What’s Good?

I stood at the end of our driveway in bright sunlight. It was 1976 or 77. I was probably 6 at the time. I recall a kid named Jamie, maybe 14 or 15, rolled up on a ten-speed. He was one of a small group of teenagers in the neighborhood, which included my brother. They were all kids still, but not nearly like I was. I was still a proto-human, the activities of bigger and older people flashing across my consciousness like shadows on a cave wall.

I don’t know why Jamie was there. Maybe he was saying something to brother, although I don’t recall them being friends. What’s important is that, as he turned to leave, he took two pedal strokes on that ten-speed and then pulled a wheelie, which he proceeded to ride all the way down the block. It was the coolest thing I had seen, in my life, up to that point.

It was a good thing. Unquestionably. If you could do a thing like that you would do it at every opportunity, like a magic trick, like a back flip. Jamie was a kid like me. He was also Evel Knievel.

In college I spent a whole year studying Kant to very little avail. It seemed such tortured thinking based on some big assumptions. What stuck with me though, was the idea of a priori knowledge, a sort of instinctual knowing, not based on experience.

Knowing that riding a wheelie is good and that Evel Knievel is a superhero are, to me, sorts of a priori knowledge. These things are self-evident. Or at least they were (are) to me.

It doesn’t take a lot of work from there to extrapolate that bike riding is a not just a critical skill, but in some ways a perfect fulfillment of human physicality. Once I was able to ride myself, the bike took me everywhere I could think of to go. A freedom machine? Yeah, but more than that, because not only could it take you anywhere, it could take you there in magical ways, like on one wheel.

Those middle ’70s were a heady time for me. I was still that blank slate, ready to be written on, ready to do some writing myself. Adolescence hadn’t come to shame me yet, to drive me back into whatever shadows I could find.

Not Awesome

When I was in second grade, it was around the same time Jamie rode the ten-speed wheelie, I met two kids, one named Jeffrey, the other named Mark. I have no recollection of either of them inside the school building. I can only remember them on the playground, and only in motion. Jeffrey would spend the entire recess period running at top speed from one location to another, conjuring reasons for each burst of speed on the fly. Mark wasn’t as fast, but was always there, in Jeffrey’s slipstream.

I started running with Jeffrey and Mark.

When you’re a kid, or at least when I was a kid, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would walk anywhere. Running was faster. Running was possible. So it made sense to run. Always.

The feeling of running is amazing, the sense of your own power coursing through you, the ground flying by. Running is a priori excellent. Why do we ever stop?

Meghna sent me a link to an essay by Salman Rushdie in the New York Times. In it, he talks about the books he really loves, things he read growing up, and the power of imagination to recast truths in powerful and beautiful ways. When we’re young, still that blank slate, our imaginations aren’t yet proscribed. We recognize the magic in things still. We feel the truth beneath the fiction more easily.

And this reminded me of how I felt about moving through the world when I was still little. It was all visceral. I didn’t need to rationalize health benefits or do things to give my life meaning. I did all those things because they were implicitly good. Ride a bike. Climb a tree. Run around the house at top speed. Jump off the roof. Sled down a hill.

It is probably a good idea to unlearn most of the bullshit in our heads, the layers of intellectualizing we’ve heaped on top of things that are just good all on their own. Don’t think too hard. Feel. Quit fucking around.