A Man Is a Thing Waiting to Be Reformed

“Riding the Honda was like death. Every time you flicked it into a corner, you never knew if you would make it out.” —Eddie Lawson, 1991

I’ll tell you how I learned broken toes mend themselves: I got older. This was after I’d developed shoulder scar tissue because I tripped on a curb not looking in Miami and later, briefly and bemusedly, tried to pass it off as a jet ski accident. It was also after I’d acquired a scar on my calf jumping a barbed wire fence at a friend’s apartment complex parking lot in the middle of the night. And it was long after I tripped and gashed my kneecap running backward up an escalator to fetch a birthday card at a Borders that, like the relationship it served, no longer exists.

The story’s not exactly seeing Smash Mouth live in Vegas for free. Early one morning on the way to work, I was walking (sober, not that you asked) with a friend down the stairs at my Blue Line station. As the train pulled up, I decided, no, I didn’t need to take these last three steps — hardly harebrained daredevilry, at least in the context of relying on public transit in my daily commute for 13 years. Other people do this kind of thing all the time, too. Young people, anyway.

The leap was, I thought, pretty graceful. But at some point midflight, I’d unconsciously crossed my right foot’s… ring toe? I guess? Is that what we call it? Is there an untranslatable German word available? Anyway, fourth one over, by the pinky… atop my middle toe, so when I landed, the ring toe was out of place. There was no dramatic crack and you’d never know it just looking at me get on the train, but my discomfort was palpable. I spent the rest of the day watching it bloat and discolor, keeping weight off it as I cultivated a limp, looking up medical solutions in between doing actual work, and generally feeling embarrassed I didn’t already know for sure how a broken toe feels.

For a broken hallux or long toe, a doctor can equip you with a brace (or cast, if it’s really serious) and give it a few weeks — but for the three smallest toes, all you can do is ice it a lot, keep the weight off your bones and wait. All I could think about for weeks as I waited for my toe to shrink back to its original size and position, which it never did, was how millions of years taking in fresh water to grow from gametes to zygotes to protozoa sprouting cells and brains and hearts and limbs and tails washing ashore on pristine beaches rising up out of the primordial muck to comb our hair and clip our fingernails and text all the right characters in one try on our buttonless smartphones, Lucy to Idris Elba to Gennady Stolyarov II, all of that work and headway and our best available medical solution for broken bones after unpronounceable epochs is patience.

You could say I had questions about the state of human progress even before we discovered many people do not understand the basic principle of a mask. You could also say I’ve contributed more than my fair share to these questions; it’s not like pausing to consider the mental gymnastics involved in defending open carry laws has ever stopped me from engaging in equally ill-advised acts like, say, drinking without eating or jumping barbed wire fences in the middle of the night or running backward up an escalator. The limits of human adequacy are almost always revealed through ego, pride in the name of, the innate belief that you can get away with the impossible. What you’re left with when you don’t is a memento mori, a postcard from God signed “Hahaha, see you soon!” and, if it’s physical, just that little bit less than you had before.

If the meaning of life is that it ends as Kafka suggests, then the meaning of living must be self-discovery. I know I’m no longer what I was because of my patchwork skin, the bulb of my shoulder and the scars of my legs and the proximal phalanx of my right toe. Before the quarantine, I’d get in a mood every so often where I still felt the reckless flicker from before, still felt like I could go all night and wander wherever I pleased and do whatever I wanted, but in the back of my mind I also kind of always knew it was just a ghost mood, a sad mimicry of who I used to think I was. It was tiring to think about because I was tired because I knew better. This is how you get older.

For some, the transition is gradual, almost imperceptible; you ease into it the way you ease in and out of everything else, a fundamentally boring person of water who lets that 97% of their body stand in for a personality. This is most of us. For others, it’s a whip crack, sudden and undisguised, a resonant bell clapper to (formerly unbroken) bonework. The senses know before the brain computes: One second you were still younger; the next, you were not. Anyone could see it — and when you’re a MotoGP rider, everyone can. Your reformation is on display for the world.

Marc Marquez couldn’t get away with it forever. For rivals and couchside haters, imagining life after his imperial phase must have felt like drifting further and further into a fog, a fever dream, increasingly distant and frustratingly unknowable. Marc has won six of the last seven world championships on a Honda RC213V that’s evolved into being as enigmatic as the capricious middle-period NSR500 with which Eddie Lawson won a third title in 1989. I thought of Lawson on Sunday because one of the reasons he returned to Yamaha in 1990 was that the power band for the NSR was so narrow compared with the YZR he’d won his first two titles with; unlike the smooth throttle delivery of the Yamaha, the Honda’s power was comparatively slow before it snapped to attention — and if you weren’t attentive, it would snap you in turn. Even in an era where ragdoll high sides off the top of the bike were common, the NSR’s reputation was notorious.

You don’t get many high sides these days for more reasons than just power delivery, though that’s a big one. The tires are also so good now that riders’ lean angles have increased; if you’re not working heat into them hard enough, your lack of grip can cause mid-corner low sides instead, a more common phenomenon. But the 2020 RC213V, as Cal Crutchlow demonstrated in the Spanish Grand Prix’s morning warmup, is more liable than other bikes (and, perhaps, itself in previous years) to bite back. Only one person could really extract its maximum potential. Only one person knew its limits enough to respond to its changing behavior in real time. Only one person could laugh in the face of science enough to get nonbelievers thinking there might be a God after all and obliterate the opposition on an inferior machine year after year after year. Only one person could make the impossible look natural.

Wayne Gardner, 1989 US Grand Prix race, broken leg. Lawson, 1990 US Grand Prix Friday practice, broken right heel and broken left ankle. Valentino Rossi, 2010 Italian Grand Prix Friday second practice, displaced compound fracture of the right tibia. Jorge Lorenzo, 2013 Dutch Grand Prix Thursday second practice, broken collarbone.

As I write this the Monday after, Marquez is already back in Barcelona, has checked into the hospital and is ready for surgery tomorrow. MotoGP’s doctor on call, Xavier Mir, seems to think Marquez will be back for Brno the second weekend in August or, if there’s any nerve damage with his broken right humerus, a few weeks after that would probably mean Misano. Unless the nerve damage is severe enough to end his career, he’ll return to the grid before the year’s out and race again, win races again, maybe even compete for another couple of titles. No matter the outcome, however, God’s postcard has been sent: Even the most etherizing, most ethereal of talents are still just human ones.

It’s Maverick Viñales’ year to lose. Even with a wrong guess on the soft front, he led early and kept the rest at bay late. Yamaha’s gamble on Fabio Quartararo has paid off and now that he’s tasted the best life, he’s here to stay if youthful inexperience doesn’t get the better of him over the course of an admittedly condensed season that could yet suffer further from coronavirus restrictions. Andrea Dovizioso will pull rabbits in bridesmaids’ attire out of hats for Ducati again. Pol Espargaro will spend his races wondering what 2021 will bring. Brad Binder will be the revelation. But 2020’s most dramatic on-track story is already written, a beautiful and disturbing half-hour of Marc Marquez’s free verse poetry lodged in the middle of the very first race bookended by the most obscene defiance of physics I believe I’ve ever witnessed in racing on one end, a brain-scrambling comeback from 18th to third in the middle and, finally, the flick of the wrist that reformed him.

You grab and grab and grab and grab and one day you grab more than you can hold. Our whole lives we dream of flying while we get older and work up to the privilege of the fall.

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