The Ladder to Infinity
The Ladder to Infinity
1996 Olympic 1500
Make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.
‘Into The Wild’ by Jack Krakauer
(Foon Fu Photography)
The rain is pouring down, and I have one mile left. My friend is on the bike next to me, shouting words of encouragement and kicking up the puddles in his tracks. I am lifting my knees up, and my arms are chugging. It’s just a training run, and it’s just the summer. But right now, anything is possible.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I am going to run.”
“Yeah, but like, aside from that?”
“I don’t know. Read.”
It seems as if most adults lack any form of awareness that professional running is a viable option for athletes. Normally I will hear a follow up along the lines of, ‘Like, Olympics and stuff?’ In which turn, I affirm yes and add a subtle ‘hopefully.’ Returning home and being back in my natural habitat took a couple weeks of adjustment. At first, I was saddened by the disappearance of my childhood friends who have all moved into the city to tackle the world on a new level called, “real life.” Meanwhile, I am back having Mom make home cooked meals and enjoying the luxury of a fully stocked pantry. This is far from a permanent settlement, but I am currently in an awkward phase of limbo, and so this is a comforting place to be. Sometime soon I will move back into [most likely] the city when my self-proclaimed summer vacation is over.
When my season came to an abrupt end this past spring, I felt more relieved than I was upset. For months things hadn’t been going my way, and I was frustrated with my body. Mentally, I was burnt out. All fun had been zapped from the game, and I was at peace with having to take some time off to regroup. Upon finishing, I knew I had to get away. I weighed my options between traveling around Asia, or getting in my car and seeing the country and visiting friends. Financially, the latter won out, and I spent the next two weeks and 7.000 miles on the road, seeing incredible things, making memories, and most importantly, having time away from the sport. I ended up taking three much needed weeks off from running, to allow my body and mind to fully heal.
I have just begun my fourth week of training, and to say that I am being conservative would be an understatement. I get a phone call from Gags just about every other day checking in on me, and his only concern ever is if I am feeling healthy. As a close friend of mine always preaches, ‘the goal of an athlete should only ever be to be, stay or get healthy.” I started by running 20 minutes a day, and over 3 weeks later I am up to 35 minutes a day. My new stretching and strengthening routine (http://www.whartonhealth.com/flexibility-strength-dvd) has become a daily ritual. Each day is surrounded with infinite time to do everything I need to do to be successful, as I cautiously build my mileage back to normal levels. Luckily my mother works at a bookstore and can fulfill my voracious reading habits, because recovery has been key for me this summer and there’s a lot of sitting around.
My gleeful return to New York has reminded me of the importance in balancing sport and life. It’s been a relief to set myself in place with friends and family who share no concern for running. I have high school friends still making fun of my shorts and who are confused about why I shave my legs. And that’s nice to hear, because it puts things into perspective, which is essential when I am watching European escapades from afar. Now that I am back training in some capacity and seeing the recent success of US distance running, it has been a source of inspiration, and I am hungry again.
But motivation has come from other directions as well. Last week a few friends and I met up for a short jaunt around the local state park. I don’t know why I had never explored this place further when I was younger, but it is filled with trails. One of my buddies brought his little brother who was going to tag along. We got talking about his training, and what his plans were for the summer. The more and more we talked, or rather, that I asked, I realized—this kid has no clue what he’s doing. I asked him what he wanted to accomplish this fall, and what some of his long-term goals were. He was light on his feet, and a fluent stride. I thought surely he’d tell me about his plans for states, or to qualify for nationals. But he was just out running and trying to keep up with his big brother, having some fun and trying to get faster. And that’s exactly what I was doing out there. So as the summer miles pile up, I’m reminded to allow my mind to wander and dream, because right now, anything is possible.
My father always tells me to pick up my head when I walk. I guess I have developed a bad habit of having my eyes stuck to the ground. Every morning when I drag my corpse to school, I rely on the cracks in the sidewalk rather than the houses I pass to guide my commute. I am not sad. I just can’t find a spark ignite my days. I guess that’s called boredom.
I know it’s supposed to be against the nature of a teenager to feel this way, but I sort of enjoy school, or at least don’t mind it. It gives me something to do. And at this point, any direction at all is comforting. If I was not held accountable to raise my hand and announce ‘here’ each morning in homeroom, I don’t know why I should wake up. I am sure someone would eventually drag me out of bed. I have friends, but more out of convenience than any legitimate connection that I feel we share. People have a tendency to look down on those without friends. So I have some that I just don’t really like. My experience has been atypical. No parties. No extracurricular activities. I’ll probably regret it when I flip through my yearbook in twenty years and can’t find any memories. But I am in the background, quietly observing as the masses participate in their ecosystem. I am careful not to disturb them.
