May 2011. I was in Vegas for a mega do-gooder convention called the “Equal Justice Conference.” My peers were very highly paid lawyers, all of whom were 110% dedicated to fighting the good fight on behalf of people who live on the entirely opposite end of the economic spectrum, so of course we had dinner at a ridiculous 5-star restaurant. That’s entirely appropriate, no? Dropping as much dough on our dinner as our pro bono clients earn in a week. Sure, why not, right? Of course, I was very happy to be among my peers, but at the same time, I was highly uncomfortable with the whole situation and, honestly, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could maintain the dichotomy.
In any event … Although I have ZERO recollection of which dining establishment hosted us, I DO very clearly remember a conversation I had with one of our elder statesmen, Al. He asked: Z, who or what inspires you?
I thought for a l-o-n-g time and ultimately said: Hmmmm…. Honestly, no one I’ve ever met, that’s for sure.
He probed and prodded a bit and eventually I offered this:
I find inspiration in unknown happiness. Unknown people with unknown challenges who are, nevertheless, happy. Blind people in Bangladesh, for example. Widows in Wasilla. People who are missing limbs or are paralyzed or have brain damage but who go on with their lives with strength and joy and courage. I can’t fathom how they do it, but it’s enough for me to know that they DO do it, so when I start to feel sorry for myself or if I’m in need of inspiration, I think about some kid with dysentery in Africa who walks 6 miles to school so she can jump rope and play with her friends and work to learn and improve her life somehow and she doesn’t get profiled on the Today Show or get asked to do a TED Talk. So, “who inspires me,” Al?: Strangers who bravely live their lives to the fullest and find their happiness — THAT’s what inspires me.
Al was gobsmacked. This man is known for his ability to cram nearly as many words into a minute as John Moschitta, but I had stunned him into totally mystified silence. Once he regained his ability to pontificate, he said –very slowly and deliberately: Z? You are truly one of a kind.
Why am I sharing this with you now, dear reader? Because I need to set the record straight.
At its core, what I told Al remains true: Unknown happiness continues to inspire me — but new-found or well-known happiness can do it, too, apparently, as I’ve learned over the last week or so.
It’s a little bit spooky to go back in time and hear myself say to Al in May 2011 that I found inspiration from “[p]eople who … have brain damage but … go on with their lives with strength and joy and courage,” given that I somehow (apparently) BECAME that kind of person just one month later!
Do I find myself inspiring? Yes, I guess I do — in a Matthew McConaughey Oscar’s Acceptance Speech kind of way (i.e., MMc: “To my hero. That’s who I chase. … You know who it is? It’s me in 10 years … every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my hero’s always 10 years away. I’m never gonna be my hero, … and that’s just fine … because that [gives] me … somebody to keep on chasing.“).
I totally get what Mr. McConaughey was saying> When I wake up, it’s with the joyous knowledge that I can try to make today even better than yesterday:
- My medical conditions may remain mysterious (CZ perplexing doctors daily!);
- My writing may not be as sharp as it once was (I recently reviewed a treasure trove of my 2008-2010 missives and found myself a bit awed by how clear and fluid my prose once was);
- My ability to ride my bike is not as top-end as it might be, but you know what? …
I’m here and I’m not hooked up to an IV, so that means that I get the chance to be the best/happiest me I can be. I revel in that opportunity and, yeah, I guess that’s kind of inspirational…
I’d also told Al that I was inspired by “[p]eople who are missing limbs … who go on with their lives with strength and joy and courage … and [don't] get profiled on the Today Show.” Turns out, people who manage to end up on the Today Show can also inspire me — of course it helps when I know them before they become national media darlings.
In 2010, Rob Jones stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and ultimately had both of his legs amputated above the knee. While undergoing rehab at Walter Reed, Rob was determined to relearn how to ride an upright bike. Riding an upright bike WITH NO KNEES is a
pretty significant reallyfuckingbigHUGE challenge. Happily, Rob had an innovative prosthetist (Zach) and a fantastically patient/brilliant cycling mentor from Ride2Recovery, Ray (who, incidentally, served as my special “descending nanny” while we were in Italy last year and thereby helped me overcome most of my PTSD issues — thanks, RayRay!).
It took Rob just 6 months to learn how to use his new legs to ride his upright bike. After successfully completing the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, DC, Rob decided to pedal across the entire country so that people from Maine to San Francisco + those who live along the CA coast could see that there is NO EXCUSE for not giving everything you’ve got to living your one-and-only life with purpose and passion.
Rob pedaled 5,200+ miles in 181 days covering all kinds of terrain and enduring all kinds of weather (9º with 25mph winds driving snow into you as you ride up and down the Rockies sound like fun, anyone?). Sometimes he slept in his U-Haul. Sometimes the U-Haul broke down. Sometimes his bike broke down. Sometimes his LEGS broke down (my favorite FB posting of his: March 14, This one didn’t last long…anybody know an above knee amputee in Nevada that would let me use their Bartlett Tendon leg?). But Rob, himself, never broke down. He just kept on pedaling.
With such a remarkable story, OF COURSE Rob got profiled on the Today Show.
Classic Rob-ism: I never really thought that I was gonna die or anything, I don’t know why, obviously it was likely that I could have, but it never really crossed my mind. I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time being distraught about my situation. I decided to just go ahead and skip all that being depressed stuff and just get on with it. I believe in leading from the front. I hope people can see what I’m doing and use it to make a difference in their own lives, or maybe in the lives of others.
I got to join Rob for his penultimate day of cycling — Long Beach to Dana Point. I said, earlier, that I knew Rob before he appeared on the Today Show, but that’s not entirely true. I really only knew OF Rob, via our larger R2R family. I’d never actually met him in person. In fact, I didn’t really plan to “get to know” him during the ride. I showed up with the intention of simply being a silent supporter. Less than 5 miles into the ride, however, the Soldier who was riding up front with Rob came back and told me: You’ve been summoned.
I assumed that this request was made because I often end up serving a pro bono counsel to many of R2R’s riders, so as I took my place on Rob’s left flank I said: “Apparently I have been summoned. How can I help you?” And he said: “You’re the one who crashed during the 2011 Agoura Honor ride, aren’t you? I’ve heard a lot about you. How long did it take you to get back on the bike?” When I told him that I started riding a beach cruiser 9 weeks after my brain surgery and that I was back on my road bike about 4 weeks after that he said: “Man, that’s a kind of bravery I don’t have.”
When I explained that it didn’t feel “brave,” it just felt necessary, you could feel the the Universe go “click.”
He got it, and I got him.
We fell into an amiable rhythm. We chatted off-and-on, but mostly we just enjoyed the fact that it was 75º, the sun was warm, the winds were calm, we were surrounded by friends, we weren’t hooked up to IVs, we didn’t have anything to prove, and we were riding our bikes.
Unknown happiness, indeed.
You can check out more pictures from my day with Rob, here.