The Difficulty of Finding Simple Pleasures

Something I find myself contemplating a lot lately is the slow and simple pursuit of joy across disciplines and slices of life. From driving a quirky old car that’s neither the fastest nor most comfortable way to travel to fishing with a small and light fly rod that’s not particularly effective at catching fish relative to chucking live bait with a simpler bait-casting setup to driving aging surface roads and byways, most everything I enjoy sacrifices efficiency and eschews technological improvement and numerical supremacy in favor of that great intangible—tactile joy.

The smell of oil and physical sensation of a throttle rod directly connects the gas pedal and the engine’s throttle bodies, the sound of a fly reel clicking its way out as a trout makes a run with your fly, the buildings and scenery that stop you dead in your tracks on roads forgotten by time and bypassed by more direct routes—these are the things that give meaning to the hours in our days. Five hours of engaging driving passes faster than a single hour on a straight and wide interstate that’s raised and walled-off from its surroundings. And one wild trout landed through great fly presentation and an engaging fight is more memorable and special than a dozen fish caught with salmon eggs from a recent hatchery release. Backroads and fly rods lose out numerically every single time, but somehow they still fill our souls and stir our dreams. The same could be said for so many pursuits. I don’t know the intricacies of all of your hobbies and favorite things, and you may not be able to relate to the scaleless beauty of trout, to the way rainbows like to tail dance and browns like to swim deep and bury your line beneath rocks and logs while they tug and shake the fly out of their mouths. But perhaps if I talk about what it’s like to stand knee-deep in a freestone river in West Virginia as fall leaves fall one by one and occasionally brush your neck and scare the crap out of you then fill you with whimsy when they swirl by the dozen when the wind gusts, you might be able to understand what’s beautiful about fishing. I’ve never felt so complimented as when people read my writing and say things like, “I hate driving, but your Petrolicious piece made me care about cars.” One such statement led to a simple hour and a half long phone call that gave me a profound wakeup call.

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* * *

I could be writing about the beauty of riding a bike, about the way different freewheels ratchet loudly or hum smoothly, the stiffness and deft maneuvering of a carbon frame beneath you or the resolute comfort and rigidity that a steel steed offers. The subconscious joy of using your body as a gyroscope to miraculously balance a two-wheeled machine, the very-conscious joy of feeling the wind in your face and covering far more ground than you ever could by foot, but still using the same two legs to do it. There is much beauty in bicycles. But lately, there is also much darkness. A few weeks ago, I fell off my bike again on what was arguably the most enjoyable ride I’d been on since the day I was hit by a car, if not even before that. I broke my scaphoid (the deep hand bone between the thumb and palm), I dug some of the deepest flesh wounds I’ve ever had in my elbow and my hip. I was in searing physical pain, but I also experienced something much, much worse.

Falling hard and fast off your bike always results in some degree of brain-jarring. Humans aren’t made to be that far off the ground or moving that fast. And yet, we do it and that’s part of why it feels so amazing. But it’s also why the consequences can be so devastating, especially when, say, your brain is still swollen and jarred from intense trauma four months prior. I laid on my back on the ground, covering my eyes and sobbing. Physical pain hasn’t made me cry since I was a child. As we grow older, the hurt inflicted by bruises and breaks pales in comparison to the psychological damage we all endure if we make it long enough. And so, the combination of flying both attached to and separated from a bike and the jarring impact my neck and brain endured was enough to trigger duct-drying amounts of sobbing.

It was also enough to set me back substantially in my healing process, to ratchet the severity of my ceaseless headaches back to an 8 or 9 instead of a 5 or 6, to bring the brain fog and depression back to the literal forefront. And it’s further complicated my relationship with bikes, one of my most pure and profound passions that’s slowly been tainted by a culture that’s often demoralizing and now repeat injuries that make life difficult to enjoy. Living without bikes also makes it difficult to enjoy. I find myself relating frequently to football players that the general public write off as insane for returning to the field after concussions, and to Cam Newton, one of my all-time favorite athletes, who recently said that repeat malicious hits have made football “not even fun anymore.”

