The Existential Itch: “It’s the most human thing we can do”

Hindsight gives those of us with writerly instincts the fodder of a script—as if everything is packaged with intent that falls together like a play or a film with a twist.

It was nearly impossible for me to avoid falling in love with science fiction—first, the blended SF/horror films of the first half of the twentieth century, and then, SF novels, often prompted by films—because of my mother’s influence.

That boyhood romance with a genre blurred into my teenage addiction to comic books, Marvel superheroes; I was mostly unaware that this fascination branched into reading, drawing, and the most powerful heroine of all, collecting.

And then by college, I found myself often sitting alone for hours, in the library or my dorm room, reading existential philosophy.

To me now, approaching 60, that all makes perfect sense, although it likely doesn’t to many others.

Insecurity and low self-esteem mixed generously with searing anxiety—this was my cocktail for a frantic pursuit of who I was since mostly I felt an acute awareness that I was unlike most people, most humans.

Crawling out of the heaping ignorance that was my upbringing, simply the facts of my culture and home norms, I consumed SF, comic books, and then philosophy uncritically. In some ways, this allowed me to fall in love without the pressure of acknowledging all the problems I would come to recognize in these seemingly unrelated texts that shaped me.

Let me work backwards.

Existentialism immediately resonated with me; again, in my ignorance, in my true state of being unlike most humans, I never read existential philosophy as some negative or dark portrayal of the human condition.

In fact, existential explanations for the human condition were a tremendous relief since they echoed how I mostly viewed the world (although in a much cruder way).

To feel passion is to suffer; and thus, to seek a life without suffering is to seek a life without passion. As Sartre dramatized, then, hell is other people.

To love deeply is necessarily to hurt deeply, and this math of being fully human, for me, reinforced my commitment to seek passion and love, to resist the urge to avoid suffering (since it is unavoidable).

Sartre’s No Exit as well as Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” and The Stranger remains powerful texts for what being human means to me.

SF and comic books, I realize now, prepared me for this as they both had been salve for my own struggles with questions about the human condition.

It seems fitting, then, that one of the seminal SF loves of my life was Blade Runner (1982). I was 21, and still naive enough to fall in love with its SF brilliance while not yet critical enough to recognize that, like most SF and comic books (and pop culture or literature), the film presented some real problems about whether or not the work reflected or endorsed sexism, racism, and other regrettable norms of the modern human condition.

I saw Blade Runner in the theater, alone and during the day. Nearly everyone else who attended left during the film, but I sat entranced. I have watched it dozens of times since.

And now, finally, I just viewed Blade Runner 2049, a much delayed sequel.

BR 2049

Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) [Photo by Stephen Vaughan – © 2017 Alcon Entertainment, LLC.]

Both films remain grounded in the ideas of Philip K. Dick without remaining strictly true to Dick’s characters and plot found in Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?

As Dick explained:

The two basic topics which fascinate me are “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 depends a great deal on atmosphere, which may allow the casual viewer to ignore some real problems, or at least questions that need to be answered.

Anna Smith reported:

“Blade Runner 2049 has a women problem,” cried the internet this weekend, as the critically praised sci-fi sequel hit cinemas. Tweets and blogs cited the fact that female characters were treated as sex objects, and that the narrative was almost entirely driven by men, including Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunter K and his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Outrage quickly spread, including from those who had not yet seen the film.

Smith later concedes that the film at the very least presents a mixed message:

And, indeed, there are a number of [female] characters. Robin Wright is terrific but underused as K’s slick, strong, black-clad boss, Lieutenant Joshi, and Sylvia Hoeks’s icy baddie Luv is great fun, but in thrall to her male boss (sinister replicant-creator Wallace, played by Jared Leto). Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette shows initial promise as a strong character who can give as good as she gets, but she is also a sex worker who is literally used as a puppet. Visually, sexualised images of women dominate the stunning futuristic cityscapes, from pirouetting ballerinas to giant statues of naked women in heels looming over K as he goes on his journey. Of course, one of the themes of Blade Runner 2049 is a world littered with artifice, from replicants to sexbots – but these mainly seem to cater to heterosexual males. A hint of a woman considering a “pleasure model” is brief and unexplored. Meanwhile Wright’s Joshi appears attracted to K, but she is not permitted to use him for her sexual pleasure. Where is her holographic lover, her Joi?

