Category Archives: existentialism

The Inevitable, Exponential Decline

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

In the consumer society called “America,” we humans are often nothing more or less than the objects we accumulate.

Or as comedian George Carlin explained, we are ultimately our “stuff”:

Nine months into being 60, I recognize that my life—in the throes of the inevitable, exponential decline—is reflected in some of my most prized stuff, my collection of bicycles that numbers 4 (two Ridley road bicycles, a Santa Cruz MTB, and a Santa Cruz gravel bicycle).

Part of that reflection involves my more than 30 years as a so-called serious cyclist living by The Rules, including Rule #12: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1. Because of major life changes, I now live in a 900-square-foot apartment instead of a house more than twice that size.

Bicycles occupy far too much space, and I have them hanging on the wall, forcing me to climb a ladder just to be able to ride.

As I have been fearing, while alone, I fell off the ladder recently while storing bicycle parts in the only storage space available in the HVAC area above the bathroom. I imagined myself lying broken on the concrete floor while I was falling—feelings I included in a recent poem, blue&black.

The reason I was on that ladder circles back to my bicycles since I was replacing the saddle on my Ridley Excalibur (Flandrien edition).

A few Saturdays ago, I joined the early morning ride from the local Trek store. I took several extended pulls during the ride, and gradually realized my saddle was incredibly uncomfortable, causing numbness and pain.

For cyclists, especially those of us who ride long and intense distances, the saddle is one of the most important components. I rode with Fizik Arione saddles for many years, a flat, long saddle with a faux-suede strip that keeps you from sliding around.

However, I briefly retired from road cycling throughout 2017—after being struck by a car on Christmas Eve 2016—but when I returned to road cycling in early 2018, I had to acknowledge that my body no longer found my road bicycle as comfortable as before.

Much to my chagrin, and embarrassment, I had to raise my stem and change my saddle, then to the Fizik Aliante, a curved saddle designed for people who are less flexible.

I also had to abandon my preferred thin, faux-leather handlebar tape, and returned to wearing padded gloves since I was struggling with hand stiffness and pain.

Those changes made riding more comfortable, even as I strayed from The Rules and the enormous cultural pressure among so-called serious cyclists.

After I stood up from the fall off the ladder, momentarily stunned and shaken, I cursed what had led to having to change my saddle again (this time to the same MTB-style saddle I have on my MTB and gravel bicycle). It took a few minutes to realize I was essentially fine, until I noticed blood marks on the carpet from a small cut on my foot.

Each time I climb the ladder to ride my Flandrien road bicycle, which I have switched to from my Helium SL because the Flandrien is far more comfortable, I see the inevitable, exponential decline of me reflected in the gradual replacement of parts on that bicycle—the raised stem, the padded handlebar tape, the bulkier saddle.

Much of this is depressing because it reflects a life-long war for me between me and my body—a body that never seemed to be able to attain the demands I have made of it, a body often disappointing and flawed.

But there is also more, a recognition that my being drawn to a sport grounded in Rule #5 (harden the fuck up, or HTFU) has a great deal of disfunction that I should walk away from, instead of gradually and reluctantly relinquishing piece by piece.

Some of that disfunction can be traced to my father, a hard-ass product of mid-twentieth century bullshit about working hard and suffering. Any of the success I have achieved as a cyclist resulted from my ability to suffer, just as my father taught me directly and indirectly.

My father suffered himself into an early grave.

And there are days now, especially after mountain biking and some gravel riding, when my shoulders ache just like my father’s failed him for the last couple decades of his life.

The machine is wearing down.

I have been sharing stories about the inevitable, exponential decline with my students, including telling stories about my life as a cyclist for about 35 years.

I now confess that the HTFU lifestyle was a really bad way to live and ride, and that I am paying for it. I usually share the story of the day I quit the Assault on Mt. Mitchell—a 102-mile ride that concludes with about 30 miles of climbing—just as I was starting the climb.

I didn’t just quit that day; I quit ever doing the ride again (after about 20 starts and 16 or so finishes of the grueling event since 1988).

My story of coming to reject a life of suffering, a hobby of suffering, seems to resonate with many of my students, notably my athletes (especially the football players) and students in ROTC.

