Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lessons From the Back of the Pack

It's funny the things that stick with us.

To think of all the bits of advice and insight that pass through us, who's to say why some stay with us and some don't.

I had this soccer coach when I was younger. He was an interesting man to say the least, and to this day one that I'm not sure I'll ever completely understand. He was a walking conundrum. A man just as likely to inspire you as he was to thoroughly offend you. A complete social idiot, who somehow knew more than most about what made the people around him tick. A man who's unquestionable success was only ever one sentence away from becoming a failure.

A man who had a great influence on who I am today, providing as many lessons on what not to do, as what to do.

But it was in those autumn days when I served as his unofficial Assistant Coach that he taught me the most. And one afternoon in particular that brings me to the point of this blog.

It was at the end of a long day at practice, very early in the season. He turned to me, in one of his rare introspective moments. One of those odd occasions where I wasn't merely "the guy who set up the cones", where I wasn't simply the means to his end, but rather as the kid who one day might grow up to take care of others.

"You wanna know how to find the leader?"

He stood there for a second, as his team's thundering feet returned from the latest round of sprints he had just sent them on. It was a custom at the end of practice for the team to line up on the midfield line, then on his whistle, they would sprint down and behind the back of the goal, then return to the midfield line. He would give them a time that each of them had to be back by. He's start with time like "26" seconds, then slowly drop the time as he went. If someone came in after 26 seconds, the whole team would have to repeat that sprint, before moving down to the final time.

"Okay! This one has to be under 23!"

He blew his whistle, and they sprinted away leaving us alone once again.

"You do these sprints with them. Wait until they are gassed, then ask them to do one more. Only this time, ask them to do it in a time just fast enough that they think you are crazy for asking."

The kids return again, hands on their heads, gasping for air. A few seconds go by, as the sound of burning lungs sets the mood.

"Okay! Last one. Everyone has to finish under 19"

An audible groan of incredulity emanates through out the group. Their faces drop in a wash of surprise and outrage. A few choice words are muttered under a few breaths as they place their toes back on the line.

He blows the whistle again.

"Then you watch."

We stand there watching the collection of young men flying towards the goal.

"Your leader's not the guys up front."

I look out at the three boys in the lead, separated from the pack by several yards. The faces of the boys that top the list of goals scored, who's name appear at the beginning of every starting line-up.

"It's not the slow kid who's busting his ass from the back, pushing his way to the middle."

I note the chubby Senior, usually one of the last to finish, who is uncharacteristically running amidst the majority of the team.

"It's the kid in the back who should be winning. The kid who can run much faster than he is. The kid who slows down to run along side the slowest guy, trying to push him to run a little faster to make the time."

And there he was. The kid who barely looked out of breath finishing right along side the boy who looked close to passing out.

"Just made it!"

The team lets out a loud sigh of relief.

And I don't exactly know why, but I find myself thinking of this often. This idea of leadership, and what it looks like, compared to what it is.

And I think about this, wondering on any given day, which of these boys I am. The ones out in front trying to lead by example. The boy desperately trying to make up ground, pushing himself beyond his capabilities. Or the guy in the back, side by side with the ones who need the most help.

But, I think the old, jackass was right. Cause if I had to choose which I'd like to be, it would the guy in the back.

Cause the older I get, the more I find this principal to be true, that the only way to help someone is to meet them where they are. That as much as you would like them to rise to your level, to your standards, or expectations, it doesn't work that way. That a true leader doesn't call down to you from the top of the hole to get you out, but jumps down into it with you.

And I sit here writing this, looking back the week that was, for all it's craziness and chaos. I can't help but laugh a bit, thinking of my crazy coach, and encouraged that for this moment in time, there seem to be a lot of holes worth jumping into.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Man in the Red Bathing Suit Part Two (Two Year Anniversary)

It felt strange to recognize him.

This twinge of guilt flashed when I saw him, though I couldn't tell in that instance why. I guess looking back on it, it was due in part that this man was, and is still, a stranger to me. Or maybe its because it just felt wrong to recognize someone purely from their most glaring physical attribute, or in this case, their handicap.

But there he was.

This man that I had written about two years ago in one of my first blog entries on this site.

The man in the red bathing suit.

You see, every May for the last thirty some years the High School where I work hosts a Special Olympic Swim Meet. They invite many of the local high schools, and specialty facilities to attend and compete.