In the original film, Deckard (Harrison Ford) falls in love with a replicant (and may be one himself); and the sequel introduces “K” (Ryan Gossling) with a hologram girlfriend (one who hires a prostitute, Mariette [Mackenzie Davis], so the hologram and “K” can experience “real” sex).

So these works of SF use android women to make a commentary about idealizing and objectifying women? Or are these works themselves idealizing and objectifying women?

Evidence for the former may be that two women utter directly some of the essential Dick themes of the film:

Mariette: More human than humans.

Freysa: Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.

Blade Runner 2049 continues the debate about what counts as real and what makes humans human. The sequel includes the rise of replicants, fighting against their slavery in a quest to be “[m]ore human than humans,” and teases out the possibility of androids reproducing.

I recognize this time around the problems with the sequel, ones that occur in the original, but I will come back to this film again and again. I must find a way to resolve for myself why I flinched when “K”‘s hologram girlfriend is destroyed—although I suspect we all want love, and see in those who have it a thing to be treasured.

But this film, and all its existential meanderings, comes as I myself am struggling with an existential itch, trying to reassemble a puzzle that I once held dear, a puzzle scattered and I feared permanently ruined.

After about 13 months of self-exile from one of my passions, road cycling, I am now able to stand back and realize the loss that comes with trying to find ways to avoid suffering.

In the last week, I have ventured back onto the road with my cycling friends. Despite the rides being relatively brief (a couple hours each) and typical winter casual rides, I felt the same elation I may have allowed myself to ignore after thirty-plus years riding, may have been unable to recall after the accident that shook me into admitting I was done with road cycling.

Certainly, life provides no guarantees, and we can seek a life as free of unnecessary suffering as possible; we should be making that true for others (and here Blade Runner 2049 does makes a case for how unnecessarily awful the world is for children and women).

Deckard tells “K,” “Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger,” a confession or justification for never seeing his child with Rachael, his replicant lover.

Later when Deckard is being used to find that child, Niander Wallace offers a key point about Deckard’s quest to avoid his own suffering and the suffering of those he loved: “It was very clever to keep yourself empty of information, and all it cost you was everything.”

To live is to risk everything. To avoid risk is to avoid life. And love.

Maybe few things are more fully human than our need to be reminded of this over and over as long as we are fortunate enough to have the options.

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A Year of Loss and the Things that Define Us

People who quit smoking often explain that part of the struggle with quitting is that without smoking they don’t know what to do with their hands.

Smoking often defines the smoker, and quitting is more than an end to smoking; it is a terrifying experiment in redefining the Self.

My parents were both smokers who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s; and they both quit, although on much different terms—Dad quit while I was in high school, and Mom only many years after I had moved out. When my mother died (7 December 2017), the final straw was stage 4 lung cancer.

That was just a bit over five months after my father’s death.

2017 for me was a year of loss that began with the thing that defined me being taken away as well—road cycling—after a senseless car accident on Christmas Eve 2016 that impacted directly four cyclists in a pack of 10, but resonated throughout our entire cycling community as well.

Mountain biking and some running have slipped into the gap where road cycling used to be, but like ex-smokers who don’t know what to do with their hands, I remain often lost without road cycling.

My life as a road cyclist stretched over four decades since the 1980s with some waxing and waning, but from about 2003 until 2016, I was logging around 9,000-10,000 miles a year on the road and leading weekly rides as well as organizing pretty big cycling events.

WBL dec 2015

Social media can be cruel; this image from 2015 captures the thing that defined me that was not a part of my life in 2017. I take a break here at the back of the pack, riding the green Ridley that was destroyed in the car accident.

I was cycling seriously about 4-5 days a week without fail, regardless of weather, regardless of professional and personal obligations.

It was what I did.

It was who I was.

And for the most part, that meant no questions asked by family, friends, or colleagues.

My first class meeting of spring 2018 was my evening course, a new writing/research-intensive offering for my department and university. As students filed in, I arranged the handouts and such on the table at the front of the room, and checked that my smartphone was on vibrate, placing it face-up and in easy view near the piles of papers.

