Progress of Happiness

By most measures, including of course the physical ones, I was fat when I graduated from college and moved to San Francisco. Sure; I wasn’t you-need-to-buy-two-seats fat but I was definitely I-am-not-giving-you-my-number fat.

Just like most people, I have confused excuses for the reasons; Pittsburgh was cold all the time and it was easy to order food than to go out, buy groceries, come back, cook. Also, I happened to have a girlfriend who seemed to not mind it thatmuch. And probably, the biggest reason of all is that while I knew I had a couple pounds extra, I still felt like I wasn’t that fat.

While I am not sure what exactly was the trigger that made me realize I let things get out of hand, my hunch is that having a picture of me taken and published on a semi-prominent blog, along with all my co-workers.

See, I think during all that time when I was fat, I think I successfully avoided my picture taken. Not so much consciously, but more with the knowledge that it would come out not particularly flattering.

So when that photograph was published and I sent it to one of my friends, I found myself prefacing her exposure with “oh my god, those are most horrendous looking muffin tops ever”. I hope to never string together more offensive, childish yet true set of words together about myself.

I thought, or rather believed, that I could make some basic adjustments to my diet and see what happens. Particularly because it was a big part of the culture at the boarding school I went to, I had a big affinity for pizza and probably ordered one or two or more every week. I decided that if I could just stop ordering pizza and go out and eat something else, that would be hopefully make a difference. In fact, I even started a wager with my one of my co-workers; if I could not go without eating pizza for several months, until some deadline, he’d have to buy me a really good one at a fancy place. We both knew the irony but it was all in good will.

I am not sure how long this went on. I am sure, however, that I did lose some weight but nothing to write home about.

During all this, on one particularly boring Saturday, I found myself somehow looking at pictures of road bikes online; I think the train of thought went like me reading about a really high-tech, obnoxiously expensive bike on one of the many blogs I followed; then wondering what the state of the art that is accessible to mere mortals was.

Like many kids, I had a slight fascination with all sorts of transportation devices; I had posters of French fighter jets on my walls, I made model planes of Concorde planes, knew basic details about all different types of Airbus jets. (The more uncommon fascination with French engineering can be probably attributed to my dad selling Renault automobiles). I would read up about trains, ships, submarines. Surprisingly, bikes or motorcycles, however, never made the cut for me. Not that I found them primitive; but for the most part I just didn’t know.

So when I was actually looking at those road-bikes on Trek’s website, I realized these things actually looked really cool. I had a basic understanding of how bikes worked, of course, but I really didn’t know that they looked that cool; everything from the slick fonts they used on the liveries to electric shifters seemed like there was some advancement in technology and slight nod to futurism that I was missing out on. That just could not happen. I had to get in on this.

Since I had nothing better to do, I actually hauled my fat ass to a local bike store that specialized in road bikes across the city. While I am sure the people working realized I wasn’t particularly a road-cyclist material at the time, I really had nothing to do and told them that I wanted to test-ride one of the carbon bikes that I thought looked “cool”. It wasn’t the most nicest (or in other words, the most expensive) one but it wasn’t the bottom of the barrel either. The guy happily obliged; he asked for my ID and credit card, took the bike down from the rack and off I went.

I knew how to ride a bike and I did actually ride a Walmart grade bike pretty regularly in Pittsburgh; but this was something that I never experienced before. Literally, I lacked the words to describe how I felt after riding that bike for a mere 10 minutes. I remember taking the bike back to the store, just being speechless how amazing of a feeling it was. I think I described it as “I felt like a ninja, going down those streets”. While that description more speaks to my shallow vocabulary, I have actually heard the same feeling from others pretty regularly.

And there I was, couple hours after reading a random blog entry on a random blog with significantly less money in my bank account and a road-bike that I didn’t even know to how to even change the tire of.

Truth to be told, I think the first couple of rides have been mainly to justify myself the ridiculous expense than to actually enjoy biking. And having lived in Potrero Hill at the time, both because it was close to where I worked and it had gorgeous views, not all those rides were very enjoyable. Since I lived at the bottom of a hill, almost at the center of a “bowl”, I had to climb up a really steep hill both ways. Sure, it wasn’t snowing but it still sucked.

