Twenty-first Century Smoking Gun?

My mother died of stage 4 lung cancer in early December 2017 after fumbling through life reduced by the weight of a stroke in June of the same year.

As a teen in the 1950s, she was taunted by her own mother for not smoking—and eventually caved, becoming a heavy smoker for decades, including while my sister and I were babies, children, and teens. We lived in the ever-present smoke of my parents, filling the house and the car.

My father resisted peer pressure when he was a teen and a four-sport letterman in high school. He used to tell us about sitting around socially with his friends smoking and drinking beer while he abstained from both, drinking milk in defiance instead.

He told these stories and others while sitting in our living room smoking and drinking Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. My father also regularly told us not to smoke or drink.

But by the time my parents married, my mom 19 and my dad turning 21 on their wedding day, they were a cool 1960s working-class couple, smoking their way toward the American Dream.

As a child, I remember being at my paternal grandparents’ house and all the adults were smoking. They even handed us cigarettes to try and laughed as we gagged.

We were children.

Another enduring memory of my childhood is my sister and me in the backseat of our family baby blue station wagon, no seat belts and the car filled with the smoke from both parents smoking.

This was early and mid-twentieth century America where media was saturated with alluring smokers on billboards [1] and TV, in magazine ads smiling, and romantically in films.

Product placement was in full swing, and at least part of the tar-and-nicotine-stained American Dream appeared to be several packs of cigarettes a day.

Paul Newman, set of The Hustler (1961)

When I was in high school, my father stopped mid-cigarette on the drive home from work one day, never smoking again. His death, a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, from heart failure, like hers, certainly can be traced to years of smoking, a habit that during their early lives seemed not only reasonable, but the cool thing to do.

But my mother persisted for many years after I moved out—even though during our childhood my sister and I often collected all her packs of Kool cigarettes, hiding them or writing imploring pleas for her to stop all over the packages.

I never smoked, or even felt compelled to smoke. I was a hopeful athlete so cigarettes seemed anathema to my faltering efforts to be the sort of athlete my father had been.

I abhorred smoking, cigarettes and the pot common among my peers during the 1970s, and throughout my teens and into adulthood, I became vigilant about non-smoking environments even though the world was by default a place for smokers for a good 40 years of my life.

Non-smoking sections in restaurants often required walking through the smoking section, the larger main area, to get to non-smoking. One chain restaurant had a lattice partition between non-smoking and smoking; the smoke drifted through the gaping holes rendering the division symbolic only.

Even in South Carolina and North Carolina (home of tobacco), this seems archaic today, even fantastical. Smoking now is prohibited in restaurants, and smokers have clearly been relegated to minority status.

The default of the second decade of the twenty-first century is non-smoking—a new normal that has come about from both free market responses and government mandate. In fact,many states still do not legislate smoke-free areas as one would think considering how common non-smoking environments have become.

I am in my sixth decade, and in my life time, cigarette smoking and Big Tobacco went from cool and powerful to shunned and unmasked. It wasn’t easy or quick, however.

Part of this cultural shift can be linked to the tobacco industry being exposed in 1994 by Congressional hearings and a major law suit a few years later.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my perspective on how the battle for non-smoking environments was won is captured well by Mike Campbell’s explanation for how he became bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”

While I am not prone to optimism, I have been contemplating the shift from a smoking to a non-smoking culture in the US as some solace for those of us resisting fatalism about America’s gun culture.

I genuinely believe the smoking culture in this country, aided by Big Tobacco and negligent political leadership, killed my parents prematurely.

Today, I also believe the gun culture in this country, aided by the NRA and negligent political leadership, needlessly sacrifices countless lives for a hollow symbolic gesture that aligns guns with freedom.

But as the 1990s proved to be a tipping point for the rights and lives of non-smokers, I wonder if Parkland, Florida will prove to be equally important in hindsight for the fight to end mass and school shootings, to end pervasive gun violence, to end gun-assisted suicide.

Some day, I hope some day soon, I hope in what remains of my life time, that we will, like Mike Campbell, declare that our country’s corrosive gun lust ended gradually and then all at once.


[1] An early poem of mine:

billboard

(You! Driver) “Come to MARLBORO COUNTRY”:
a cowboy’s face looming over passing
cars with passengers racing, just lighting
like the cowboy’s massive fist; flat, paltry,
and weather-beaten, the billboard stands tall
and proud—a god-head begging for money,
promising a land of milk and honey.
He pushes both regular and menthol.