Those students deeply inside cultures of suffering appreciate a different perspective than what they are being told within those cultures; those students are often up very early in the mornings doing grueling physical activity before starting their day as students.

They are bone tired, often fighting the urge to fall asleep in class.

I tell them that it doesn’t have to be that way, that life can be filled with joy and pleasure.

As I write this, I have recently ridden my bicycles 6 days in a row, and found myself in a hole. Tired. Sore.

As I write this, it is day 2 of rain with several more days of rain forecast.

I am anxious about not being able to ride. I am also slipping into the depression that comes with the contracting daylight of October.

I am a good existentialist who recognizes our passions are our sufferings, but I am far too inadequate at being a human who can resist the allure of HTFU.

Yes, I know—and believe—that we are supposed to imagine Sisyphus happy as he turns again and again to descend the hill in order to roll his rock, his Thing, back up the hill.

But at 60, I am newly aware Sisyphus would be happier if he were simply to quit, no longer to be defined by his stuff.


See Also

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

Death Takes a Lifetime, and then a Year

The Man in the High Castle and Cat’s Cradle in Trumplandia

At the very naive age of 21, I fell in love with Blade Runner (1982), unaware at the time that it was a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My formative years had been spent on science fiction B-movies my mom adored and Marvel comic books, but I remained then still only engaged with genre as a fan.

Many years later, I read Electric Sheep, and was mostly underwhelmed with Dick as a novelist while recognizing his gift for ideas*, much of which was mined by what would become a Ridley Scott modern classic and cult hit.

I just finished my second Dick novel, having begun several of them over the years but finding it difficult to stay connected. The Man in the High Castle has gained a new life with the amazon serial adaptation, and I decided to give his work another shot.

Similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale being resurrected through serialization, Castle seems perfect for our time in Trumplandia. Many in the U.S. fear the rise of totalitarianism, but there also is an important new recognition of the fragility of truth and facts.

I must admit that once again I was underwhelmed with Castle as a novel; the central idea—an alternate history in which Germany and Japan win WWII—however, is incredibly compelling as a thought experiment.

The characters, I feel, aren’t themselves very compelling, and the main woman, Juliana Frick, especially felt superficial, even trite at times. Yet, about a third of the way into the novel when Germany is suffering a crisis of leadership, an exchange between Juliana and her mysterious lover, Joe Cinnadella, essentially solidifies why this novel speaks so powerfully now:

high castle

It is here that I read Castle as a much more political and economic narrative version of Albert Camus’s The Stranger captured in Meursault’s musing in 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)

Dick forces the reader to see that any of us can easily see our side as always in the right and the other side as always in the wrong; this Nazi/communist duality framed in the novel ultimately is revealed as a false dichotomy in the sense that no option had any real moral superiority.

When is war, or even politics, not a gruesome real-world version of the ends justify the means?

And that thematic element prompted also in my mind Kurt Vonnegut.

“‘When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago,’ said Julian Castle, ‘they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion’” (p.172)—opens Chapter 78 of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Bokonon has created a religion “‘to provide the people with better and better lies’” (p. 172), foma, and a central aspect of that strategy involves the orchestrated war between the government of San Lorenzo and the religion, Bokononism:

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174-175)

The false choice between McCabe and Bokonon in this other world created by Vonnegut happens to represent well the delusion of choice that exists in the U.S. McCabe/Bokonon reflect the false choice currently in the U.S. between Republican/Democrat; it’s a fake fight, and a false choice.

However, I must qualify that it has been a fake fight and false choice until the era of Trumplandia.

The policy and ideological differences among Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama are quite small—even as some of those policies have profound consequences for individuals in the U.S. and abroad.

The partisan political arena, like McCabe and Bokonon, have been compelled for political reasons to make those small differences seem dramatic, often resorting to the sort of hyperbolic language that stretches credulity.

Obama, for example, is no socialist, no communist. Obama is a centerist, a bit moderate and even liberal in his rhetoric, but he is not so far away from George W. Bush that they couldn’t reach out and dap.

This false chasm between Democrats and Republicans has perpetuated a standard cultural and political ideology for decades, a state of perpetual war and an economic system that feeds the wealthy on the backs of workers and the demonized poor.

The norm of hyperbolic partisan rhetoric now has dire consequences as some seek to confront a new norm in Trumplandia, a more insidious assault on truth with even more far reaching negative consequences for much of the U.S. and even many beyond our borders.