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* * *

Back to that phone call. Someone read my Petrolicious article and sent it to their friend, who emailed Petrolicious asking how to get in touch with me. She isn’t into cars at all, but found my story eerily relatable. She’d been hit by a car while crossing the street over a year ago and dealt a traumatic brain injury. She also returned to work after two weeks but found it impossible to get her feet back under her, feel fully rested, keep up with work or with life in general. She took time off from work and came back. It never quite worked, and finally she quit and went on a trip similar to mine. Where the simple and beautiful and unknown were reason enough to climb out of bed, where the nauseating agitators like stress and computer screens and being perennially misunderstood were faraway. It was all painfully and also comfortingly familiar.

And when her story reached the present tense, it sounded much like mine. Back in the same city as before, surrounded by the same things, and resuming a job that was never quite fulfilling. After being given a very literal new lease on life, it feels, as she called it, “Like a giant middle finger to the universe.” To survive a near-death experience and countless months of mental anguish only to return to the same rut of mediocrity is indeed like flipping the bird at the one who created birds.

The next day, I got coffee with an acquaintance who’d been following my recent travels and writing with some interest. He wanted to buy me a coffee and hear some stories, but instead he bought me a coffee and we engaged in nearly three hours of lively and thought-provoking conversation. What had been inevitable for ages, since well before the most recent prodding, finally came to the surface. Combined with the return of debilitating side effects, I neither can nor should write another article about digital mailing logistics or high-tech projectors.

I have to get well, medically-speaking, and I have to figure out how to find joy again. It’s been drained from bikes, it’s still alive and well in rivers and on roads, though I’m unfit to go seek either for now. In an impulsive moment characteristic of someone with intense post-concussion syndrome, I decided to make a Facebook status as a bit of a social experiment.

If this status gets 100 likes by 5 PM, I’ll quit my job today.

It got that many likes and then some. A lot more. I received encouraging texts and comments. And so, I did quit. Literally speaking, after this second fall, I can’t successfully execute the tasks required. And metaphorically speaking, I literally can’t even.

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After being hit by that Nissan, the second time I collapsed I was certain I was dying. Obviously, I didn’t. And after the major wooziness subsided, I began to follow my passions to a degree as onlookers celebrated the adventure and YOLO-ness of it all. And yet, I missed out on writing time and many more sights and opportunities because I continued working the whole time. The money is nice to have, but I haven’t been able to buy my way out of the creeping fog and darkness this head injury is causing. Money can buy the costumes required to participate in the insular microcultures of Austin, but it can’t buy bullshit-busting authenticity. It can buy coffee or beer or a veggie burger, but it can’t buy sincereity on the other side of the table.

And so, I quit. I’m able to pour more time into the magazine I love working for and working on. I’m able to lay in bed for hours after my alarm goes off, feeling shell shocked and unmotivated and dizzy. I can go to counseling and get x-rays in the same day without falling helplessly behind on work I have no mental capacity to do. I can sit around and feel foggy and dizzy and try to remember the things I’d like to be doing if I felt like doing them.

It helps an infinite amount to be reminded of them. Encouragement from others is far better than snapping yourself out of a stupor with willpower or ice water to the face. Every kind remark about my writing or encouragement about anything else is valuable beyond any word in my vocabulary. On my ambitious days, I think that perhaps I will arrange an interview with every single person who liked my status about quitting, to find out what they’re up to, what they do for work, if they like it, what their dream job is, why they’d encourage me to quit my job. So many people who offered a like or even a comment emerged from the depths of my fuzzy past, acquaintances from eras eight or nine years ago, or people I’ve met more recently but barely gotten to know. While some of them might have liked it for amusement or some sort of perverse nihilistic push over the employment edge, I think the majority of them did it for more nuanced and encouraging reasons.

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I’d like to hear those reasons and to have a reason to have a conversation with all 187 people who took the time to engage with that passing post in this noisy digital age. Maybe turn that set of interviews into a book or a website. Then I have a day where I think that’s a terrible idea, like most of my ideas, and I return to barely getting out of bed and wondering where the hours between 7 AM and 10 PM went.  One of the strangest things about brain injuries and depression is the way you are still, functionally speaking, operational. Physically, you can fish or play guitar (until you break your hand) or show up to dinner with friends. But mentally, this seem as arduous as running a marathon in the Mojave. And knowing that your core being loves these things even though the rest of you has no desire to do them is a compounding sorrow.

