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It Begins With Air

Photo: F.G. / Creative Commons


Neil Sandell

Neil Sandell is a man of a certain age, a man who loves to ride his racing
bike. But as he gasps for air while cycling up a mountain road, he wonders,
why is he driving himself so hard? After all, he has recently retired to the
south of France. He should be relaxing. But the upheaval of leaving his life
behind in Canada has unsettled him. Though he is coy about his age with
his friends, he knows that time is catching up with him. And he is haunted
by a memory of his father. He keeps pushing himself on the bike until one
day while struggling up a high mountain pass, he gives up. His failure
weighs on him like a defeat. Now what does he do? As it turns out, the
man who holds the answer lives on that very same mountain pass.


Dominic Gerard
Julianne Hazlewood


Sinnerman by Nina Simone (Felix Da Housecats

Heavenly House Mix) from Verve Remixed 2

Excerpt: 24:26

Total length: 34:15

Published on Sound Cloud: January 2016.

Acquired by Australian Broadcasting Corporation: March 2016
(Broadcast date to be announced)

Type A personality = refers to personality traits linked to heart disease
driven = obsessed, compelled by oneself to do something
pug = a breed of dog, also known as mops or carlin
Col dEze = a high mountain pass near Nice, France

Bicycle pump, rhythmic.

It begins with air. When you pump up the tires of a racing bike like
this beauty here, you want to make the tires rock hard. You push in
so much air, that if you puncture
Tire losing air.
you know right away. And then you have to stop.
Traffic, hard breathing, cars pass.
When youre climbing up the side of a mountain, you want air too.
Your body screams stop. And your mind says.Well thats the trick.
Its what your mind says. The one thing you never want to think
about is, why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through
this? Because, of course, you know the answer. You know.
Hard breathing, traffic. Mechanical breathing.
Im sitting at my desk at work this is when I was around 32 -- and
my boss calls me up. And he says, Neil, the police are on the phone.
They they want to talk to you.
I dont understand.
And they say, Youre needed at home. You should get home as soon
as you can.
I dont understand.
Static fades.
Im Neil Sandell. Am I a pro cyclist? Are you kidding me? Well,
maybe in my fantasies. But no, Im just a guy of a certain age. A guy
who puts on the gear. Cringes a little when I pass the mirror. Me in
spandex. A guy who loves to ride a bike.

Crowd noise.
OK, OK everyone. Please take your seats. Please, take your seats.
Thank you. Mr. Sandell will take a few questions.
Can you -- [mic feedback] -- can you hear me? Alright. You there in
the back.
Chair scrapes.
Female reporter:
Dont you think you look ridiculous, I mean for a man your age?
Excuse me?
Female reporter:
Well, dressed in latex and all.
Its spandex. Spandex. Its not latex. Latex islatex is what
condoms are made out of. No. [laugh] What do you mean, a man
my age?
Female reporter:
How old are you, Neil?
No, the issue here is what I wear. Thats irrelevant.
Male reporter 1:
Tell us the truth.
Female reporter:
Come on. Why dont you answer the question?
Are there any other questions about spandex?
Female reporter:
Do you have a secret thing for latex?
Male reporter 2:
Why not just call it what it is? A fetish.
Im not answering. Im out of here. Thisthis is over. Im out of

Female reporter:
Neil, what are you hiding from?
Crowd fades.
Neil (narrating):
So. How old am I? Well, lets just say, Im an analogue kind of guy.
Stopwatch. Ticking.
This stopwatch here? I used to use it every day on the job, the job
being a radio journalist. A few years ago I found it in a drawer,
gathering dust.
I was tossing out so much in my life back then. At home. At work.
But I kept the watch.
You know, I never missed a deadline in 30 years. When I made the
big change in my life, I thought, Im leaving that all behind. No
more deadlines.
Ticking stops.
Well, it turns out I still have one hanging over me.
Thanks Dad.
Ticking becomes louder, then fades.
Neil (narrating):
Yeah, the past.
Dogs snuffling and snorting.
Heres my present
Neil: (to wife)
Whats happening?
Donna (wife):
[laughing] The pugs are play bowing each other. Sniffing each
others butts. Making noise, as normal. [laughs]
As you say, its the soundtrack of our life. And Im grateful for it.
Dog snorting.

