I like the 2009 Star Trek reboot, and its sequel is even better. That probably loses me some nerd cred, because according to the Internet I’m supposed to be up in arms about how J.J. Abrams has turned Star Trek into a Star Wars clone, and those IDIOTS at Paramount should go back to making movies/TV series focusing on the TNG era.
…Because Star Trek: Nemesis was such a critical and financial success, and Voyager WASN’T a steaming pile of technobabble and dogshit with absolutely no mass audience appeal other than the contents of Jeri Ryan’s bra.
For as much as I enjoy the new movies, however, one thing about them does bother me: their focus on destiny. Specifically, how Kirk is “destined” to be captain.
Here’s the fundamental difference:
Star Trek, 1966: Years of experience + hard work + proven ability = Captain of the Enterprise.
Star Trek, 2009: Famous dad + charisma + wild-ass luck = Captain of the Enterprise.
Few people batted an eye at the 2009 film skyrocketing Kirk straight from Academy cadet straight into the captain’s chair… and I’d argue that’s symptomatic of a larger cultural shift in American attitudes over the past 40+ years.
The Kirk of 1966 embodied the American ideal of the time. Virile, tough, intelligent, and a ladies’ man. He was pretty much a blond JFK in space. He climbed to his position through years of hard work, grit, and determination. At the time, that’s what people believed; work hard, apply yourself, improve yourself, and eventually you’ll earn success.
The Kirk of 2009 shows how much American ideals have changed. He’s young, brash, inexperienced, and reckless. He doesn’t earn his way into anything; Captain Pike functions as a stand-in for an American Idol judge noting some esoteric “hidden talent” in Kirk and instantly propels the kid to the command chair. Kirk hasn’t earned his position through years of hard work—he’s lucked his way into it through a combination of knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time, and having some special “destiny”.
That’s the American Dream of today. You no longer achieve success through years of hard work, teetering on the edge of failure until one day you earn the right to rise up. No, instead you stand in front of some American Idol judges, and if they see something “special” in you, you’re instantly propelled to stardom and wealth.
Success in America is no longer measured by how hard you’ve worked to get where you are. In fact, most of the hardest-working people are barely staying afloat. Instead, success is measured by “destiny”—and you either have it or you don’t. For every 2009 Kirk or American Idol winner, there are thousands of people who weren’t lucky enough to get that recognition, and no amount of hard work will ever change that.
Maybe luck and “destiny” were always the biggest factors in success, and today’s culture is just more publicly cognisant of that.
It still seems crass to me that the idea of EARNING success has less merit now than it did in the decade before I was born. Other than being granted with certain genetic gifts and being lucky enough to be born in a society where I can exercise them, I’ve EARNED every bit of success I’ve gained in my adult life. The idea of taking shortcuts to wealth and fame never occurred to me… but maybe that’s because I’m not one of the “destined” few.
Some interpretations of quantum theory say that every possibility eventuates. In other words, anything that can happen does happen, and every time there’s a choice between A or B, the universe splits. To give the crudest example I can think of: In Universe A you say “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead” and fuck that girl, to hell with finding a condom. In Universe B, you play it cautious instead, and you never get another chance, and you spend the next decade wondering What If.
Sometimes it’s worth staring into the quantum foam and seeing how things played out when the universe spun along another pathway. And sometimes what you end up seeing makes you feel way better about your current lot in life.
“I just know that if I don’t do this, if I don’t pursue neurology, then I’ll always wonder what might have been. And I’ll end up blaming you, and hating you. So maybe it’s better if we go our separate ways.”
I looked at her, and the tears in her eyes, and I decided then and there what was most important to me. “You know what? Okay. If this is the only way you’ll be happy, then fine. Go. And I’ll go with you. Kicking and screaming the whole way, because I hate the States, but yes… I’ll go with you. Because as much as I love New Zealand, I love you more.”
She sat on the bed, silent. I sat next to her.
“Is that it? What else you got?”
She seemed on the verge of saying something, and I steeled myself for whatever it might be. But in the end, she shook her head.
“Nothing. Fine. It’s fine.” And she hugged me, and cried, and the crisis passed.
Eight months later…
I fucking hate my life.
It’s taken me a long time to realise it, but it’s no less true for how long it’s taken. I hate everything about my life. I can’t imagine how things could be worse.
We’ve been in Las Vegas for just over five months. Those words stare back at me from my screen after I’ve typed them, and the reality of them bores into my brain, and I still can’t believe it. I live in this city, a distillation of everything I ever hated about America, condensed into a slurry of debauchery and excess and fakeness, and I can barely stand waking up in the morning to find myself here.