If anyone would be interested in such a project—to learn about our peers and strangers and what their relationship is to work and how they encourage others from near or afar and perhaps how they perceive the pursuit of joy—I would love to hear that. And if there’s something else you’d read if I wrote it, I need to hear that more than you know. One such friend from a brief but meaningful era of my life sent me a message the other day and encouraged me to write about a topic I haven’t dared or bothered to (the election) in a way that made me feel valued and validated beyond belief. We all do our best when we’re called to do so, and seeing one person encourage another gives us all a bit of a boost.  So I share these stories and requests not because I crave attention or accolades, but because it’s my hope that in suffering and humility I can deliver solidarity, encouragement, and a bit of insight into the way we all feel.

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5 Comments

  1. Write. We will read. You have a gift, or talent if you prefer. Please continue to share it.

    Life, it seems, has dealt you another setback. You’ll overcome it. You can, and you will. While it may mean some passions cannot be pursued as avidly as they once were, there are others to be discovered. Take it from someone who has been around the sun a few more times than you have – just because you cannot do the things you used to the way you used to, does not mean they cannot be enjoyed. You may be off bikes for awhile, possibly a long one. But you have other interests, and other talents. Might be time to start exploring them.

    Explore and heal, and continue your journey. And keep writing.
    Now, I have to go hunt down an article on Petrolicious….

  2. Hey John, this was incredibly moving and inspiring. It made me think of my friend who survived a pretty horrific car crash but in the end turned out to be a better person for it. He always said that it was (paradoxically) on of the best things that happened to him because of the wake-up call it gave him. Sometimes this sort of wake up call is what it takes to rise above the mediocrity and remove what was holding us back before. Hope you’re recovering well, and please continue to write and share your story.

    -Phil from CMC

  3. JT,

    I started following your blog from your post on Pelican, then I read your story from BAT. You are a regular air-cooled Pcar guy who loves to fly fish and just happens to have the gift of transforming feelings into words which people can read and truly see the man behind the keyboard. I was concerned the past few weeks when I did not see a new post, your PM weeks prior from Pelican mentioned your health was suffering from being on the road and then I began to worry. I am very sorry to hear that you were in an accident. I do not know what to say, I wish you the very best and pray for a full recovery. I am selfishly glad to read your newest post and hope they keep coming.

    I definitely support your decision to leave your full-time job and pursue more rewarding adventures, you have to love what you do otherwise you have to ask.. “why?” Live to work and not the other way around. Imaging the world we would live in if people acted on their inward passions rather than what would impress others.

    I will leave you with this. Get out of bed for nothing else than to try something new each day for a year be it a new flavor of ice cream or sing karaoke at your local dive bar. Experiences are what you seem to be after so create them.

  4. Word. Thanks for sharing what’s on your mind. I’m really sorry you’re going through this but glad you are taking the time and space to take care of yourself.

    I think about work a lot and why I do it. I didn’t even see your status about quitting but would love to answer some questions about it if you gave me a prompt. I put off working a “real job” until I was almost 26 because I was training for running. This last year of gainful employment has been transformative and I’m learning a lot.

  5. John,
    really admire what you’re doing…..respect your efforts to get healthy. And I’m a Porsche guy so found great relevance in your experience with cars and the choice to experience the classic Porsche. Your car knowledge is impressive. Your respect, admiration and knowledge of Porsche is kinda profound for someone so young. I used to ride a bike and can relate to that love. I owned a recent model GTi and I’m buying another. Can relate to that. I now own a newer Boxster but wish I still owned my first one. So….really enjoy the similar interests…I ‘ve never learned to fly fish but always wanted to learn. In your pursuit to get well and to be healthy you’re exploring a lot of the choices that a lot of us have confronted in our lives and we can relate to that. I think you’re handling it all in a most intelligent manner. I wish I had been so even headed and inteligent. Really am impressed with your wisdom and smarts. Really enjoy your writing. I’m in California….if our paths crossed sometime would love to have a beer somewhere. Keep writing. I look forward to hearing from you. Be well. Bob Colin

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