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February 6, 2019 Nonfiction

Handbrake

Mike Nagel

Handbrake photo

The Friday after the sexual assault hearing of future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when we were all wondering if it mattered anymore what anyone said or did, I drove with a group of guys up into the Colorado mountains. I'd agreed to the trip on whim, being, at the time I was asked, via text message from Josh, in a very agreeable mood. I was getting my oil changed. I felt, because I was finally getting my oil changed, that I was finally, and in a much larger sense, GETTING THINGS DONE. I was getting my oil changed after months of meaning to get my oil changed and then continuing to not get my oil changed until it had been so long since I'd last changed my oil that I began to worry the mechanic might lecture me on the importance of ROUTINE VEHICLE MAINTENACE, a lecture that I felt might be a little awkward for me since I didn't give a shit about routine vehicle maintenance, and so, in order to avoid said lecture, had continued to avoid said maintenance, until said maintenance became somewhat unavoidable on account of all the beeping/blinking warning lights on my dashboard. The lights made me feel like something terrible was about to happen. It was a feeling I was generally familiar with as I generally felt that way all the time about everything but now, on account of the beeping/blinking lights, was feeling at this particular time about this particular thing, i.e. the complex inner workings of my Nissan Sentra. It was unnerving. I was unnerved. I wasn't sure how much nerve I had to begin with — how much I could spare. At thirty-one I had used up a lot my nerve by being nervous about things all the time, and, when I wasn't being nervous about things, being sort of annoyed by things, i.e. letting things get on my nerves. I had my nerves and things were always getting on them. In order to get things off my nerves — in order to, I told myself, find some goddam PEACE OF MIND on this godforsaken space rock — I often avoided things altogether, to the point where my avoidance of things created situations that would get on my nerves, e.g. the beeping/blinking warning lights on the dashboard of my Nissan Sentra, a situation that I understood could be solved in one of two ways: either by getting my oil changed or by taking my own life. Each had its merits. Each really gave me something to think about. I often thought about taking my own life when confronted with minor inconveniences, and probably would have taken my own life, too, on a number of inconvenient occasions, had taking my own life not struck me as being, itself, a pretty inconvenient thing to do. "Do you have a plan?" a counselor had asked me years earlier, when I told her that, instead of renewing my driver’s license, I was considering just not being a person anymore. "A plan?" I said. "I have to make a plan?" Not being much of a planner, I continued putting off making a plan to take my own life and, so, by default, had continued living it. "The lesser of two inconveniences," I explained to C at the Filmore one night about my decision-making process re: living vs. dying. C was something of an expert on inconvenience, having recently adopted a number of misbehaved children, children for whom he was going to have to put his life on hold in order to make sure they didn't swallow entire bottles of Tylenol PM or stab the dogs with sharpened silly straws. Rather than choosing between the lesser of two inconveniences, C had chosen the greater of both inconveniences: the inconvenience of having no life and the inconvenience of having to go on living one. What an idiot! I asked him why he would do such a thing. "Why! Why! Why!" I said. And he said: "Because we said we would." I wondered if C understood how saying things worked. I wondered, for example, if he knew that just because you'd said things didn't mean you had to do things too. Saying was enough. I was my own case in point. I said things all the time. Had yet to do a single thing. I was zero for ten billion in terms of doing things. It didn't seem to me that very much needed to be done. Most of the necessary things had been done already and by people much more capable of doing them than me. They had certificates. All that was left to do, it seemed to me, were unnecessary things — things that didn't necessarily need to be done. I didn't do them. Didn't see the point of doing them. Couldn't see the point in doing anything that didn't necessarily have to be done, especially when doing things — doing anything, I'd noticed — was so unnecessarily difficult. I was often surprised by how difficult things were to do. I would sometimes try to do things and then, overwhelmed by the prospect of actually doing them, think, "This seems like a job for a professional." I had faith in the good men and women of the American professional sector. I called them up. I said, "Help!!!!!!" They came