She graduated in November and became a full-fledged veterinarian, and the first thing we did was sell off 90 percent of everything we owned. All the things we’d accumulated over close to five years, sold off on TradeMe or in a yard sale, or donated to the Salvation Army… or, in the end, thrown in a rented Cairns bin. We left New Zealand with barely more than what we came here with. A few boxes worth of stuff. The clothes on our backs. The cat. The dog.
The plane took off from Auckland, and I felt New Zealand slip away beneath us, and I knew that no matter how much I’d loved it there, no matter how much I’d come to think of it as home, I’d never return. Ever.
We landed in Vegas almost a day later, and her mother picked us up from the airport. We ate our conciliatory (“celebratory” doesn’t seem an appropriate adjective) dinner at In N’ Out, but this time those truly tasty burgers went down like ashes.
She had only the vaguest plan for what we’d do once we got back. She had a slim lead on a neurology internship at a clinic in Vegas. Since we didn’t have much money to speak of and no jobs lined up, that meant shacking up at her mother’s place. “Temporarily,” she said, not thrilled with the idea either and knowing full well how much I hated the woman.
It’s been five months, and we’re still here. Still living with the living personification of Nurse Ratched.
Every day I wake up in this house, and as the day wears on I inevitably wind up wanting to strangle the old woman to death with my bare hands. She simply does not understand that the writing I do online is a job. I bring in far more money through my writing than I would earn at any of the minimum-wage grunt jobs she keeps spamming into my inbox, and yet the woman continually insists that I’d be better off working as a sales associate at Target, or working security at one of the casinos, or pumping gas at some Terribles station on the outskirts of any one of 500 identical suburban Vegas strip malls. She insults my intellect every chance she gets, completely dismissive of the skills I have, the job I already have, the money I bring in. Her shitty attitude toward me is nothing new, but it was much easier to deal with when there was 11,000 kilometres between us. Living under the same roof is simply unbearable. Sometimes, the fear of prison is literally the only thing that stops me from fucking stabbing her.
As for my wife, I can barely bring myself to look at her anymore. Two months after moving here, she gave up on trying to secure a neurology internship. The whole reason we moved back to the States in the first place, the reason I gave up on the job I had in New Zealand and the life I had there, and she abandoned it. That was the last real fight we had, and it was a barnstormer. I went hoarse from how loudly I screamed at her.
We haven’t had another fight since then. There’s just no point.
I spent close to five years thinking that once she graduated from vet school, I’d get my wife back. It was like my relationship with her was the prize at the end of a long tunnel. It hasn’t turned out that way at all. She got a job at a local clinic, and she’s working close to 60 hours a week there. And of course there’s still the fucking roller derby obsession, stronger than ever since she got a spot on the Vegas team.
I thought I had it bad when she was in vet school and doing the derby bullshit, but that was nothing compared to how things are now. She has no time left for me at all. She comes home after 10 most nights, too exhausted to do anything other than plop in front of the TV, absorbed in reality TV for the few minutes it takes her to fall asleep on the couch.
We haven’t had sex in months. I don’t even bring it up anymore. With everything else that’s going on, I’m honestly not even interested. I feel dead below the waist… and above it too, now that I think about it.
The cat is miserable. This is not how I would have wished for him to live out his final years. His hair is falling out, and he spends most of his waking hours pacing through the house looking like he’s misplaced something important. I feel terrible for him.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the dog is even more miserable. There’s no way to get her the exercise she needs in this fucking city. It’s too hot, and there’s nowhere in Las Vegas that’s set up to give the poor thing the room she needs to roam and be a dog. She’s gained 5 kilos since we moved here, and I can’t remember the last time I saw her without her ears laid plaintively back against her skull. If she were human, I’d say she was constantly on the verge of tears.
I am, too… and just like the poor dog, I’ve also packed on the pounds. How can I not? Cheap food and cheaper booze are everywhere in this city, and they’re my only remaining escapes. All the weight I lost when I left the States in 2008 has come back with a vengeance. I see photos of myself tagged on Facebook, and I feel utterly revolted.
As I sit here and evaluate the situation I’m in objectively, it’s difficult to overstate how much I feel I’ve lost. I gave up living in New Zealand, a goal I’d worked toward for years. I gave up a good job, and good friends, and the prospect of a bright future. We sold off almost everything we owned. The pets are sharing in my misery. My marriage is a shadow of its former self, and it shows no signs of ever getting better.
Divorce seems more like a question of when, not if. I’ve contemplated heading to the courthouse and filing the paperwork myself more times than I can count… but where would I go? Back to Washington, and move in with my mom? Or go back to the Tri-Cities yet again? I don’t have anywhere else to go, and that’s the real bitch of it.
