Sunday, February 28, 2010

Growing Up

While Miguel and I were watching the Olympics last night, I asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I don’t know what prompted me to ask, but maybe I was curious because I am reading a book about parenting (Becoming a Jewish Parent by Daniel Gordis). Of course, for some strange reason, I picked the most inopportune moment to query him: we were watching the four-man bobsled competition, in which the US earned its first gold medal in 62 years.

“An athlete,” he answered. “Baseball or basketball.”

I couldn’t help being a parent at that moment. “Do you have a fallback position in case you get injured?”

“A doctor,” he said.

“What kind?” I asked.

“One who works with kids.”

Yes, I beamed inside. My son the doctor, crowed the Jewish parent that I am. But I was a little sad, too. I wondered if Verna would live long enough to see Miguel realize his dreams and become a professional athlete or pediatrician (or any other choices he makes). Time will tell, I know.

When Miguel was six he announced that he and his schoolmate, Oscar, wanted to room together and become janitors at the zoo when they were older.

“We’re not going to get married,” he stated firmly.

“That’s OK,” I said, trying to be the supportive parent.

Later he said he and Oscar could always adopt children. I quickly went to Verna and said, “Miguel’s gay. And a chorus from Seinfeld erupted, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

And there isn’t. But I am a product of the larger society and radical-liberal-vegetarian-commie-pinko-Jewboy that I am, I am also imprisoned within very traditional notions of how life ought to be. So while I intellectually support equal rights for everyone, on a visceral level I was disappointed that Miguel wasn’t opting for the wife, two kids, dog, and picket fence scenario that has clogged my mind for so many years.

Verna probably said something about me overreacting, which was true, but, hey, I’ve refined anxiety and neuroses to award winning dimensions. And the reality is I will love and support whatever decisions Miguel makes, whether he is gay, straight, Democrat, or…oh, never mind, or becomes a Trappist monk.

I phoned Oscar’s mom, a friend of ours, and she just laughed. She hadn’t heard about his career goals, but she found it touching that Oscar and Miguel were close enough to ponder a future together.

Miguel’s revelation yesterday got me thinking about my dreams so very long ago. The first career I envisioned for myself was as a mechanical engineer. I have absolutely no reason why I chose mechanical engineering, because as an eight or nine year-old I had nary a clue what a mechanical engineer was or did. In fact, today I still couldn’t satisfactorily explain the details of a mechanical engineer’s job description.

The first vocation I recall choosing was that of consumer advocate. I wanted to be a lawyer just like Ralph Nader, one of my earliest public heroes. I loved that he fought against corporations that betrayed the public’s trust and cared more about profits than people. I even spoke about the legal profession to a friend of my parents who was a Legal Aid attorney.

The next time I confronted grown-up career goals was in high school. We had to take one of those seemingly useless personality achievement tests that determined, based on the answers we gave, what profession best suited us. My results came back as teacher-social worker-guidance counselor.

At the time, having just turned 18, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. I was fairly smart, but lazy and had elevated procrastination to an art form of the highest capacity.

However, that prognostication was pretty close to where my heart truly lies. I taught school for 12 years, have continued to tutor for another 11, and spent a year as a funeral counselor. Now I work with elders in an independent living retirement facility.

I guess I am really impressed that Miguel knows what he wants to do. Or at least he has an idea that may change, evolve, mutate, or dissolve several times over before he reaches adulthood.

We will nurture his dreams even if I was taken aback by his declaration. Medical school is so hard and the profession so demanding, that I wonder how he will deal with the challenge. Not that I doubt Miguel’s resolve, but so far he is happiest with a baseball, basketball or football in his hands or watching any televised sporting event. I can’t yet picture him hunched in a college library study carrel, sucking down massive quantities of caffeine and pulling another all-nighter as he struggles through biochemistry.

Last night, though, I was reminded that the present often bears little relation to the future. I ran into an old friend, whose son I taught 15 years ago. The son was a spirited kid, rock solid build, who, despite being super bright, couldn’t hold his behavior or focus together in class. After running a successful landscaping operation in the Caribbean for a few years, this “kid”, now in his mid-twenties, his proud father informed me, is currently getting his master’s degree at Berkeley in project management. The student I knew so long ago probably couldn’t have spelled the words project management (OK, I am exaggerating).

So, to borrow an Olympic motif, Miguel should reach for the gold (or silver or bronze or forego medals) and settle into a career and life path that satisfies his deep desires as a human being.

Yes, I am being corny yet again. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Commercial

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Monday, February 1, 2010

The Long (and Not So Long) Run, R.I.P.

I wasn’t exactly Jekyll and Hyde as a kid, but in an area of life I didn’t really like—school—I was a classic underachiever by choice. In an area I loved, loved, loved—sports—I just wasn’t that good. I was Yin and Yang and two seemingly disparate entities all wrapped up as one.

I spent most of my school years, through early college, leafing through the Cliff Notes rather than read The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick in high school, or memorizing 75 Spanish words moments before the quiz, or taking yet another incomplete because I just didn’t do the work or study for the final. I was content to skate by on my photographic memory and general intelligence. And by the time I hit college, that wasn’t nearly good enough.

As for athletics, sure, I dominated the three neighborhood kids with whom I was closest in basketball, towering over them and swatting away their shots like a mini-Manute Bol. But put me into the larger pool of neighborhood or school kids who had some talent and I was, maybe, mediocre at best.

