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A small matter of principle...

by Greg Swann

To the person who took the bike off of my porch this weekend, I just wanted to say "Thanks".

Thanks for putting a big black mark on the unblemished horizons of Arizona. Like many people in the Valley, we moved here because we were sick to death of what passes for life elsewhere in America. In the months since we arrived, our delight has been uninterrupted - nice people, that glorious sun, no crime. Thanks for taking that away.

Thanks for robbing my daughter and I of one of the simple pleasures of our lives. She's only four-and-a-half, and she can barely ride a kid's bike on her own. Sitting in her own special saddle on Daddy's big bike made her feel very grown up, a participant and not just a passenger. And because she was in front, we could talk and sing and laugh and just enjoy being together. Thanks for taking that away.

Thanks for making me paranoid. Although we moved 2,500 miles south of west, it felt as though we had moved 40 years back in time. Back to a time when people had respect for property, when one didn't have to hide behind bars and lock every small treasure away. We had been leaving the house unlocked, the car unlocked, the bikes unlocked, and I had revelled in my feeling of fundamental security. Thanks for taking that away.

Thanks for making me suspicious of my neighbors. We've very much enjoyed the great people we've met in Arizona, and none so much as the people who live near us. We've lived too long around people who pursue self-destruction, and we were glad to be among people who seemed to share our love for health, happiness and healthy, happy children. We had great faith in the essential decency of our neighbors, but now we can never quite be sure. Thanks for taking that away.

Thanks for wasting my time. Tracking down that special gel saddle and positioning it just right didn't take a lot of time, maybe an hour, all told. Adjusting the handlebars and the gears, retensioning the brakes - perhaps an hour more. Finding my daughter's special seat and mounting it was an hour more, at most. Even calling in the police report after your theft only took a half-hour. Not much time, really. But it's precious time of a finite life, time that can never be replaced. Thanks for taking it away.

Thanks for making me feel raped. "It's the principle!" You've heard it all your life and never known what people were talking about. The principle is this: my body and my things are mine. It's not the size of the injury that matters, but the fact that you presumed to violate my person and my property. Serenity is an emotion you can never know, given what you are. But it is a constant in my life, a firm support I know I can always count on. For about an hour today it was gone, supplanted by an all-consuming rage that would have found you dead had I known how to find you. Even if only for a short while, thanks for taking away my serenity.

And thanks for letting me contribute to your self-destruction. "Be who you are. Do what you want. Have what you love." That's all it takes to lead a happy, peaceful, productive life. But you know that, of course. Everyone does. "To thine own self be true." That's a doctrine, but we all know it before we can speak, before anyone can indoctrinate us about anything. Even more economically, "Know thyself."

Easy to say, but very, very hard to do. A great many people manage to cheat themselves of the best of life. A pretense here, a compromise there, a furtive betrayal in the night. At the time, it might look like a bargain, but it's the worst deal possible. In exchange for unearned values, we acquire unpayable debts. We must pretend that what did happen didn't, that what is true isn't, that we are what we aren't. For life. In trade for a trinket in which we can take no pride, we must blot out a page of our life, and keep blotting it out, day after day, every time it tries to write itself on our consciousness. A lifetime of denying the truth of our life, precious and irreplaceable, in the futile portrayal of a lie, with no respite but madness or death.

What sets you apart is that you're more than especially good at obliterating yourself. Where other people pay hugely for pathetic little transgressions, you're in the game for bigger stakes. Where they seek to evade the responsibility of being alive as a human for brief spasms, you seek to escape that obligation full time. And though no one's laughing, the joke's on you. Because, of course, it cannot work. Your virtuoso performance of unearned virtue might fool others, but you can never fool yourself. You'll always know who you are and what you've done, and you'll strive constantly to hide the facts of your wasted life from yourself, and you'll always fail. What's worse, your awareness of your life is your life at its core. To the extent that you have to try to hide your awareness of yourself from yourself, to that extent you have destroyed the only life you will ever have. There is no crime you can commit - not robbery, not rape, not murder - that is worse than what you have done to yourself to avoid living in the only way you can live. It's a lot to trade away for a bicycle...

And, believe me, I can't know this much about people who live as you do without wanting, desperately, to see this insane self-destruction end. I do everything I can, which isn't very much. One thing I can do, I do consistently: I never voluntarily abet the process. I didn't volunteer in your case, either, but I did leave the bike outside, unlocked, a tempting fix to feed your addiction to the void. Thanks for sucking me into the sewer of your life.

Finally - and this time I mean it - thanks for this. I am gloried that I am able to see so much in something you thought was so very small, if you dared think of it at all. I have no fear of thought. I don't betray it, so it can never betray me. I can look at my life, at my surroundings, and I can make of them what I will in words made flesh, in worlds made fresh by my fingertips. The things that we own and treasure are precious to us because they are trophies of our work, the work our minds. You have a bike you didn't have to pay for, but you got the short end of the stick. I got this, and I got it from a place you can never reach, never touch. Not you, not a machine-gun-toting gangbanger, not the armed might of the West can ever hope to violate the inviolable purity of the human mind. You have a bike you didn't have to pay for. You'll wreck it in a few weeks or you'll sell it for a pittance. Or perhaps it will be stolen from you in turn. In any case, you won't have it for long. But I have this as a trophy of my life, and I'll have it forever. Thanks. Really.

In a week or two the insurance check will come. My daughter and I will go out to buy a new bike, buy a new gel saddle, buy a new a new seat for her, buy a new - much sturdier - lock. We'll put the bike together, adjust everything just right, and then we'll go out for a ride - to laugh, to sing, to exult in the incomparable joy of simply being alive. This little episode will be over for us.

But not for you. Never, really, for you. It will lie there, an unfinished page of your life, never white, never black, the smudged gray of a lifetime of frenetic erasures. One page of many, an unfinished book, an unfinished life... A tragic waste, and you know it better than anyone - you're the one who's volunteered to see it from the inside. Here's a little something to take away with my thanks, in case you ever decide to turn yourself around:

It's not the crime that makes your life a living hell. It's the principle...

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