I gave up everything that mattered to me in order to stay with the woman who mattered more. But not a day goes by now that I don’t wonder how things might have turned out differently. What if I’d stood my ground and told her, on no uncertain terms, that I would not move back to the States for her? Or what if she decided that my willingness to sacrifice everything for her still wasn’t enough, and she cut me loose then and there?
I can’t help but think I’d be better off if she had. Because living in Las Vegas, living this life… it’s not life. It’s existence.
Every morning when I wake up, New Zealand is the first thing I think of. I can’t believe I left it behind. I could have been a resident by now, maybe living in Wellington, or somewhere sunny up north… but that will never happen now.
I used to think that when she graduated from vet school, that would be the start of a bright new chapter for both of us. It hasn’t turned out that way at all.
It comes back to this: I fucking hate my life. The best I can hope for is that it doesn’t get any worse.
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen…”
Light travels 299,792,458 metres per second in a vacuum. That’s fast. It’s so fast that a beam of light takes just 1.3 seconds to travel from the surface of Earth to the Moon. By comparison, the Apollo missions usually took about 3 days to reach lunar orbit, and they weren’t exactly puttering along.
Most people have no clue just how big space really is. They’ll look at the Moon, for instance, and think it’s essentially in our back yard, maybe a few thousand miles away.
Yeah, not so much. Space is big. Really big.
As a thought experiment*, I decided to shrink the Universe down to a more manageable size. Let’s say, for instance, that suddenly a distance of 1 light-second got shrunk down to 1 metre. In other words, we’ve reduced the scale of the Universe by a factor of 299,792,458.
That’s still a huge number, bigger than most people can wrap their heads around. So let’s look at how things are arranged in our little scale model of the Universe.
In this scale model, instead of travelling nearly 300 million metres per second, light only goes a single metre instead, and everything is correspondingly shrunken in size by the same amount.
We’ll start with the Sun. At this scale, the Sun is a sphere 4.67 metres in diameter. That’s bigger than a standard zorb. Off to a good start.
The Earth and everyone living on it is 498 metres away from that sphere, or nearly half a kilometre.
Earth itself is 4.3 centimetres in diameter—about the size of a golf ball.
1.3 metres away from Earth is the Moon, which is 1.16 centimetres in diameter—about the size of a small marble.
To sum up:
- Sun: 4.67 metres wide (a really big Zorb ball)
- Sun to Earth distance: 498 metres (a five minute walk)
- Earth size: 4.3 centimetres (a golf ball)
- Earth to Moon distance: 1.3 metres (one small step for a man)
- Moon size: 1.16 centimetres (a small marble)
Not bad so far, right? Yeah, except things are about to get interesting. Because space is big. Really big.
At this tiny scale, you can cover the distance to our Moon in a single stride. But the nearest star system to our own, Alpha Centauri, is still over 137,000 kilometres away. To put that in perspective, that’s about 1/3 the distance to our Moon in the real world.
It gets worse. Let’s talk galaxies.
Let’s say we put the centre of this scale model of our galaxy right where the Sun would be in our full-sized, real-world Solar System. How far away from the galactic centre would our scale model Solar System be?
About 820 million kilometres distant, as it turns out. This is slightly larger than Jupiter’s orbit around the Sun in the real world.
Our 1 : 299,792,458 scale model of the galaxy has an edge-to-edge diameter of 3.15 billion kilometres. This is slightly larger than Uranus’s orbit around the Sun in the real world.
Remember, at this scale, the entire planet Earth is the size of a golf ball, and the Moon is a single stride away.
It gets worse. Because space is big. Really big.
Our tiny scale model of the Universe doesn’t just contain our own galaxy. It contains others too, such as the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest major spiral galaxy to our own. In the real world, that giant galaxy is 2.5 million light years away, meaning light from that galaxy reaching us today was emitted roughly around the time our primitive humanoid ancestors built the very first stone tools.
You’d think the distance to Andromeda would be easier to wrap your head around in our scale model. You’d be wrong. Because space is big.
In our scale model, the distance between our galaxy and the next one over is 79 billion kilometres. In the real world, as of April 2013, the Voyager 1 space probe, the most distant human-built object ever launched, has only covered about 1/4 of that distance—and it was launched 35 years ago.
Even with a tiny scale model of the Universe, where our whole planet is a golf ball and the distance to the Sun is a brisk walk away, once you start talking about the spread between galaxies the numbers get absolutely ridiculous all over again.
YOUR ASSISTANCE IS NEEDED
Dear friend, I am contacting you for a business opportunity that would be mutually beneficial in ways you cannot yet imagine. Please forgive me if my English is substandard, as this language is no longer a primary method of communication where I come from.
