Sunday, December 26, 2010

the way miracles work

i want to leave this Christmas season with a note that i think serves us well for times such as these. it's a story that involves 1 man, 2 countries, thousands of people, and a meaning deeply profound. it centers around the rescue of 14,000 refugees escaping the Korean War by a single American freighter during Christmas of 1950. the freighter captain, Leonard LaRue, said that the event was a turning point in his life, and led him to later join the Benedictine order and enter a monastery in Sussex County, New York. almost 50 years later, in a tale of karmic comity, a Korean diocese became instrumental in rescuing the monastery from dissolution.

i won't go into the full details of the story, since i want everyone to read the New York Times article i use (it's an old link, so in case it shuts down i pasted the full text of the article at the end of this post):
i think the story tells itself. i first learned of this story when i read the obituary for Captain LaRue (eventually Brother Marinus). i think about it sometimes during the holiday season, when i find myself in moments of reflection wondering about the significance of what i'm doing in life.

to me, this story speaks of the profound meaning that arises in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected ways from the most ordinary people caught in the most extraordinary events, and shows us how our responses manifest the epic scale of the intensely personal and connect us all to one another in ways ineffable and unknown. it points to the strange mystery that is life, and the supreme majesty that is the serenely divine. in so doing, it affirms the beatific power of good...and it reminds us that whatever we do, wherever we go, and whenever we are, we can be so too.

and i think that's something important to remember. i think that's something that helps us to go on.

we can make a difference. in ways that ripple through time and magnify across the sea of creation, until our actions become a reflection of the beauty that lies in the soul of heaven.

because that's the way miracles work.

A Tale of Salvation

By Jennifer Goldblatt
New York Times
January 11, 2004

Only three years ago St. Paul's Abbey was teetering on extinction.

The plain wooden halls of the abbey, set on 500 rolling acres in the pastoral northwest corner of Sussex County, once with the ethereal chanting of nearly 80 monks and their Benedictine rituals of prayer and work, running a high school, a summer camp and a Christmas tree farm. But over the years, as fewer men committed themselves to a cloistered religious life, it seemed as if St. Paul's Abbey might fade away.

Then, two years ago, salvation arrived from South Korea. For those who stood witness, it seemed a providential return of a humanitarian favor performed half a century earlier -- the rescue of thousands of Korean refugees by a ship captain who later became a monk.

''We believe that this is our turn to return something.'' said the Rev. Bosco Kim, one of the leaders of a South Korean abbey who are helping to rescue St. Paul's.

By various accounts, the favor being returned occurred on a freezing December night in 1950, six months into the Korean War. A supply freighter, the Meredith Victory, pulled into Hungnam, a port 135 miles north of the 38th parallel that divided North and South Korea.

Thousands of Chinese troops had poured in to aid Communist North Korea, and villagers fled through mountain roads and minefields. They flooded Hungnam's beaches and waded into the mine-infested Sea of Japan, climbing aboard any boat that seemed to be sailing away. The city was in flames, and the flurry of gunfire was so loud that it shook the deck floors of the Meredith Victory.

In what would be hailed by the Eisenhower administration as ''one of the greatest marine rescues in the history of the world,'' the freighter's captain, Leonard LaRue, vowed to take his ship in and rescue as many people as the vessel would carry.

With 300 tons of jet fuel in the ship's hold and combat raging all around, the crew of the Meredith Victory packed 14,000 Korean refugees into the ship -- lowering them into the hold on wooden pallets and packing them in shoulder to shoulder. The refugees came in bare feet, carrying as many children and as many possessions as their strength would allow, and the ship departed on Dec. 23.

''In the captain's mind it was the right thing to do,'' J. Robert Lunney, 76, staff officer of the Meredith Victory, who today is a lawyer in White Plains, N.Y., said in a telephone interview. ''It was that simple. His mind was unencumbered.''

Despite lack of food, electricity and fresh water, not a life was lost during the three-day journey to safety. By the time the ship arrived at Koje-Do, a Korean island in the Sea of Japan, on Christmas Day, five babies had been born.