between 10 and 3. They were very professional about it. I didn't have to thank them but I did. I thanked them. I went on thanking them. I thanked them until I was thirty-one years old and had failed to develop most of the basic skills my peers seemed to take for granted. An entry-level understanding of barbecue grills and meat preparation safety guidelines. An instinctual sense for where the latch is under the hood of a car. Basic first-aid. Emotional availability. An overall SENSE OF WHAT TO DO. I rarely knew what to do. Almost never. How, I wondered, was a person supposed to know what to do? And, once they knew what to do, how were they supposed to go about doing it? A double problem, then: What to do and how to do it. Two problems that I planned to solve — and if not solve, then at least think deeply about — on my way up the mountain, where I hoped to get a little perspective. A little perspective, I told myself, is exactly what I need to get myself out of this rut. Or, as Josh put it in his text message, "It's time to get on top of things," a message I received one Saturday morning in September while getting my oil changed at a Take 5 where the mechanic was wiping his filthy hands with an even filthier rag and explaining to me that "owning a car comes with responsibilities." I had, it seemed, been being irresponsible, had been shirking certain baseline expectations of a thirty-one-year-old gainfully employed owner of a used 2009 Nissan Sentra, a person of whom certain baseline things were — apparently — expected. "These things," the mechanic explained to me, "don't take care of themselves." I felt sort of bad about all the things I wasn't taking care of — all the responsibilities I had been shirking — which I knew extended beyond basic routine vehicle maintenance and into each and every aspect of my increasingly irresponsible life. At thirty-one, I had successfully avoided most of the things my peers considered a success. Homeownership. Fatherhood. Management positions with hiring/firing power. I was, I told myself, a FREE MAN. There were very few things that required my undivided attention. Nothing, actually. My attention was free to divide itself ad infinitum, as much as it wanted to, into increasingly smaller and smaller pieces, each one increasingly useless. My attention had become so divided, in fact, that I worried I might not be able to put it back together again into the type of singular focus required to accomplish something noteworthy or even the type of bare minimum focus required to accomplish anything at all. The problem wasn't necessarily that I couldn't focus but that I couldn't decide what was necessary to focus on. If I could decide what was necessary to focus on, I told myself, I might be able to regain my ability to focus on it, out of necessity. I'd heard that people were capable of doing surprising things out of necessity. I hoped to surprise myself. What requires our focus?, I asked everyone I knew, hoping to get some ideas. There were plenty! "The environment!" R said. "Gun control!" D said. "Universal child care!" A said. I liked what everyone had to say, and I liked the way they said it, with the sort of heartfelt passion of grassroots political organizers, but I liked what C had to say best. "At the end of the day, there is nothing more worthy of our focus than family," C said, not out loud, but by adopting a number of misbehaved children all at once, an action that I felt spoke for itself. Or at least it spoke to me, someone who has never been very good about family, but I'm trying to do better. So I'd like to say to C now: Message received, C. I'd like to say: Read you loud and clear, buddy. I have to say these things here, where he'll never find them, because I haven't seen C for a while. It seems that C has FALLEN OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. How convenient! I've been considering falling off the face of the earth myself. Maybe I'll see C there. Maybe I'll buy an Xbox. There's no wrong way to fall off the face of the earth. You have to fall off the face of the earth in the way that's right for you. Here's a sort of falling off. A template. On the Saturday morning after the sexual assault hearing of future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when we were all wondering if it mattered anymore what anyone said or did, I stood on the peak of a mountain I didn't know the name of, way up at 14,000 feet where the air is thin, the highest I've ever been — above it all, I thought to myself — drinking lukewarm coffee out of a thermos, and feeling, because of the change in pressure, as if I were having a panic attack. It was a feeling I was familiar with. Oh, I thought, this feeling. "Well," Rob said when we'd gotten to the top, as sort of mountain joke, "It's all downhill from here," but I couldn't remember, right then, if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

image: Mike Nagel


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