On Bicycles (and Vulnerability)

Posted by Eliza Dumais

Bike-riders seem to me the trendiest class of commuters. They are fundamentally hip, simply by virtue of their chosen mode of transportation. They are fearless pioneers of self-sufficiency, bravely exposing themselves to the elements along traffic-jammed highways and narrow, curbside bike lanes. They maintain full control over their direction, over the energy that propels them forward as they speed beside masses of Toyota Highlanders and Honda Civics occupied by drivers resting comfortably in their heated, leather seats. This is, however, a world from which I am entirely excluded: I do not know how to ride a bike. 

This is, of course, an inability that I find both humiliating and childish. At nineteen, I am far too old to remain inept in such a juvenile category. I am well aware that, like any motivated, healthy human being, I am fully capable of learning to ride a bike - of taking the necessary steps to join the ranks of profoundly cool bicycle-commuters. But I don't. 

I have discovered that this is because I am painfully attached to the idea that I am too late  - this ridiculous notion that skill-sets, or certain categories of knowledge are time-sensitive, and that in turn, we are marked with expiration dates for the acquisition of this information. I am simply too old to learn to ride a bike. The older we get, the more reluctant we grow to start over, to immerse ourselves in the areas where we remain entirely ignorant or incapable. We do not want to be made vulnerable to our incompetencies, so we cling to this notion that it is simply too late to learn - too late to exert effort in the face of the unfamiliar, we are too old to be taught. Like bike riding, this is an act of bravery. 

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the third longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its construction, was opened to the public in July of 1940. It stretched over the Puget Sound, between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington, and it collapsed on November 7 of that very same year. The bridge, while it stood, was nicknamed "Galloping Gertie," as the deck moved violently in the wind, constantly shifting in "vertical oscillations". It was clear that there was some fundamental flaw in the bridge's construction from the moment it was completed, but rather than start over, the Washington Toll Bridge Authority added cables and hydraulic buffers, in the attempt to stabilize the structure as it was. Its collapse into the Puget Sound was reflective of the stubborn lack of willingness to begin again - to admit initial ignorance and start over. The engineering team chose to await imminent destruction rather than acknowledge the design flaws and return to the drawing board. Once the bridge was constructed, they had simply decided it was too late. 

David Foster Wallace, in his novel, Infinite Jest, wrote, "Be a Student of the Game. Like most clich??s of sport, this is profound. You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. This is hard." In many ways, to start over is to admit defeat. It is to willingly engage with an acknowledgment of our own shortcomings and it seems that as we get older, we are more inclined to hide comfortably behind the notion that it is too late for us to submit ourselves to the process of learning, to being taught what it is that we do not already know. But, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, "you can be shaped, or you can broken," and the latter is much more likely if we choose to stubbornly hold on to the imperfect architecture of our lives as they are. 

It is outrageous that at nineteen years old, I can claim that there is anything at all that I am too old to learn. Bravery does not rest in the realm of things it is too late to access -we owe ourselves a willingness to greet the unfamiliar. Perhaps it is not a matter of timing, but rather, of enduring the vulnerability that comes with choosing to rely on the training wheels. The fearless, too, must start at the beginning. 

 David Foster Wallace, among the fearless, hung himself on September 12, 2008. In his writing, he once likened the man who contemplates suicide with the man who must choose whether or not to jump from a burning building - both still experience the human fear of falling. "The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames," he wrote,  "when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flames." Wallace interacted with what terrified him most on a daily basis, confronted the tangled, thankless inside of his own head in order write with the authenticity that resonates, dark and heavy, through his works. He endured the flames, faced them head on in his commitment to communication. Sometimes, the breakage is irredeemable, but there is still enormous value in the bravery that accompanies the process - the embrace of the damage.  

I was in the second grade when the Twin Towers fell, along with my belief in constants, in the indestructible - in what could not be damaged. We devote a great portion of our lives to the assurance that we are not breakable, that our bridges do not move in "vertical oscillations" and the David Foster Wallace's of the world are simply flawed at the outset -unfixable. Evidently, this is not true - it is foolish to rely completely on what we choose to believe is permanent. 

I remember what I was wearing on September 11, 2001: I was wearing jeans and a Mia Hamm jersey because I promised myself I would be number nine on the U.S. Women's soccer team. That was before I loved words and after I swore never to wear dresses again. I remember sitting on the carpet of the classroom in my jersey when the phone rang. We were learning about Native Americans or clocks or multiplication, when we were interrupted by the news about the jet liners.

 I hadn't thought buildings could break like that, that they could collapse so completely. James Glanz covered the attack for the New York Times. He wrote that the cause of the demolition was most likely the fire, fueled by all of the gallons of fuel aboard the two jet liners -  "The high temperatures, of perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 degrees, probably weakened the steel supports, the experts said, causing the external walls to buckle and allowing the floors above to fall almost straight down. That led to catastrophic failures of the rest of the buildings." They came down like dominoes, both in pieces, and all at once. 

Glanz reported that, "one of the engineers who worked on the towers' structural design in the 1960's even claimed that each one had been built to withstand the impact of a fully loaded, fully fueled Boeing 707, then the heaviest aircraft flying." Like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the World Trade Center was built under the operative belief that we can create something incapable of ruin - that we can construct the unbreakable. On September 12thof 2001, Glanz wrote that, according to the experts, "No engineer could have prepared for what happened yesterday." No engineer could possibly have acknowledged the helplessness of something so stable, so secure, as the twin towers. In a similar article, John F. Burns called us "America the vulnerable." He said that on the eleventh, we had learned that, "no amount of power can provide protection against an enemy with limited means but a ruthless determination." We are incredibly reluctant to take into consideration, the fact that in some regard, from some angle, we are always exposed. Whether we choose to accept this or not, in some fashion, we are and always have been, America, the vulnerable.   

Brian Doyle wrote, in an essay called Leap, that he had heard stories of two people, jumping from the smoking skeleton of one of the buildings, and reaching out to hold each other's hands as they free fell toward the smog-shrouded sidewalk. He said it reminded him,  "that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires." There is something beautiful about building up from ground zero - something perfectly holy about the significance we derive from devastation. It is only when we address our vulnerabilities, or perhaps when they address us, that we can stumble upon this sort of clarity. Wallace had it right: to live is to submit to, "the terror of the flames," but, still, we are at our greatest, our most transparently pure and most perfectly gratified, only under those great fires.

Choosing to keep our weak points at arms length, to strategically position them within our blind spots, is a product of our desire to hold on to the belief that to some degree, we are invincible. The flaw therein, of course, is that we are breakable. It is fundamental to our very personhood that we are indisputably transient creatures, and therefore, always and inescapably vulnerable in some sense. As with bridges and burning buildings and bicycles, we cannot move forward until we interact with what is difficult, what is new, what implies that we were never perfect, or entirely unyielding to begin with.  But, as Wallace would attest, it is in these embraces that we are the most utterly open. This is where we are profoundly authentic in the broadest sense. We are holy in the midst of the flames, built to withstand incredible things and to collapse in the face of others. It is simply a matter of making peace with the possibility of the wreckage. 

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