June 3rd, 2013

Not long ago (in fact, within the hour) I received an invitation to a teaching seminar. I won’t be teaching anything, not in the traditional way, for at least a year, but the invitation is there along with the workshops my department recommends and mandates I attend.

My department.

I belong to it. I am part of it. After two years floundering in a sea of purposelessness, I somehow found my way into a thing that wanted to keep me. I’ve spent less than a day with these people, in these buildings, and yet already the possessive pronoun emerges.

I continue to struggle with the notion that I am shortly going to be walking past young people who respect me for my status and take for granted that I did something Important to earn it. I imagine myself standing in front of a lecture hall with an uncomfortable tie and chuckle at the thought of “if you could only see me as I was on June 3rd, 2013, wearing yesterday’s dirty white t-shirt, hair sticking out like one electrocuted, drinking ice cold coffee and hitting send on an email to my adviser admitting that I had no concept of what being a graduate student was really going to look like.”

The truth is that even from the dark and drafty confines of my parents’ basement I have found ways to inspire people younger and older through my words and my voice and my explanations. It confounds me that that’s possible, but they have assured me of it, and the best I can do is stumble forward in the hopes that I keep doing that, and learn how to do it more frequently and efficiently. Perhaps that’s what feels so good about the path I’m on: not that I’ve found a place that makes me feel important, but that I’ve been given an opportunity through that place to make a lot of other people feel important; not that I get to learn, but that I get to play a part in the learning of others.

I sometimes get sheepish when I explain to people that I’m going to be studying video games. I don’t know why that is. In my gut I hate the sheepishness but it remains nonetheless. I’m not apologetic, per se, but at the same time I feel like I’m expected to be. Yet video games are a synthesis of play and narrative, and it’s hard to say which is more ancient in the history of humanity. It seems that we have forever been telling stories and using play to help us do so. It’s in our blood. Something has driven us, as a culture, to this new way of doing something very old. The chance to pursue answers to that question — why games? — thrills me.

Sometime this week I will be registering for my first barrage of graduate level coursework. It sounds like I’ll be undertaking an independent study as well…hitting the ground running, as it were. And then next week, I will do as I do every summer: watch E3 with bated breath. Except this time my anticipation will not simply be that of one who plays games, but of one whose life is to be irrevocably tied to them, for better or worse.

Here’s hoping for the best.

Eyes Wide Open

I’ve recently made a new friend. She’s funny, she’s clever, she’s talented, and, as of today, she’s probably the most influential person to enter my life in a very long time.

My friend is strong, not because she loves going to the gym, but because she splits wood to fuel the only heat source in an off-the-grid homestead powered by solar panels and devoid of running water. She lives with random relatives and other people in a place specifically designed to exist tomorrow regardless of whether the rest of the world suddenly vanishes. She receives random checks every so often which put Subway sandwiches in her hand and pay the meager charges the world has levied against her life.

Unless fortune finds her, my friend will continue to live this way indefinitely. She was raised in a somewhat crippling way; educated, but not formally, and kept from typical avenues of employment, she now struggles to find success in a competitive and spiteful professional world which shows little love for anyone without a resumé that sparkles. It seems in many ways she never had a chance.

And yet I, I keep getting chances. Despite the countless ways my laziness, carelessness, and selfishness have seemed destined to derail my trajectory towards anything but misery, I continue to be incredibly blessed.

I’ve been incredibly blessed all along. I’m typing this on a laptop I bought with a fraction of the thousands of dollars that were simply handed to me when I graduated high school, money I otherwise squandered on fast food and video games. Nothing remains of the second ten thousand dollars I was handed — again, for doing little more than what I was dealt — when I graduated college less than two years ago. I’ve regretted my spendthrift ways in the past, but my friend has me actually swallowing my own vomit at the thought, the agonizing thought, of what she could have done with her life had she been given a mere fraction of the opportunity I’ve had.

Humbled seems too weak a word, as I sit here typing on that expensive laptop, connected to one of two Internet connections in my house, hearing the new Satellite television system my parents are watching upstairs on a 56-inch television, lights on all over the house despite an absence of occupants in their rooms, the automatic dryer beeping to let me know that the clothes I just decided to toss in there are ready to be folded and put away, or can just be rewashed and dried for fun if I’m too lazy to deal with them now.