I hate the summer. At no other point do I become more cognizant of my lack of priorities. When the sun raises enough into the sky to peer through my window shades, I roll over. My day is empty. It is only the first week of June, and I am bored of being bored. I wander through the halls of the house aimlessly. I test one couch after another. I am the mouse spinning on a wheel, trying to make progress but lacking the option. With any purpose lacking, my body is becoming restless. 20 pushups here. 20 pushups over there. I need a goal. I am lying on the floor with my body angled towards the TV, but the screen is black. My stomach is growling. It’s 2pm and breakfast has avoided me. I don’t care enough to do anything about it. I hear the front door open and car keys jingle against the change in the same crowded pocket. My dad.
-Your report card came in the mail. Want me to open it or should you?
-Do you want to at least see how you did?
-I know how I did. You’re welcome.
Perhaps this is where all of my problems stem from. My blessing is my curse, and the absence of any motivation its side effect. I watch my father’s eyes as he opens the envelope. He doesn’t even flinch anymore. It escapes all forms of logic to him. He has never seen me open a book, or do much of anything besides slouch in my chair because my spine is too lazy to hold me up. I don’t think I am any sort of savant, or genius. I haven’t discovered anything remarkable in biochemistry, or written any groundbreaking papers, but I can ace most high school tests. There is a secret to it. It’s really simple, but most students don’t care enough to put it into practice. All you have to do is pay attention during class. And if you can regurgitate that in the form of multiple choice, and simple sentences, you’ll amaze a teacher without ever crafting a single original idea. I have nothing else to do, so I listen.
-What are you doing?
-What do you mean? I’m sitting here.
-Do you have anything coming up?
-I have school, in September.
-And there is nothing from now until then?
I was thrown off by this inquiry. You’re my father; you know that I live this slothful existence. When you walk in from work each day, I am always here, doing this. At what point in your parenting strategy were you going to recognize this as a problem and try and fix it? I guess now, about sixteen years too late.
-Pack a bag. We are leaving in the morning.
-You and I—We are leaving.
-You can’t do that to mom.
-Very funny. We are going camping, just us. I know you don’t see it very often, but there is a world that exists outside the bounds of these walls. There are mountains, fields, fresh air and a sky that you’ve probably never seen.
-Nope. No discussion. 8am.
Sixteen is a weird time for a father and son. When I was younger, he was my hero—the strongest man in the world. But in your early teen years you begin to grow apart, and it becomes pretty noticeable that all attempts to reconnect on any level has become a forced interaction. The last year or so, my stance has started to change a bit. I know he is amazing, but in a much different way than my superman. And he is still forcing our relationship at unheralded levels.
I probably should have set an alarm. But that would have meant that I would have gone to bed absent of all hope. A part of me thought I’d wake up at noon and realize it was all a dream. That, and I am not entirely sure I remember how to use my alarm. My door busted open at 7:30 and the switch was flipped on. The light blasted through the bulb and pierced through my once closed eyelids. Before I was responsive enough to resist I found myself in the car and we were driving into the mountains. The car ride was mostly awkward. I sat looking out the window, contemplating how I found myself in this position of being punished for literally doing nothing. If it weren’t for the low volume of the radio providing some background noise, we would have had to confront the silence. Instead, I was able to hide with my face pressed against the glass admiring the scenery. After only a couple of hours cruising at the speed limit, mountains surrounded us. I reluctantly grabbed my bag from the car and followed behind.
-Pick your head up when you walk! And could you please help me set up camp?’
-Yea sure, just tell me what I have to do.
-Grab the tent from the trunk, open the instructions and piece it all together. It may take fifteen minutes or so. I am going to gather some firewood.
-Why didn’t you just bring some?
-Because this is part of camping. We could have slept in our house tonight as well, in a very comfortable bed as always, but we are choosing to sleep in a tent.
-Correction: You are choosing.
That ended that conversation. He walked away shaking his head, and headed a bit into the woods to gather some sticks. I meanwhile was faced with the much more complex task of assembly. The pictures were large and well diagramed. Despite my lack of experience, my fully functioning brain was capable of completing the job, and much to my father’s pride. As he was setting up logs in a crosshatched pattern, I found myself slowly accepting this unfamiliar setting. I tried to resist, but I felt oddly satisfied by setting up the tent properly and that kind of twisted my mood around a bit. Maybe my father was onto something.