It sucked horribly. The first hill I had to climb was so steep that the first couple days, I had to walk up my couple-thousand-dollar bike up, like a savage. One of the first times I tried to climb up that hill on bike, I actually ran out of stamina, power, or whatever you call it, and literally fell to the side, sliding down the road with scratching my hand pretty terribly.

But I kept at it.

I distinctly remember the first time I actually made it up that hill, I remember feeling that if I could do something that I sucked at so bad couple weeks ago now, I could do apply that to anything. You suck, you fail, but if you keep trying, one day, somehow, you’ll do it.

And from that point on, the same thing kept happening. I found myself being able to do things that I couldn’t do before.

The first time biked a whopping 5 miles from my apartment, and back, all in one go, I remember coming home, and calling and texting all my friends to share my excitement and of course brag about my achievement, though that part kind of went over their heads. Then it was 10 miles. Than 15. Than a whopping 25 mile ride, which I thought was going to kill me. The opposite, turns out.

And of course, while I was slowly becoming a better cyclist, I started shedding all those pounds. In fact, I knew I sucked at climbing hills so much and wanted to get rid of any extra weight as fast as possible. So I signed up for a gym and even hired a personal trainer; telling her that I wanted to lose weight, damn it, because it was keeping me from climbing the hills I want.

Progress, of course, wasn’t without its minor setbacks. As I got sucked in to the world of never-ending bike accessory purchases, I also decide that it was time to get proper biking shoes with clips. Essentially, these shoes attach directly to the pedal, which helps a lot of transfer of energy. However, there is a slight elbow maneuver that you need to master slightly before you can comfortably take off your shoe off the pedal.

Turns out, I sucked at mastering that maneuver also. Maybe not that surprising given that the only sporting activity I have ever did in my life was playing tennis for a few years in grade school, but it was frustrating. And dangerous, to the point of being life-threatening.

I knew that falling a couple times practicing getting the shoe in and out of the pedal was par for the course. Normally, falling would just mean that I’d slowly fall the to side (if you see this happen, it actually looks pretty hilarious) try to laugh it off, maybe pretend to check my chain to act like it wasn’t my fault, and be on my way. One specific time, however, I was unable to take my shoe off the pedal at a red light. Unfortunately, this particular red light was at the top of a hill and I was still on the slope, not on flat surface. So when I fell to the side, I actually started sliding down and to the left into the way of incoming traffic. And I was very, very close to getting seriously hurt by incoming traffic that just started to go downhill and had the worst possible viewing angle to see anything, like a cyclist who had just fallen and was very close to the ground.

Luckily, I managed to skid to the right enough and the drivers noticed something was wrong with enough time to turn right and nothing happened.

And I mean that in all senses of the word; pretty much nothing has changed. I didn’t make it a big deal out of it that I almost died because I was half a second slow then usual at taking my shoe off the pedal. It didn’t traumatize me that I had to stop biking. I didn’t tell anyone how scary it was to know that a minivan who can’t possibly see you is fast approaching you while you are under a bike. I particularly didn’t want to tell my parents or close friends because I knew they’d tell me to be more careful or, god forbid, maybe find a better hobby.

Fuck that. I have found what I loved and I wasn’t going to let it go.

And I got better. The better I got, the better I wanted to get. Sure, now cute tourist girls were catcalling me when I was climbing up those hills in North Beach, I barely even registered them as hills, but there was always one old guy with a 20 year-old steel bike who’d just whizz by you on the way up from Sausolito, both humbling and frustrating you. But I looked at as how no matter how good you think you are, there is always a room for improvement.

But no matter how I did on a ride, no matter if I fell I found myself much, much happier than I started after hours of sweat and yelling and swearing and snot, a lot of snot.

One day, I did reach the both proverbial and the literal peak.

