Friday, April 12, 2002

Room 451 At 50

The ducks are floating
lazy in the bay outside Room 451 here on Mission Bay in
San Diego. They are ignoring the runners and bicyclers
and rowers that frequent this part of Paradise Point,
just as they ignore them every morning just after the
sun rises out of the ocean.

After not too many
days here, I have concluded that ducks don’t give a
damned about much of anything -- not the traffic over
the bridge to this peninsula, not even the screeching
gulls that swoop down and crap on them from close range.
All distractions are disregarded with impunity. Nothing
changes, not for the ducks.

This morning, like
every morning, they waddled to my room in single file
because they know there will be hand out. They know
there is a free lunch after all, at least as long as I
am checked into Room 451. Tomorrow, they don’t even
consider, and yesterday is not even a memory.
seem to take their time and never consider mortality or
how their feathers look on any given day. Unlike the
runners passing by my window right now, ducks
understand, intuitively, that their lives cannot be
extended, or perhaps should not be, and that no amount
of huffing and puffing or haggling or bickering or
hustling or rushing will change the date their hearts
seize up and they flop over and sink to the bottom of
the sea, forgotten forever.

The runners and
bikers, on the other hand, don’t believe it. I have
asked them before why they run and bike and row, and
more often than not, they say “to stay in shape, because
I will live longer.” Nice idea. Unfortunately, medical
research agrees with the ducks and says if the runners
really want to know when they’re going to keel over,
they should read the date on their father’s and mother’s
tombstones and average the two. The odds are they won’t
be much ahead or far behind. Science has proven we can’t
run from our genes and the ducks don’t even try.
maybe longevity is not the point. Maybe that
40-something who just pumped his bicycle past Room 451,
in pain, slobbering like a hydrophobic pooch,
understands at a cellular level he is due for a toe tag
soon if only because his daddy was found face down in
his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes when he was 49. Or, maybe the
bicycler peddling away from me is actually peddling away
from a childhood memory when he heard his Mommy call out
in the middle of the night to come pull dead Daddy off
of her.

Fear of dying is a strong motivator, and
may explain a few of these folks, but it does not
explain all of them. After all, most of these runners,
joggers, rowers, and bicyclers still have their mommies
and daddies at forty or fifty, and the smart ones call
their folks regularly just to make sure their gene
guarantees haven’t expired.

As I consider the
possibilities, it dawns on me that perhaps all the
spandex and titanium is not, for most, a way to escape
death, or even delay it, but to avoid aging – that
unforgivable act of getting old, which is different than
dying, even though they are related in a material way.
Maybe this guy in his new Nikes who just passed by Room
451 isn’t afraid of death, but afraid of not being young

And maybe this next peddler who looks
angry and frustrated, isn't fleeing old age or death,
but fleeing from his past -- poor vocational decision,
bad investment, or a wife who shops relentlessly and
doesn't understand him. I empathize. I don't understand
him, either.

Some of the women who jaunt by in
their designer togs no doubt have their marital regrets,
too, perhaps husbands who play with their golf clubs
instead of with their wives, and never come to bed and
make them feel young and desirable, and who would rather
watch a football game than read a book and have
something interesting to say on occasion. Maybe running
will make them young, or at least look young

Lamentation is, indeed, a limitless and
powerful emotion, strong enough to make some people run
for their lives, or maybe it's from themselves. They
remind me of a Superman comic I read when I was 12 years
old. In the story, Superman flew around the earth at
light speed which, for some unexplained reason, caused
time to reverse. Superman found himself in the past, and
knowing what the future would bring if the past was left
untended, he simply went back and changed it. Another
nice idea, to be sure, but the folks pulling those oars
in the bay outside Room 451 can’t row fast enough to
change the past. And the runners can’t run fast enough.
And, the bicyclers, legs pumping like pistons, flashing
by in their bright latex, well, they are not fast
enough, either.

That, I believe, is the long and
short of what most of these folks passing by Room 451
are doing this early morning. They are trying to stay
alive, young, and change or relive the past that got
them to this present, and they are failing, which only
makes them run harder and faster and farther.
Unfortunately, fear always runs faster than we

To bring all this to their attention at a
time like this would result in me being gang-beaten and
tossed into the ocean with the ducks who would, at most,
be nonplussed. Yet, even at risk of life and limb, there
is a part of me that wants to stop these people
mid-stride and tell them that nothing they are doing
will change much of anything -- past, present, or
future, and that they would be better served by getting
to know the runner or bicycler beside them and create a
relationship with someone, anyone, that might matter,
that might actually change them for the better.

recall Max Lerner. He wrote a book when he turned 50. He
called it, aptly, “Fifty,” and, ironically, he died when
he was 50 shortly after penning its conclusion. Before
he took his last breath, he observed that “the real
sadness of fifty is not that you change so much but that
you change so little.”

Through the looking glass
of Room 451 at age 50, I see a lot of motion, but no
change, and on this score, I believe the ducks and I
have something in common.