I think of him as Man in the Neon Green Shirt. We often pass with a runner’s wave on opposite sides of the street, though a few times I have seen him up close. Never have we exchanged more than a heavily breathed, “Hi!” or “Good morning!” Mostly he just nods. Man in the Neon Green Shirt must be pushing 80-years-old, perhaps more. He’s lived, that is to say.

He has certain routes he likes. Every once in awhile, he wears a different running outfit, sometimes he adds gloves. He listens to music. He runs several times a week, from what I can tell in the almost-two-years that I have been a runner. We are both morning people, mostly.

Man in the Neon Green Shirt is fierce. Methodical. Has endurance. Has maybe a 14:00 mile. Eats the Temecula hills for breakfast. Enjoys the tradition of Long Run Sunday as much as I do: I will see him at the start of a run, and then I will see him in a completely different area about an hour later. His face is tough, determined. We share something substantial: we are both runners. We know that means pain. We know that means a struggle to master ourselves, mind and body. We know it means we love to be alive.

Nobody and nothing is going to rip him from this world without his fight.

I have a mad respect for Man in the Neon Green Shirt.

*                                           *                                        *

Our neighbor L was out today putting away his garbage cans and checking his mail as the kiddos and I were playing “honey bee” in the yard and then riding our bikes/scooters/tractor. L’s wife R is dying of cancer. Never smoked, not a drinker, a healthy woman until now. Metastasized, from what he has said. I never see her out anymore. Everyday I run past their house and think of them. It’s in her brain now.

L and I wave sometimes, but neither of us usually shoot the breeze. We both know we’re not talkers. He is a mechanical engineer turned professional self-taught musician. I wave when he is walking; sometimes we appear at the coffee shop on the corner at the same time. It was something of a wonder that we managed to talk at length today. When R was well, she was the extravert. Always out. Always bringing together. Now we introverts are left on our own.

I gave L a half dozen eggs. Eric pulled on my shirt, and Katie sang the songs of Elsa. L mentioned how he sees me running. We talked a bit about keeping fit. He asked if I had encountered the man who is older and wears a bright shirt… L is 78-years-old.

Like Buddy the Elf talking about Santa, I exclaimed, “I know him!” The excitement of recognition. Man in the Neon Green Shirt is more exciting to me than seeing a celebrity.

L goes on to talk about how inspirational this man is to him. I am overbubbling with agreement. Age is just a number, I know, but he is the eldest runner I see on the road and yes, that does give him a bit of a bump-up in my book. You don’t see many runners pushing 80 or more, except at races. They are the people I hope to be at that age. Long after they are gone, I am going to remember them and want to be what they were.

But there is a twist. L shares that he was at a Homeowner’s Association meeting recently and that members of the group started disrespecting this man. It was hard for L to hear, partly because of the way older men are so discounted and unseen for the vitality they once had and still have. He told me that one neighbor chortled, “Yeah, he runs as if he is about to die…” followed by laughter in the group and ensuing mean comments. L and I commiserated together at such heartlessness and then our introvert clocks both chimed the hour of needing to retreat into our own havens. I think we had both just reminded each other how sad human nature can sometimes be, for some humans. That usually does it for me, until I get alone space to restore myself.

*                                                   *                                                  *

Thirty minutes later I was sitting in the outdoor clubhouse my Katie and Eric had fashioned, playing a mash-up of Hundred-Acre-Wood-meets-Frozen-meets-Wonder-Woman. Angry? Disappointed? Or not surprised anymore? Sad. That’s it: sad. Sad sometimes comes out as angry for me, and it took me 32 years to understand that (I am now 34). When I did finally understand that, my life changed. Even now, I have to root down down down to find it and name it when I think I am just angry. Sadness hides deep, you see.

So: to those of you who are mockers, scoffers, lazy cynics, judges, and critics, you make me feel sad. Oh sure, we all have those moments of critique, and the actions we choose over other actions form tacit judgments about behaviors and philosophies. That much is inescapable. But for those out there who take something that is nothing but good and critique it/mock it: what gives you the right? For those out there who produce very little of value, or won’t take a risk to follow a dream, or create not much that is artistic of your own: on what ethical standing do you dare to offer up a criticism of those who do? Where do you get your expertise to be a critic, an eye-roller, a lazy cynic? Since when did detachment and mockery and pronouncements-from-on-high become the standard marker for an educated mind over those who prefer to get messy, involved, sentimental, and sincere?

I want to know why sincerity is thought to be so naive in this modern culture. Why hard work is worthy of derision by those who are not doing it. Why snarkiness is thought to add anything of value to the art of being alive. Why an honest questioning and rooting out of hypocrisy has to take the form of irony and jadedness to be legitimate, versus prioritizing and celebrating an authentic desire to understand and to know and to live with a sense of wonder.

What does it add to make fun of a guy who is doing his best? (And who, incidentally, is lapping everyone on the couch or at the homeowner’s meeting).

Why should anyone care, at all, about the judgments we would be better keeping to ourselves? Are we cynics and mockers in order to get merely a laugh?

Or is it really much more inimical than that? Scoffers of the world, show me something of value. That you have produced. Explain, please, why you insist on casting yourself above us all. Show me how your method is not to be construed as entirely destructive of the human impulse to advance, achieve, succeed, evolve, and thrive. Explain how your mockery of decent people is not a thinly-veiled wish that we all stay in the gutter.

Explain how your mockery/snarkiness/stereotyping/cynicism does not derive directly from jealousy and fear of inferiority. Betcha can’t.

Explain why the producers, doers, and lovers of the world should listen to you say one. more. word.

I hope Man in the Neon Green Shirt never gets wind of you. But something in his face tells me he knows all about you, and years ago, he decided to let you have the world you wish to make and to create instead a world of his own. Something in his face tells me that the mockery you do actually makes him more determined. He has run himself into a will and mind of steel. You may compare and contrast yourself with him, but he will never now be comparing and contrasting himself with you.

As for me, I celebrate this man. I only hope that I am running when I am 80-years-old. No matter how hard a run I have had, or how cold it is, or how mentally floppy I feel on any given day, when I see Man in the Neon Green Shirt, my spirits instantly rise. His very existence reminds me that I can do it. I lose myself and smile in the moment. If I don’t see him for a few days, I wonder about him. One day he won’t be there anymore. What his life represents, however, will endure. His ripples are good ones. Even as I imagine him right now to write these words, that image of him running is allowing me to run my mental conversion program on the negative energy I heard about today. His existence means there is hope for human nature. His existence means the sadness cannot last.

One thing distance runners know how to do extremely well: take pain and utterly transform it.

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