Fewer Wheels, More Trouble

Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t the easy thing. My trip to work Wednesday morning might be the perfect illustration of the point.

I’ve written before about being a bike and transit commuter and my love of trains. I live about a mile, mostly downhill, from the train station nearest my house. I have neighbors who walk or scoot to the train, but a whole lot of them drive. Biking is faster, healthier and far cheaper for me.


Wednesday’s bike commute, flatly, sucked. It was treacherous and almost erased many months of savings from not driving. I might have been tempted to let it ruin my day, come home in a funk and never speak of it again. But I happened to be reading Mark Manson’s excellent, quite profane “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” at the time. Manson’s idea is that we have a limited amount of time and attention in this life, and only we have the ability to decide where to direct this time and attention. Caring about the wrong things, striving always for perfection and a life free of troubles, not embracing or appreciating failure… recipes for misery.

“Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is ‘solving.’ If you’re avoiding your problems or feel like you don’t have any problems, then you’re going to make yourself miserable. If you feel like you have problems that you can’t solve, you will likewise make yourself miserable. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in having problems in the first place.”

Manson goes on to say that solving problems simply creates more, better problems to solve.

I had plenty of problems to solve on Wednesday morning.

There are aspects to life on two skinny wheels that don’t faze the driver, if they catch his attention at all. When you’re a bike commuter on a normal day, twigs matter. Potholes matter. Inclines matter. You haul yourself up a hill. You try not to think about the four pieces of rubber, each no bigger than a piece of Trident, that stop your 240 pounds of body mass, bike and gear when you reach the bottom. When all goes well, you’ve raised your heart rate, burned a few calories and arrived at the office having saved some money and perhaps a little time.

But that’s a normal day. Wednesday was the day after the big snow and ice event that barreled up the East Coast. A few inches of snow, even in a region that doesn’t handle snow very often, not a big deal. But when it all melts a little after a rain and then re-freezes into ice, things get messy. All three of us had a snow day Tuesday, followed by a two-hour delayed start for school on Wednesday. The roads were pretty clear by then, for cars. But everyone pays less attention to the areas where people get around in other ways. Sidewalks, paths and bike lanes are an afterthought.

Neighborhood park, on a nicer day

I wore my waterproof boots with the good traction. I packed a bag with my lunch and a very expensive, important parcel to mail and strapped the bag to the bike. I left early just in case. I travel about three blocks from the house before I typically ride or walk the bike uphill, off road, through a park, and then bike about another half mile on roads. On Wednesday, the park was a solid sheet of ice.

I walked the bike, didn’t slip, made it up the hill. A lot more bouncing than usual. But no big deal. Dodged a few ice patches on the road, noticed at the bottom of the next hill that my brakes were a little soft. Got to the train station early, only to find a train sitting there. (At our station, when the train is parked, you’re already too late. It boards from the other side and there is no way around without running in front of it — bad idea.) The display board noted that this was the train before my train and it was running 20 minutes late. There was no information about my train.

At this moment, it’s too late.

I needed to get to work, so I decided to reverse course and head for the Metro station — back past my house and another mile beyond. I turned around to get back on my bike, when I realized the bag on the back was gone. Disappeared.

Before the string of expletives had time to form in my brain, I realized I must have dropped it along the way somewhere. This had never happened in dozens of rides to the train. I didn’t feel anything, and I didn’t hear anything. It was time to retrace my steps back home for another reason: find that bag before it got run over by a car!

So I repeated my usual afternoon commute 5 minutes after I finished the morning one. Back up the hill into the deserted ice park, I found my bag. Sitting, unmolested, right by a tree. It must have fallen off while I was wheeling the bike over all those icy bumps. I re-attached it, hustled off to Metro and hauled my folded bike through the turnstile, through the station and down the elevator to the train.

When my overheated, somewhat more exerted and quite delayed self arrived at Union Station, getting off a different train led me straight into the path of a post office. I was able to drop off that parcel without making a separate trip later in the day. Inspired, I decided to stop into the bike repair shop right outside that I’d ridden past so many times. The tech inside was not busy. He put my bike on the stand, tightened and tweaked a few things and didn’t charge me a cent. I figured a $5 tip was the least I could do.

Moments later, an errand complete and riding a much safer and more comfortable bike, I made it to the office. It was still a reasonable hour. I’d solved four major problems before I even properly started my work day. I knew many more lay ahead. But Manson was right — it felt good.

I see the same conductors from the morning on my usual afternoon train too. On Wednesday afternoon, one of them told me they were significantly late that morning. If I hadn’t lost the bag, I’d have stood and waited for that train for a good long while.

Both Thursday and Friday’s commutes were a breeze by comparison.


Also published on Medium.

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