Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Metaphorical Weekend

It may be true that people end up choosing hobbies that match their personal sense of the metaphorical. Or maybe we have evolved with brains that are wired to make connections and create metaphors out of whatever we find ourselves doing. In this case, I am not sure which is the cart and which is the horse. But I do know that last weekend I spent both mornings doing things I love. And while doing these things I love, several obvious connections to my life became clear to me.

I spent a few hours Saturday morning preparing our garden. It is still just a little too early to plant much of anything, but before the planting comes the cleanup after a long, snowy winter. We have a tiny patch of grass in front of our house and in the middle of the patch of grass is a roughly-8-foot diameter circle of dirt. Last year three transplanted chrysanthemums were given the run of the place and they went crazy.

Erica and I, as well as many of the passersby who comment on our garden, were impressed by just how prolific these plants were by the end of October. Yet, in spite of their size and overwhelming “florality,” we had independently decided those plants needed to come out this year. So I got the shovel and performed a brutal full-root removal of the three. Once they were gone, the raggedy nature of our little dirt circle became fully clear. The grass was growing over the logs I had used as a border and, in some places, the logs themselves had decomposed and crumbled to dirt as I tried to reposition them.

Without the mum corpses to distract, the patch of ground looked like an unintentional dead spot instead of a garden. I raked out all of the dead leaves, sticks, log bits, and root clumps and put them in a yard waste bag. I took out whatever was left of the border logs and put them in the yard waste bags, too. Yet still the round patch of dirt just looked, well…dirty.

So I went to the backyard storage bin and got out the shovel. I returned with purpose to that dirty circle and planted the tip of the spade right at the border and stepped down on the back edge, pushing the blade all the way in. I then lifted the shovel out, tilted the dirt into the circle, and moved over one shovel-width. In this manner I made my way around the entire patch, creating a neater circle, defining the edge between garden and not-garden much more clearly.

Something about both the violence of the action and the sharpness of the boundary made me feel great.

The following morning I was in Central Park at 7:00. The huge full moon was just going down and bright Vernal Equinox sun was just coming up. There were 10,000 other runners and we were making our way into the starting corrals for the New York City Half Marathon. It was 37 degrees and sparkling clear.

I had been training only moderately hard due to the heavy snows this winter and my very busy January and February. I had no doubts about my ability to finish the race, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to average less than nine minutes per mile, which was what I wanted to do. The key for me when running a race is to start out slowly. There are often so many people and such a flood of adrenaline that I allow myself to get swept away and I start out far too fast. In New York on Sunday I made myself do the first two miles at a ten-minutes-per-mile pace.

After Mile 2, I did the head-to-toe body check and found that I felt good. My legs were strong, my heart was still beating slowly, my lungs felt fresh, and my brain was in a good place. So I clicked up the pace just one notch and decided to check in again after Mile 5. At the Mile 5 timing clock I saw that I had run Miles 3, 4, and 5 in about 8 minutes and 40 seconds each. And still I felt great. I knew I had three more miles to go in Central Park and then the course would take me down Seventh Avenue to Times Square, over to the Westside Highway, and then down along the Hudson to the finish line near Chambers Street.

When I exited Central Park onto Seventh Avenue a smile spread across my face from ear to ear. It was almost 9 o’clock in the morning and the sun was up high enough to have warmed the air a little. The road was closed to traffic, but the sidewalks were open to spectators and there were thousands of people waving and cheering. Times Square was visible a mile down the road and something about the whole set-up made me giddy. In that moment I felt happier than I have in a long, long time. I felt strong and free and exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted and needed to be doing.

I decided to just forget about the clock and run the last four miles as fast as my body would take me. The course took me west on 42nd Street downhill to the Hudson River, where we turned south on the Westside Highway. The good feeling continued so I kept pushing and before I knew it I was at the finish down by Battery Park in a final pace of 8:13 per mile. The final two miles were both well under eight minutes.

By starting slow and paying attention to how I felt, I had a great race.

I may have gravitated to gardening and running because they present obvious ways for me to think about my life. Or maybe, simply by being human, I use mental free time to find connections between whatever I happen to be doing and my life. Either way, last weekend was literally and metaphorically great.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Random Happy Memory

Memory is a notorious liar. I cannot vouch for the factual accuracy of what you are about to read. But I can assure you that it is 100% true, emotionally.

