These are the words I yearn to say.
Just before the car hit me I saw. . .
Just before the car hit me I heard. . .
I thought. . .
I remembered. . .
But I can’t say any of those things.
At one point I know that I am on a team training ride. I’ve been out there as part of my volunteer coaching duties, advising on mechanicals, helping some of the newer cyclists with their hill-climbing technique, keeping an eye on things. It is a route I’ve ridden dozens of times. I am starting back, passing a couple of members of our team coming the other way, then witnessing in awe as the juggernaut of the local shop ride sweeps by on the opposite side of the road, a small knot of people who know what they are doing that expands into an obese mass of irresponsibility mixed with a belief in invulnerability, trailing a long, whippy flaggella of people just trying to keep up. I’d never seen the ride before and it made a huge impression on me. It made me want to get off the road before it arrived.
Then I am having a conversation with an EMT in a local ER. In between, was nothing. In between is still nothing.
I knew I’d been in an accident, strangely enough. People tell me I was conscious and talking the whole time, although repetitive and a bit confused (although how that differentiates me from my normal state is a matter for debate). The EMT told me that I had told them it was fine to cut my bike jersey off me, which seemed like the rational thing I would have said even though it was my favorite bike jersey. In fact I remember having a conversation with a friend about just this kind of thing a few days prior.
None of my team-mates saw what happened, although several arrived quickly on the scene and ably looked after me. There was only one witness who told the officer that the vehicle that (hit me? That I hit? Still no clarity on that) was ahead and signalling. This resulted in the officer, a non-cyclist as he admitted, giving me a warning about unsafe over-taking, on the assumption that I, in the bike lane, would have tried to race a car on the inside to a corner. Anyone who knows me knows that is something I wouldn’t do. I’m the one regularly bawling others on the team out for their egregious safety violations. I suspect what happened was simply a very old story. Either the vehicle (driven by a very young driver) simply didn’t see me, or they did the usual move that cyclists are everwhere used to seeing and anticipating, speeding up to get to a corner ahead of the bike and then turning hard across them.
Either way it is not something I’m particularly concerned about. There’s nothing really to learn from this except very old truths that everyone who is a cyclists already knows. Bikes are invisible. And in a car versus bike it will almost always be the cyclist’s fault whether it is or is not. We are all riding in an environment that is barely adequately designed for cars and not designed for bikes to be anything other than grudgingly tolerated interlopers. I’ve always ridden as if every car I see on the road, and not a few bikes and pedestrians as well, are trying actively to kill me. I’ve been lucky so far; it is what has kept me alive and relatively healthy. Nothing will change there. Probably the only thing that will change is that I’m now going to be even more abusive of dickhead cyclists riding without helmets. Because mine saved my life, which is what you will hear from every cyclist who has ever been in a serious crash. Then again, maybe I will just become more Zen. If the helmetless are young it is, after all, just Darwin at work to create a net gain for the human race. Because let’s face it, if you believe that the integrity of your hairstyle is more important than avoiding a serious brain injury, then you are already too brain damaged to be allowed to raise children.
Living in the world of TBA, er, TBI
So there were the expected injuries (the road rash, the scrapes, the deep bruising and feeling of ligaments wrenched out of alignment). There were the expected but hopefully avoided injuries (collarbone: an awkward break in an awkward place resulting in surgery). Then there were the expected but not quite like this injuries. I went through a CAT-Scan which found no evidence of brain bleeding, but they clinically diagnosed a concussion anyway, which seemed logical based on my reactions. So far, the side effects have been minimal, at least compared with what many experience. There were one or two dizzy spells in the first 24 hours but nothing since, and no pain or disorientation when reading, watching TV, from bright lights, etc.
