“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the saying goes. But there’s a corollary: “Stay the hell out of foxholes.”
It’s Christmas time again, otherwise known as my birthday. And as Manslaughter observed while texting me the other day, “Hey, Wanky, you know what? I’ve never seen you and Jesus together. Weird.” Actually, he said “u.”
For many years I hated my Birthmas celebration for the obvious reason of present shortage and complete absence of birthday partyage. We once tried to do it in July and learned the cold truth. You can’t change your birthday. All those kids swarming around the cake and stuff didn’t mean anything when they said, “You’re birthday’s on Christmas, though, isn’t it?”
It’s like spending all that money on a nip and tuck and stretch and having all your friends say, “You got a nose job, didn’t you?”
Christmas I was born, and to Christmas I was consigned, hating it until about age 30, when I realized that the good thing about everyone forgetting your birthday is that everyone forgets about your birthday. “How old are you again?” asked in June is so much better than, “Hey, happy 51st!” spoken exactly on schedule.
This is really the essence of Christmas for me: A spoiled old man complaining about having gotten shorted on presents when I was seven. Now that I’m a full-grown atheist, we don’t even buy a tree anymore, just a Christmas shrub. A few years ago I tossed the lifetime of Christmas decorations that had accumulated, handmade things from my childhood and the childhoods of my children. All we have left are some stockings, two of which were made by my grandmothers. I’ll hang onto them, I suppose, and may even hang them up.
But Christmas is more than an earnest attempt to avoid crowds, eschew impulse shopping, and avoid over-laden tables of sweets, cakes, eggnog, and food. For some people, Christmas is a chance to pray, and to pray from the heart.
I have ridden a few times with a guy named Justin. I don’t know his last name, but I know he is a good rider and a really kind guy. He is a professional tutor in Manhattan Beach, and at age 39 he has helped hundreds of young people navigate the increasingly complex and increasingly competitive world of academics. Little by little he fell in with the MB crew, a gang of riders that includes Jeff K., King Harold, Jaeger, Manslaughter, and the other hardcore South Bay cycling addicts.
In October they planned a four-day ride from San Jose to LA, a 500-mile leisurely jaunt along some of the most gorgeous coastline in the world, during which they would all stare intently at their stems and drool for six hours a day. On the first day Manslaughter went zinging through a tight, gravelly turn that was marked with a giant sign saying “BICYCLES CAUTION: TIGHT, GRAVELLY TURN!!” and, to his surprise, at 35 mph his wheels slipped out and forced him to engage his secondary braking system, otherwise known as the skin up and down the left side of his body, and his head.
As Manslaughter is wont to do, he snapped a few photos for Facebag, taped up his frame, and continued on. Later that day Justin, who was also along for the fun, fell and broke his wrist. At the ER one thing led to another and when he returned to Los Angeles for further treatment he ended up getting a biopsy on a small lump on his tongue. It turned out to be stage four cancer, and Justin is now heading to San Diego for chemo and radiation. His Christmas just turned into a foxhole.
I also learned that a week or so ago there was a mass for him at which several hundred friends, family, students, and former students gathered to express their love and support. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a rough slog, something that makes our “suffering on the bike” look absurd in comparison because you know, if you choose to do it, it’s not really suffering.
There’s something about that slog and about the love of the people around him that resonated with me. A couple of nights ago I met up with Jami and Derek and Daniel and Andrea for dinner. Afterwards we went upstairs to the bar where a handful of friends had gathered to wish me a surprise happy birthday. It filled me warmth, that feeling that people love you, even the same people who gleefully pound you into mush on rides and in races.
As I basked in the glow I thought about Justin and wondered how I could pray for him because well, atheists don’t pray. Then it struck me. No matter what you believe, I hope you believe that love matters. I do. And that’s my prayer for Justin — that the love around him will make the difference. Merry Christmas, man. See you soon.
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