Neil (narrating):
My dogs. For them, it all begins with air, too. You know pugs?
Theyve got those big sad eyes and smashed in faces? Well, that big
change in my life? It was actually the dogs that pushed me. You see,
since forever, Donna and I had dreamed of moving to the south of
France, to the city of Nice actually. That was the dream. But it was
always, France? Yeah. How about next year?
The truth was, wed settled into a comfortable life in Toronto. Safe
and stale. Oh, we dreamed big. But we never did anything about it.
And then one day, I got this email.
Time to call the first witness.
So, can you state who you are?
Jessica Low.
May I call you Jessica?
[laughs] Jess. Thats Jess to you. [laughs]
Neil (narrating):
Jess, my best friend at work.
So one day I was at my desk checking my email, and there was this
one from Cunard.
Music: ex Cunard video.
Male voice (ex video):
Cunard pioneered the transatlantic crossing to the New World.
I had to read it twice just to make sure. It was a once in a lifetime
offer a way of getting the pugs to France.
Music fades.
Do you want my impressions of the conversation?
Yeah like, what did you think when I told you?

I thought it was a bit crazy. [laugh] I thought it was I thought it
was actually quite magical because this seemed to be embracing the
randomness of all of a sudden finding out that your dogs could go on
a boat. And therefore that you could actually really move to France.
And you know, even the fact that you happened to have dogs that
cant fly, right? Thats quite random. [laughs]. And had you had any
other kind of dog you actually could have booked a ticket and flown
on an airplane. [laughs]
Dogs snorting, breathing.
Neil (narrating):
Yeah, its way too risky to put pugs on an airplane. The air is just too
thin for them to breathe. So, you have to go by ship, if youre going to
go. But only one ship has kennels. Finding space for your dogs? Its
like winning the lottery. Somehow, our dogs names bubbled to the
top of this long waiting list.
We had a take it or leave it offer to make a winter crossingin 10
months time. Ten months to wind up our life in Canada.
There was so much suspense, right. Would you get the visas?
Would you get the health coverage? Would you be able to sell your
house? It wasnt a guarantee that you were going to go. You really
wore that stress on your face. But you also knew I kept reminding
you -- that there was this amazing light, literally, at the end of the
Breathing. Bicycle noises.
What kept me going was this memory of riding in France near Nice,
on the coastal roads. The sea is on one side this incredible
turquoise colour. Mountains on the other side. Sun sparkling on the
water. And that incredible high you get from working your body
hard. I wanted more of that. If I got to go to France, that ride would
be right outside my doorwhenever I wanted.
Thats what kept me pushing forward when things were tough. But
there was something else. You get to a certain age, you never know
what can happen. You look around and you can see how the clock
can wind down on you, very suddenly. I could see what Jess was
going through.

Breathing fades.
That was a tough year for you, I knowbecause of your mom. I was
pretty worried about you. I really was.
I was worried about me too. That winter I did not know whether my
Mom was going to live as a prisoner in her body completely locked in,
unable to communicate, for years. And, and you know wed been
coping with her illness for three years. And it was just a terrible
grind. And uh
I think at some level I was absorbing a lesson. Like, dont leave
things too late. And I guess that was one of the things that kept me
moving forward at a time whenwhen things were iffy.
And that was something that I really took from your decision. Uhm
Its easy to say live every day fully. Its really hard to do. And my
Mom had so much left in her life to do. She got sick when she was 59.
Uhm, and she went from being incredibly active and such a, such an
alive person. As soon as she got sick she became a patient. And she
spent the last three years of her life as a patient.
And so, to tie it all together, it was incredibly inspiring to know that
you and Donna were making the most out of every moment really.
And that you arent being complacent. Because I think that its so
easy to get complacent and not think about how life can be better.
And you did that. And you thought, how life can be better? And you
took a huge risk, and you went for it.
Well, thank you for that.
Hey, how old do you think I am? Weveactually, even though
were, like, really close friends, weve never really talked about age,
have we?
Mmn. No, I dont think so. Im going to guess, uhfiftysix?
Something like 57? How old are you?
I did actually tell Jess my age.