Then it hit me.

My smartphone obsession was in part due to having had infirm parents for many years, always on alert that they could call during class, and if so, it was probably urgent.

That moment was the first time I confronted that part of my life being over since both parents died in 2017.

In that flash of realization, I also thought about the beginning of class in January 2017—when I was barely able to walk, using a cane to counter the limp from a fractured pelvis.

Over the weeks and months of physically healing from the fracture, and looking for ways to regain my athletic life, I was forced to think about the other things that defined me.

Fortunately, as a teacher/professor and writer, those aspects of who I am were mostly unscathed—although all loss reminds us of the fragility of being human, the temporal nature of all that we do, all that defines us.

My journey through my 50s was already haunted by a lingering fear of the end of my cycling life well before the accident. I was riding at very high levels of intensity and with elite cyclists.

No one maintains these physical levels of exertion, I was quite aware, but having that fear turned into reality in a blink, and in a way beyond my control, was far more psychologically scarring than I really would like to admit.

But here, yes, I am admitting that.

When people refer to me professionally, they still tend to say I am an English teacher, even though I have not been one in over 16 years.

When people talk about me as a writer, they mention that I blog—I tend to hear “just a blogger”—and that I am prolific, often a back-handed compliment that carries more than a whiff of brushing aside.

I tend to weather those pretty well, I think, because my teacher/professor-Self and my writer-Self are quite resilient after well over 30 years at both. Those moves have much left to improve, but I have them in pretty good form; people tend to think I do them effortlessly, and that is a testament to all the hard work leading up to now and all the hard work I do when no one is watching.

Teaching and writing are things that define me, and I love them, I cherish them.

I am equally terrified of losing them in the ways road cycling was stripped from my life.

Alzheimer’s. Blindness.

Yesterday in the just-at-freezing midday temperature, I joined two friends, Rob and Wayne, to mountain bike for the third day in a row over the MLK holiday weekend.

Rob and Wayne were close members of my road cycling life—Rob and I mostly about equal in our cycling abilities, and Wayne an elite cyclist who inspired me to keep at it on rides even as I reached my limits.

We planned to ride about 1.5 hours and wanted to head over to a trail we typically avoid due to heavy horse traffic. The trails were muddy from recent rains, but some of that was frozen, making for an interesting day of slipping and plowing over and through sections both slick and solid.

Just a couple years ago, Rob, Wayne, and I were regular members of the so-called A group of area road cyclists. Yesterday, Rob and Wayne simply rode away from me, waiting at intervals as I crept up to them—at one regroup, me tumbling over with a disturbing thud just as I reached them.

Especially after my year of loss, my MTB rides are equal parts bitter frustration and a constant reminder that at least I can ride.

I used to be a fairly accomplished road cyclist, and now I sputter off the back; slip, step off, or crash; and generally flounder as a mountain biker; this simply is not the thing that I want to define me as I approach 60.

I have never been one for arbitrary traditions and things like holidays or celebrating the new year, especially with resolutions.

But with 2017 being a year of loss, and as I age not so gracefully, I feel the tug of a new year, and the allure of having some hope to regain the thing that defines me.

I know I am tired after 2017, psychologically drained and physically weary.

I also know I am tired of sputtering off the back, floundering on mountain bike rides, and too often dreading all of that against the Siren’s song of just riding that I still hear loudly.

Smokers quit for many reasons, I imagine, especially now that public smoking is shunned, but primarily, I think, smokers quit as some sort of very human resistance to death. Not many people inhale a cigarette gleefully expecting to die of cancer.

My last accident on a bicycle involving a car was actually my fourth incident so I must admit that road cycling always confronted me with the specter of death—like a smoker lighting up each time.

I lay in the ER Christmas Eve 2016 realizing all the people I would have to look in the eyes, most of them again, with some anticipation about if or when I would once again pedal along the road. That last time was the first as a grandfather, and I couldn’t shake the weight of those eyes as I thought about the very real likelihood that I would never again be a road cyclist.

It’s been fourteen months since then, and I still don’t know what to do with my hands.

Brave: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

If memory serves me well—and it is failing in that regard as I tumble toward 60—this is my fifth summer in a row to take a week-long or so vacation grounded in cycling.

