Not All Downhill

Life, liberty, and the pursuit

I could not tell you the last time I rode a bike.

Before cellphones, a heap of bikes strewn across a driveway or front stoop were communication enough. Pulling up to a friend’s house, I didn’t need a text to answer my questions of Where you at? and Who’s all there?

I remember hanging out late on summer nights, under the stars because it was too nice to stay inside. We’d sit for hours on a corner overlooking this big hill. When it was time to pack it in, I’d say my see you laters and hop on my bike.

My house sat at the very bottom of the development, about a block after the hill flattened. On my ride home, I’d see if I could make it all the way from the top of the hill to my driveway without pedaling. After a week’s worth of successful tries, the new game became not touching the handlebars.

I’d start pedaling to build up momentum and then, at the top of the hill, I’d stop pedaling and take my hands off the bars. The bottom of the hill presented a unique challenge: a right turn that — to this day, I don’t know why or how — I’d take on full speed, no hands.

Though I was always leaving my friends and headed home, I never felt like I was riding toward or away from anything. For two minutes, I was without care or objective. I transcended purpose.

And then, I’d pull into my driveway and park my bike in the garage. Another night in the books.

Life

There’s that depressing anonymous quote always floating around on the interwebs:

“At some point in your childhood, you and your friends went outside to play together for the last time and nobody knew it.”

Most goodbyes are see you laters. When we part ways, we usually know the distance is temporary. We know we’ll see each other again. We know there’ll be a next time. And maybe that’s just the human condition, to take virtual certainties for granted.

You never want to believe it’s the last time. Endings feel too permanent, too harsh.

On March 12, I bid a typical farewell to coworkers as we prepared to work remotely for the foreseeable future — a future that, we thought, would last two to three weeks, a month at most. We took home what was necessary: laptops, chargers, notepads, Post-its. Some also transported their monitors to make their at-home workspaces comfortable.

We said the same goodbyes we would before an extended holiday break, knowing we’d see each other again soon. Knowing we’d be back in the office eventually, laughing about how crazy this all was. Some even joked, “See you next year!” Or, “See ya never!” Normalcy, undoubtedly, would return.

Our blindness to the actual truth reminds me of a quote from the 1997 cinematic masterpiece (and Vincent D’Onofrio’s crowning achievement) Men in Black. After Tommy Lee Jones takes M.I.B. recruit Will Smith on a ride-along, he explains how his agency keeps aliens a secret from people.

Fifteen-hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five-hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

‘Tomorrow,’ for my work crew, came two weeks later. Our company announced corporate restructuring, including furloughs and a mass layoff that I, at the time, could only compare to Thanos’ *snap* in Avengers: Infinity War. I sat by, powerless, as some of my best friends lost their jobs entirely.

(Image/MovieWeb)

Five short weeks later, ‘tomorrow’ reared its ugly head again — this time, taking with it more jobs and livelihoods, including mine. A second round of layoffs and restructuring stripped many friends of roles they’d held for years, leaving large-scale projects unfinished and, in some cases, tripling the workloads of those spared.

And, *snap*, just like that. This wonderful little world and life I’d grown accustomed to over the last three-plus years ended.

Liberty

I could not tell you the last time I rode a bike. But, one of those mid-2000s summer nights, one of my downhill rides home, one of those Look Ma, No Hands moments was the last one.

And, for the life of me, I can’t remember it.

I can’t remember if I stopped using my bike when I started driving, or ditched it back when my oldest friend got his license. I also can’t tell you when my parents got rid of my bike, or what I said when they did.

I can’t remember any of the details surrounding my final, unceremonious cruise home.

But I can tell you how I felt when I lifted my hands off the bars, sped down that hill, and leaned into that turn — because it was the same every time.

I felt absolutely, unconditionally free.

When it comes to losing my job, I am privileged to say that losing my steady income and health benefits isn’t what stings the most. (*cough* Access to decent healthcare shouldn’t be tied to employment anyway. *cough*)

No, these circumstances — and that second *snap* — have robbed me of perhaps my most precious liberty: the freedom to walk away on my own terms. The power to know what’s next.

