FRANKFORT, KENTUCKY — My parents gave me a unicycle when I was a teenager, and I became perhaps inordinately fond of it. My first milestone beyond learning to ride it without the help of ski poles was to cycle ten times around the house without falling down. But I didn’t stop there. I proceeded to wander into cow fields and wobble around grass clumps and manure piles and make plans for even grander journeys.
I went to college and got a job working as an intern for The Nation. My plan had been to complete my internship and work myself up the fabled career ladder. But then a very different idea came to me: I could quit and ride my unicycle across the country. Maybe as a unicyclist I’d learned that dizzying turns were possible. Or falls, depending on one’s perspective. I quit the internship and took my grand adventure in 1992, traveling circuitously from North Carolina to Arizona, a backpack hanging from my shoulders. I was twenty-four.
Fifteen years later, I live with my wife, Jennifer, in Kentucky, and my unicycle is hanging in our toolshed, the last piece of foam rubber I used still strapped to the seat. Our house — a small cedar cottage that we built with our own hands — is a half mile away from the road where we park our car, and it’s off the grid, as stripped of necessities, one might think, as a unicycle.
I never was able to get on that straight path to a mainstream future. Is my unicycle a cause or an expression of this? I only know that, in a time when people are consuming more, producing more, rushing more, I have adopted the meandering rhythm of my unicycle, with playful inefficiencies characterizing many aspects of my life. For example, we don’t own a microwave, the totem of fast food in the home. Instead, we cook in an insulated cardboard box with a glass top and reffiectors aimed at the sun. We adjust our solar cooker two or three times during the day; by early or late afternoon, depending on the brightness and constancy of the sun, the casserole or soup or lasagna is cooked.
“What do you do on rainy days?” people ask. This question reminds me of one I’ve received about my unicycle: “How fast can you go?” (A woman in a sports car once registered my speed at zero.) The concern behind both questions is that gratification or arrival may not be instant. We have a gas stove for rainy days — but clouds also influence us, as does bright sun. We may attempt rhubarb pie with a perfectly bright day, baked potatoes with partial cloudiness.
When rain falls, we catch it off our roof and store it in our cellar tank. Then we hand pump it into a bucket in our house. Perhaps as a result we use only a fraction of the water a typical North American couple uses. “Why do you use so little water?” I sometimes hear society ask. Because it’s heavy and scarce? Because restraint lends itself to gratitude? Because I like water?
I’ve attempted to explain my slowness for years, but my answers have always seemed ill-fitting or odd in American culture, which would have us take the straight line, the shortest distance between two points. I am not attracted to this approach, which seems complicit with how quickly we are destroying the planet. The creed of this unicyclist would have us balance out society’s current rush with a bit of hesitation, loopiness.
Yaayy, so grateful to hear of folks like you who “loop their scoop” (on life). Thank you for reminding me of the need to commit to the ideal of “less is more.”
If “less is more” than
NOTHING IS EVERYTHING
Thanks for the great example of simple living – for me the pie cooked in your solar oven made my heart smile – THANK YOU
I love to go slow and enjoy life. Can we create a sense of “effiency” that includes “loopy” and run a good race? win the race? What about excellence and motivation?
Thanks for the thought provoking article.
I love this story! I have an inordinate passion for hanging laundry on a clothesline that I equate as similar to his passion for unicycles… I think it has everything to do with childhood experience. It’s loopy, but at least it makes sense!
Hey Mark, as I read this, I felt myself relaxing, my mind growing more peaceful. Something about the tone and effect reminded me of the great Japanese writer Kawabata. Thanks for sharing it.
I believe happiness is the ultimate measure of success in life, and as such, you have eclisped us all. I am very proud of you for having the courage to actually live according to your convictions. Thanks for the inspiring article and for being a favored nephew.
Actually, what first caught my attention was the unicycle…I have a relative who has a penchant for riding a unicyle and taught his sons this art also. As for the entire essay, very nice, it was like takiing a little break in your space, trying on your life, and agreeing with it, learning a little more from it, and feeling relaxed because of it. Thanks.
Thanks for sharing your story. It helps me feel more normal.