.  For these graduate students, writing was often associated with immobility, and a disengagement with the body.  That which drew them back into the body—external distractions, fidgeting, uncomfortable chairs—was avoided.  Often students sought out “comfy chairs” for work.  These students often would not notice mounting soreness in their bodies until they moved.  They also located their pain in specific places, and often to specific behaviors.  Jacob tends to wrap his ankles around the legs of his chair, leading to pain in his legs when he unwraps them.  Dani feels pain in her neck attributed to hunching over the screen, and fears someday developing “the professor’s slouch.” Janet prefers to write reclining in bed, her computer resting on her chest.  This makes her neck hurt, but she enjoys it because sitting at a desk makes it feel “too much like work.”  In this position, she feels much less nervous and enjoys her work more, a sentiment that came through when we chatted as she reclined.

For Janet and others, certain embodied practice of academic work keep them sane.  Without a hint of a smile nor a modicum of exaggeration, David says, “I’m either disciplined or I’m crazy.” Janet acknowledges that she “needs a psychotherapist to change my habits, but I think (what I do now) is the best way.”  Julie and Katie channel compulsive work habits into high productivity and embrace the fact that they are wrecking their bodies.  It is the only way they know to survive.  To a greater or lesser degree, these are all ways we “do research” in the sense that Mol & Law talk about “doing diabetes.”  More than  text is made in this process—so also are bodies, spaces and objects.

So self-help becomes self-torture, and self-torture becomes self-help.  Sensation, even of pain, becomes a site of concentration.  A strain in the back tells you that you are alive.  A pain in the wrists keeps you in the present.  Therapy happens at the writing station, but the therapists are the keyboard, the pen and paper, the space, the lighting, the chair.  Sitting cross-legged makes a nervous student feel more stable.  Resting wrists on a hard surface makes writing more concrete.  Editing with a pen in hand grants more “control” and flexibility over the writing process.  So, too, the problems of writing, and the writing self, come to exist outside the skin.  Doris muses, “I just need to buy better lamps…maybe then I could read more, just pick up a book and read.”  Noisy conversations at the next table over distract.  Daniel is convinced that he cannot write without a cigarette. “I know it’s probably not true, but I’ll tell you, I’ll sit there for three or four hours and the magic won’t happen.  So I’ll run out and get a pack of cigarettes.”  And always, the next book will have the answer.  Jacob says he “checks out books compulsively,” and others spoke of the desire to have more time to read.

The limits of the body are leaky, and we make ourselves through objects and machines.  But it seems some forms of making the self might be “better” than others.  And how are we to know what is best?  We are confused, we are damaged, we are tortured.  Worst of all, we did it to ourselves.  We need help.

In theory and in practice, we have no idea where our bodies begin and end, nor how to heal them when they rupture.  Might writing be part of this process?  It seems the direction of writing to or from our bodies matters: obligation to or motivation from, which Joe will talk about more soon.  Coming to bodies, in the form of assignments, deadlines, and the like, writing can become an obligation for another.  Motivated writing lives more comfortably in the body, and perhaps leads to better embodied practices of writing.  Of course, in either case the relationships between the writing and the body craft physiological responses.  Hormones proliferate, muscles shorten, necks crook, wrists ache, stomachs paunch.  The bodies of graduate students I chat with are as damaged as the bodies of athletes I run with.  We refuse to take the time to care for our bodies.  We forget that the borders of ourselves and our writing are burst and the mess is all over our computer screen.

Perhaps the best self-help might come in minding our relationships better.  We can not only demonstrate care for our companion species, but also let our companion species care for us.  When Dani works, she sits on the floor and types at the coffee table.  While she does this, she also plays fetch, rhythmically throwing a ball for her hyperactive herding dog.  She is forced to leave the house, get away from her work, two to three times a day to walk the same dog, happily and unremittingly demanding her care—care for both dog and person.  David’s five-hour block of work time is dictated by another, his young daughter.  To care for her, he must care for himself through a regimented schedule and a discipline that allows for spontaneity.  Janet spend enormous amounts of time reading forums of what’s happening in her home city and gets nervous if she’s not doing this.  What seems like avoidance of writing might actually be care for connections, caring for others, both human and machine, as care for self.  Perhaps we can best craft our writing body by caring for others—both human and non-human.

I wonder if care for others can also help us to develop a different ethic around pain as well, where pain brings comfort.  When I run hard, a cramping pain seeps into my lower abdomen.  The day I learned to hug the pain, rather than fight it, I felt better and ran faster.  The pain did not dissipate, it simply became a part of me.  Studies of athletes reinforce my experience, indicating that athletes who acknowledge and work with their pain, rather than ignoring it or fighting it, do better and improve their performance.

Now, what would it mean for us, as STSers, to hug our pain?  What sort of communities of meaning-making might we foster to help mitigate the suffering of pain, to make pain more productive?  I admit I’m not quite sure, but I know it has to do with favorite pencils, lined notebook paper, laptops, scissors, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, children, partners, friends, colleagues, hormones, fingers, necks, backs, eyeglasses, word counts, clocks, chairs, coffee, whiskey, tea, beef jerky, popcorn, cheese, Modafanil, brooms, and whatever else makes writing a pleasure-pain, or pain-pleasure.

To read Joe Dumit’s perspective on STS and writing, see his paper on Sitzfleisch.

Please feel free to share your stories of writing pain and pleasure!

Places Go Stale

Moving is crucial to my writing process. Sometimes this is as simple as standing up and stretching. Sitting in the same place too long the body dulls. The mind wanders and fingertips flip back and forth between the writing screen and the Internet. This is a sign that stimulation is needed. The body-mind place is going stale.