During college my friend Adam used to a have a big party at his house in North Jersey every summer. These parties were always a lot of fun and our group of friends would come from wherever we were spending our summers to be there for the blowout. It was a given that none of us would drive home after the party. We would crash where we fell and get up and have a big ole breakfast in the morning before spiraling away again back to summer jobs and internships.

The party Adam hosted in Ledgewood the summer of 1986 was different. Actually, the party itself was no different from the other years’ parties. It was what we did the day after the party that made it different and makes me remember it fondly even 25 years later.

There were four or five of us still at Adam’s at noon and we were having such a good time with each other we were reluctant to get into our cars and go our separate ways. Someone said, “Let’s go see the Mets,” and that was all it took. We piled into one car and got on I-80 heading east.

As we neared Shea we heard on the radio that the game was sold out—it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and Dwight Gooden was starting for the Mets. The game was NBC’s Game of the Week and had a national tv audience. Gooden was 21 years old and already had 50 major league wins. He was an amazing athlete in his prime and everyone wanted to see him. Instead of turning around we kept on, thinking maybe we could get tickets from a scalper.

It became clear at the stadium that this scalper plan was not going to happen. The tickets were way out of our price range. So we tried one last strategy. We approached a stadium employee near the elevators that led to the executive offices at Shea. We asked him to call upstairs to our friend Dave’s dad, Mr. O’Shaughnessy. It took one phone call and five minutes and Mr. O’Shaughnessy came out of the elevator with tickets in his hand.

We were ecstatic. Biggest game of the year so far and we were going to see it! We asked an usher where to go to get to our seats and to our utter amazement and delight he took us to a section immediately behind homeplate at field level. These were the best seats in the house. From where we sat we could look into Dwight Gooden’s eyes as he stared in for the signal from catcher Gary Carter. I can’t remember who won that game against the Reds. But I do remember it was a sunny summer day and there was not one thing wrong with the world for several hours.

I don’t know which of us had the idea to go to the Mets’ game instead of heading home, but I do know that Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s generosity is why I still remember that day 25 years ago. He didn’t have to do what he did for us that day. It would have been easy to pretend he wasn’t in or to tell us there were no tickets, even for him. But he didn’t. He probably does not remember that day, which is fine. There is no real reason for it to stand out. But it gave me enormous pleasure when it happened. And it continues to make me smile each time I have thought about it in the 25 years since.

Thanks, Mr. O’Shaughnessy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So...What Do You Want To Talk About?

My wife and a couple of her professor-friends wanted to know if they are socially awkward. I started to respond in generalities, discussing the great number of academics I have met the past 15 years. This, they interrupted, was not what they were asking. They wanted to know if THEY themselves are socially awkward. I gave them the best answer I could, considering that I truly enjoy their company. But I then retreated back to the safety of generalities.

During the course of the conversation I said that one of the things I have noticed about many social scientists is their inability to talk about much other than their own field. My wife and her friends agreed this is true, but they did not see it as a problem, since their own field is objectively the most interesting possible topic anyone could raise. They were mostly serious.

This led me to formulate a theory on the fly, but here it is five days later and it still seems true to me. My theory is this: People who choose academia as a career and end up in research positions get to that point because they LOVE thinking about certain topics. Their job is to ponder the things they like to think about anyway.
Most other people end up in jobs for other reasons.

I am a teacher. I didn’t end up in teaching because I love to think about and talk about teaching. I ended up in teaching because I love to teach. The thinking and talking about teaching only happen when I am with other teachers—and even then the topic gets pretty boring pretty fast.

Most people have jobs so that they can get a paycheck and live a life away from work. If they are lucky, they enjoy what they do for their paychecks. But the real enjoyment of life for most people comes away from work.

Academics are different from most people. They get enjoyment outside of work by thinking and talking about the things they think and talk about AT work. And they don’t always understand that other people might not share their fascination with whatever their chosen field is. The most socially adept academics do one of two things: they realize they need to broaden the list of topics they are willing to discuss, or they find a way to make their own field sound truly interesting to non-academics.

So, I am curious. Is my theory true?
Take a minute and respond to this post by answering a couple of questions in the comment box below.

1) What is your job?
2) Are most (>75%) of your friends employed in your field?
3) Are most of your out-of-work conversations about your job?
4) Do you LOVE your work?
5) Is work mostly something you do because you need money?