For a couple summers, we went to Colorado, Boulder and Ft. Collins, but now we drive the brief hour just north of where I live to Asheville, NC.

But for all the proximity of geography, I might as well be slipping through a worm hole or walking into some sort of science fiction portal involving much more than time.

Jack of the Woods

A blue grass band performs at Jack of the Woods in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

This summer of 2017 has come at significant costs to someone with incredible privilege and a life of mostly leisure—a traumatizing car and bicycle accident at the end of 2016 and then June brought my father’s death just days after my mother’s stroke.

More physically and psychologically tired than I can ever remember being, I walk around Asheville now as the U.S. spirals further and further into proving ourselves to be a truly awful people—primarily because of what we refuse to do.

The majority political party, Republicans, maintain a relentless drumbeat toward repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), pronounced Obamacare, as political theater and a not-so-thinly veiled next step in the renewed racist energy embodied by President Trump.

While the virulent racists in the U.S. may be few, the “best lack all conviction,” more than willing to remain neutral on this moving train of inequity.

A sizable majority of comfortable people (what we enjoy calling “the middle class”), mostly white but all financially stable enough, may think things are bad here and there, but doing something about pain and suffering for the struggling among us (children, the elderly, carers, the disabled) could disrupt what they have, and they’ll risk none of that.

Just last night a few senators (all of whom are enormously wealthy) stalled (derailed?) yet again the repeal of the ACA—some offering rhetorical flurries about their own medical struggles and eliciting praise for their bravery in the face of political pressure.

Also last night, I had a conversation about the fractures among feminists, specifically involving someone such as Emily Ratajkowski who shares a sort of capitalist feminism once championed by Madonna—the right for a woman to control and market herself as men are free to do even when that crosses a line viewed as objectification or sexualizing.

Not to be too simplistic, but Ratajkowski is the sort of brave witnessed in the senators—brave within a system but unwilling to overthrow a system that benefits them.

And I watch and feel this as I walk around Asheville where a bohemian way of life looks brave to me but is really not that brave at all in Asheville, where this has become normalized by being monetized. Part of the tourist schtick of Asheville is dreadlocks, tattoos, tie-die, and quirky eateries along with lots of breweries.

I mean lots of breweries, including the mega-craft brewery New Belgium, which boasts a powerful ownership model and much-praised corporate values.

NB Asheville

The view from the back deck of New Belgium Asheville is scenic and a picture of revitalization of long-ignored areas of cities. But how often do we ask for whom and why?

So on vacation for daily mountain biking and several rounds of breweries each afternoon, I am mired in thoughts of bravery—or to be honest, the lack of bravery in me and those around me whether I am where I live or here in Asheville.

No matter where you go, there you are, and mostly everyone is cowardly and selfish.

And as I often do, I think about the reduced circumstances of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The rarely discussed consequence of the sacred Invisible Hand is that it keeps us often frantic so that behavior that falls short of any sort of human decency looks brave—senators barely keeping a healthcare system afloat that is criminally inadequate but even so better than the alternatives being promised.

To be brave, then, wherever you live, wherever you are, comes with great personal costs. As Ratik Asokan writes: “Most middle-class Indians hate Arundhati Roy—or, rather, they hate the political activist she has apparently become.”

Roy, it seems, has committed the sin of bravery, a sin most offensive to the so-called middle class—and this is about India, a country of tremendous poverty.

“Fiction is the only thing that can connect all of this together,” Roy explains about returning to the novel as a writer after decades writing essays as a political activist. “Fiction is truth. You turn to fiction when you can’t express reality with footnotes and evidence and reportage.”

Normal, it seems, becomes powerful and evil, ultimately. No matter where you go, there you are with your normal against the normal around you.

I feel both at home and entirely out of place in Asheville, but I am merely visiting and spreading my disposable income around town, often at breweries and restaurants where I am just wasting time and hoping to come out the other side—if not brave at least a bit less of a coward.

See Also

The Low Road, Marge Piercy

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.

 

Anything

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

Broken, I lie here writing after having been handed an entirely new life not of my choosing, an accident in the first week of my holiday break probably redirecting a significant part of my life as a recreational cyclist.