Mortified. There’s the word.

I don’t deserve to be happy or optimistic about my future right now. I deserve to be paying the penalties for years of squandered potential and copious prodigality. Instead I’m looking forward, past a few “hard” months of maybe having to work an easy-to-get job at some grocery store, towards a fully-funded education I barely even had to raise a finger to be offered.

I don’t want to brood. It’s not helpful to revisit the mistakes of one’s past over and over again. Regret’s natural but not productive; I can’t undo what I’ve been, what I’ve done. But looking forward, I have a chance to actually change, to truly apply myself to being something, to refusing to ride the coattails of my jackpot-winning life even if I could, perhaps especially because I could, because I’ve been given a gift so valuable I no longer feel comfortable accepting it. I’ve got to earn this. I’ve got to at least try.

Long-time readers know this isn’t the first time I’ve been struck by something and promised to reform. It’s almost a running gag — I could hashtag it and you could go back and read it as if it were just a recurring topic in the annals of the failure to try that is my life. But you know what? I don’t accept that. I won’t own it. Because after a decade of weight gain, I pushed back the needle on the scale twenty pounds. I killed the writing and reading sections of a standardized test a year and a half after leaving an academic environment. I got accepted to one of the leading schools in the nation for my field on the assumption that I can back up my words with actions.

The past couple months have seen real, tangible change in my life. I’m not going to let that die. I have a new-found reason to be a better man. If I’m to ride any wave, let it be the wave of Citius, Altius, Fortius I spoke of last summer. Because if a reality check of this sort does not galvanize me into improving, for real, well…then I’m not worth the air I breathe. Someone else out there needs it more…for those cold days and nights she has to go outside and put another log on the chopping block.

So thank you, friend, for opening up my eyes. Here’s to keeping them open.

Greatness

I watched the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games live.

Like the athletes pouring onto the massive floor which had so recently been a track and field, I felt a moment of true solidarity. I pictured families around the world, gathered like I was around a glowing screen, rejoicing in the spectacle and celebration while feeling that tinge of sadness, of loss, that couples the end of any great collaborative endeavor. Mingled with the thrill of the after-party is the realization that the end has arrived, the knowledge that, unless we fight it, the next four years will be mundane echoes of the magic that two weeks brought us, a spirit embodied by a now-extinguished flame.

Unless.

The caveat. The exception. The chance, however unlikely, that the seemingly inevitable will be conquered like so many world records, that the words scrawled across the walls of the stadium live on, that a generation has seen these Games and truly, irrevocably, been inspired.

I am not one of the youth of the world called upon by Jacques Rogge to meet in Rio four years from now. Nor, indeed, are many of the athletes who filled out the Union Jack tonight with the knowledge that this ceremony closed not only the 30th Olympiad but their athletic careers. These leave, hopefully, with the comfort that comes with knowing they have left a legacy they can be proud of. Some still feel the sting of lost gold, the longing in their feet for a podium their presence never graced, but true Olympic spirit dictates that if they gave their all, they gave enough. For a moment in time even the least of them were the greatest in the world.

A Nike campaign over the last couple weeks exhorted viewers to “find your greatness,” a fitting impetus for people like me who have spent many years neglecting that search.

No more.

I don’t know what consolation it brings to the hard-fought, still-fallen athletes of the London Games to know that even in their darkest hour they succeeded in being inspirational. But for what it’s worth, you did.

I’m in an odd transitional part of my life, huge uncertainty looming on the horizon. The Olympics have provided a sense of continuity between my past and present selves, serving not only as the one thing that was the same at home as it is here, but also as the motivating force behind the changes already being made. Eating differently. Exercising more…that is, at all. Taking responsibility where I’ve shirked it. Embracing who I am and who I want to be, and actively figuring out the steps I need to take to unify the two.

Like many of the athletes I’ve learned to admire, I have a long road to recovery ahead of me. I may not have broken my fingers, torn my Achilles, or sustained gunshots to my legs, but the debilitating force of a lifetime of unhealthy choices is no less a barrier to achieving physical regularity (nevermind prowess). Nor, indeed, does a year of slothful unproductivity lack ramifications on mind and soul.