This was my third year at the event, watching from the balcony, and cheering on the many participants that took to the water. I've witnessed some truly great moments. Down to the wire finishes, proud parents snapping pictures, and countless smiles. More smiles than you could possibly count, the ones that echo off walls, filling the empty space between each of us, making it impossible to tell where your smile ends, and theirs begin.

And yet, for all the races I've seen over these three swim meets, the race that sits atop them all is the one with the man in the red bathing suit.

It was my first year at the event. The meet seemed to be drawing to a close, all of our students had finished their races, when the announcer called out the next heat. That's when I first noticed him. A tall, slender, African American man stood up, shedding the towel that had been wrapped around his waist. He walked gingerly, being led with cautious eye by a helper of some kind. His steps were uneven, as though one leg were longer than the other. His right arm, bent at the elbow, was contorted and held rigidly against his chest.

When the gun went off, he thrust himself forward in the water. His arms and legs worked in spastic fury, propelling him away from the wall. I recall the way my eyes felt deceived by the fast pace of his stroke, compared to how slowly it translated in the water, as though physics was playing some kind of cruel trick on the man.

But he kept going, kept plugging along until he just a few meters from the wall.

And then he stood up.

And your heart sank.

With just a few short feet to go, he stood up. And the longer he stood there, the more your heart broke for the man who came so close. But just as I began to wonder why he didn't just take the few steps forward to touch the wall, something strange happened.

He dove back down into the water.

And he finished the race.

It's something I'll never forget.

The way he stood there, the look in his eyes. The way he dove back into the water to swim to finish, when the easier way was just a step in front of him, an easier way that no one would have begrudged him.

And the lesson, that despite all else, when you reach the end, it matters how you finish.

But, I'm afraid, I'd be lying to you if I ended the story there. I'm afraid I'd be guilty of painting a sunny portrait, and that just doesn't feel right.

Cause, you see, I wanted to write this story last year. I wanted to write this update after last year's meet. To tell you all about the man in the red bathing suit who once again looked these long odds in the face and dove in anyway.

But I couldn't.

I couldn't bring myself to write about last year. How he climbed down the ladder, only to thrash about in a panic. I couldn't bring myself to write about how he needed to be pulled out by the helpers standing close by.

It hardly seemed like a fitting end to the story.

But as it turned out, the man who once tricked me into assuming he was finished, had yet another surprise in store for me.


For there he was this year, standing up after it appeared the final race had been completed, leaving the towel once again on the bench behind him. It seemed he was walking even slower, with a light blue floatation belt wrapped tightly around his waist. This time being helped over to the side of the pool, instead of the far end. He eased down, feet touching the bottom of the shallow end of the water.

The announcer came over the PA system, alerting the crowd that there was one last race to come, one last racer. The hushed whisper of the starter's call, allowed him to get set, and then, the horn.

And just like that, the man in the red bathing suit made his way across the shallow width of the pool, one painfully, jerky stroke after another until he reached the end.

And this seemed like a relevant topic, as I sit here trying to mark the second anniversary of this blog.

It's relevance coming to us in the form of a lesson.

That as time passes, whether over two years or two decades, you'll find yourself changed, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for better, but in the races we run, in the trials we face, the manner in which we finish them still matters.

Thank you to all who read this blog. To the runners, the non-runners, the moms, the dads. Thanks to the friends, the co-workers. To the people who I've never heard of, and to the people who've never heard of me.

And tonight especially, thanks to the man in the red bathing suit, who taught me that even though the race may change, how we run it never has to.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Statues on Broad Street

It's funny, before I sat down to write this, I hadn't realized that the topic of statues is one that I've written about frequently. I'm not entirely sure why, but it has served to be a recurring theme on this blog.

Statues, both real and imagined.

The entry I wrote last winter about the Rocky statue, a sculpture built to honor a heroic Philadelphian underdog who never existed. And the outrage I felt towards a City that turns a movie character into a tourist attraction, and turns it's back on the real underdogs who live in it.  These men, women, and way too many children who don't fight Heavyweight Champions, Russians, or Mr. T, but fight a gross and unjust poverty.

Or the entry about the statues I run by. The statues that line the route of my regular six mile loop. The statues that talk, eat, and sleep. These men and women, who sleep on steam vents, and in doorways. These real men and women, who are alive, but like statues, never seem to move.

