on tenure and bicycling and not dying

*Yesterday I was ecstatic to hear that I had been granted tenure at Seattle Pacific University. This was also a year I took up bicycling again after twenty years. Somehow, these two journeys feel like they were tied together.

It was my first bicycle in twenty years. In twenty minutes I almost died. Well, “almost died” is a little strong, but I could feel the asthmatic webs thickening in my lungs and the air whistling out of a narrowing gap in my throat. Not life-threatening, but not great either.

The bike was a birthday present I had been eyeing for a year. Five years in Seattle and a year before I turned forty, I wanted to feel the freedom of riding through the city, walking into my office with my right pant leg rolled halfway up my calf, feeling like some part of my body other than the ball of my foot got me to work that day.

After a quick easing in to regain my balance I was on the street, letting the slight downhill grade of 28th Ave carry me faster and faster, the wind tightening my face in a tingling freedom. Down Thorndyke, over the little bridge to Magnolia Blvd. “I’ll ride up the hill to see the sound and Olympic mountains,” I thought to myself.

20-some odd gears, the front going small to big and the back going big to small – I had experimented a bit before the hill, just to see how they worked, but I still got confused about what was shifting up and what was shifting down. Now momentum was starting to wane and the pedals stiffened under my feet. No problem, I’ll just shift up… or was it down? That wasn’t right. My feet going from wrenching each half-turn to whirling uncontrollably just to keep a little forward movement. That’s when my lungs begun to fill with thick air and everything got tight and I had to stop and look at the sound through half-closed eyes and wheezing gasps.

It took me awhile before I realized a) biking a hill is its own thing completely and b) how important it is to know your machine and know body.

A bicycle is not a simple machine. It is gears and chain and cranks, coordinating a beautiful, collaborative re-distribution of power. But the power was always mine, never the machine’s. And this power needed to be meted out in a way that understood the possibilities of my body. The cadence of my legs had to be measured according to my physical capacity. As someone with asthma, this had to be a deliberate, steady push and pull of the pedals that would let me fly on the flats. But when I hit an uphill grade, I would need to shift just enough to keep the tension, to feel the pull and the press of my legs into motion, but not so much that all my breath would get sucked into a small portion of the journey. Shift to keep the cadence steady, even if the speed slowed down 22, 17, 14, 12, 10, 8mph.

“On your left!” or worse yet those dang bells, ringing as bike after bike would pass with their tight pants and racing logos and clip-in shoes, me puttering along, slow and steady. I had to look down. I couldn’t watch as they worked their way up the hill, seemingly with ease, without burden, without constraints. Me, working slowly, as only my body would allow, resisting the attempt to switch the gear or pedal just a little faster.

Slowly I’d climb Thorndyke Ave, sometimes looking only at the road in front of me to avoid seeing how far I still had to go. At other moments I’d pick out a car or a “No Parking” sign as short-term goals – but never quicken the pace, keep the gears in their sweet spot, the top would come near soon enough.

The fact that I lived on top of a not-insignificant hill did not make things much better. Every exhilarating ride down was always an exercise in patience and pain on the way up. But I thought, “Surely I’ll get stronger and faster with all this hill-work.” I would beat my lungs into strengthened submission.

But they haven’t yet. Cherry Blossom pollen. Ragweed. Too cold. Too hot. I’ve come to accept that my lungs simply do not like hills, and 8mph up Thorndyke Ave was going to need to be good enough.

It’s probably not a coincidence I decided to get a bike the year I was also set to turn in my tenure file. Tenure, of course, is the sign of a professor’s full acceptance into the academic space of the university. It allows freedom to write and contribute to the community and society in innovative and important ways. It is also increasingly rare in our world of higher education. And I am deeply grateful for the space my university has offered me.

But as I ponder what tenure means for me at this moment, it also feels like a moment of confirmation on a journey of self-discovery, a process of coming to know how I work, a realization of my capacities and incapacities. It’s learning the coordination of machinery and body that is my life, and mastering the ratio of gears that makes going forward possible without dying (or feeling like you are going to die). Learning to see other’s progress and ease not as my failure or incompetence. It’s knowing the and the terrain, where speed will be easy and when it will always by a slog, where there will inevitably be pain and that it will not be forever.

But maybe even more, it is discovering a cadence that lets me get to the top of the hill and breathe in deeply, taking in the beauty of a sun setting across the sound, behind the mountains, or just being able to walk through the door to see my children and not be gasping for breath so I can listen to their day.

All of which makes it that much easier to to ride out the next time.