Over the past two weeks I’ve seen longstanding records pressed, bent, and broken. I’ve seen men and women not merely make history but redefine its expectations.

I came into this year’s Olympics expecting sports. Instead, I found stories.

Stories of love.
Stories of sacrifice.
Stories of triumph.
Stories of perseverance.
Stories of heartbreak.
Stories of redemption.
Stories of hope.
Stories of greatness.

These stories have been inspiring, but they all have one thing in common: they are the stories of other people.

The games are over, and a new day dawns tomorrow.

It’s time to write my own story.
It’s time to find my greatness.

Citius, Altius, Fortius

A few weeks ago I undertook the massive endeavor of cleaning out my closet, a task somewhere around six years in the making. In one box, among the myriad nondescript birthday cards and school papers, I found a collection of newspaper clippings from 2004, several of which had pictures of a young girl, clad in sparkling red spandex, face strained in the tight and self-oblivious concentration only an Olympic athlete will ever understand completely. Her name: Carly Patterson. Not long after the photograph was taken, she was wearing a gold medal around her neck. I had a picture of that, too.

As I put the clippings aside, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of an eager adolescent me, starstruck and probably nursing a crush, carefully cutting through the special edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal to extract what I no doubt thought I would cherish forever. Two years later, the clippings had already disappeared into the dark clutches of my closet, and Carly Patterson quietly retired from gymnastics.

The summer games came back around, as they are wont to do, in 2008, and I cheered with the world for other athletes, for the fresh young faces which would grin at me from the cereal aisles of grocery stores for the next few months. I yelled at my television when Michael Phelps reached for the edge of the pool…first again, and again, and again. I fumed like a drunk fan at a Yankee/Red Sox game at every seemingly biased call against our gymnasts. I watched soccer for the first time — women’s soccer, no less — and gasped in amazement as Cristiane bicycled one of several impressive shots over dismayed Nigerian heads. And as it all wrapped up, I bought a collection of John Williams-conducted music to keep the spirit alive a little longer.

And so tonight, sitting with my family, cheering Lochte toward a new world record, praying for Orozco’s heel not to betray him, gritting my teeth as an Australian took less than fifty meters to change the course of the 400 relay, I recognized a truth about myself: I love the Olympics.

Specifically, I love the summer games. Now, figure skating still takes my breath away, but perhaps all the gloves and gear and goggles detract from what it is about the Games I love: the sheer beauty and power of the human form pushing and testing and breaking the limitations that four years’ time have dared to pretend unbreakable.

There’s something gorgeously ethereal about it all too, something that even the awful tape delays and advertising barrages and gaudy commercialism can’t strip away: a sense of unity through time and space. Despite the bruises and scars of war which have, at times, temporarily marred the Olympic Spirit, it remains at heart a proverbial armistice, a celebration not merely of national pride but of humanity, of the global community at large.

It is a reminder of a heritage going back not just the 120 years or so of the IOC but through millennia to the roots of the Western world, to people who wouldn’t have understood the word “athlete” because for them the games were simply an exercise in the skills they used annually to defend their city-states and their honor. The first Olympians were citizens first and foremost, of places like Athens and Sparta, sure, but above all they were Greeks.

Today competitors hail from roughly two-hundred different nations, diverse in many ways but one: they are human. It is the common denominator, the equalizing factor which renders the Games viable and therefore worthy of our attention. It is what takes away the sting of loss and replaces it, almost instantly, with an unexpected pride in the victor, whoever he or she is, because through our shared humanity we recognize the magnitude of the achievement and take joy in having witnessed it.

It is not running fastest, but faster.
It is not soaring highest, but higher.
It is not being strongest, but stronger.

“The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” So says the Olympic Creed: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The pundits will focus on medal counts, on favorites and underdogs, on the challenges and the heartbreaks, and let them have those things. For the rest of us, there is the indomitable spirit of participation, the inspiration of a woman being all she can, of a man leaving nothing to chance, of a team embracing, of a nation triumphing, of a world rejoicing. There is a reminder to better ourselves, to test our limits, to pursue greatness, to achieve excellence. Faster, Higher, Stronger. Citius, Altius, Fortius.