But that isn’t to say the effects have been insignificant. I have maybe half a day of doing the most ordinary tasks in me (paying bills, tidying the house) and then I am completely exhausted. I have always been a big fan of the 15-30 minute power nap, but the “naps” now last for 2-3 hours. Once I was off the sleep-assist provided by the pain meds, sleeping at night has been frustratingly difficult. Anything that requires consistent focus is difficult. It has taken me the better part of a week to write this for example, and I am a fast writer, usually. The only thing I can do well is read, and thank the Maker because without that I’d have probably killed someone by now.
The thought of some kinds of food make me a little nauseous. Most distressingly, so does the idea of alcohol. A couple of nights ago I took a sip of a perfectly lovely wine that Mary was having and all I could taste was metal.
I am not a good invalid. If you were writing the Dickensian version of my life it would include the phrase “sickly child” to describe my early years. I’ve spent way too much time in bed and dependent as a kid for it to be much fun as an adult. I’m discovering all the predictable things (how many of our human activities require two hands) and I’ve always been aware that even at my optimal best I seem to get so much less done than other people. So most of my time seems to be spent feeling broken and trying not to let resentment get the better of me.
One thing I won’t be doing. I have some pretty colorful injuries but I’m not going to be one of those people posting graphic and evolving pictures of their injuries on Facebook. I’ve noticed some people seem to love doing that. Maybe it is like those people who post baby pictures, designed to give the rest of us a “Whew, there but for the grace of god. . .” moment. Because when you are in a serious accident the real injuries are all on the inside. But come to think of it, maybe that is the reason for the posting. I’ve come to suspect that the thing that makes Facebook work, what it is really good at, is the sharing of all the superficial commonplaces that make us appear to be the same. The illusion of community is made possible by all those things that don’t really matter because everyone experiences them. It is the the deep, individual things, the interior damage, that we find harder to talk about because they ultimately threaten the happy celebration. It is the unrepentant and still visibly wounded ex showing up at the new wedding.
Nor has this experience led me to some newly discovered appreciation for the fragility and brevity of life. Honestly, if I hadn’t realized that by this stage of my life then I might as well start riding around without a bike helmet. Hell, much of the reason why I’m a cyclist in the first place is because I don’t want to be wasting large portions of my life stuck behind the wheel of a car or in front of a TV screen. I’m also well aware of the thin line that separates the ordinary from the disastrous. My imagination is no friend in this regard. For i,as long as I can remember it has been common that I will have an experience (maybe a lane change inadvertently cut a little close, a swerve to avoid a pedestrian leaping out from between parked cars) and my mind will instantly flash me a picture, in distressingly vivid detail, of what could have happened. It is my imagination, in fact that I need to keep tightly reined in order to be the cyclist that I am.
But this whole experience has got me thinking about something else.
What you don’t want to know can hurt you
I’ve been doing some pretty eclectic reading over the last few months. Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, Kivy’s The Performance of Reading, Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow, Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, and most recently Mieville’s Embassytown. At the time I pick books, that selection (unless specifically for a project) appears based largely on individual interest, some idea that caught my attention. From the vantage point of hindsight, however, I often found out that there is some probablem that has been working away in my sub-conscious and that the reading choices have often not been as random as I had supposed. (This has happened so often that the only alternative is to believe that an extraordinary amount of serendipity rules my life, something that is highly unlikely).
I think there are a few threads running through these books, but the one that has stood out to me recently is that they all deal with what I would call convenient (and because convenient, therefore also comfortable, and vice versa) fictions. We have a number of models of the way the world works and our place in it that don’t necessarily correspond to way things are, but which have proved useful to a number of social projects and to individual psychological wellbeing. That we know what a novel is and how it came to be, for example; that we are all inherently rational and logical creatures capable of fairly assessing the evidence around us; that language operates in a certain way; that silent reading has always been the norm; that the universe we see around us is the real universe.