After the war, the American and South Korean governments showered the crew of the Meredith Victory with honors, including the Korean Presidential Citation, the Gallant Ship Unit Citation and the Merchant Marines' highest honor, the Meritorious Service Medal.

Captain LaRue -- his lifelong faith confirmed by the rescue and an illness that followed -- entered St. Paul's Abbey to live out his days as a Benedictine monk. He took vows of celibacy, stability and obedience. He committed his days to the tradition of ''ora et labora'' -- prayer and work -- and was christened Brother Marinus.

When Captain LaRue arrived in 1954, he found a flourishing community that had been founded 30 years earlier by priests from the Ottilien Congregation based in Germany. About 60 monks presided over a small boarding school there. Lay Catholics gathered at the retreat house for weekends of study and prayer, and in summer the monks ran Camp St. Benedict on the property, drawing hundreds of boys each year. The monks were also developing a Christmas tree farm that would become one of the largest in the state.

But outside the monastery the postwar years were bringing changes: prosperity, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the peace movement. And in 1962, during Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII announced his intentions to ''open the windows'' of the church, changing how sacraments were practiced and loosening church attitudes toward other cultures.

''It became easier for people to leave religious life,'' said Paul Wilkes, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina who has written widely about Catholicism and monasticism. ''The 60's were happening, the world was coming apart at the seams and monks started to re-evaluate: is this how we want to live the rest of life?''

From 1965 to 2000 -- a time when the Catholic population in the United States swelled by 47 percent -- the community of priests and brothers in this country shrank by 33 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

St. Paul's Abbey was not spared. The camp, a costly venture, ceased operating in the late 1970's. And by 2000, only 10 monks -- three over the age of 85 -- remained; some had left for social service projects, some had chosen to marry, and others had simply decided that they could not commit to a cloistered life shaped by prayer.

For 25 years -- from 1975 to 2000 --not a single man made a permanent commitment to the brotherhood at St. Paul's.

''People moved on,'' recalled Abbot Joel Macul, 57, who came to the monastery as a student at the age of 14. Since many of those who left had held leadership positions at the abbey, ''it caused a great paralysis from which, in hindsight, we see that it was impossible to recover.''

Or so it seemed.

In October 2000 the remaining monks asked for permission from the governing Ottilien Congregation to start phasing out the community, and they started looking for new homes at other abbeys.

Three months later, Archabbot Jeremias Schroeder came from Germany to evaluate the situation. He knew that St. Paul's had become weak and was prepared to grant the monks permission to close. ''I didn't want to torture them anymore with revival attempts,'' Archabbot Schroeder said.

But when he arrived, he was taken by the bucolic setting of the abbey and its austere campus, with its simple, two-story flat-roofed buildings, a far cry from Europe's elaborate cathedrals.

''There was something charming and discreet about St. Paul's Abbey,'' the archabbot said. ''It would seem a burden to lose a place like that.''

Archabbot Schroeder did not conceive of the Korean rescue of St. Paul's as divine compensation for Brother Marinus's good deeds. He had only a vague awareness of the connection. But he had been impressed by the vitality of the ethnic Catholic communities he had seen elsewhere in America and knew that there was a vast Catholic Korean community nearby.

Catholicism had endured in South Korea since it emerged there in the 18th century, and monastic life was still prospering. Waegwan Abbey there, with a membership of 140 monks, had the manpower to share and the technical skills to help restore St. Paul's. And the monks were looking for missionary work outside Korea.

Archabbot Schroeder asked Father Kim, the administrator of Waegwan Abbey, if he would be willing to help.

On Oct. 12, 2001, Father Kim accepted the mission. Two days later, Brother Marinus, the former Captain LaRue, died at the age of 87.

Two months later, the Korean monks arrived and quickly set about restoring the abbey.

They added a Sunday afternoon Mass in the Korean language in the cinderblock sanctuary. They planted an organic garden of radishes, cabbages and tomatoes. In the dining hall, they replaced cheeseburgers and canned soup with kimchi, a traditional spicy vegetable dish.

