March 16th, 2009


A thought

I rode my bike today up into the western hills, past a reservoir. On the hillside nearby, close to the road, were two flat memorial markers. Apparently two bicyclists had been buried here, in memory of some shocking event from the past. Other cyclists, still alive, rode past me in both directions, wearing reflective gear. The scruffy older ones with the heavier bikes nodded hello and grinned. The younger ones with the ultralight bikes and the neon shirts ignored me and shouldered past; too elite to to empathize.

I was listening to a documentary podcast from the BBC about the impoverished territories of India. A reporter described a woman living in an exposed shelter, trying to care for six children. She has to leave for most of the day to work, hoping the older kids look after the younger. They gather muck from the ratholes in the fields owned by other people. The rats line their dens with stolen rice, and the children scrape it up and bring it home in buckets. When the mother returns from work she washes as much filth as she can from the rice, then cooks it and feeds her children and herself. If they are lucky, they catch the actual rats. The mother cooks these for protein.

Every year, her shelter is destroyed by the rains.

When I got to the top of the hill I entered wine country. Not true wine country, but a sporting facsimile of it - narrow ribbons of desiccated grapevine on wooden T-squares, about enough for a couple dozen bottles. Something to put a label on. Sprawled alongside each personal cropland was a mansion. Tanned California stucco and red Spanish tile, with the stark white crosshatching of double-paned windows. The clouds fragmented over the hilltops, making a complicated half-stormy sky, light blue interlacing dark grey. The mansions and vineyards were ensconced with equally complicated artificial landscaping. Terraced lawns, rock paths going nowhere, foreign looking trees. As I shot down the other side of the hill, along a winding but flawlessly paved road, I passed a hundred or more mansions all built and buttressed the same way. One in particular caught my eye because it had three garage doors made of stained, polished redwood.

It was for sale.

I don't know, man. Sometimes I think that the only reason particular insane arrangements of property happen in this world is because everyone - everyone - grows old and turns to dust after fifty years of adult life. Usually less than that. No one has time to figure out what's really going on.

Same thing with the economy. From last year to now, almost nothing has changed in the physical structure of the country. In the factories, the offices, the fields. But because of an organizational logjam, an infection of bad paperwork and data in the financial network, suddenly it's all starting to shut down.

It's hard not to feel angry when I ride through the vineyards. Even with the "free wine tasting" sign in plain view. It's hard not to resent the man who stopped at the reservoir in his sixty thousand dollar two-seater car, so his wife, pushing 50 with her bleached-up hairdo and her nails still painted pink like a child's, can use the public restroom because she forgot to go before ... and then complain about its condition. It's hard not to feel angry at the competing race cyclists, elbowing past me as they climb the same steep hill over and over, making sure to give me the same stoic face every time they pass me on the descent. One of them yelled incoherently at my back because he was tired of going around me. I was tempted to reach out with one arm and simply pitch him over the edge of the road as he went by, sending his ten-ounce bike and his body down the vertical face to snap repeatedly against the stony oak trees. So, ... what is really important to you in life, sir? What's important to you now, now that two seconds of impoliteness has rendered you unable to walk?

No, I didn't push him. Why would I single him out? We're all risking our lives out here, really, because we love to cycle. I have more in common with him than with most of the other people who aren't out here, on this road. And still, a percentage of people I meet ... will be assholes. That is the character of the world, and I accept it as the purchase price for exploring. But two cyclists died further back and they were revered enough to get brass plaques and a monument. So clearly, some people care.

Where the man and his pink-nailed lady stopped, I also rode passed a wizened couple walking slowly along the path at the water's edge. The woman smiled warmly at me, her long gray hair shining in the temporary sun from the complicated sky. One of her hands was entwined with the man's, the other was holding his elbow. In an instant I could see she was helping him walk. I looked again at the woman's face, and felt deeply sad, because I imagined that here on my bike, with my shorts and my luggage and gadgets, I was reminding her of her frail husband in younger days. The sight of me seemed to make her happy, but I had to ride away, so I could sit down somewhere out of sight and put my first on the bridge of my nose and let my pleasant expression drop, and ask myself, "Why do good people have to grow old?" One thing breaks down, and then another thing you didn't expect, and so on. And for some reason, some of us pass that time in vineyards and mansions, and some of us grow old in grass huts and boil rice purloined from the dens of rats.

And here I am in the middle, taking a Sunday ride.

I just don't understand anymore.

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Up to page 252 of Moonseed. Cracking good read, after page 100. Physics are a bit loopy though.