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.