Sunday, February 1, 2009

Millennium Musings

I would like to extend a belated happy new year to all my readers. I would also like to share an article I wrote for my running club newsletter written on New Years eve, 1999.

The clock ticks methodically towards midnight on New Year's Eve. To some it is Armageddon of religious prophecy. To others, it's Silicon Valley Armageddon with Y2K bugs buzzing in civilization's ear. To me, it is just another night of lasagna and fine wine at home to usher in make-a-resolution-to-break-next-week day (or I will write the updated year on my checks day). I refused to bring in firewood from the woodpile for our fireplace. My better half said it had nothing to do with Y2K but that more drunks hit telephone poles on New Year's Eve than any other night. Well, she never had me bring in firewood on any other New Year's Eve. Still, I can't help but ponder whether my tension level should be higher than “Hey mon, don't worry…be happy.” I remember pondering about the year 2000 when I was a child, (jeez, I'll be old then), and what the world would be like. I also remember reading about Haley's comet, which would make its next pass near our planet around that time (neat, I really want to see that). I also vaguely remember being in a battle for my life at age 6. I had rheumatic heart disease twice by that time and spent most of my first grade hospitalized with a failing heart valve. My hospital stay at River Dell Hospital coincided with Dr. X, (as he was known on national news). This Doctor Death, as I called him, went around the hospital killing patients with curare. Fortunately, I missed his wrath but had the sequellae of my illness to deal with. Since I nearly died on strike two, strike three would be fatal. My parents were given instructions to have me take preventative antibiotics for the rest of my life and to not stress my heart. “His heart won't have the physical tools to handle exercise.” For a child that means no play. I penciled in a lot of Venus Paradise color by number pictures and read a lot of astronomy and geology books on a cot that was moved into the backyard on nice days.My life changed when a man who was deemed by the “wise men” of baseball to be too short, too stocky, and too slow to ever play professional baseball hit the scene. Spring training flash in the pan they said. He'll be gone before July. I remember seeing Pete Rose in the old Polo Grounds in New York City against the Mets. The game was won with a 10th inning homerun by Art Shamsky, (who?), but Pete kept his team in it with hits, runs, and plays that never end up in the box scores. In a post-game interview, he dispelled his critics by saying something to the nature of focus, a lot of practice and 110 percent effort can overcome a greater skill level. If this star baseball player could prove the experts wrong, so could I. So a journey of a thousand miles began with a single step. I first imagined I was playing baseball for Pete Rose's team by bouncing a ball off the back steps of our house. With each passing day, I threw the ball harder while running, diving and lunging for the increasingly errant bounces. Soon, the imagined game became real effort. No longer would I be denied exercise. My crazy play was exercise! I soon won my parents and doctor over to my side. This was good because I failed every team physical involving a stethoscope and needed letters from both parties to fight for my re-installment. By junior high school, I was ready to go out for a sports team. Basketball was my passion then but I chickened out with a steady barrage of too short, too thin, and too slow even though I out played some of the future team members in pickup games. I chastised myself for ignoring Pete's creed and vowed to go out for the track team (at least, nobody gets cut from that team).Our first meet ever was against local powerhouse, Bergen Catholic. Their team filled 3 school buses. They warmed up in a single file line one stride apart that was a quarter of a mile long. I was our second string miler (of 2 runners) lining up in 3 rows of BC runners. I don't know what got into me when the gun went off. I bolted for the front and “never looked back.” The first quarter was in 65 seconds, 10 seconds faster than my PR for that distance. Bets were flying on the sidelines as to how much further I'd go before I would double over in a heaving ball on the track infield. Well, it never happened. I held on to win in 5:04 by a 100-yard margin over the second finisher. We lost the meet 89-6. I went from bully fodder to celebrity but only Pete Rose and myself knew the real victory that was won that day.

It was cloudy every night of Haley's comet close pass to the earth. Still, I got up in the middle of the night to check the sky anyway. A boyhood promise had to be kept. On the last night it was to be visible with the naked eye, I woke up at 3 AM to a sky that was sparkling clear… and a blustery 8 degrees (a March 12 record). I bundled myself up and drove to Duxbury beach, a recommended viewing point. I arrived to disappointment. The only cloud patch in the whole sky was over the comet. Still I persevered. I'd stay till dawn if I had to. Then I heard a voice from the pitch-black beach. “Want to see the comet? My telescope has a special lens to see through clouds,” said some kind gentleman. I nodded and took a gaze. “It's not a great view. It kind of looks like a 30 watt light bulb in a dirty fish tank,” he joked. “It's great light to a six year old boy,” I replied to a now confused man.It was October of 1999 and I watched on TV as Pete Rose was honored for being chosen to the All Century Baseball team. The standing ovation he got outshone all of the other team members, including hometown hero Henry Aaron. I think this happened not so much for his accomplishments in his sport but to celebrate his moral victory. The man Pete bested for the hit record purposely sharpened his spikes to hurt people and was so bigoted that he should have worn a white sheet rather than a baseball cap. People have committed far worse deeds and atrocities. Putting a wager on his team to win pales in the face of murder, rape, and snuffing out the hope of our youth with drugs. Yet a man who gave gifts to groundkeepers and towel managers to show his gratitude for a kind word and a job well done is not even allowed in the parking lot of any baseball game.

Well, the first has come and gone. No bugs, no devils, no (computer) errors, and no terrorists left on base. But I knew that yesterday. Armageddon doesn't choose a nice round number. It's something we confront daily. It was there at age 6, in junior high and on that frigid dark beach. Through focus, practice, and 110 percent effort the greater skills of bad luck can be overcome making the goals we achieve so much more special. No, 2000 is just another step along that journey of a thousand miles.

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