What? Shut up. Sorry, thats so rude. Really? Youre thats so
surprising to me. Huh. Wow. You seem a lot younger than you are.
Thing is, people always think Im younger than I am. And Ill take it.
Its flattering. But then again, my Dad looked a lot younger than he
was too. Fat lot of good it did him.
Im sitting at my desk at work this is when I was around 32 -- and
my boss calls me up. And he says, Neil, the police are on the phone.
They they want to talk to you. Which is weird because I dont work
on crime stories.
And they say, Is this Neil Sandell?
Youre needed at home. You should get home as soon as you can.
I dont understand. But I get in a cab, and when I get to my parents
house, there are two cop cars. And an officer greets me. Are you
Neil Sandell? Come through the front please.
Which is strange. Something is very wrong because I always go
through the kitchen. But no. Come through the front. And when I
get in the door, theres my Mom. I give her a hug and she wont let
go. And out of the corner of my eye I see my father sprawled on the
kitchen floor. Dead. Dead of heart attack at 64. He did not drink.
He did not smoke. He was healthy all his life. And now hes dead at
64? What the hell sense does that make?
That was a long time ago. Am I over it? Im over it. [13:03]
Unrolling packing tape.
Yeah. Thats a lie. Sometimes, though, you just need to pack those
feelings in a box, seal it up, keep on moving ahead. Like those
months getting ready to leave Canada. If Id let any second thoughts
creep in, I would have lost my nerve.
Jess: There was a while there where you had big bags under your
eyes, and you looked like you hadnt slept in weeks.

Packing tape.
There was so much to throw away. Now some stuff it was easy to
trash. But other stuff well, how do you decide?
I found old calendars with names of people I was meeting, the
women I was dating at the time. You know I looked at those names
and I couldnt even remember one of them.
I had two boxes of journalism trophies. Was it vain to take them with
And then there was the stuff I would never throw away.
A photo of my Dad in the Navy, somewhere on the North Atlantic
during the war. God he looked pale.
And then, years later, this medal he won for catching a record size
fish. Theres a kind of heft to this medal. It feels great in your hands.
Solid. Round. Something permanent.
Packing tape.
Those boxes. So much personal history in those boxes. It was like I
was curating my own life, and there was a finality about it. And for
what? I dont have kids. Who would care about this stuff when I was
gone? And yet I wasnt ready to throw it away either.
Packing tape.
That sense that your life is containable is frightening.
My friend, Greg Kelly.
Im not talking about an apprehension or realization. I mean the
sensationbecause its almost physical. It is physical. So this
goodbye is kind of a total goodbye. It isnt simply saying, you know,
Ill be back at some point and I hope everythings okay. That
produces its own set of anxieties. Theres a permanency to doing this.


So when you were parsing through some of your possessions and
letting go of them what youre acknowledging is that a chapter of your
life is dead. It is over.
Were squeamish about death anyhow in the West, at least. But that
kind of. well, as it were, a kind of dress rehearsal for an obituary.
That sort of thing is only possible when you really pick up stakes and
move. Especially when a career is ending.
Neil: - yeah Greg:
The opposite of that kind of loss isnt a kind of gain. Its rather a
sense of possibility. And that can be almost giddy. Almost
Music: Cunard video.
Male voice (ex video):
Queen Mary 2 embarks on round trip voyages from New York
The day we left for France was Wow. Wed finally made it.
Male voice:
Everyone who has sailed with Cunard shares a memorable
experience with generations of discerning travellers.
Dogs snorting.
Light wind
That night, the ship glided into the Hudson River. We stood on our
balcony, shiveringwatching as the skyline of New York receded into
the distance. The lights on shore winking out one by one. And then,
we were at sea. It was just us now. And I felt weightless. I felt as if
Id slipped the bonds of gravity, the treadmill of the familiar, the
weight of the past, the gravity of who I was. Or so I thought.
Wind fades.
Breathing, cycling, traffic.
Neil (diary):
Im about 350 metres, maybe 400 metres above Nice. And its
quite a climb. Its a half hour climb. [sniff] I find it really
challenging. Now Im chilling off. Im just going to cover up a bit.

