The beauty of vulnerability

Awhile back, Timur wrote — beautifully, I might add — about vulnerability.

It’s one of my favorite posts, one I’ve referred back to many times and linked to more than once. I suppose one reason it resonates so strongly with me, aside from the infinite wisdom and good taste he demonstrates in quoting yours truly, is the way he captures the vulnerability we all experience as cyclists, and turns it into a positive — that the things that make us vulnerable are the same things that provide such a unique experience of our city, and our world. An experience that cannot be shared from behind the wheel of a car.

I suppose that’s one of the many reasons it bothers me to see a cyclist wearing headphones. Aside from the added, unnecessary risk of being unable to hear the sounds that could the rider’s life, I don’t understand the needless disconnection from the sounds around them.

And as much as I love music, I can’t understand why anyone would choose even the most vivid and vibrant playlist, rather than experience the world in which they live.

But that’s just me, I guess.

What started me thinking about Timur’s post was reading about this.

The author, Brayj, is someone I’ve never met. Yet, like many others in the local biking blogoshpere, someone I feel like I know in some ethereal cyber way. He tends to comment more than he posts himself; when I see his screen name in the comment section, I always make a point of reading it — he has a skill for cutting to the heart of a matter, in a way that often brings a smile, if not outright laughter.

And this world could use a little more levity.

Having been there myself, I would guess he keeps turning this incident over in his mind, analyzing the steps that brought him there — from a crippled bike that prevented any attempt at escape, to being alone at a late hour in a dodgy neighborhood.

Of course, it’s easy to second guess. But avoiding such situations would require a degree of omniscience the gods have not seen fit to bless us mortals with. In this world, even the most innocent action or seemingly benign decision can lead to unexpected consequences. And the worst things can happen in the best neighborhoods, any time of day.

In my case, it happened when I was in my 20s, working on the edge of a minority neighborhood in the deep south, at a time and place when races seldom mixed. As I entered the store one night, I struck up a conversation with a couple of young men who were coming in, laughing and joking with them — even holding the door open for them. Right up to the point that they pulled out a couple of very large guns and demanded all the money in the store.

Suddenly, they didn’t seem so friendly anymore. Especially when they started arguing back and forth about whether or not to shoot me. One of them — the one holding the large Glock to the back of my head — wanted to know what it felt like to “kill a white guy.” The other one, who I instantly took a liking to, just wanted to take the money and run.

Since they couldn’t make up their minds, I tried to take control of the situation, in whatever limited way I could. So I handed them my wallet, and said I was just going to walk away without looking back. Then I took a few steps, waiting for that bullet to enter my brain, and wondering what it would feel like to die. But after a few seconds, I heard the sound of footsteps running away behind me, and knew I was going to make it through another day.

As it turned out, I was lucky to meet them at the beginning of their crime spree. A couple nights later, another store was robbed by two men matching the same description; the clerk was pistol-whipped and left with permanent injuries. They were finally caught after a half-dozen increasingly violent robberies, including the final one, in which the clerk — a white guy — was shot for no apparent reason.

I spent a lot of time reexamining the events leading up to that moment from every possible angle, over and over again. And it was very tempting to just pack up and leave, and never allow myself to be that vulnerable again.

But I would have missed out on some of the best experiences of my life. Like hearing a gospel choir in an all-black church, and being invited to join them for the church supper that followed — some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Or more than once, being the only white face in a blues club owned by the legendary Tabby Thomas. Not to mention some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

So I ended up taking the opposite approach, and allowed myself to experience that vulnerability, in my work and in life, in love and on my bike. To experience life as deeply and fully as possible, wherever that may take me.

Over the years, I’ve paid the price in heartbreak and scars, and had to pick myself back up more than once. But as I’ve also had rare and precious moments of genuine transcendence — experiences that made every bump and bruise along the way more than worthwhile.

Of course, now that I’m married, I try to be more careful. I spend more time evaluating which risks are worth taking, because I have more to lose, and a good woman who expects me to make it back home, in one piece, at the end of the day.

But I will never give up that vulnerability, that willingness to accept the risks and suffer the consequences, in order to have those experiences and that intimate connection with life, and the world around me.

And maybe I’m wrong.

But I have a feeling that once the dust settles, Brayj will make the same choice.


Will lights up the annual Toy Ride. Literally. Los Altos backs off on an effort to illegally ban bikes from a popular cycling route. Our local Bike Snob questions who would pony up for this ride for sale on Craigslist. While our city bike planners struggle to put a workable cycling network together, a nationwide bike net it taking shape. Finally, here’s your chance to be the new Bike Coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

One comment

  1. timur says:

    Well put and well said. I hope to hold myself to as much, but the world is a wide-open place. It’s helpful and necessary for me to read things like this once in a while.

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