This moment often feels sleepy too. This is when my eyelids get heavy and my brain gets foggy. And sometimes a nap does help.

Other times (such as today), I step outside. Stretch. Eat a banana.

Do not return to the same old stale!

I move from the couch to a table outside on the porch where I can feel the cool breezes. My mind gets sharper. My fingers feel a pulsing flow as if they cannot stand not clicking away one word. They practically shake with excitement.

Writing is always a bodily affair tied to place.

Does spending more money on an activity, such as mountain biking, produce greater pleasure? I really want to answer this question with a resounding no, but at the end of the day perhaps that’s not totally honest.

Over and over in my interviews, people talk about “just having fun” as being the driving force of early off-road riding. It was precisely this fun the drove them to invest more deeply into riding, both in terms of time and finances. Better technology, better bikes, better riding? More fun?

I spent $1,500 dollars on a gorgeous full-suspension bike that I love. Riding on this bike is more fun than riding on my old $400 hard tail. Though this was a huge expense for someone on my graduate student salary, I do not regret it. I’ve learned a lot about how riding technology affects riding ability, and how a bike can make a person a better rider. The new bike makes riding more pleasurable and increases my desire to ride.

Quality equipment is pricey. And quality equipment can improve an athlete’s performance, ability, and comfort. This, in turn, can produce greater pleasure in the activity. So maybe you can buy greater pleasure after all.

Transitions

Writing has been hard lately. Perhaps this is because life has been hard lately. Writing is a highly embodied process for me, and at the moment being connected to my body is a difficult thing. There’s lots of helpless emotions brewing and processing, sometimes bursting from my body in unexpected and sometimes embarrassing ways. I’m fairly certain my attempt to keep these explosions under control is part of what has made my writing so stilted and paltry lately.

At the same time, another strange change has occurred that I only recently became aware of. In the past, when I was upset, I ran. I found that I couldn’t cry and run at the same time, which brought a sense of clarity and control. Though I would never necessarily work out my problems on the run, I would often feel better at the end with endorphins and exhaustion coursing through my veins.

Lately this failsafe method of body-mind-emotion confluence hasn’t been working so well. In fact, running has elicited more breakdowns that it has helped in recent days.

What has helped is riding the smooth trails of the mountains on my bike. Concentrating on the curves and lines of a just-right technical trail make me exist in the moment with a new confidence that leave me feeling solid. The burning of biking is different than running, but more in line with my bodily needs at the moment.

I’ve yet to determine what this means for my writing. But like biking, I hope that practicing in this new writing-body will also produce comfort.

Cloud Riding

The clouds were low, and we were high.

Imagine, riding atop fluffy, billowy pillows. You can ride up and down their steep plumes, with no fear of falling, since a poofy soft landing will greet you.

Cloud riding is nothing like this.

Real clouds are wet, damp places. Riding in the clouds is riding in a fog bank, but wetter. Rain falls without falling. Everything is muddy and slick. The rocks are still there.

The good news is you can see where the water flows.

At the beginning of the ride, I was advised, “Water is your friend.” Follow the flow of the water. Watch how the water moves over and through the rocks. This is the path of least resistance. Let it be your guide as you flow down the rocks. Flow like water.

This is much easier on my new full suspension bike, which yields to the rocky surface, making me feel as if I am floating up and down the rocks. I flow over the rocks in my braver moments. Other times when I am not brave I walk and try not to slip on the slick surfaces.

I am flowing over the rocks. This is much easier than on my old bike. Flow. Be the water.

Suddenly I experience an intimate encounter with the rocks below me. Palms and thighs collide with stone. I look behind me, and spot a thick sawed-off madrone branch gently vibrating from the force of its collision with my handlebar.

Damage report: twisted handlebars, a bruised palm, and a heightened awareness for the greenery.

Telling stories

“The story of a ride like today is a freakin’ novel.” So says my riding partner.

He’s right.

Each ride is a story that stretches from the tendrils of the unopened lily to the straining and slowly decaying muscles of our bodies. It is massive rocks stacked like wafers, whose dimensions change with distance. From the trail, these tell a story of even symmetry and the ongoing patterns of layering in geological time. Up close, I imagine these massive structures talk about grain and texture, foothold and handholds, risk and wonder.

There is never just one story of a ride. It’s multiple from the start, and in the end I like to choose one strand that epitomizes what most needs saying. Today I need to tell the story of how impoverished telling these stories remains. Or maybe how fleeting they are. Or perhaps they are personal in a way that matters most to the one telling the story.

Ride reports are often long, and in my opinion, can read like the story of a longwinded and breathless child. “And then, this happened…and then, this other thing happened…Are you still listening? This is really cool…And then, something else happened…You shoulda been there…”

You shoulda been there.

Maybe that’s one of the important functions of ride stories. To invoke a yearning, in the self to ride again and in the other to join.

Ride reports often point toward feelings, sensations, and emotions. They are about burning muscles, fatigue, bonking, recovery, exhilaration, wonder, contentment, peace, adrenaline, focus, flow, one-ness, laughter, fear, hope, loss… These are difficult things to recreate in text.

Long rides–really any long endurance undertaking–can start to look a lot like a metaphor for life. Fresh-faced to weary, persistence pays off. It’s not always fun, but there you go. That’s life. This is a common trope in accounts of ultrarunning and “epic” ride reports.

Maybe telling the story helps us to sort things out. Sometimes a ride is not okay, and persistence does not pay off. Telling the story can help to reconcile the tragedies of varying sizes and proportions. They can give a series of events meaning and provide purpose, particularly in the face of futility and loss.

Maybe the little stories are practice for when we really need narratives that save us.

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