Before long, we were starving. The comfort of having a fully stocked pantry just a few paces away is a modern day luxury. I have never even seen my mom put food in it, but it seems that no matter how much I take out, there is always more going in. We got the fire going with the matches we brought, and by we, I mean my dad. I found some long thin sticks, and washed them off in the lake. We pierced the hot dogs with the twigs and held them over the fire. I have never made dinner before, outside of throwing a pre-packaged meal in the microwave, but with the beans heating up as well, I am willing to call this my first.
-What’s your favorite food?
-I don’t know.
-Think about it. ‘I don’t know’ isn’t an acceptable answer. If you could eat one final meal, what would it be?
-I don’t know. At Joey’s bar mitzvah they had this lobster macaroni and cheese that was really good.
-Have you had it since? That was like five years ago.
We were talking. My dad works a lot, like most dads. He is a writer. Not a journalist or anything like that, but an author. He doesn’t work from home because he claims he can’t work with so many distractions. Most of what I know about his career I have heard from eavesdropping on conversations with my mother. I only went to his office once when I was younger, and it’s hardly big enough to fit a desk into it. He has a small bathroom attached to it, and the room is wholly undecorated minus one painting and a bookshelf. That same painting is in his bedroom, and a slightly different version in the basement. There is a window that takes up almost an entire wall, and the view is impressive. It stands overlooking the river, with the skyline in plain view. I don’t see how that’s not a distraction.
There wasn’t a soul in sight. Leaving for the hike, I was a bit worried about our things just being left behind. As if we would come back to find Goldilocks spread across the sleeping bags inside our tent. The trail was fairly thin and winding. At a couple points we were even descending, a discouraging point for progress. Hiking seems like it wouldn’t be that hard. It is just walking, but by the top I could feel the pulse in my forearms pounding. The peak was rocky, and the view actually gave some perspective as to how far from civilization we were. It was just he and I out there. Alone, together. We took a break at the top to appreciate the work we had done, but turned around soon after as the sun was beginning to set.
-Let’s make s’mores.
-Did you just suggest we do something?
-Yeah, I like candy sandwiches.
-Grab the ingredients out of my bag and the sticks, as well.
We sat beside the fire on a makeshift bench from a fallen tree. The sun had gone down and the stars were out. Thousands more than I had ever seen. We were sitting next to each other, starring into the fire as we spoke. No eye contact was made, all attention focused on keeping the marshmallows evenly roasted. It was comfortable.
-Can I ask you something?
-Have you thought about college?
-Yeah, of course.
-That’s good to hear. But have you really thought about it? Where do you want to go? What type of school you want to be at or what part of the country? Do you want a big party school, do you even do that? Is there a certain major that you’ll want?
-I guess I haven’t thought of it THAT much.
-What do you want to be? Not that you need to know yet, but have you bounced some ideas around in your head? You’re such a smart kid, too brilliant for your own good most days. I just want you to find something that’ll excite you.
-I don’t have to know yet, do I? Can’t I just go somewhere and then figure it out?
-Yeah, you can. A lot of people do that, bu—
-DAD! Can we change the subject?
-Yeah, sure. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was your age. I was more interested in chasing girls and getting away from my parents.
-Well when did you figure it out?
-Not until after I graduated. I took a year to travel around a bit, and sort of discover some things. Did I ever tell you about that trip?
-This is the first time I’ve ever heard you mention it.
-Seriously? Man, what a great year that was. I graduated in 1983. My parents threw me this big party in the backyard to celebrate. Your grandfather knew how to put on quite the BBQ. Everyone came around, and there were so many gifts, mostly cash. Everyone kept asking, ‘What are you going to do next year?’ and ‘What job have you got lined up?’ I got sort of tired out by it. I went to college to be an engineer, but I left with a degree in English. A liberal arts degree doesn’t exactly point you in a specific direction when you finally get kicked out of the dorms. So halfway through the party, I give up and decide I am going to stop trying to appease all of my father’s friends with a bunch of lies. I start telling people I am taking a year off to travel and write.
-Where’d you go? Who all went?
-The next day, I take all the money that I got as gifts and I headed down to the used car dealership and bought myself my first car, a 1974 station wagon. It was the ugliest brick red you’ve ever seen with all the paint beginning to chip off. My parents gave me an ultimatum and told me to get a job and get out of their house, or I would have to start paying rent. So I got in the car with my lifetimes savings in a duffel bag in the passenger seat and I just drove.
-What?!? Really? That’s so cool. What a rebel move. So where did you go?