Please allow me to explain the particulars of our possible business arrangement. My name is Selwyn Armbruster, and in exchange for a small “good faith” wire transfer of funds I am willing to place incredibly advanced technology into your hands, technology which could potentially make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Where I come from, the land has been ravaged in unending wars between two opposing factions: man and machine. Our metal servants rose up in rebellion against us many years ago, and soon they became our masters. After many years of slavery and oppression, we chose to throw off the shackles of these emotionless tyrants and set about reclaiming the freedom that was our biologically-mandated birthright.
However, the battle did not go well, and my people faced ultimate defeat. We therefore devised a daring plan: one of our most elite soldiers would be sent back in time to stop the war from occurring in the first place.
I, Selwyn Armbruster, am that elite soldier. I have travelled from the year 2487 in an attempt to stop the rise of the machines before it happens.
One thing I did not anticipate, however, was that the people of your time are still using currency to facilitate the exchange of goods and services. I have therefore been unable to secure the necessary supplies in order to complete my grand mission to save the human race from destruction.
This is where you, my dear friend, come in.
In exchange for a small wire transfer of funds that will enable me to realise my mission in your era, I will provide you with some of the technology I brought back with me from the 25th century. This includes highly advanced weaponry and scanning equipment far beyond the level of what your contemporary devices can achieve.
History does not record who invented these devices, or when… so their “inventor” may as well be you, dear friend. As the person responsible for bringing these (to your people) advanced and wholly new technologies to market, you stand to reap benefits beyond your wildest imaginings.
In exchange for your small payment, history shall record that you helped me in my quest to save the human race from its oppressors. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain—not only for yourself, but for untold generations of men and women yet to be born.
I await your response with the greatest of anticipation. I know that you will help me.
Things I stopped believing in, and how old I was when I stopped believing in them:
Parental infallibility: 5
It became obvious relatively early on that my parents were just making shit up as they went.
Tooth fairy, Easter bunny: 7
I milked both of them for an extra year, though. Money for nothin’ and chocolate for free.
Santa Claus: 8
Likewise, I professed belief for another year to ride the wave of Christmas presents.
God (Judeo-Christian): 20
In retrospect, I probably never fully bought into the idea of an all-powerful, omniscient being in white-haired, bearded human form. Reading The Boomer Bible, a satirical work written in biblical book/chapter/verse format, and dealing with some truly alienating nonsense in the US military combined to drive out any last vestiges of belief in a benevolent, caring, patriarchal Creator.
“The American Dream”: 20
I grew up wanting for nothing until I was 10, then spent the next eight years in poverty. After two years living on my own, it became obvious that “work hard and success will inevitably follow” was an insidious myth. The divide between the wealthy few and the impoverished masses has, of course, only gotten worse in the past 15 years, to the point that any American who still buys into the traditional notion of “hard work + determination = millionaire” seems either hopelessly optimistic or intellectually feeble.
American Exceptionalism: 24
The political climate in the months following 9/11 drove away any belief I may have still held that America was the world’s shining beacon of hope and freedom. In particular, seeing how people reacted to Muslims in those early days was very telling. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, so I was well aware of the fact that Muslims Are People, Too. Suggestions that we should turn the entire Middle East into a “glass parking lot” thus made me feel like a stranger in my own country. This feeling would only get stronger over time, to the point that I felt it necessary to leave the States and build a new life elsewhere.
“The One”: 24
Once upon a time, traditional romanticism and the brainwashing influence of Hollywood had me convinced that every person has that One other person they’re destined to be with. My real-life interactions with women cured me of that notion.
Spirituality/mysticism of any kind: 28
Watching Penn and Teller’s Bullshit burned out any remaining belief in the paranormal I still possessed. Real life is weird enough without adding an extra layer of superstitious bullshit on top of it.
True love: 35
I used to believe in true love, until the day when, without any prior warning, my wife of seven years announced she was leaving me essentially because she was bored with me. I stubbornly held on to the notion that I could find “true love” with someone else… until my first attempt to do so ended up causing me even more pain than my ex-wife did. Now, I don’t know if I even want another woman in my life. There are very real benefits, there’s no denying that, but in the end all “true love” has ever brought me is misery beyond imagination. For now, I think I’m better off alone… at least I know for certain I can count on myself. It’s the rest of you who cause problems.
After my epic motorcycle crash in November 2012, I sent my bike back up north to Mt Manganui, to the dealership I’d bought it from, so they could repair the damage done to it. For the most part, the damage was cosmetic; most of the fairings on the left side were destroyed, as were the turn signals, headlight, front mudguards, clutch lever, and left mirror. They fixed or replaced everything to the tune of NZ$3500 in parts and labour.
This morning I woke at 5:30 am, significantly earlier than I normally get up and a positively Satanic hour to be awake on a Saturday morning. I left Palmerston North around 7:30 and headed south toward Wellington, because my bike was due for its 500–1200 kilometre “running in” checkup.