Evoking words such as “Nazi” and “fascism” are no longer vapid hyperbole, but those markers fail to resonate among many who have been numbed by partisan hyperbole and hate-mongering along party lines.

George W. Bush was mostly mainstream U.S. politics and ideology, despite the histrionics from the Left. Obama was mostly mainstream U.S. politics and ideology, despite the histrionics from the Right.

There is almost nothing mainstream or normal under Trump, although we are hesitant to admit that this new extreme has most of its roots in mainstream Republican politics that has depended on racism and misogyny for decades.

As a former high school English teacher, I am now deeply concerned that it will not be fake news that sinks this ship, but our inability to distinguish between hyperbole and honest but blunt language.


* I can draw a parallel with a difference here. I love Milan Kundera as a powerful philosophical author, but I find Kundera a much more compelling storyteller.

Regret

To live is to fail and even to hurt other people—especially the ones you care about, love singularly.

If existential philosophy taught me anything—or to be more accurate, if I recognized in existential philosophy a Truth also in my bones—it has been that our passions are our sufferings; they are inseparable.

To care is to hurt—both as the agent of inflicting hurt and as the recipient of the feelings of being hurt.

But this exploration of regret is not about these tremendous failures, these regrets that are many for me that have been how I have hurt the ones I love.

This is about regret more mundane although no less significant.

My teenaged years of typical angst and self-consciousness were intensified by discovering over the summer between my 8th and 9th grade years that I had scoliosis, resulting in my being fitted for and then wearing throughout the next four years a very visible and restrictive body brace designed to allow my spine to heal itself so that I could avoid very invasive back surgery.

My parents almost immediately began to seek ways to help me navigate this traumatic experience during what were formative, and difficult years. One strategy included my becoming a collector of comic books.

Comic books became my escape, but in an unpredictable way, since I often stood at the end of our bar separating the kitchen and the living room in order to trace and then draw from the comics. Standing, because the brace encased my entire pelvis and anchored my head with three metal rods, was my new state of rest.

For years, I taught myself how to draw superhero comics. I even still have this work from the late 1970s, such as these:

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By college, I had drifted to drawing mostly nudes, typically from magazines young men are apt to hide in their bedrooms. But throughout these years, I was teaching myself, and more or less, fumbling through without the sort of foundations in art that I really needed.

I think I had a proclivity, but one never nurtured.

When friends in college discovered I could draw, I was “commissioned” to draw nudes (often), and then after they saw the album covers I had painted on our dorm cinder-block walls, rooms throughout the dorm had similar purposeful graffiti.

It didn’t happen this way, but it feels as if it did. Life is always more gradual, but in our recreations we love the definitive.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, we discovered everyone with my album cover paintings on their walls were going to be fined by housing—so we spray painted over these frantically in the final days of the semester.

And this was the end of my life as a visual artist.

Becoming an adult, a responsible adult, took over. I had to have a career, and I had to get married, have a job, and do life as everyone expected.

Therein lies the regret—but not that I did any of that since setting out dutifully to be an adult has resulted in my daughter and granddaughter as well as a wonderful dual career as teacher/writer that I could have never predicted—and would never relinquish if I could start over.

The regret is becoming so entrapped in the practical—I dropped pursuing visual art because it wasn’t going to be my career—that I lost part of myself, parts of myself.

My visual artist life is now indirect; I follow artists on Instagram, and I covet their work and their lives.

I lust, I long, I pine.

So my regret of a mundane kind—paling still to the regrets of hurting others—is that I allowed the frantic Siren’s call to become the adult expected of me drown out my own voice, my own coming to recognize who I am, instead of who I should be.

Albert Camus reimagines “The Myth of Sisyphus,” explaining, “His rock is his thing.”

Camus guides his readers to Sisyphus pausing at his task, his seemingly futile hell of rolling the rock up the mountain only to have it roll back down for him to push up again, and again, and again.

Yet, as Camus concludes:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Regret of the kind that is not from hurting another is our inability, our refusal to recognize our thing—and then to embrace it as our happiness.

Our thing includes “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” suffering, but it is not ours to seek ways to avoid human suffering, but like Sisyphus, to commit to it with all our body and heart.