I think it was my first time reading Moby Dick that I first learned about Manichaeism, the branch of Gnosticism that was for a long time almost as influential as Christianity. Broadly stated, it is the belief that behind the veil of the universe that we can see lurks a titanic cosmic struggle between good and evil. This is one way of reading Ahab’s obsession with the whale, for example: if he can just kill that whale, it will enable him to push through to that other realm and apprehend that struggle directly. This is not at all to say that Melville was a Manichee. If anything, he was something more troubling, since his slippery narrator, Ishmael, repeatedly holds out the idea that what the whale symbolizes is in fact precisely nothing at all; it is the blank, inscrutable face of a hostile universe staring us down. At any rate, the influence of Manichaean ideas was something that has been startlingly widespread, despite their supposed defeat by the more comforting doctrines of the New Testament. They saturate popular culture narratives, for example, and they were everywhere in the world of nineteenth-century melodrama that I studied.
But if Manichaean ideology is shorn of its value-laden components (good and evil) we are left with a much older idea: the world around you as it appears is not the world that is. I’d, of course, just treated these ideas as academic curiosities so it was something of a shock to discover Greene’s book (among others) advancing the idea, based on modern cosmology and sub-atomic physics, that the world around us is profoundly, troublingly, inconsistent. In our everyday world, all actions seem pretty much predictable based on the by now common-sense reality of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. This world of ours is connected at both its sends, if you like, to the very large and very small, so it would be a common sense assumption that to some extent our everday laws operate there as well. Wrong. As is so often the case when common sense is invoked, this is just wrong. The laws of the universe at the very largest and smallest of scales look nothing like our Newtonian world.
Why this side-trip into the land of philosophical and literary speculation, assuming that it isn’t just due to the pain meds? Because I can’t stop thinking about that gap. The missing period of my life. There is a chance that it may come back, of course; it does with some people. But the more time passes with no returning memory, the less the likelihood I will ever get those moments back. And this in turn got me thinking about all the little convenient fictions we have to prop our sense of self. Some of these are individual but also cultural fictions. There’s the belief that we are rational creatures, for example. Predicated upon that is what I call the “consciousness-raising fallacy,” which is that if we can just give people the right information, or do it in the right way, they will learn how to make smart decisions. You may still believe in that one, despite the numerous friends around you who persist in re-enacting their previous relationship failures in serial dramatic form.
But there are also some fictions that even our culture as a whole has begun to call into question. The idea of being an eye-witness has long been granted a privileged status under the law. But it is predicated upon the belief that humans function as automatic recording devices, taking the world in at the eyes and imprinting a faithful record upon the brain ready to be regurgitated later. Even the law, however, is beginning to recognize that seeing and remembering are not passive, automatic processes, but active, creative constructions. What you see is influenced by your culture, your prejudices, the circumstances of your day, how familiar you are with the situation you are witnessing and the environment in which you are witnessing it, and so on.
It would be easy to appeal to the comfort of the “recording” narrative in my own case. I experienced something, I saw it, I felt it, so my brain must have taken a record of it. It is in there somewhere. You often see this mixed with narratives that are heavily moralistic in tone: our brain “shuts down” in moments of crisis to “preserve us from the trauma,” etc. Well, let me tell you, it is pretty damn traumatic having a piece of your life missing. It is equally plausible therefore, that none of what I experienced actually registered, or that it was deleted by some brain process we don’t understand.
What it has all got me thinking about, however, is how much our sense of our self is dependent upon the idea of an ongoing story of our self. That we are living through our days building a narrative with its own dramatic arcs and characters and sub-plots and Significant Themes. This is one of those convenient fictions and the narrative of our lives have more plot holes than a Michael Bay movie. We routinely mis-remember the past much more than we would like to acknowledge because we keep changing the narrative of our selves to fit the evolving sense of ourself. We gradually scultp the play-doh of the past in a way that allows it to make sense of who we now feel ourselves to be. Who we want to be. Because narrative, as the best artists have always known, is about the machinery of desire.
None of which helps me at all. I’m left with a gaping hole in the narrative of myself. No way to fill it. No significance to be attributed to it. Self Interrupted.