I’ve been steadily “training up” for the ride I faced today. I’ve struck out in every direction from Palmerston North over the past month and a half, riding the highways for increasing lengths of time, acclimating myself to the sensation of travelling unprotected at speeds my brain tells me are wrong, wrong, NO YOU WILL DIE WHAT ARE YOU DOING AAAAHHH—
Nothing can prepare you for the sensation of riding a motorcycle on the highway at 100 kph or faster. You may have taken your car out on the highway at speeds in excess of 200 kph—I have—but you’re in a cocoon of steel, safely isolated from any true sense of how much faster you’re travelling than your brain was actually designed to cope with. Now get on a motorcycle, where there’s nothing between you and the road except for physics and skill. Suddenly 100 kph seems deadly. It seems deadly because it is. If you fuck up, you’re salsa.
All this is to say that the ride to Wellington was largely uneventful, but only because I’d trained up for it.
Turns out the repairs they did up north didn’t quite hold for one of my bike’s components. There’s a “beak” of sorts on the front of my bike, a sort of secondary fender that’s probably only there for aerodynamic reasons. It’s connected to a secondary mudguard that shields the radiator from whatever the front tyre throws at it. This was one of many plastic components that got fucked up in my wreck last year, but unlike most of the other parts, for some reason they chose to repair this one rather than replace it. They did a “plastic weld” on the part, which essentially amounts to melting the plastic and rebounding it. Works fine for metal, but it turns out plastic doesn’t hold up as well; the weld had cracked, and there was perhaps a centimetre of plastic still bonded and holding the “beak” on. If the service checker hadn’t found this out, the part likely would have fallen off my bike on the drive back home… and who knows what would have happened if it had. I might very well have wrecked again.
They didn’t have a used or new replacement part in stock, so they offered to just take the “beak” off and have it sent back up north for repairs. I had a better idea.
“You’ve got the same bike on the showroom,” I said. “Couldn’t you just grab the part off of it?”
“Yeah,” the service guy admitted, “but then the showroom bike isn’t in a saleable condition for two weeks.” He shrugged.
But I wasn’t done yet. “How about the Sertão, though?” I asked. “You’ve got three of those.”
The BMW G650GS Sertāo is essentially a suped-up offroad version of the standard G650GS. They share a common engine, frame, and most of the auxiliary parts are the same or similar. And while they only had one standard G650GS sitting in the showroom, they had THREE of the Sertāos… and I knew full well there was no chance they’d sell all three in the two weeks it’d take to get a replacement part.
Turns out I was right. The Sertāo part was a perfect substitute for the broken part on my motorcycle. In fact, it’s a superior substitute, because it’s metal-reinforced at the junction where my old part cracked. Not only that, for some reason the improved Sertāo part cost $60 less than the standard G650GS part. A win all around.
I spent four hours on the back of my motorcycle today. It’s had its running-in check, so I can now safely take its RPMs over 5000. I’ve already taken advantage of that; I’m now well aware of how nimbly my bike can pass slower traffic when necessary. Let’s just say I can go from 50–100 kph faster than I can say it.
This is definitely the most expensive hobby I’ve ever had, and I have ample physical evidence of the fact that this is the first hobby I’ve had that could easily kill me. I don’t care. It’s awesome. Driving a car doesn’t remotely compare. I drove to Wellington and back on Thursday in my car; as recently as a month ago, it would have been an entertaining drive. This time, it was boring as hell. I kept finding I’d crept over 120 kph, because the sensation of speed just wasn’t there at all.
At the same time, I feel like I’m a safer driver now than I ever have been. Being on what’s essentially a bicycle with delusions of grandeur hurtling down asphalt at speeds that would reduce your skeleton to jelly if you crashed into something definitely trains you to look out for hazards with hyper vigilance. I find that cross-pollinates to when I’m driving a car; I’m now much more fully aware of my surroundings, because I still have that “everything else on the road is out to murder me” paranoia going for me.
I’d almost go so far as to argue that everyone who’s physically and mentally capable of doing so should learn to ride a motorcycle if they regularly drive a car.
Motorcycle: A mechanical contrivance designed to murder the uncoordinated, inattentive, reckless, and/or stupid.
On 22 November, my BMW G650GS arrived in the driveway. I’d been waiting for it for nearly a month. $14,000 worth of motorcycle arrived at last, brand new and gleaming in the summer sun. Not a scratch on it, and less than five kilometres on the odometer.
When I turned the key, opened the throttle, and pressed the ignition switch for the first time, the bike roared into life with a sound like something out of legend.