That first week of recovery was consumed by pain and immobility, but I was not able to relax and read, although I thought that would be one positive to the situation.

This week, however, as most everyone has now returned to work, I find myself entirely alone. I resumed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, a 2006 novel focusing on Nigeria during the 1960s.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun

Reading this essentially political novel in 2016-2017 has been chillingly prescient about the current U.S., and while I balk at the use of the term “universal” since it tends to be a veneer for normalizing privilege, Adichie’s narrative often exposes the enduring.

In Part Two: The Late Sixties, the section opens as the novel does with Ugwu, an Opi village boy who is a servant for a Nsukka University professor, Odenigbo.

Several years have passed in the story, and Ugwu is temporarily back in his village:

His visit home suddenly seemed much longer than a week, perhaps because of the endless grassy churning in his stomach from eating only fruits and nuts. His mother’s food was unpalatable. The vegetables were overcooked, the cornmeal was too lumpy, the soup was too watery, and the yam slices coarse from being boiled without a dollop of butter. He could not wait to get back to Nsukka and finally eat a real meal. (p. 151)

This is a powerful scene in the context of the first paragraphs of the novel as Ugwa walks to Odenigbo’s house to become his houseboy. Ugwa’s aunt tells the boy, “‘You will eat meat every day'”:

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. (p. 3)

So as I was reading Adichie’s dramatization of politics, privilege, and what is and becomes normal for anyone, I was reminded of Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Meursault’s thoughts from prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of my undergraduate time spent as a student-by-choice focused on existential philosophy and literature, leading eventually to my discovering and embracing the educational writing of Maxine Greene.

So as I recover in the weeks leading to my 56th birthday—a new year, a new age, and this new existence forced onto me—I am deeply moved by “you could get used to anything.”

Anything?

What an ugly thing to be human and having the capacity to get used to anything.

But there was a time in the U.S. when slavery was perfectly normal. There was a time in the world when the Holocaust was perfectly normal.

Because normal, like history, is the province of those with power, a way to render some Others “deliberately silenced,…preferably unheard.”

And today the U.S. is eagerly normalizing a person and ideologies that would have seemed illegitimate just months ago.

As happened to Ugwu, will we in a few short years have our tastes so dramatically transformed that this bitter dish being served to us now will become what sates our hunger?

Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is a brief parable about the “art of fasting”—in which the artist becomes so transformed that he fasts himself to death, explaining:

“Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

A gift of Kafka comes in the final paragraph when he offers the briefest of parables within a parable:

“All right, tidy this up now,” said the supervisor. And they buried the hunger artist along with the straw. But in his cage they put a young panther. Even for a person with the dullest mind it was clearly refreshing to see this wild animal prowling around in this cage, which had been dreary for such a long time. It lacked nothing. Without having to think much about it, the guards brought the animal food whose taste it enjoyed. It never seemed once to miss its freedom. This noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, even appeared to carry freedom around with it. That seemed to be located somewhere or other in its teeth, and its joy in living came with such strong passion from its throat that it was not easy for spectators to keep watching. But they controlled themselves, kept pressing around the cage, and had no desire at all to move on.

Like Ugwu,Meursault, the hunger artist—the panther “get[s] used to anything.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Introduction to Mother Night, a work confronting a Nazi reality now again before humanity, begins:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

I am afraid of who I have become, who I pretend to be, and if I too can “get used to anything.”

And I am near to terrified of the same for the world around me.

Rage

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas

More than 27 years ago, when I was 28 and my daughter, only three months old, a drunk driver hit me while I was cycling with a friend.

The impact broke my ankle bone, leading to a long 10-week recovery over that summer. But as I lay in bed when my parents visited me after I was released from the ER, when my mother said certainly I was done cycling, my dad rejected the idea, knowing I was already planning how and when to ride again.

I have been an avid recreational and competitive cyclist for about thirty years now, completing a significant number of challenging 100-mile and 200-plus-mile cycling events and rides.

Yesterday morning, Christmas Eve 2016, as I found myself trying to stand up from the pavement on the highway passing in front of my subdivision, my sight was blurred and my left hand was bloodied; my pinkie appeared as if someone had bashed it with a hammer.

I had just watched three of my cycling companions flipping and tumbling from the impact of the car that hit me and them from behind. Another five in the group were spared.

