[this essay originally appeared at Lava Step Laboratory]
It’s been over 10 years since I’ve been on a non-stationary bicycle, and since I moved to a town that’s very bicyclist-friendly, I’ve been considering getting a bike and trying it out. Friends have encouraged me, saying getting back on a bicycle is just like riding a bike. This is dubiously reassuring, because there are many other activities I’ve heard are as easy to return to “as riding a bike”, that are actually not easy at all. The fact is, you may have been competent, or even good at something 10-20 years ago, but if you try to do it now, after years without practice, there’s a good chance you will hurt yourself, sometimes in a brutal way, but usually in a mortifying reminder of the cost of skill and practice stopped.
During middle school and high school, through laborious practice, I became reasonably acceptable as an ensemble trumpet player. I peaked, not for the usual reason of lack of practice (though my Dad would disagree), or because of insufficient embouchure (I was able to play for hours, and even hit the vaunted double-high C-- with a 7C mouthpiece no less!), or even because of a hormonal awakening (mostly, I crushed on band girls), but because my severe dysgraphia limited the speed at which I could manipulate the shiny faux-pearl tops of the finger buttons. After high school, I stopped practicing, but for years I played periodically and was even 3rd trumpet emeritus in the prestigious, or play-if-you-have-a-pulse, Amherst Town Band. In a pique of artistic longing, I recently pulled out my trumpet and discovered that playing the notes of a standard Bb scale was at the absolute edge of my ability. Hitting the middle C of the scale generated the same noise a trumpet would make if it had an asthma attack, more wheeze than music. After attempting a couple marches, then dropping down to Hot Cross Buns, my lips had devolved to a set of tingling numbness. Once, I was an athlete of the lips, but those days are past.
The athletic arena is perhaps the most glaring area in which people fall out of practice. My sophomore year of high school, at an alumni reunion lacrosse game, a man celebrating his 10th reunion made a sharp break, totally dekeing out his opponents, and simultaneously, completely tearing the tendon attaching his calf muscle to his ankle. One former teammate of mine (I was on the freshman lacrosse crew for one year, before dropping out for volleyball), who was on the sidelines and got a better view, described it as like seeing a pulled window shade jerk up. The alumna, upon seeing the vein pulse through his now engorged upper calf, vomited, and then, passed out or went into shock. The ambulance took several agonizing minutes to arrive, giving each player, current and alumnus, the opportunity to reflect on how long it had been for each of us since we endured the brutality of two-a-day practices and wind sprints, in full pads, at dusk and dawn: small, repetitive injury that either made us into a team of lacrosse warriors, or in my case, a shin-splinted bench-warmer. Subsequently, there has never been another alumni lacrosse game; the reunion match was as neatly excised from the culture of my alma mater as the alumnus’ Achilles from his heel.
Not only do we lose the things that we don’t practice over many years, but as a culture, it’s possible that in our efforts to make children’s lives as safe and pain-free as we can, American children are missing out on lessons and skills learned through the crucial, bodily negative reinforcement of failure experienced during practice. Part of the reason that learning to ride a bike is a life skill is because it tests the durability of our body, and also our resolve, on a daily basis. Few children learn to ride a bike without some spectacular crashes; I fondly remember some of my worst: a slide down a steep driveway and into a gravel pit; breaking too hastily and hurling myself bodily over the handle bars; and, dozens more accidents, even after I’d “learned”, serving as a refresher course in the fragility and resiliency of my growing body and still nascent coordination. Mistakes riding a bike, climbing a tree, or in selecting acceptable sticks for make-believe pirate duel have a cost in blood, and actually, the more serious, the deeper the respect we earn; a sign-able cast is an envied elementary school status symbol [“You broke your arm—how!?!” / “No big deal: I fell down the ravine on Elmwood St.” :::stunned awe:::].
Recently I scraped myself and was shocked by the blood, the whitened curls of scraped skin, and what followed: I've forgotten how to scab gracefully, and with pride. As a child I compared my scabs to those of other children: the breadth, the color, bruising on the edges, and whether it presented as a granule dusting, or as an exciting maroon exoskeleton, but as an adult it becomes a mark of shame (unless you happen to have gotten it saving an actual child from some gory fate); my platelets still do their programmed job, but the result feels like an unnatural hardship, a mark of immature and/or clumsy activity. When we fall out of the practice of failure and recovery, when we stop scabbing with pride, gradually avoiding all opportunities for injury, we lose an essential piece of our childhood: the badge and learning achieved through recklessly experimental motion.