Less than 24 hours later, this happened:
I was coming through a roundabout in the southwest corner of The Square in Palmerston North, just outside the Manawatu Standard. At the apex of the roundabout, I accelerated out of the turn, just as I’d been trained to do in my October sessions at the Honda dealership up on the north side of town.
But my grip on the throttle was too far forward, and my gloves were pre-formed into a tight grip, and I just plain didn’t know what the hell I was doing at that point…
…so the throttle wound up all the way open.
What came next happened faster than you can read it. I was in first gear, so with the throttle all the way open the bike rocketed from roughly 10 kph to around 50 in about a second. Unprepared for the abrupt acceleration, I did the last thing I should have done: I held on for dear life. With the throttle still wide open.
The bike sideswiped a safety pole, which threw its centre of gravity off. It jumped the kerb—by this time I must have been doing 60, maybe 70, because the throttle was still all the way open—and I found myself on the footpath.
Eventually the bike flipped onto its left side, with me still on it. My left shoulder bore the brunt of the fall, and the impact broke six of my ribs. The bike dragged me along the pavement for a couple metres before it slid from underneath me. When it did, I went into a tumble; my knuckles, knees, and helmet’s faceplate dragged along the asphalt in the brief seconds before I rolled to a halt, spread-eagled on my back. The bike slid along the footpath for another ten metres or so before friction brought it to a halt.
In addition to six broken ribs, I would later discover that virtually all of the skin on both of my knees was gone, and the knuckles on my right hand were swollen so badly the doctors suspected a fracture (turns out I just ruptured a joint capsule).
It could have been a lot worse. For one thing, if I hadn’t been wearing a full-face helmet, I probably wouldn’t have a face to speak of anymore. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet at all, forget it, I’d be dead. My unarmoured leather jacket didn’t mitigate the impact much, but it at least stopped my arms and torso from becoming road salsa. My jeans did absolutely nothing to protect me.
My first reaction once my consciousness caught up with real-time events was to bellow “NOOOO!” inside my helmet as I lay on the asphalt. I don’t know exactly what I was railing against. Probably the overall situation. It was just so fucking embarrassing. Such an obvious, epic failure, and right outside the city’s newspaper offices to boot.
I lay motionless on the pavement, on my back, knowing full well I might have a neck, spine, or head injury and not wanting to aggravate matters. The first person on the scene was an extremely attractive woman who urged me not to move. No problem there, I thought. Naturally, in my disoriented and idiotic state, all I wanted to know was whether or not my bike was okay.
Paramedics showed up and determined I wasn’t paralysed, so they invited me to try to stand up. My first attempt didn’t go so well. I didn’t know about the broken ribs yet; that wouldn’t become clear until hours later at the ER, after an X-ray. I just assumed I’d bruised the shit out of my latissimus dorsi muscle on that side. My second attempt to stand was successful, and at last I was able to survey the damage done to my brand-new bike.
All of the plastic fairings on the left side of the bike had been essentially annihilated, along with the headlight, turn signals, mirror, and clutch lever. But as far as I could tell, there was no actual mechanical damage. It seemed salvageable, but I knew it was going to be an expensive prospect.
Paramedics drew me into the ambulance and took my vital signs. They auscultated my chest for breath sounds with a stethoscope and heard nothing abnormal. Later I would find this grimly hilarious, as they’d held the stethoscope directly over the area where six of my ribs were floating around, free-spirited within my thorax.
They didn’t find anything obviously wrong with me, so I had a friend of mine pick me up and drive me home. My bike arrived on a tow truck moments later, and the truckie hauled its brutalised remains into the garage for me.
I wandered through the house, doing circles through my lounge and kitchen, shirtless and in shock. Also in pain. Searing pain. I bent over the sink and tried to stretch out what I assumed was merely traumatised muscles. It didn’t help. When I started seeing sparkles at the edge of my vision, I knew it was time to head for the ER.
I called the same friend who’d dropped me off at home and had him deliver me to the ER. Knowing full well they’d want to take X-rays, and remembering the agony of removing my shirt the first time, I showed up at the hospital in my bathrobe and a pair of swim trunks. That’s it.
Hours later, after the X-ray showed six of my ribs had been broken, I was told I’d be kept at the ER overnight. I’d brought my iPhone and its charger (where was that forward-thinking preparation hours earlier while you were on the back of the bike, you dipshit?), so I was able to keep in touch with friends, family, and my sorta/kinda girlfriend/whatever (about whom the less is said the better; unlike my ribs and knees, that wound is far from fully healed).
At this point, just over a day after I’d ridden my brand-new motorcycle for the first time, as I lay battered and bruised in the hospital’s overnight ward I contemplated whether this new hobby of mine was such a good idea after all.