This morning, Christmas 2016, I suspect my life as road cyclist is over.

As I have aged, this moment has been one of the things I have anticipated and feared most because it had to happen; our physical selves inevitably decline and the athlete becomes who we were and not who we are.

Now, I don’t want to sound melodramatic because I plan to continue and increase my mountain biking as soon as my broken hip allows (sooner even).

I likely will still occasionally take the road bicycle on rail trails, and have thought about using some of the insurance settlement to buy a smart trainer so my second road bicycle (now the only) has a purpose.

But I don’t want to understate either that this accident in the wake of what seems to be a year of far too many other car/bicycle accidents and dog/bicycle accidents has left me broken—yes, my hip, but also my spirit.

I am afraid.

Among our nine yesterday were 20-somethings and the older crowd in our 50s and 60s; we, the cycling community, are good people, professionals and those who wish to enjoy life.

We were riding legally 2-abreast in the far right lane of a four-lane highway. The motorist was negligent, completely at fault.

But none of that matters to the cyclist airlifted to the ER and who now lies in ICU. Another close friend and I suffered significant injuries, and several very expensive bicycles were destroyed or damaged.

Even when we road cyclists are in the right, we lose versus cars.

The human body doesn’t just wither with age; the human body is quite frail against a ton of metal traveling 40 or 50 miles per hour.

Setting aside for a moment Dylan Thomas’s sexism, I am drawn to “Though wise men at their end know dark is right” because choosing to stop road cycling is wise but not acquiescence, not meekly choosing life over living.

Being human is in fact our mortality, our mutability—but being human is also having the capacity for fear.

As someone paralyzed my whole life with anxiety, I am acutely aware of irrational and rational fear.

Fear is not universally a negative emotion since it is grounded in, ironically, survival instincts— it can be our tool to “[r]age, rage against the dying of the light.”

These things can live with us in the sort of pseudo-movie slow motion of being a witness and a victim simultaneously.

As I rose out of the shock of being hit, I became aware of three other cyclists down, two appeared to be in critical situations.

We were just going out for a recreational 30 miles before spending time with families for the holiday. This is a hobby among friends.

That all seems quite trivial in the desperate moments of an accident.

Thomas ends his poem making his refrain-as-plea to his father, and as I lay in the ER, I saw my father’s hand when I looked at mine; when I tried to stand to leave, I saw my father in a hospital gown, older, struggling to dress as I was then.

So when I was home yesterday and we turned the DVR to Little Einsteins for my granddaughter, she came to me as she always does so she can hold my index finger as she twirls and dances to the opening theme.

My first response was to tell her I was hurt, but then I stood so she could dance before as she always does taking both hands and pushing me back to sitting so I can watch her watch the show.

I am already upset about the road cycling events I will miss now; this has been so much of my life.

But as I stood through the pain and watched my granddaughter twirl, I thought “rage, rage,” and know that missing those rides are pale things compared to that hand.

“Share the Road” about More than Bicycles and Cars

A few days ago, a cyclist just recently introduced to the sport, Joshua Edward Duncan, was struck from behind by a motorist. He suffered injuries that led to his death, and the motorist explained that she did not see him.

Duncan was 31, married, and the father of a 13-month-old infant.

In 1989, a friend and I were cycling in the northern part of the county where I live when a drunk driver hit me from behind before speeding off. I was knocked into my riding partner and suffered a shattered ankle bone. At that moment, my daughter was 3-months old—as I lay in the road, coincidentally one road over from where my sister-in-law lived.

Since a cycling friend of mine who was riding with Duncan texted me about Duncan being struck and killed, I have been unable to stop thinking of two things: back in 1989, I could have very easily lost my life, and the motorist who has not been charged (just as the hit-and-run drunk driver who hit me was never charged even though he was apprehended) explained that she did not see Duncan.

South Carolina has strong cycling laws that guarantee cyclists the right to “Share the Road” in our state, and the signs are nearly everywhere:

I have been an avid cyclist in the Upstate of SC since the early/mid-1980s, many years logging as many as 10,000 miles on roads throughout rural SC and North Carolina.

