Swimming and Smoking Are a Lot Like Riding a Bike


When I was 6-7 years old, my family would frequently go swimming at a local pool. I would swim for nearly a kilometer (for Americans, that’s 0.6 miles) a day nearly everyday. Even after I went to the United States, I kept up with swimming by taking hourly swimming lessons every week. There I would do some serious swimming, practicing swimming with only my arms or my legs and also holding my breath. I say now that the only athletic thing I did in my youg(er) days was tennis, but for the longest time, I was a far more serious swimmer.

Then I stopped swimming. If I recall, it’s because the coach I was taking lessons with had quit, but the fact that I didn’t persevere suggests I was never that attached to swimming in the first place. The only time I swim now is when I go somewhere tropical and there’s a pool at the resort. The pool isn’t close to an official 25 meter Olympic pool and sometimes they’re barely deep enough for me to “swim” in, but I do try to do a lap or two to see if I can still do it.

It was a shocking realization when I first had to come to terms with the fact I can’t. Putting aside the lack of stamina, which has reached a critical low, I seem to have forgotten the basics of how to swim. It’s not that I sink like a brick; I still remember the most basic skill of treading water. But I don’t have much else.

Notably, I’ve forgotten how to breathe. Whenever I swim freestyle now, I simply hold my breath until I reach the wall because I can’t take a breath when my face surfaces above water, which sort of defeats the whole purpose of the act of bringing my head above water. The problem is that when I take a breath, I take in water with it, which is far worse than not taking a breath at all. At least I can keep on swimming until I run out of oxygen if I hold my breath; if I take in water, I’m sinking like the Titanic.

Needless to say, my inability to recall how I breathe while swimming is the most significant of the swimming skills I’ve forgotten. There are other issues, though. Even if I could breath, I won’t be able to do two laps because whenever I do an underwater turn at the end of a lap, I seem to make a 90 degree turn.

In swimming incompetently, at least I’m only endangering myself. Riding a bike is far more serious. Bicycle is apparently one of the most convenient modes of getting around in the city of Tokyo, but if I have any concern for my fellow citizens, I would not ride one.

In my first month in Tokyo, a colleague took me to lunch at a place that was a good 20 minute plus walk away, so he suggested we take a bike. I haven’t ridden a bike in over 15 years but since I used to ride it, I figured it would be fine so I agreed to take a bike. The years since my las ride really showed. I saddled on, took my feet off the ground and realized that I need to be moving if I didn’t want to get a bruise. So I kicked the bike forward, only to realize that steering is required lest the front wheels will turn perpendicular to the bike. Even when I got the pedaling and the steering down, I still had to navigate through the pedestrian streets of Tokyo. I only know one speed and basically can’t turn, so I relied on the pedestrians to avoid my charge. They gave a look of indignation, but I was simply horrified. That 10 minute bike ride in which the choice was either I kill someone or I get killed was not worth a lunch, regardless of how good it was.

The saying goes, “it’s like riding a bike,” but I now take that phrase to mean that if you had once mastered something but have gotten away from it for years, you will die when you try to get back into it.

Take, for example, smoking. That’s something I hadn’t done since my underclassmen years in high school, but when I was offered a smoke at a club the other day, I figured what the heck. As I took a cigarette and put it to a light, the darn thing wouldn’t lit until the person who offered me one reminded me (twice) that I need to breathe into the cigarette to light it (anyone who passed chemistry would know this). The inhaling part was a bit suffocating but smoking seemed so cool I had to try a second.

After I finally got home that night, very early morning, I felt a nausea I hadn’t felt in years. I sensed death, then realized that while smoking may be cool, the surgeon general reminds us that it causes death. That’s when it hit me.

Cigarettes kill because it’s just like riding a bike.

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