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Beacon blog: Bicycling for the cause

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2010 - If you poke too hard at what motivates grown men and women to put on too-tight jerseys and to run or to ride bicycles great distances in charity-a-thons, you have to realize that, in all fairness, participation is not all eleemosynary.

Besides desires to help out a school or a lab or a library or church or hospital, there lurk demons in our motivational architecture: desires to please somebody; wanting to look good in the eyes of our peers; wanting to mollify the boss.

There's the hope of winning the approval of others, the eagerness to be in the middle of an activity in which people you admire are participating -- or as a particularly socially ambitious acquaintance unselfconsciously chirped, "To see and to be seen."

In a word, narcissism is slithering around here like an apple-offering serpent. This is not the gazing in the pool, "I feel pretty" variety of narcissism but the more complex brand with which all of us are afflicted to greater or lesser degrees. But before you do a jackknife into a vat of Prozac, hear the good news, which is that some narcissism is healthy, as Freud observed, even necessary for the survival of the individual and by extension the community in which he or she dwells.

And so it came to pass on Saturday, a bunch of us showed up on our bicycles at the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum on Chestnut Street downtown, many arriving early enough to see the celestial rheostat being turned up on the early light behind the Gateway Arch. Thus began with such exquisite beauty a challenging and memorable day.

I had friends there. Two of them were David and Julie Drier, the heroic father and mother of the equally heroic and courageous Victoria Drier, who suffers from brain cancer and is at this moment being treated with radiation therapy at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

David and Julie and Victoria helped to organize the Pedal the Cause ride thousands of us took around the region on that bright, shining day.

The event is on target to raise $1 million before the Nov. 15 close of the donation books, with all money raised going for cancer research at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children's Hospital.

Victoria went to St. Jude with SLCH's and Siteman's blessing for her treatment because of the special expertise of a cousin, Dr. Michael Kastan, director of cancer research there and Dr. Thomas Merchant, director, radiology oncology at St. Jude's, who has treated more patients with this type of cancer than any other doctor in the world.

I had someone else riding tandem with me - not present really, but in my imagining. She was at home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., doing the sort of Saturday morning things a busy little girl does. She is Samara Kaplan, my partner Marty's niece. I'll tell you the good part first - she is doing absolutely fine, going to school, playing with her friends and her smart-as-a-whip brother, Adam.

But Samara, 8, has had brain cancer, and for a while there she was as much at home in sterile isolation at Children's Hospital on Sunset Boulevard as she was in her room on Bay End Avenue in Palos Verdes. She is darling, but she is also one tough customer, a survivor, a champ.

So as I crept along the route, I thought about Victoria and Samara. I thought also about their families who live with the disease alongside these children whom they love so dearly.

I thought also about philanthropy in connection with all of this as I rode along, and how its mercies touch us all, whether we know it or not. The great institutions of America, many, many of them anyway, large and small, are build on foundations of philanthropy.

I, for example, am a direct recipient.

Washington University, my alma mater, to which I owe so much, simply would not be, were it not for the largesse of visionary men and women who worked to have it established and who through the years have sustained it: Bixby, Fox, Steinberg, Givens, Breuer, Whitaker, Brookings, Busch, Crow, Cupples, January, Brown and so on, moving east to west on the Danforth Campus.

The music, museums of all sorts, Citygarden, Forest Park, Confluence Greenway, the Danforth Plant Science Center, the Episcopal Church, Tower Grove Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden, the list goes on and on and on. It is safe and true to say that much of what nourishes my intellect and my soul exists thanks to the apparently inextinguishable fuel of philanthropy and its brightly burning flame.

More directly, and more immediately, there is the St. Louis Beacon, whose financial health depends on donors who have a fundamental belief in our work and have stepped up to support us.

I am grateful, so genuinely, wholeheartedly grateful to all of these givers - be he the Washington U. student who sent 10 bucks because he thinks what we are doing is vital, or be he and she the well-heeled individuals who understand that healthy democracies are built on the fluent movement of serious information, or be it foundation that believes our philosophy of news matches its definition of what is required to stand up for civilization and civilized behavior.

I confess I thought about amounts of money as I rode along; after all, that is my job. I have a responsibility to raise money for the Beacon. But I also considered the "effect" part of the causality and effect relationship. It isn't a neat philosophical relationship, at least in the model I created somewhere between Gravois and Spoede.

For example, I could not say, as I passed through a valley of the shadows of architectural transgressions in the far west County, that I was sweating this way (effect) because of my desire to help to pay for cancer research (causality).

But I can say with conviction I understand profoundly the relationship between awareness of a need - be it for a cure for cancer or reporting serious news in depth -- and the impulse to do something about fixing it and to do it communally, and to work hard at it.

By the time I was in the home stretch of the Pedal the Cause event, I wasn't thinking of anything that approached philosophy. I wanted a Diet Coke.

But once across the finish line, and restored, I could and did reflect on what I had seen and felt and learned that morning. Although I understood the narcissistic part of these good feelings, I reckoned also it was OK to allow myself and all of us gathered downtown for the ride to indulge ourselves in the fleeting pleasure of thinking maybe, just maybe, we had done something worthwhile, something substantial, for Victoria Drier in St. Louis and Memphis, and for Samara Kaplan in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

I hope so, anyway. Those two kids taught me plenty about my world, and the things that matter in it. I thought hard about their lessons as I pedaled their cause in the warm, warm sun of autumn.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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