Along with being hit by the drunk driver in 1989, I have been in two other accident with cars—one in which a motorist dragged a fellow cyclist under the car for a quarter mile leaving him permanently injured.

This motorist also didn’t see us, and despite being elderly, retained his license after the accident.

I live, work, and cycle in SC—the state of my birth. And I cannot ignore that I witness everyday the hollowness of the “Share the Road” signs against the behavior of people.

SC is a stark microcosm of the U.S.—where word does not equal deed.

We in the South are quick to shout that we are pro-life, that we are a Christian people.

And then we drive while texting, we make no effort to allow merging cars onto the interstate, we behave at traffic lights as if we are the only car on the road.

I also cannot ignore that this inexcusable accident taking a young man’s life occurred within days of a local high school coming under fire for banning the U.S. flag at the traditional Friday night football game.

The uproar is a powerful but misrepresented lesson about us as people. The media and the public anger have focused on the flag being “banned,” but almost no one has confronted the real issue: students have in the past and intended at this game to use the U.S. flag to taunt Mexican students at a rival high school.

I taught high school for nearly two decades in this area, and I am not suggesting we overreact to this adolescent behavior; it happens everywhere, and in many ways, it is simply really poor behavior that is the consequence of being young.

And the school had an undeniable moral obligation to teach these young people that bullying and hatred are wrong, unacceptable.

The lesson here is not about the behavior of a few teens, but about, once again, the willingness of adults to wrap ourselves in words and symbolism while refusing to translate those ideals into behavior.

How do we teach young people lessons (do unto others) about hatred while a presidential candidate behaves the same way yet suffers no real consequences—in fact, garners support?

As an educator, parent, and coach, I have always been acutely aware of the danger of hypocrisy—and how it corrodes the authority of any adult seeking to influence young people.

In his “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,'” James Baldwin rightfully proclaimed:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

“Share the Road” as hollow sloganism and the motorist admitting that she did not see the cyclist she struck and killed with her car—these raise a concurrent truth to Baldwin’s: the rigid refusal to see the other.

And it is destroying us—literally and figuratively.

#BlackLivesMatter is a confrontation of the fact that white America refuses to see black America and the inequities they suffer.

A presidential campaign built on slandering Mexicans as rapist and murderers; on building a wall; and on casting out Muslims—this is a rigid refusal to see ourselves and the other, and it is breeding another generation of hatred.

A couple of springs ago, a friend and I met for our weekly Tuesday evening ride on the westside of town. We rolled out early to do a warm up lap and chat.

As we rolled two-abreast down a small country road, a highway patrolman parked there and apparently monitoring speeding stepped out of his car and stopped us, telling us to ride single-file.

I politely told him that SC law is two-abreast, and he replied, “Really?”

He was neither aware of the law, nor willing to see our right to be on the road as cyclists.

Law enforcement unaware of the law, unaware of the larger concept of justice, and unwilling to see the other—this is now in front of us in disturbing ways, and this is why many people are raising voices.

And many years ago, on a Sunday morning like the one today, I was riding my bicycle from my home to my in-laws to have lunch with my family.

A car zoomed by me, nearly clipping me, swerved immediately in front of me, slowing dramatically, and then turned onto an exit ramp as I raised my hand in the “what in the world” manner (and, no, I did not offer a one-finger salute).

The car suddenly stopped on the exit ramp, and I saw clearly it was a family dressed for church, children in the back seat. The diver, a man in a nice suit, stepped out shouting profanities at me for being on the road because they had to get to church.

Punctuality for church mattered more than my life—and his children were there to witness this. I have never forgotten that moment.

“Share the Road” is about more than bicycles and cars.

It is a message to be heeded every moment: See the other in a way that is listening to the other, in a way that honors the dignity of every human being.

Driving a car as if only your life matters reveals a great deal about the driver, but the consequences are often suffered by the innocent other.

“But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable,” lamented author Kurt Vonnegut in “Cold Turkey,” adding:

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!

And in his novel, Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Vonnegut included:

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

What if “common decency” were a real American value—one we not only voiced, but also practiced daily?

What if we set aside our rigid refusal to see ourselves and to see the other?

What is a people who fervently claimed to be a “Christian nation” truly began to live as such?

Yes, what if …?

Matthew 5:3-10

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.