A few months ago, I was driving past the front campus of the university that sits about three miles from my house. It was the beginning of fall semester, and the summer heat was finally easing up a bit. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful weather – jogging, picnicking on the front lawn, and walking instead of driving to class.
As I approached the main traffic light that leads into the university, a flash of movement drew my attention. There was a student – riding his unicycle to class. Backpack crammed full, hands in his pockets, back erect, he pedaled down the sidewalk with the utmost gravity (no pun intended), as though such things were seen every day. He very nearly stopped traffic – certainly had it down to a crawl. We all rubbernecked to get a better look at at this amazing specimen of balance and concentration, with his stylish goatee, perfect posture, and the spiffiest vehicle in town.
I was reminded of the unicycle rider again last week, when I posted the second issue of Agent Tweets. In that post, I made several comments about manuscripts that seem to be headed toward a saturated market, including the following:
Your tale is in old territory, but with a new spin. There may be a thousand Happy Panda stories out there, but your Happy Panda is nothing like anyone else’s. In fact, by the time the agent picked up your manuscript, she was halfway through before she even realized that a Happy Panda had entered the story. Because you went about it in such an unorthodox way, she fell in love with it anyway, despite “genre burnout.”
A unicycle changes everything. You’ve got to admit: riding a unicycle to work or school is fairly unorthodox. After all, there is nothing spectacular about the front sidewalk of the university itself. It’s long, straight, and shaded by mammoth elms and oaks, and skirts an overused, underpaved road with entirely too many jaywalkers. It’s like ten jillion other sidewalks across America. But on that day the old, weather-beaten sidewalk was made brand-new in the eyes of all onlookers. The unicycle raised questions about its terrain, and what that part of the world looked like if you were astride a one-wheeled cruiser, instead of walking or driving. The unicycle put that boring old sidewalk in a wholly new light that needed considering.
A unicycle makes you wonder. For fifteen minutes after leaving the unicycle behind, I wondered whether the sidewalk was as smooth as the rider made it look. I wondered whether he was forced to adjust for every sidewalk crack he ran over. How does he put on the brakes? What about the weight of his backpack? Surely that changes his center of gravity. Does he have a weight limit that he can comfortably carry? What happens if he must come to a complete stop at a crosswalk? Must he hop off and then remount, or can he hold position like that till the crosswalk sign beckons him on? Not to mention the whole practical side of unicycle use, such as – where does he park it? Does he leave it chained to the bike rack, or does he take it into class with him? What decisions led him to making a unicycle his vehicle of choice? What kind of lifestyle would accomodate, let alone center around, unicycle transportation?
One wheel – many possibilities. I suppose several of the above questions would have varying answers, depending on the skill, experience and even (I think) the personality of the unicycle rider. A unicycle in one person’s…er…hands (butt?) would be a very different experience from the next person. But whether they were a skilled unicycle rider (like Coach Bob in the YouTube video linked above) or a beginner, it makes the terrain of the ordinary – the sidewalk, the paths to and from classes, even what the young man was wearing – somehow extraordinary.