Stand Up or Sit Out:
Memories and Musings of a Blind Wrestler,
Runner and All-around Regular Guy
The quarter-mile track at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Junior High School surrounds a soccer field always buzzing with activity. A small group of neighborhood grown-ups, my friend and I among them, go there to jog. There is a specially planted garden adjacent to the track, inspired by Alice Waters, world-famous advocate for farmers markets and for sound and sustainable agriculture. [King] Charles and Camilla have even visited this place. On any given morning or late afternoon, neighborhood kids, ranging in age from eight to thirteen, gather with their parent-coaches (soccer moms and dads all) to learn how to run, kick, dribble, and score.
Their excited voices waft to our ears. We are on the outside of a scene we would dearly love to join, but whose boundaries we dare not penetrate. We adults have already been molded; our attitudes toward sports, competition, and life itself unalterable at this late date. Or are they? The children affect us. Their voices paint a beneficent glow upon our faces. Intermingled with exhortations and encouragement from the adults, the children's utterances strike us as innocent, devoid of care, and full of promise.
The mood is pleasant. Here in laid-back Northern California, parents and coaches seem especially aware of the importance of teaching young athletes how to work as a team. No one scolds them for losing the ball or missing a shot on goal. Ignoring a passing opportunity might raise a few eyebrows. After all, cooperation and combined effort is what teamwork is all about.
Unperturbed, the children laugh, grunt with the genuine effort they seem to put into their game, and encourage each other with gusto. It is the year 2000, and I've just arrived here from New York. I am forty-seven years old.
My friend and I jog slowly around the track. "Let's try to run today's mile in eleven minutes," I suggest. She hesitantly agrees. "It's been a week since we last ran. I hope I can do it," she says.
We circumnavigate the activity. I listen intently to the children playing, and it occurs to me that I have been given a gift. I am privileged to watch, as if through a rose-colored time portal, my own development as a competitive individual. Only it is not the past I am watching. It is the present, an altered version of what might have been. Here, in real time, the children's attitudes toward competition and achievement are being molded. They are about the same age as I was when I first learned how to compete. When these children grow up, I wonder, what kind of attitude toward athletics will they have? How will they react the first time someone tells them their performance wasn't good enough to win? How will they handle defeat, or victory, for that matter? How will this affect their lives?
We finish our four laps and are done for the day. "Eleven minutes," I announce. Nice job.
My friend catches her breath as we walk away from the track. "Thanks for putting up with me," she gasps. "This must be boring for you."
My friend and I have run together, three or four times per week, for the better part of the time I've lived in Northern California. She has been forced to listen to my stories about the glory days, nearly a decade ago, when I was a long-distance runner. As we run, she can tell that my body hasn't forgotten how to glide smoothly and effortlessly across long distances. She knows that the three or four miles a week that we run together would have been a mere warm-up for me back then. "No," I answer. "I'm happy to run with you. Many good runners have done the same for me."
"Why don't you run more?" she presses. You can run more after almost a decade of being away from racing than I'll ever be able to run.
"I know what will happen," I assert. "The adrenalin will start flowing, my distances will increase, my times will drop, and the next thing you know, I'll want to start competing. I'm not sure if I want to go there again."
"Surely, there's a middle ground." Although true, it doesn't always work that way. If I'd been introduced to sports like the children in the soccer field, I muse, perhaps I'd be mellower. I could conceivably find a way to work hard, have fun, stay injury-free, and become only a little competitive.
Just then I hear one of the soccer dads yell, "Come on. Run harder. Don't be a wimp. They're beating you."
"Oh well," I muttered, "I guess it really is an imperfect world. Who's to say what is right and what is wrong?"
Turning to look at the children's reaction, my friend observes, "Some of them seem to be running harder. They have smiles on their faces. Others are moping along. That's sad."
A soccer mom calls out, "Do your best, kids. Have fun."
"There you have it," I laughed, "the ying and the yang."
My friend quips incisively, "You've certainly gone California!"