A popular route for cyclists in San Francisco is the Paradise Loop; a route that goes all the way from the city, up Golden Gate Bridge, to Sausolito, and then Tiburon and then climb up a few hills and loop back. Going to Sausolito from Golden Gate bridge means that you essentially turn “right” after the bridge.

One Sunday, I missed the early window of opportunity in the morning when the weather isn’t too hot but since I wanted to do the Paradise Loop, I decided to do it later in the day. So around 4 or 5 PM in the afternoon, I took my bike out, made my way to Golden Gate bridge.

Now, turns out, among many things, I also suck at estimating when it sun sets on a given day (probably because San Francisco has no seasons). So as I was biking on the bridge, I realized it was getting dark and it would be outright irresponsible to try to do the Paradise Loop without my headlight. And that left me two options; I was either going to bike back or just bike up the Marin Headlands, which I never thought about.

That hill, for one reason or another, always remained as this one hill that I never even bothered trying. Not because it wasn’t just steep (which it is) but also because it was really, really long and I just didn’t think I’d be able to find the motivation to finish it. Writing these words, it is outright clear to me that I was just scared of it and finding reasons to avoid it all this time but at the time, for all that time, I was able to have convinced myself enough that I was at peace for not doing anything about it. Mind over matter, indeed.

Well, that night, stars somehow aligned and I decided to just “fuck it and climb it”. So there I went. And I went and went.

The hill just seemed like it wouldn’t end. The first couple minutes wasn’t too bad; I was having a hard time keeping my speed but I was able to do it. But it just looked like no matter how much progress I made, the hill wasn’t ready to give way. And a couple minutes in, I started to feel the pain in my legs. And then, the pain started creeping up. My calves, my thighs, my abs, my shoulders and even parts of my body that were seemingly unrelated to biking.

It just wouldn’t end. I thought about giving up; I did. But not only I was too vain to get off my bike (or really, just lower a gear and go slowly), I was just too steep on a hill.

And then I made it all the way up, saw the amazing view of San Francisco from all the way up and I cried.

And it wasn’t the exasperation, or that the view was so beautiful that I couldn’t hold my emotions in -I do have a soft-spot for breathtaking views- or maybe something else altogether different. It was that at point in my life, I felt the happiest I have ever been in a long time. It didn’t matter that I almost blew out my knee or that I was so spent that my mouth tasted funny, seeing that view as a reward of my hard work made me feel happier than I have ever been, in a very long time.

So here I am today, a mere 2 days before 2013.

I wanted to write all this up because I wanted to remind myself of two fundamental things I learned from a year or so of biking.

The first is that sucking at something is the first step of getting better at it. And that trying really hard isn’t supposed to be easy. In fact, getting better at anything isn’t supposed to be easy. You are bound to get fail, get hurt, fail again before you succeed.

The second and the more profound thing is that what really makes one happy isn’t always what we think it is.

I am not an American but I know enough American history to know that “pursuit of happiness” is right there as unalienable right in founding document of United States, right next to “life” and “liberty”.

While that phrase itself sounds “deep” and thoughtful enough to be universally true, it’s also worth noting on as a side note that the “pursuit of happiness” is replaced with “property” in the U.S. Constitution and “security of person” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But going back to pursuit of happiness; while the scientific literature about happiness is full of examples of what canactually make us happy, we seem to be willfully ignorant of even the smallest things that can bring us incredible joy; things like setting a high goal and doing whatever it takes to achieve it.

As I mentioned; that time I made it up the hill was such a happy, joyous moment for me that I immediately list that as one of my “happiest moments in my life” whenever somebody asks that question. And while enumarating life experiences and talking in superlatives is vain and juvenile but there aren’t many times in my life where I felt as much accomplished, and proud, yet peaceful in my life.

Of course, there are many, many other ways to be happy.

Interestingly enough, the other time I can immediately recall being that happy, so happy that I was speechless and tearful, again includes a similar breathtaking view of a gorgeous city but this time in the company of a woman I held very close to my heart.

Here is to all of you finding your happiness in 2013.