As a photographer, I tend to see the world as an interesting and ever-changing collection of “interesting shots.” These shots do not include selfies. For while selfies can loosely be defined as photos, they do not reflect the photographer’s eye or how the photographer views something which is not presently seeing itself.
A good photographer can capture the world through a lens. But it’s important to remember that this lens is not on the camera, it is in the photographer’s brain. It is a way of seeing, not an impression recorded by a mechanical device.
So it was when I was walking in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area not too long ago. I spotted a young man seated on a wall, intently studying whatever was currently displayed on his phone, with his bicycle in front of him.
A helmet sat carelessly on his head with the buckle undone. On either side of him sat strangers; one was drinking, one was talking on her phone and the other held her phone in an outstretched hand gazing into the distance while waiting for the phone to spring to life.
This is what the Longwood Medical Area looks like on a clear day, on any day except one characterized by bitter cold temperatures. Such days bring with them a flurry of brisk walking. Hospital employees, researchers, patients and visitors scurry from one location to the next, often appearing to desperately engage in whatever activity brings them outdoors before the next crisis arises and recalls them to another location.
The young man was dressed in hospital scrubs. He was sitting near the Harvard Medical School and appeared to be the right age for a medical student. However, this could have been an illusion. He could just as easily have been a hospital employee or anyone who happened to own a set of hospital scrubs.
Location and context make things appear a certain way to us. Humans are always interpreting things around them, forming impressions and making decisions about what they are seeing. Good photographers do this well; outstanding photographers make us believe that they see, whether it is true or not.
It didn’t matter who the young man was. He was just one of billions of people on this planet. But, unlike the others, most of whom I will never see, he caught my eye. I spotted him because of his bicycle.
It’s no wonder that an avid cyclist like myself would be attracted to a bicycle — or even distracted by it. The bicycle was nothing to write home about. In fact, most people would equate the configuration, sporting a steeply slanted top tube, with a “girls bike.” Perhaps it was actually intended as a girl’s bike.
Yet as many cyclists know, sometimes it’s easier to be able to step through a frame rather than having to climb over the top tube. And, if this guy was a medical person being able to mount and dismount his bicycle quickly might literally be a matter of life or death.
I took this analogy one step further as I imagined this guy’s life. I saw him as a cyclist regardless of what other, unknown things comprised his full identity.
He was seated — for the moment. Still the bicycle told another story. He was resting or waiting for someone who was not riding a bike. That is why he was stationary.
Sitting still was a temporary situation. Then it dawned on me: cyclists are the only group of people who sit while they are in motion, not just when they are at rest.
Such a thing occurred to me because I had just finished listening to a news report about the number of hours per day people in different countries spend sitting nowadays. For most of the developed world the number averaged around eight hours.
In rural places, where manual labor was more prevalent, that figure declined. Nonetheless it was staggering to consider how much of our modern lives are spent sitting.
Our ancestors were always on the move, especially in prehistoric times. To be sedentary meant one was easy prey. It could result in a conflict with a wild animal, which could easily result in death.
To avoid injury or death, our forefathers were in perpetual motion. As time passed, humans spent more time sitting.
Reading, writing, and discussing issues started this trend. Then came televisions, computers, video games and the Internet. Each of these activities required sitting. And, unlike walking, these activities can become addictive.
One becomes so absorbed in activities involving a screen that it becomes easy to lose track of the time. A challenge can be involved, as well. Most video gamers like to best their last score. This requires hours of practice and close concentration. It also helps to block out the outside world and immerse oneself in the world of the game.
Getting back to cyclists as the only humans who sit while in motion, it isn’t difficult to see this as a form of evolution. Humans started out as walkers. Walking was the only transportation option they had.
Invention brought us other forms of transportation, most of them requiring no effort on the part of the human, beyond steering the conveyance in the direction they wanted to go. Somewhere in between fell the bicycle.
It shared many things with walking in that the traveler moved by virtue of his or her own physical exertion. In other words, the vehicle did not move of its own accord; the rider powered it. Therefore, while sitting down, as sedentary people do, cyclists maintained a higher level of activity than their seated counterparts.
What this tells us is that being seated is not always equivalent to sitting. In a chair, of course, being seated is always equivalent to sitting. In a motor vehicle, even though one is seated and moving, one is sitting. But, on a bicycle — and only a bicycle — one is seated while moving.
A bicyclist’s whole body is involved in movement as he sits astride the bike. The cyclist’s legs are pedaling, his body is adjusting its position to maintain balance; arms are used to pull up when climbing hills, to change gears and to signal turns; and the head is moved around to survey a cyclist’s surroundings. Thus, the cyclist is in perpetual motion while seated, making bicycling the most natural transportation form of all.