MARLBORO COUNTRY: Do come. Cough and gag
in the blackened swirling smoke, walk on low,
lifeless plains where tobacco once would grow
and light your decorated cancer fag.
Go ahead! Read the big words and inhale
the clear, clean manhood—the photographed smell.

Advertisements

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.

I, Marxist

It is not for the theater alone, but the theater itself would justify the moment in each class I teach when I out myself as a “communist” (pausing, then clarifying the whole communist-socialist-Marxist mess that most Americans cannot untangle).

And that comes early so that I can punctuate about once a class period a key point with “Here is the communist propaganda of the day.” Eventually, this prods laughter when at first there were silent faces, eyes down, of utter fear.

In almost all of my courses, we back up and reconsider terms such as “theory,” “hypothesis,” “belief,” “objectivity,” and of course the cursed trinity, “communist-socialist-Marxist.” What is interesting as well is that most of my students are as ill-informed about “capitalism,” “democracy,” and “republic” as they are misguided about the Red Scare.

While I remain resistant to any and all labels (see this about my born-again agnostic confession), I am, in fact, more or less a Marxist, with the caveat that the term itself and the ideologies surrounding it are contentious, at best.

I was never an Ayn Rand simpleton (excuse the redundancy), but in my early life as a would-be intellectual/academic (my teens), I was powerfully drawn to American Romanticism’s star-struck gaze on the individual—the stuff of the three-name bullshitters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (for whom I still have some affection, by the way).

But my twenties and thirties included a great awakening that ran through John Dewey (rejecting the either/or thinking of society v. individual) and directly into Paulo Freire, a (the?) patron saint of educational Marxists.

The boy-to-man transition can be a slow one, but I eventually shrugged off my idealizing the individual and demonizing the collective (damned Society), and came to a much more nuanced understanding of the moral and ethical implications (or absence thereof) inherent in the rugged individual myth and the larger consumerism/capitalism norm of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

This transition, I realize, is part of a personal journey to an ethical way of being, and thus, I had to reject rugged individualism and capitalism (consumerism) for their amorality; I had to embrace Marxism for its moral imperative.

Of course, I realize that “moral” and “ethical” are social constructions, not some objective thing handed down by G(g)od; however, I think humans can create norms that seek ways to honor the collective and individual good.

I am still traversing along Dewey’s call to reject the either/or—despite the wealth of post-apocalyptic science/speculative fiction (that I love) grounded in the evil collective assaulting the idealized indivdual. See Winston’s head trapped in the cage under the threat of loosed rats.

Pretty damn hard to resist this warning, but it’s hokum, mostly, especially since this sort of propaganda by Randian capitalists and aimed at demonizing the government is a distortion of a more credible warning about totalitarianism, something more likely when government is corrupted by corporations (not the implied message that government is the inherently corrupt force in the universe).

Thus, my Marxism runs toward the recognition (the paradox) that if we do value individual freedom and the so-call free market (insert sarcastic cough here), the path to those ideals begins with insuring the robustness of the public good first.

Randian capitalists preach that the free market comes first, as the sacred Invisible Hand—while public institutions (gasp) are to be tolerated only and always under a skeptical gaze.

As ideologies, both of these approaches are idealistic, and possibly inherently unattainable.

I remain with the Marxist camp because it is the moral idealism against the amoral idealism of Randian capitalism.

I am willing to concede that having two or three competing pharmacies facing off across the street and corners from each other can work to depress prices—possibly more so than depending on the usually bungled bureaucracy of government to serve the people well (here, read some Kafka).

But the public good will not be served by Walgreens and Ekerd alone in terms of just what pharmaceuticals they sale; in fact, if anything, the U.S. is a horrible parable about the failure of allowing the market to drive the selling of medicine. (Consider Tamiflu, which is mostly sold to create profit for drug companies, but likely is not close to being cost effective or curative for patients).

The free market spawned Viagra and Cialis, we must consider, but cancer is left to private non-profits begging for people to be decent, and, human.

Charity.

So to stand before my students and confess “I, Marxist,” is no mere theater, although it serves that well also.

It is, in fact, an act of confessing my own moral imperative as a teacher, and a human—as flawed as all that is.

It is a defiance in the wake of all the cartoonish Red baiting that has characterized the U.S. for more than a century.

