On . . . getting back on the bike
There’s a man round my way learning to ride the unicycle. He’s kind of hard to miss. The first time I observed him from the bus stop as he progressed unsteadily down the path. He rode a little, fell off, got back on again and repeated this unholy trinity until he wobbled out of sight. I learned something watching him that day. It’s pretty much impossible to look cool or dignified while falling off a unicycle.
I didn’t expect to see Unicycle Man again. He seemed an odd sight, like an escaped circus animal ambling around the capital’s north inner city trying to get his bearings. I thought the humiliation of falling and getting up again and falling (repeat to fade) in front of the general public might have put him off. I thought he’d be entirely justified in giving up this unicycle lark as a bad job. But then a week later, walking along with my daughters, I saw him again. Still falling off.
“Where is that man’s other wheel?” said one daughter. “Can I have a go of that?” said the other.
I decided Unicycle Man was good for the area. He cheered the place up a bit. When he teetered past us a brass band played a jaunty tune in my head.
John Foss is famous in the unicycling world. He says that learning to ride a unicycle is 60 per cent determination, 35 per cent persistence and five per cent sense of balance. Not knowing much by way of unicycling statistics, I’d have put “sense of balance” much higher, but it turns out anybody can unicycle, anybody who is willing to stick at it that is.
I’ve never been good when it comes to sticking at things. I’m great at the beginning. Practising guitar with gusto, or doing yoga in my kitchen at all hours or making calligraphic flourishes in a special notebook.
And then inevitably the enthusiasm wanes. The humour goes off me. A string on the guitar breaks and the instrument ends up taunting me from the corner. The yoga mat gathers dust instead of downward dogs under the stairs. I come across the battered calligraphy pens under the sideboard, no longer fit for flourishing anything other than the bin.
Unicycle Man is someone who knows how to stick at things. I run through Fairview Park these damp mornings and sometimes I see him there on the basketball court. Up and down the court he goes, falling off noticeably less than when I first saw him a few months ago. Falling but falling better as Beckett didn’t say, a living breathing lesson in tenacity. And he reminds me to think about the fact that here I am, still running, which is a surprise. Watching him, it occurs to me that for once in my life I have stuck at something.
I started running this time last year. In that 12 months I took part in three running events and by the third one I realised I never wanted to take part in a running event ever again. But in that 12 months I’ve also stopped being allergic to physical exercise. It no longer scares me the way it used to. I don’t mind the thought of people witnessing my ungainly steps. I’ve learned that places I used to categorise as being far, far away – like the shops down the road – are actually quite close and accessible quickly by foot. I’ve learned that my feet, as long as I have runners on, are quite reliable as a mode of transport. I go out at night and wobble around this town looking uncool and undignified but not caring anymore. Mostly I don’t like to run too far from my house so instead I’ll go up and down random paths, back tracking, sometimes running in circles just to complete the distance I’ve set myself. I’ve even been known to run several kilometres inside my house when the rain has put me off going out.
There’s another unicycling quote by juggler Charlie Dancey, who said: “It’s impossible to ride a unicycle, some of us have just figured out how to take a long time before we fall off.” I like this because I think life is mostly about figuring out how to take a long time before we fall off.
The last time I saw Unicycle Man I stopped running to stand and applaud him, as though the basketball court were a big top and I was a circus-goer eating candyfloss on a wooden bench. The sound of my clapping made him come off the unicycle, but still, even from a distance, I could see he looked pleased so I didn’t feel too bad. I ran on through the park wanting to say two things to Unicycle Man: (1) Thanks. And (2), can I have a go of that?