They took courses in English at Sussex County Community College, repaired the leaky roof and eventually replaced the abbey's sluggish dial-up Internet service with high-speed DSL.

The monks also reached out to the local community. In November 2002, the monks reopened the retreat house, and last September Korean Catholic youth groups came to the abbey for a day of chok ku, a Korean game that blends soccer and volleyball. In July, the brothers say, they plan to resurrect Camp St. Benedict.

''I'm thinking of all of the things to make the community to survive into the future,'' said Father Kim, 62. ''This is our task.''

As word of the rescue effort spread, Catholic Korean immigrants from as far as Queens began descending on Newton to lend a hand. Among them was Maggie Lee, 57, who immigrated from South Korea in 1973.

In the early months of 2002, Ms. Lee started making the hourlong drive from her home in Alpine almost every day. She helped outfit the retreat house with new linens and curtains. She tutored the monks for the New Jersey driver's license test and translated for them on trips to Home Depot.

Ms. Lee also joined in the abbey services. She was heartened to have a place to practice her faith in her native tongue, and she continues to volunteer.

''It feels more like communication,'' Ms. Lee said.

Archabbot Schroeder has been pleased by St. Paul's transformation. Though the Ottilien congregation has a history of supporting other abbeys, ''we've never had a rescue mission like this,'' he said.

The rescue of the Meredith Victory has continued to resonate beyond the abbey walls. It was the subject of a 2000 book by Bill Gilbert, ''Ship of Miracles,'' and R.J. McHatton, a filmmaker in Bend, Ore., has spent the last two years making a documentary about the rescue.

''It is a mirror of the American character,'' Mr. McHatton said in a telephone interview. ''It shows how at a time of war, we go in there with noble ideas, a little bit naïve, but with the idea that we're going to help these people.''

Another abbey volunteer, Benedict Ahn, has devoted much of the last year to commemorating the rescue.

He spent six months translating ''Ship of Miracles,'' which was published in July, into Korean. And last month, he started raising money to build a monument to the Meredith Victory on the abbey's grounds.

Mr. Ahn, 47, whose father was a colonel in the Korean Army, wants to spread the message to Americans and Koreans about the sacrifices that were made for his countrymen.

''We would like to remind the American people of the pride of nation's original and true humanitarian character,'' said Mr. Ahn, a resident of Chatham.

As for Ms. Lee, her faith is fortified by the notion that salvation has come full circle at St. Paul's.

''This is a kind of miracle,'' she said. ''What a coincidence that 50 years ago the Brother Marinus helped them and right now the Korean monks coming back to his abbey. I think God works among us. The abbey had gotten down to the bottom. But it is getting alive. You can feel it.''

Thursday, December 23, 2010

a rough year

i'm not going to lie. it's been a rough year. i'm not sad to see it go. in fact, i can't help but think that i'm happy to see that the door doesn't hit 2010 as it goes out.

if you ask why, it'll be very hard to explain and very long in the telling. where do i begin so that i can find an end? it's like they say: if you don't know, then nobody can tell you. it's just the kind of thing you can only comprehend by living it, and even then it's incoherent. all you can do is to pick up the pieces to make some sense of it.

it wasn't any one thing specifically. more like a lot of things. a collective everything, that in sum toto was a less-than-pleasurable experience. let's just say i won't look back on this time with much fondness. if anything, i'll endeavor to try and not remember much, if anything, of this past year.

what i will remember, however, are the things that got me through, and the things that kept me on track and and held me together and kept me moving forward, when in all truth i was really running on empty--for a time this past year, i found myself just going through the motions of living but not getting anywhere. not good. felt like my spirit had been sucked right out from me. took awhile to get back from that one.

i learned a lot from this, and i'll keep the lessons for the future, whatever that might be...i just hope it's something better, because i can't take another year like this.