And I persist, although “I’m not sure all these people understand.”

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.

black & white

My parents were 1950s plain-white-people pretty throughout my childhood in the 60s.

My dad wore a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.

I remember them and then in black and white.

The only 1960s hippies for me were my mother’s much younger sisters and brother. All of them animated in my mind on faded 8 mm color film, and they were always a little dirty.

And they all smoked—although my aunts and uncle probably indulged also in something illegal, pot—but old black and white photographs and the shaky 8 mm films my parents took allowed all that offensive smoke to look cool, harmless, romantic.

It has been five decades since then.

A few days ago, I bought my mother a new pair of shoes. She has two pairs in assisted living—one too small and the other too narrow.

And then just yesterday, I took her the new shoes before I drove her to a doctor’s appointment.

After her stroke, my mother is no longer her full self, having lost most of her language abilities and sounding more like my 3-year-old granddaughter than the very bright woman my mother was before.

She fretted to tears on the drive about needing to go by her house—I had no idea why—and about how to pay for the doctor’s visit—I explained as I have hundreds of time since the stroke that I have money. The trip was not unlike “Are we there yet?” round trips that most parents must suffer through, except in this case I was the parent to my mother as child.

My mother has seen the same doctors for many years, Indians who served my small rural hometown before moving their practice to the larger town hear-by. The nurses and staff have also known my parents for many years.

After a nurse conducted an ultrasound on my mother to check on the clots found in her leg after the stroke, they appeared out of the examination room. The nurse asked what happened to my father.

I hesitated as I often do now when people appear eager to discuss my father’s death with my infirm mother right there. I know she knows, but the act of discussing my father’s death, my father dead with her listening makes me want to say, “You do know my mother is right here?”

In the gap of my pause, the nurse added, “Rosie said he was killed?”

And I realized the nurse and my mom had already had a conversation, and my mother’s much reduced communication had likely caused more confusion for the nurse.

“No, he passed away,” I uttered euphemistically. “His heart.”

The nurse offered a cavalier “Oh” signaling that his death made perfect sense—more so than his being killed.

Although the visit with the nurse practitioner went well, my mother refused adamantly any further medication, even though it could help with her regaining the ability to talk. She has had a lifelong struggle with worrying about her health but refusing prescription medications.

I did run by her home on the way back to assisted living, but that simply sparked even more crying and incoherent ramblings, building on her struggling all day with simply going to the doctor.

Once in the house, she was unable to look through a closet because my nephews had been cleaning out and packing away much of my parents’ belongings. Eventually, exhausted and frantic, she gave up and demanded a couple pillows off a bed in that room, finally urging that we leave.

After my mother was once again in her recliner at assisted living, near tears and rambling further, I suggested she sit back and rest before dinner—and I left nearly as wrenched to exhaustion as she was.

For more than forty years, interacting with my parents had been mostly tension, a moral, intellectual, and emotional battle between my obligations as a son and my true self. Nothing was as simple as black and white.

Later that evening, my nephew texted that my mother was complaining to him about her neck hurting. I replied that we had just sat at the doctor’s office, and when the nurse practitioner asked my mother if she had any pain, my mother had responded with an assertive “no.”

I felt myself responding beyond the limits of patience or love.

Like many people enamored with image-based social media such as Instagram, I often choose to post pictures in black and white, usually of my granddaughter, alone and with me.

I also have an affinity for black and white movies made intentionally in black and white well into the era of color film.

As I psychoanalyze myself, I wonder if this romanticizing of black and white—few images move me more now that black and white versions of my granddaughter—is nested in pictures of my parents, 1950s plain-white-people pretty.

My dad with a crewcut and Buddy Holly glasses. My mom with Mary Tyler Moore hair like they were always playing dress-up for a Weezer song.

Some times with cigarettes gently between two fingers and the smoke static and odorless.

They often look happy and harmless, especially in staged family portraits.

Them there in black and white—I can pretend nothing existed in either of them or our future lives that would make their being alive, dead, or infirm almost unbearable.

Nothing is as simple as black and white.

Not being parent or child, not being in some important way fully human.

Human Frailty

You open a carton of eggs, and not quite with negligence but in the rush of routine, you lift out one egg that cracks open. Your fingers sink into the collapsing shell, sending cold and wet through your sense as you calculate the tiny disaster before you simply wanting to scramble eggs for breakfast.