Traffic. Zipper.
Almost no cyclists on the road right now.
The view is really extraordinary. On one side you have this broad
valley sweeping towards the sea with mountains receding in the
background. Reminds me a little bit of California. And then you just
turn right around and you see the Alps. And theyve got snow on
them. And the air is crisp. And it smells good. And its fresh. Its
one of the reasons I cycle. I mean its hard. Its exhausting. It hurts
sometimes. But you do it for the rewards. Its peaceful up here. Its
so frigging peaceful.
Traffic fades.
Neil (narrating):
It started off so well. But then
Ice cube tray.
Neil (diary):
Ice. Ice, ice, ice. And my ice bag. Screw the lid on, and find a place
to sit down.
I think the place to start is my body. I just - Im feeling old. I like to
think of myself as young but Im feeling aches and pains. I keep
having setbacks. My body is telling me dont go as hard. My head
is telling me keep pushing. But every time I have one of these
setbacks, and it sets me back three weeks, a month, I feel like Im
starting back to square one.
About a week ago, I couldnt even walk. I mean, it was that bad.
The, the --- my knees were swollen up. So, its all about getting older.
Its all about not having to give up yet another thing.
I used to be able to run. I cant run anymore. I used to play baseball.
I havent done that in years. Cycling is what I have left. But I cant
do it in pain. Its just not worth it.
Ice on left knee. Oof, God.


Crowd noise.
Female reporter:
Neil, what are you hiding from? Hey, Mr. Sandell. Neil. Can we do
an interview? It wont take long.
You again?
Female reporter:
Oh come on. What are you worried about. It wont take long. Here,
follow me. Lets, lets go into this room.
Door opens, closes. Light switch.
Uh, whats with all the baggage in here?
Female reporter:
Lets just cut to the chase, why dont we? Why are you so driven?
Female reporter:
Well, you could be relaxing, taking life easy. But there you are, out
every day, cycling as if your life depended on it. Its a little nuts dont
you think?
Thats a little harsh. Are we almost done here?
Female reporter:
Hey, this is your fantasy.
Not a fantasy.
Female reporter:
Okay, yourwhat are you calling this? Yourmeta-whatever.
Are we almost done?
Female reporter:
Will you answer the question or not? Why are you pushing yourself
so hard?
My Dad.

Female reporter:
Yeah, the heart attack. Any theories why that happened?
Well, he had this Type A personality. You know? He was a guy who
was quick to anger. Never satisfied. Liked to control things. He was
a guy who was. whats the word?
Female reporter:
Yeah. Yeah, he was driven.
Female reporter:
Yeah, like you.
No, not like
Female reporter:
-- yeah, were done.
Room ambience. Dogs.
So Donna. Do you think Im driven?
Yes. Youre a driven person actually. When you do anything, you
pursue it intensively.
See, IIve been thinking about my father, right? And I worry in
some ways that Ive become him when I didnt want to.
But what do you mean by that?
Well, his Type A personality.
Youve got it. You really do. I mean I think that you have, uhI think
controlledyou know, learned to control your anger over the
yearsprobably better than he dideven though I never met him.


I just suspect thats true. And you are much healthier than your
father was in terms of your, you know, diet and exercise. So youre
not necessarily going to end up in the same place he was. In fact I -you know -- I dont really worry about that. You know, I think youre
on track to do a lot better than your dad did.
So the driven thing. What can I do about that, do you think?
Have a personality transplant? [laughs] I just think its who you are.
Room ambience fades.
Neil (narrating): So heres something you learn when you pull up
roots. No matter how much you leave behind, you take yourself with
you. You see, you unclutter your life. Your mind gets quiet. And
then you hear that clock ticking in the background.
Was I driven? Of course I was driven. But I couldnt see another
One day, on a whim, I decided to climb up the Col dEze. Its a high
mountain pass that starts at the edge of Nice. The Col dEze is steep.
Very steep.
Neil: Ohohoh God. Uh-Clock stops.



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