The irony of all of this is that, despite this recurring theme of statues, I'm not exactly what you'd call an "art person".

With the exception of spelling tests, nothing has caused me to "fake it" more than discussing or viewing the many forms of art. I mean, don't get me wrong, I do have an appreciation for sculpture, paintings, etc., but it's really more of an appreciation for others appreciation.

But while I can't say I'm a huge fan of art work, I am a sucker for a good story... even if it is a story about art.

Which brings me to the statue of David.

The statue of David, I would have to imagine, would rank as one of the world's most recognizable sculptures. It's white, marble frame is known the world over for it's example of fine art and craftsmanship. It's likeness, has been shown and reproduced, so that even if you've never witnessed it first hand, you can still close your eyes and picture it.

And despite it's beauty, whether it's fact or legend... I have to say, I like the story the better.

In 1464 the City of Florence commissioned the construction of a statue of David (Yes, that David, as in the one who slayed Goliath). This statue was to go along side a series of other Biblical figures set to line the rooftops of the Florence Cathedral.

The counsel sought the advice of the legendary Donatello, as to who should be selected to carve the sculpture. As the story goes, Donatello responded instantly, stating that there was only one man for the job.

Agostino di Duccio.

That's right, not only was Michaelangelo not the first choice to begin sculpting the statue, but at the time of it's commission, he was not even born... keep reading.

Work did not exactly move quickly on David. The counsel had purchased a rather cheap block of marble from a nearby town, and had it transported to Florence. Upon it's arrival Agostino remarked that such cheap material could never produce a great sculpture. He took his time getting started, and after the death of Donatello, abruptly left the project, having only begun to craft the legs. Another artist was chosen to replace him, but no more progress was made on David.

For 25 years this block of uncarved marble lay dorment. For 25 years, it laid on it's side, exposed to the elements as it lay in wait in the open air of the Cathedral's courtyard. For 25 years it lay forgotten, with only a whisper of a name to hold it's place in this world.

And there it stayed, until a new group of counsel members became to determined to finish the work. They ordered the block of marble raised to it's feet, and sought to hire an artist who could bring it to life.

Michaelangelo was 26 when he was hired, years younger than many of the other candidates vying to earn the commission. And on the morning of September 13th, 1501, Michaelangelo began sculpting the statue of David.

And a little over two years later, it was completed.

Some two years later, this once discarded block of cheap marble became the most famous statue in the world. This forgotten block of marble, left abandoned without care became the one of the most celebrated works on earth.

And I think about this.

This weekend, for those who don't know, is Philadelphia's Broad Street Run, a ten mile race down the center of the City. It will be the fourth time I'll line up to pace a teammate of mine from Back on My Feet Philadelphia. And while I would love to tell you about the individual with whom I'll be running, respect for his wishes to remain anonymous will preclude me from doing so. But that won't stop me from telling you about what he is not, and a little about what I believe he is.

The man I'll be running with doesn't look a whole lot like David. He's not chiseled from marble. His arms and chest bear little resemblance to David's defined muscles. His legs lack the steadfast stance, that hold the Biblical hero up in the face of Goliath sized odds.

No, at first glance, the man I'll be running with looks less like David, and rather more like that weathered block of marble.

But looks can be deceiving.

Cause you see, there's one last piece to this story of the David statue. Because, as the legend goes, Michaelangelo, upon completion, was asking how he was able to create such a beautiful statue.

His answer was surprising.

When asked how he created David, he responded by saying he didn't.

He said he didn't create David from the block of marble. He simply removed the marble around the David that already existed inside of it. 

"I saw an angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free"

And I think about this.

I think about what this says about all of us.

That no matter how weathered our outsides. No matter the quality of our exterior. No matter how long we've been left to waste away.

No matter how broken, neglected, or injured our persons may be, that there is something inside of us, an angel that has never been touched by these external evils. That no matter how deeply it's been covered over, deep down, it's there. And that in each of us there exists an inherent beauty that is merely waiting to be released.

And though the man I'll line up along side on Sunday may display this weathered exterior, the truth is that maybe I do too, maybe we all do. And that maybe the true beauty of Back on My Feet is this chance we give each other to shed another layer of that exterior to get closer to that angel in each of us.

This blog is dedicated to the many Michaelangelos in my life, who never cease to see the angels in all of us.

Happy Broad Street!