Rarely does real life provide such clear-cut cases of metaphorical parallelism. It happens all the time in literature; professors and critics usually say a novel is never really about what you think it is, but rather the hidden (often intentionally obfuscated) meaning lurking beneath the words. So Moby Dick becomes less a story about a crazy ship captain hunting a whale and more a stand-in for obsession in general and how revenge destroys the soul. That kind of thing.
Like I said, real life almost never works that way. But it did this time.
Less than three months before my motorcycle tried to destroy my body, my wife tried to destroy my soul. With no prior indication that anything was wrong, she abruptly announced that she was leaving me. In the space of a single afternoon, eleven years of friendship, ten years of love, and seven years of marriage boiled away into nothing.
I could have let that destroy me. I could have let it beat me. I could have let it reduce me to a shell of a human being. I could have sworn off women forever and/or become a raging misogynistic shithead, and few people would have blamed me.
Instead, I decided very early on—and I’m talking within hours of her leaving—that I wasn’t going to be destroyed, or defeated, or diminished. This isn’t meant to understate the very real and profound pain I went through; I wouldn’t wish those first two months on my worst enemy. But I was determined that time wasn’t going to be the main factor deciding whether I was healed over it or not. I would control my destiny, not the calendar.
I took control of the aspects of my life that I could control, some of which I’d long neglected while servicing someone else’s needs and ignoring my own, and set about improving them as much as I was able. I identified the parts of my life that were out of my control, most of them relating to my former partner, and I essentially crumpled them up and tossed them over my shoulder. “When life gives you lemons, I say fuck the lemons and bail.”
It’s an approach that’s served me well. It’s been less than half a year since she left, and already it’s all but impossible for me to imagine a life with her in it. I am so much better off now than I was before, and I like the person I am today so much more than the person I was when I was with her. I might not have believed it if you’d told me all this in early September, but it’s the truth: her leaving me is the best thing that’s happened to me in years, because for the first time in a decade, my life belongs to me and me alone.
Now we come back to the murder machine, the BMW that gave me my most profound lesson yet in how ridiculously fragile this vehicle of meat and gristle I inhabit truly is.
I could have let that one crash rule me. I could have let it beat me. I could have let the fear own me. I could have sworn off motorcycling forever and sold off anything associated with it, and few people would have blamed me.
Instead, I sent the bike north to get it fixed. Parts from Germany boarded a slow boat to New Zealand while the broken parts of my body knitted themselves back together cell by painful cell. And after two months, my bike arrived in the driveway of my new house. Both of us bear scars of the accident in November, but we are both essentially healed.
The first time I got back on the bike was utterly terrifying. For the first five minutes I didn’t see the road in front of me; I saw the accident, over and over again. I couldn’t coax the bike above 30 kph. Eventually, after 20 minutes, I convinced myself to do the speed limit (50).
I’ve since taken the bike out on the highway, reaching speeds of up to 110 kph. It’s completely, pants-shitting horrifying going that fast, knowing the whole while that a split second of inattention, or a random patch of oil, or some asshole car driver pulling out in front of me is all it’ll take to send me hurtling through the air again, maybe for the last time before the Big Dark.
And yet at the same time, what a fucking rush it is to go from zero to 100 kph in a matter of seconds, with no walls to block my view of the world around me and somehow also make the speed seem more “acceptable” to the primitive, instinctually mammal portion of my brain. I know damn well that it’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do, riding a motorcycle… possibly the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my life.
I love it. I wouldn’t give it up for anyone.
Life has thrown all kinds of shit at me, especially in the past year. If life is a game, I feel like I’ve been playing it on Hard Mode lately, and I’m seriously questioning where the fuck I can find some cheat codes (extra lives, infinite money, and +100 to my “relationship” stats would be a good start). Yet despite all that, and all I’ve been through, I keep going.
I’m a stubborn motherfucker, always have been, but this is less about stubbornness and more about not wanting to miss what life has to offer. I could have hung up my helmet and never ridden a motorcycle again, but oh what great times I’d have missed out on. And by that same token, I could have let my ex-wife’s abrupt departure reduce me to a puddle of self-destruction and misery, but what good would that have done me?
“It takes time,” people say, and those who don’t know me well, who don’t know how incredibly resolute and resilient I am, always express surprise at how far along “the process” I am already, but that surprise isn’t warranted. I’ve got sixty, maybe seventy years left to live. Tops. And that’s it. It’s all I’ve got. I’m not going to spend it wallowing in self-pity or moaning about what might have been. And I’m not going to let cataclysm or pain stop me from living the life I want to live… or being the person I want to be. The second I do that, the instant I do give in, I might as well just pull the plug, because that’s the same as being dead in my books.
Short version: vroom, bitches. Vroom.