I value living in the moment and have an appreciation for the spontaneous, but I’ve always found comfort in having a plan. Whether I’m heading to a party, going on a date, or interviewing for a job, I not only visualize how every conversation may go — I try to have an exit strategy in case I need to bail or save face.

Over the past decade, though, I’ve realized the moments I enjoy most happen independent of a plan, when I don’t have the chance to envision endings or plot escapes. I’ve learned that, while terrifying, the unknown is also kind of cool.

Then, while writing this, I came across this Krishnamurti quote:

“One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.” -Jiddu Krishnamurti

An idea I’d never considered: Maybe, in the case of getting laid off, I’m not scared of what my professional future looks like. I’m scared about my professional present fading into my professional past.

Now, I’ve been laid off before. When I graduated college, I’d been doing part-time marketing for a small, fast-casual restaurant chain’s corporate office. The plan was to transition to a full-time role later that summer.

Unfortunately, the business wasn’t doing too well and the top brass had some — how do I say it — legal issues. While I was vacationing in the Outer Banks with my family, I got an email saying my role didn’t exist anymore.

I didn’t have a plan then. I was fresh out of school, about to start a career in social media marketing — because that’s what the company had promised me. But that wasn’t necessarily what I’d wanted to do. I just figured I’d get some experience and bounce when I was ready.

It took me five jobs to develop a skillset I was proud of, and one more job after that to find a place that felt like home. And, just like with the five jobs before it, I figured I would leave this one of my own volition. I was excited for that day.

From 2013 to 2017, quitting my job had become one of my favorite things to do. So, it became somewhat of an annual tradition. I basically quit my job every time a new Fast & Furious movie came out.

This time around, I’m uneasy about changing my LinkedIn description to past tense. It feels weird to put an end date on my employment — because every other time I’ve had to do it, I’ve worn it as a badge rather than a scar. Because, in the words of Frank Sinatra (and Paul Anka), I did it my way.

But every scar tells a story, and I’ve got some good ones to take with me.

I’ll miss getting watercooler updates about dogs and children (and the occasional mother-in-law gossip). I’ll miss overhearing personal calls and yelling ‘bless you’ when I hear a sneeze. I’ll miss bullshitting about pop culture and current events with Murderers’ Row. Signing for each other’s packages. Turning procrastinatory polls and riddles into impassioned debates. Apple time. I’ll miss the totally dope Hot Wheels track we set up between our desks. And all the meetings that should’ve been emails.

In these uncertain times, the only thing I can be sure about is that I’ll be fine. The outpouring of support from coworkers-turned-friends has reinforced that fact. All the calls, texts, IMs, and emails I’ve received have had a common thread: Nobody is worried about me.

And I take solace in that.

For me, the known is indeed coming to an end. But I feel a unique freedom in not knowing what comes next.

Cathedral Rock — Sedona, AZ (Photo/author)

The pursuit

At the end of The Graduate, Elaine ditches her wedding to run off with Ben. But the closing scene lasts long enough to let you see what happens immediately after the typical happy ending. The two reach a collective moment of clarity, as their smiles flatten into looks of deep uncertainty. Now what?

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, there’s a reason our unalienable rights include the pursuit of happiness instead of simply happiness. See, TJ and the gang were wise enough to know that something as mysterious and fleeting and wonderful as happiness cannot be guaranteed.

Happiness, the Founding Fathers realized, is an ever-shifting goal post. We work ourselves to the brink of insanity to build that thing, finish that project, get that promotion, retrieve those six stones to bring balance to the universe.

And — whether the goal post moves before or after we reach it — a lot of us end up in the same spot, asking, Where do I go from here?

As hard as it is to admit, some things are simply out of our control. Millions of people across the U.S. — and the world — find themselves in a Now what? situation. And a reset, however involuntary, might be just what we need.

Make present knowns past knowns. The goal post will shift again, and we will continue to pursue it.

I could not tell you the last time I rode a bike. But I’m confident I could pick one up right now and remember how. And, after some muscle memory kicks in, I could probably even cruise down that old hill with my hands off the bars.

Funny thing about biking down hills, though: To feel that absolute, unconditional freedom on the way down, you first need to pedal your way up.

Thanks for reading! Kindly direct all compliments, complaints, and questions here. Read more by/about me here. Check out a publication I run called The Bigger Picture here. Support my writing here.

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