I was passionate about sports (and still am), but I froze up during basketball tryouts in 9th grade, struck out more often than not in Little League, and chickened out of playing soccer in high school after the coach asked me to try. He truly was desperate: the team hadn’t won a game in nearly three years.

I was also the guy who once scored so many points in a pick up game of basketball outside my cousins’ house in Massachusetts that the other team refused to play a second game. But I was also the guy who scored a total of ten points in the Jewish Community Center league in four years, and eight of those points came in one game, after which my coach blurted, “What’s gotten into you? Why can’t you play like this more often?”

My academic career was beset by intentionally missed opportunities, and my athletic endeavors were marked by, ahem, er, failure.

Until running.

I started running in 1978, several weeks after a conversation I’d had with the security guard in my college dorm. He was a retired firefighter, and he told me about a fireman with a bad back who had just won a race up the Empire State Building. I told him about a mayor in New Mexico who trained a year for a marathon.

Then I had an epiphany. I raced upstairs and told my best friend, Dan, “I am going to train for a year and run the Boston Marathon.”

He said, “So will I.”

So we wrote out pacts to each other and promised to train and run the marathon together. Dan had been a high school runner, so he could draw on his past. I was the underachiever who was usually picked near last for any organized sport. But I took to running like a junky craves his fix.

I didn’t have to be good or fast or graceful. The satisfaction and sense of accomplishment and victory came from just finishing a one, two, or ten mile run. I remember sprinting one night up the dead end street we lived on in Bloomfield, CT, and screaming the last 150 yards with blissful abandon, clearly in the throes of the fabled runner’s high. I slogged miles in the rain, or in the 95-degree heat with matching humidity. I once ran in a blizzard and someone called me crazy and I felt so proud to be doing something that few people did. And I was physically and mentally fit.

I loved running. I used to hold up my first pair of running shoes—New Balance 320s—in those first few weeks of newness and inhale their rubbery smell. Running was my friend, someone who accompanied me daily and often made me feel better. I met famous people while I ran—Frank Shorter, once, in a 10K race in Hartford, CT. I used to wave at the actors William Hurt (The Big Chill, Body Heat, Altered States, Children of a Lesser God) and Clarence Williams III (from the Mod Squad) as I passed them in New York City’s Riverside Park when I jogged during college.

More important than scrapes with fame, were the times I ran with friends and strangers. While I preferred to run alone, I’ve had running partners who have helped me as a runner and person. I learned how to stretch in college even if I ignored Marcia Markowitz’s advice then. She and I often went out for an hour or so after I picked her up at her dorm outside Barnard College. And my most recent running buddy, Kei, mother of four and ICU nurse, gave me an opportunity to talk about anything, mostly parenting and growing older. We teased and harassed each other and joked and cried together. She was a neo-natal nurse who couldn’t help but take some of her work home.

Running wasn’t always fun, but the benefits far outweighed the effort I sometimes needed to prod myself out the door. When I broke up with a girlfriend in the mid-80s and my heart was shattered, running daily in preparation for a marathon was a constant that aided my recovery. My life may have been falling apart in many ways, but running was there for me, telling me everything would be OK and I could still be a success.

If this sounds like a long-winded epitaph for my running life, it is. I found out a few weeks ago that I probably shouldn’t run again. I started having terrible back spasms in December and so I went to see a chiropractor. She took x-rays and showed me what I’d already been told by a Kaiser doctor: I had degenerative arthritis in my lower back. The chiropractor also said I had bone spurs, which she showed me, in my lower back and neck. We talked about how much pounding a body absorbs during running and the effect it has on one’s joints and muscles and tendons and ligaments.

“Will I have to quit running?” I asked her at that first meeting.

“No,” she said, “but you need to take a break.”

A few weeks later, though, her sub told me that running was bad, very bad. “I’m in a cycling club,” he said, “and half the members are former runners with bad knees.”

He said unequivocally that I should stop running so I can walk and exercise when I am 80. When my regular chiropractor returned from her brief business vacation, she didn’t dispute the other doctor’s assessment.

So I came home and told Verna, who is battling horrendous bone pain from her cancer and can barely move from the couch, and all she said was, “Consider yourself lucky. I’ve had to give up everything.” She said it without any rancor or ill will, just a nod toward the reality of her situation.

I drove to work and was struck by my utter stupidity. How could’ve I had said that to her? I called her up, for what was a quick conversation since we live so close to work.

“That was insensitive of me, venting about my running while you can’t even workout.”

“Yes, it was,” she said.

So I retreated back into myself and felt sad and wistful as I recalled so many wonderful memories of running and sweating and pushing my body beyond any limits I’d thought possible. I have completed four marathons, pushed my son in a baby jogger for nearly six years—rain or shine, jogged in Italy, Israel, England, Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, and bleak Caliente, CA, a steamy backwater with two restaurants, a bookstore, a few motels, and a gaping sense that the town’s glory days died decades ago. I ran the day after the 1989 earthquake in the Bay area left Golden Gate Park littered with huge strips of Eucalyptus tree bark as an eerie calm hung over everything.

And now, for the good of my body, I probably have to say goodbye to a friend who helped me become a better person, someone who became an achiever and finished college and grad school.

Yes, I can still cycle and workout, but I will miss running, for helping me to believe in myself and returning that faith unconditionally.