You know, of course, that eggs are frail things, and you handle them with care—but this egg had been somehow slightly stuck to the carton and your reflex was to squeeze and pull a bit harder.

Half a shell and the exposed yolk still in the carton remind you, however, of the inherent frailty of eggs.

Over about three months now, I regularly spend time with my 76-year-old mother in the wake of her stroke and my 3-year-old granddaughter now freshly embarking on formal schooling by starting 3K.

Conversations with my mom and granddaughter are disorienting and similar—a garbled string of occasional words and phrases mixed with complete nonsense, not even words but mumbling.

And my mother and granddaughter both pause, eyes intent, awaiting some signal I have understood—and often I have no clue.

My mother suffers the consequences of a tiny blood clot in her brain while my granddaughter is victim to the simplicity of emerging from being a baby into early childhood.

Like an egg, they are both incredibly frail, but mostly in slightly exaggerated ways that are an essential characteristic of being human.

Humans all are frail, although we seem determined to ignore or refute that fact.

My mom has slipped into frailty, her body has failed itself after almost eight decades. While my granddaughter has begun navigating the very dangerous world in her new and tiny state.

The world is many parts angry and insensitive, like a hand hurriedly pulling an egg from a carton.

What would this world be, what could this world be if we walked through it with care, gingerly and slowly stepping along as if each step were vital?

The same week that we have been told by doctors, nurses, and social workers we can leave my mother alone during the day is when my granddaughter began 3K—equal terrors for me too much aware of the callousness of this world about human frailty.

To be aware of that frailty, I suppose, is overwhelming, and for me, possibly a great contribution to my relentless anxiety.

Callousness and carelessness, I believe, cannot be the alternative to the weight of being aware that humans are frail—that every human deserves compassion.

I have adopted a soothing tone, gentle smile, and reassuring words when my mom becomes frantic and sad, when my granddaughter fears she has done something wrong or tells us just a few days into her school life that she doesn’t want to go.

“I’m sorry,” “It’s ok,” “We’ll take care of it”—assurances offered, even though I really can’t promise they are true, because everyone must know that they are not alone, that the world doesn’t have to be so awful.

More and more often, the calm after these disturbances for my mom and my granddaughter is what I reach for to make each day worth all the other struggles and possibilities—the heaping mess of just plain nasty people who seem to outnumber the rest of us.

The calm, however, remains in the shadow of the facts of aging for my mother, life is shorter now than what she has lived, and for my granddaughter who will someday way too soon stop raising her arms for me to lift and hold her, stop crawling into my lap and guiding my hand to her feet while she eats a popsicle and watches TV.

It is a lovely and selfish thing to comfort another person, and each moment doing so should be handled with care, like taking an egg in your hand.

Navigating Self-Worth through Middle Age: Every Single Moment

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

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

As far as I can tell
I’m nothing like a princess…
Take these girly arms
And ever keep me

“Thirsty,” The National

The last thing my father said was a request for me to help him to the bathroom. He was wheelchair bound, and his breathing had been labored for months.

I suggested the bed pan, but he added he needed to have a bowel movement.

When the nurses came to help him, he became unresponsive there on the toilet of the rehabilitation center he had just moved into with my mother, and within a hour, he was declared dead at the nearby hospital.

What an awful way to slip from this earth, simply asking for help to have a bowel movement.

My father died in the bathroom like Elvis Presley, who my parents idolized throughout my childhood—a cultural phenomenon that should have signaled for me the horrifying leveling of death.

My father’s death, possibly as any man’s father’s death, has forced me to examine again how I have navigated self-worth my entire life, measuring my masculinity always against the unspoken monument of my father.

This summer of my 56th year, then, continues my battle with self-worth, a life of anxiety driven often by insecurity and low self-esteem.

When I first moved to higher education in 2002, I soon secured my first book contract with a respected academic publisher, Peter Lang USA, because of the kindness of a colleague and then a distant but treasured scholar-mentor, Joe Kincheloe.

When the hard copies of that book arrived at my office, the colleague came by to see what I was doing to celebrate. I was working frantically at the computer and hadn’t thought once about the book or celebrating.

“You never enjoy a single moment do you?” she said, matter-of-fact from my doorway.

Self-worth and low self-esteem intersect in ways that push us to ignore our accomplishments and dwell on our failures.