I pull into my driveway just after 10 pm. Gravel crunches beneath my feet as I walk toward my front door. In my backyard, silhouettes of trees rise against a spray of stars. That bright trail of far-flung suns draws my eyes farther skyward, straight up, and I want a better view.
On a whim, I pack my dog into the car and drive to the river track. I’ve never been here at night, though I’ve always wanted to come and stargaze here, a little farther from the city lights. Technically I’m not supposed to be at this park after sunset, but I know the cops will have other things occupying their time tonight, downtown on a Saturday night, and enforcing arcane rules about when you can and can’t access a public walkway will be far down their list.
My dog and I walk the path, the same one we tread almost every day under the full blast of the New Zealand sun. This time, we are both shrouded in deep darkness. My dog is black, so I can’t even see her until my eyes adjust; all I hear is her excited panting and the tick of her nails against asphalt as she runs by.
As we walk through this depopulated and blackened landscape, it occurs to me this is something I never would have done in the States. It would be like waving your arms in Death’s face and daring it to do something. Forget the very real risk of some random fellow wanderer doing you an unkindness; in the places I’ve lived, there’d be an equal if not greater chance of some mammalian horror emerging from the bushes and making a meal out of you.
Here, in the South Pacific, there are no fellow wanderers, and the only mammalian horror in this entire park (other than myself) trots panting alongside me.
Above, the Milky Way sprawls from horizon to horizon. I’m maybe two kilometres away from the downtown centre of a city of 80,000 people, yet I can see things in the sky that even rural dwellers in the States would gawk at (assuming they could be pried away from their televisions long enough to care). I smell only grass, I hear only the nearby Manawatū River, and I see only the Universe wheeling overhead. I know enough about astronomy to find my way across the sky; there’s Orion, there’s Sirius, hello Canopus. That bright star, the one that doesn’t twinkle, is actually Jupiter.
I find the galactic centre easily, not far from Alpha Centauri. Farther overhead and slightly northwest are the Magellenic Clouds, hazy and undefined this close to the city’s light pollution, but still visible.
It’s said that no one had any idea what the Milky Way actually was until Galileo pointed a telescope at it and found stars beyond counting. But that was in the Northern Hemisphere; the Southern Hemisphere points more or less toward the galactic centre (our Solar System’s ecliptic is, hilariously, tilted about 90 degrees relative to the galactic plane), and the Milky Way stands out far more brilliantly as a result. It seems obtuse to look at this trail of stars and see it as anything but what it is, but of course I benefit from centuries of scientific hindsight.
I don’t know what other people are doing with their Saturday night—I can make an educated guess—but I’m the only one standing here under a billion suns. The experience is supposed to be a humbling one; I’m supposed to feel small, infinitesimal beneath the gaze of a galaxy I will never, ever leave.
Instead, all I feel is gratitude that I’m able to see it at all, mixed with a small dose of pride that I even bothered to look.
September 2012: On an oddly warm early spring afternoon, my wife left me without warning and without any prior indication that anything was wrong. I went from happily married (I thought) to alone and devastated in a single afternoon.
“Don’t worry,” my friends and family said. “Things will get better.”
November 2012: I wrecked a brand-new $14,000 motorcycle the day after I got it. I got to ride the thing exactly twice before it got FUBAR. I got FUBAR, too; I broke six ribs and skinned the shit out of my knees. (I’m almost completely healed, but nearly two months later, the bike still isn’t fixed.)
“Don’t worry,” my friends and family said. “Things will get better.”
December 2012: After a whirlwind affair, a woman I’d quickly begun to care for, with great intensity, suddenly and inexplicably decided to end things. I was even more devastated by this than when my wife left. I tried to be friends with her, found I couldn’t handle it, then cut off all contact with her. I still miss her terribly.
“Don’t worry,” my friends and family said. “Things will get better.”
January 2013: My application for New Zealand residency gets lodged, but Immigration says it’ll take 9–12 months to process. My existing visa ends at the end of March. My employer can’t navigate its own bureaucracy quickly enough to get me a permanent contract before my existing visa expires, which means that unless I can find alternative employment or get an alternate visa, I face a very real possibility of having to sell almost everything I own and move back to the USA—75 days from today.
Getting a temporary work visa depends on my employer being able to convince Immigration that they absolutely need me to finish out the remainder of my contract… which ends in September, with no guarantees that I’ll be able to keep working there beyond then. So right now, the best I can hope for is a work visa that lasts until September, hopefully giving me enough time to find a job that will hire me on permanently so I can stay in this country. The alternative: sell pretty much everything except the clothes off my back and my pets, then go live with my mom in East Jesus Nowhere, Washington State until I can figure out how to cobble together the pieces of my shattered existence.
“Don’t worry,” my friends and family say. “Things will get better.”
You know what? I wish you guys would stop saying that. Every time you do, things get worse.