ESSAY- Sky man: Would he like to come and meet us?
When you're pedaling away on your bike, you don't expect to look up in the sky and see the head of a gigantic man. But that's what happened to me.
Looming over the mountaintop was a man in a blue, squared-off cap, like a French policeman, his expression one of boredom and disengagement as he surveyed the landscape and slowly nodded.
In one of those endless nanoseconds that life dishes up every now and again, I wondered whether this was the face of God, the God of my childhood who loomed over mankind the way I loomed over my dolls, as I invented dramas for them, even arranging the death of my Ken doll whose corpse I encased in a padded sewing basket and entombed among forgotten books in the cellar.
The sight of mega-man in the sky, for that split second, was both shocking and understandable, something I suddenly realized I'd expected all along.
This experience should not have sparked the existential freakout that ensued, because I was, after all, at the gym, and this was a stationary bike with an interactive video screen.
I've been working out on this bike for the past few weeks, trying out several of the dozens of routes offered on the menu.
Yesterday, I chose a route with the ordinary sounding name of "Ironhorse Rush." I checked out the preview: There was a bike path next to a train track, a few houses. The sky looked a little gloomy, but the 6-mile route up a mountain and back down again appeared to be suitably challenging.
I touched the icon to select it, and I was off and pedaling. But what was that up in the sky? A building? Maybe. But it looked like a bulletin board. Nah, couldn't be. I pass that, and then I see, over the top of the mountain, the enormous man. He's looking around, and then, he's looking right at me.
The thing is, when you're engaged in this kind of faux reality, you're sweating and struggling, and you feel like you're inhabiting the landscape, pedaling harder on the hills, slacking off on the downhills, enjoying the view of the ocean or sunset or whatever scene your chosen path takes you through.
So disturbing was this experience that I had to turn away and look around the gym to remind myself that it's only a computer screen.
All around me were people laboring on their own machines, focusing on private screens and lost in alternate realities.
But I was drawn back into my own screen, and it was starting to feel as real as the gym around me.
As I pedaled up and around the mountain, a train passed by below. That's when it struck me: What had initially appeared to be "sky" was the interior of a model-train enthusiast's basement.
The high, tiny window and the skeletal stairway appeared where clouds and birds should have been. A closer look revealed the word "conductor" on the blue cap of the colossus.
My pumping heart and prodigious output of sweat were merely elements in his miniature universe: accessories for the model train.
I recall my father, in a ruminative mood after his 50th birthday, when he was wondering what the point of it all was. He was taking a break from installing our dishwasher, a project that was not going well– not well at all.
I was thirteen at the time, watching him as he sat at the kitchen table, his unfiltered Camel turning to a cylinder of ash between his fingers as he stared at it and said, to no one in particular, "What if everything, the universe with the galaxies and planets, is just the ash on the end of some giant's cigarette, and right now it's falling."
He then flicked the cylinder into the ashtray.
Three years later, when his heart stopped, I wanted to ask my father about his cigarette-ash theory. After death, had he discovered a giant who was overseeing all this? And is the giant's world, in turn, a tangential and disposable element from some larger world– a bigger cigarette held by some bigger giant?
Of course, now I'm also wondering if, when you die, it's like looking away from the interactive video screen and discovering what's been around you all along.
Surrounded, as I am, by screens of all sizes and applications, I should not have freaked out over a silly exercise bike with computer-generated graphics.
And yet, I'm still feeling uneasy about the whole thing, and find myself glancing skyward from time to time. Just in case.
Sadly, Janis Jaquith's ailing father-in-law, a player in herlast essay, died in mid-June.