In a half-year scarred with a pelvic fracture, the end of my life as a road cyclist, my mother’s stroke, and my father’s death, I have been passed over for a new position, received a few rejections of submitted writing, and struggled mightily to become the sort of mountain bike cyclist I had accomplished as a road cyclist over 30+ years of intense riding.

Each of these has proven to me my deepest fears about my self-worth—as if my many accomplishments otherwise haven’t happened at all.

The hardest part has been the transition to mountain biking and leaving road cycling behind.

After a good 20 years of being a mediocre road cyclist, in my 40s and early 50s, I had finally established myself as a relatively elite local recreational cyclist, book-ended by breaking the 6-hour mark in the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in 2007 (at 46) and then having my highest placing, 58th, in 2014 (at 53).

Throughout my adventure in trying to be the macho athlete I believed my father represented, I adopted surrogate father-models among my cycling friends; I simultaneously admired them and used them as the bar I could never attain—to prove to myself I was right about my low self-worth.

But I was a ride leader and typically finished official rides and weekly training rides with the best cyclists, the front group.

Shifting to mountain biking certainly wasn’t helped by a six-week down-time for a broken pelvis, or being 56 while trying to recover from the fracture and regain fitness.

However, this new adventure in claiming my self-worth through athletics has been beyond humbling to humiliating.

Over three decades, I acquired both the fitness and road cycling skills needed to ride essentially effortlessly, even as I pushed myself to physical extremes in our attack zones, on mountainous centuries, or during the annual 200-mile-plus one-day ride across South Carolina.

Mountain biking has proved itself much more than fitness and the skill requirement has an added problem—many elements of cycling on trails trigger my anxiety. Rocks, boulders, roots, steep inclines, and creek crossings have more often than I like to admit flushed my system with anxiety and left me nearly incapable of riding.

In road cycling, I controlled my place in the pack; I pulled when I wanted and drifted to the back to monitor the ride as needed.

Mountain biking has shuffled me to the back, and off the back. And there is little I can do about it.

Before being hit by the car on Christmas Eve and before my father’s death, I lived with a lingering and awful fear of when my life as an avid athlete would end. It had to end, of course, simply because with age we lose our physical selves in increments.

Now I am faced with having much of that taken from me in a dramatic intrusive way, and then, in that space, having to re-evaluate what all that means anyway.

Before the pelvis fracture—and living always now with the sensation of being hit from behind and slamming into the pavement—I was already growing weary of the hyper-macho bullshit of road cycling. I was doing fewer large group rides, I had decided to stop entering the Assault (which I participated in about 20 times over thirty or so years), and I was less and less likely to bury myself in the pain of the zone rides.

But I was no better able to negotiate with myself about my father and our many contradictions, about my father and the imagined necessary requirements of my masculinity as the failed athlete.

By college I had abandoned athletic dreams and transitioned into being academic, a writer and poet in my bones and a teacher by profession. Yet in that transition I had also become a serious cyclist and continued the self-flagellation in pursuit of self-worth that had defined me throughout childhood and my teen years.

How do we know we matter to someone else? How do we know we matter to ourselves?

Increasingly, I come to realize how powerful my early adulthood fascination with existentialism has proven to be—my being draw to recognizing Being as a journey without a destination.

Nothing will click, and then I will know I matter to someone else.

Nothing will click, and then I will trust my self-worth.

My father haunted me while he was alive. His last words and moments aimed at simply going to the bathroom and leading him to the great beyond have done nothing to change that, except for the space left where he no longer exists.

My self-worth has never been about my father; it has always been about me.

I was mountain biking the other day with two friends who ride away from me on every ride. We were caught in a horrible thunderstorm.

One friend had a flat and the other rode further ahead, but I stopped to be sure the friend with a flat was ok.

There in the din of the rain through the trees and the periodic crack of lightning, I was about as alone as I have felt in a long time. I thought for a moment about people I love and reminded myself about my father being gone and my mother recovering still from her stroke.

I was terrified of the lightning as I stood with my left foot in the trail that looked more like a creek.

That moment in the storm triggered the morning of Christmas Eve as I lay in the road, stunned and staring at my swollen bloody left hand.

Again as I had there in the road, battered, with lightning cracking, I wanted to be safely back at the car, able to go about the rest of my day, the rest of my so-called normal life because there was so much to enjoy.

Every single moment.