-I went everywhere. I went up and down both coasts, stopping and staying with friends and working odd jobs for a week or two here and there. I’d pick people up and drop them off. When there was nowhere to sleep, I pulled over on the side of the highway and slept. I had no plans, no directions, and no set day to return back to a normal life.
-What did people say?
-They thought it was cool. I’d meet people and tell them I was a writer.
-What did you write while you were on the road?
-What do you mean nothing?
-Well that’s a lie, I wrote one poem and a couple letters home. Aside from that, I didn’t write a damn thing. But people were intrigued. I told them I was researching.
-Yeah, I needed material. My life up to that point had been predictable and easy. I had nothing to write about it. So I met people, and learned from them. I heard their stories, and in turn developed my own. Every page a writer writes is a reflection of his own life. It may not be autobiographical, but the inspiration comes from somewhere, if not your own imagination. Then you develop it into something bigger.
-It’s like that game we would play when I was younger. Sitting outside the coffee shop and making up stories when people walk by. By the time they had walked the block, we had an entire life for them.
This conversation was not what I expected. I prepared for a lecture. I had never seen my dad this way. It is easy to forget that your parents are people. Similar to the realization that teachers don’t live at school and have families and lives beyond giving out homework. It seems that before I came along, my parents did things.
-What did mom study in college?
-Art. She got me into it.
-You know that painting we have in our house? The blurry colorful one. What is that?
-That is a painting of the houses of parliament. It’s done by this guy, Claude Monet. It is by far my favorite painting.
-Why do you like it so much?
-It’s not just one painting. It is a series. For years, Monet would go and visit London. Every time he went he would stay in the same room, overlooking the Thames River with a gorgeous view of the British Parliament. He painted it over and over again. Looking out the same window, but in so many different ways.
-It seems a bit repetitive. Why wouldn’t he go somewhere else to paint something new?
-I don’t know. But I like it. I see it as a metaphor. You can look out the same window and see the world in so many different ways. It all depends on the perspective that you want to take. Do you like art?
-…I don’t really get it.
-What is there to get?
-What makes something beautiful? I don’t really see the point.
-Art doesn’t have to be something beautiful. It just has to make you feel something you didn’t feel previously. You know, writing is considered an art. I bet you’ve never really considered me an artist. Have you ever even read anything I have written?
-Nothing more than a birthday card.
-Really? I can’t believe that.
-I don’t see the appeal. No offense. Why do you like writing so much?
-What do I like about writing? What a loaded question. How about the fact that I will hopefully have enough money to pay for your college tuition? That’s pretty good. But there is one thing that I think makes writing so special. When you create something, any form of art, it is the preservation of an idea that you created in your mind. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time here. And for most of our sad lives we are ignorant and exploring the world around us. It isn’t until the much later years that we begin to grasp the world by which we are surrounded. We spend decades building relationships, reading books, watching the sun rise, and making sense of it all. It’s all these experiences that allow us to learn. And everyday we discover more, until the final day of our existence, when our brain is as crammed with as much information as it ever will be. And then we pass. And with us goes our ideas. Unless of course you wrote some of them down along the way.
-And that’s what you’re doing.
-Exactly. I write with the hope that someone reads something I said, and it has an impact on them to look out the window and see a whole new perspective of colors. My wish is that there is some possibility that an individual stumbles upon something that I said, and won’t have to wait as long as I did to reach the same conclusion it took me twice the time to grasp. My words gave them a shortcut. And when generations pass their concepts forward, we will continue to advance and maybe I will be a partially responsible for that. My writing is my contribution.
As my father glared into the dying flame, reciting those words to me I could feel a chill run down my spine. We sat there for a few minutes silently. I never responded, but instead sat there in quiet awe shaking my head in a affirming acknowledgment of his passion. He eventually stood up, and patted my shoulder as he walked by as to suggest we climb into our sleeping bags for the night. The next morning, we woke up with the sun sneaking through the crevices of the tent’s roof. We ate a small breakfast of mostly fruit, and packed up the car. We played the music a bit louder as we drove back south, and this time we sang even louder. It was a short trip, hardly 24 hours, but it was long overdue. I fell asleep in the car, with my head pressed up against the window. Only the familiar bump entering our driveway woke me up. Before my dad could walk to the trunk to grab his bags, I stopped him. We did something we don’t normally do and he held me in his arms for a brief moment. I whispered a hushed ‘thank you’ into his chest, just loud enough that he’d strain to hear it. I took my backpack from the rear, and ran up to my room. I threw my things on the ground, and pulled the chair out from beneath my desk. I took a seat, opened up my laptop and took a deep breath before my fingers tapped the keyboard:
“My father always tells me to pick my head up when I walk…”