here's what i'm taking with me out of 2010; may it provide you with something to think about for your own lives (and forgive the bad grammar--i'm too tired to really care):
  1. positive mental attitude. even when you're less than positive, more than mental, and way beyond attitude. i don't mean being saccharine or pollyannish (which you'll never ever catch me advising, since it takes away from being what you need to be: realistic). it does, however, mean having the mindset of being able to take whatever life is throwing at you. it makes a difference. how, i don't know, but it does.
  2. faith. belief. whatever. in something. as i've said before in paraphrasing what a coach once told me: you have to believe in something--maybe others, maybe deities, but at the very least yourself. and you have to believe that you can survive, and that you can prosper.
  3. understand. recognize. know. what it is you're doing. why you're doing it. it's important to know how important things are. for others. for yourself. because when everything feels like it's falling apart, it'll be the one thing that keeps your belief.
  4. work. hard. harder than you've ever worked before. harder than any human being has ever worked before. harder than any creature in the history of creation has ever worked before. and when you think you can't work any harder, work some more. the point is that effort makes a difference. maybe not immediately, maybe not soon, maybe not for a long time, but eventually, ultimately, finally, it will. you have to try.
  5. make things count. be efficient. don't waste. if all your effort is going to amount to something, make sure that it does.
  6. be smart. be resourceful. be creative. there's different ways to deal with any situation. some better than others. you just have to find them.
  7. be constructive. whatever you do. there's too much destructive in this world. you need to be the former, not the latter.
  8. don't be afraid. even if you're alone. even if the world has abandoned you. because you are all you need.
  9. don't quit. that goes without saying. don't quit. do. not. quit. ever.
  10. live your life. live. your. life.
on a final note, i'll leave you with what became my theme song for this year. it kept me alight in dark times with a reminder of the spirit that it takes to live (and i mean live, not--as i did for far too long, no matter how briefly--just go through the motions). may it do the same for you:

30 seconds to mars: closer to the edge

Monday, December 20, 2010

this is going to hurt

sometimes you go into something that you know you're not going to like. something that you know you don't want to do. something that you know you dread.

something where you think to yourself:

this is going to hurt

but for some reason, you don't shy away. you don't back out. you don't quit. as much as you think about it. as much as you want to. as much as you probably should.

instead, when the time comes and the starting gun goes off, you charge with everything you have.

and you go through with it anyway.

and somehow, somewhere, at some point in the distance at some point in time, in the middle of what seems forever but in the great scheme of things is really just a mote in a moment in the depths of eternity's mind, you discover that you're more resilient than you thought. and you learn that you're more than you knew. and you become a little bit wiser. a little bit tougher. a little bit deeper. a little bit better.

which is why, for all the bellyaching and whining and complaining and moping and self-pity and and drama, in the end when it's all over

you find that

deep deep deep

far far

long way


in places you didn't know before but now have become intimately familiar with

in ways no longer distant but now within easy reach

you actually

find know are


even happy

in some ways even relishing

the thought:

this is going to hurt.

a lot

Sunday, December 05, 2010

playlist: comfort songs

"i am hurt but i am not slain
i'll lay me down and bleed awhile
then i'll rise and fight again"
--anonymous, andrew barton

it's a rough time. things are not going well. opportunities are hard to come by. all paths forward lead to nowhere.

and it's had an effect on you. things that used to be easy are now hard. things that used to be quick now take forever. things that used to be effortless now consume every last ounce of energy.

it's draining. demoralizing. depressing. disheartening.

and it's wearing on you.

boyce avenue (cover): don't stop believin'

john mayer: dreaming w a broken heart

O.A.R.: shattered

and so you realize it's time to take a break. and stop for a little while. and reach for solace in some place apart. and find yourself alone with nothing more for company than the consolation of some songs that have filled the shadows in your consciousness and the silence in your heart.

sara bareilles & ingrid michaelson: winter song

sarah maclachlan: angel

suo gan

it's not time spent on self-pity. it's not time taken to mope. it's not time given to wallow in your own misery.

it is, instead, time stopped for space. for you. to think. to assess. to evaluate. to collect your thoughts and find yourself and locate where you are. so that you can gather your strength and recharge your energies, and then from there steady your thoughts and salve your heart.

so that your spirit can be set aright.

so that, when all has been thought and said and done, you can ready yourself, and step out of space, and begin anew again.

ready to rejoin time once more.

30 seconds to mars: vox populi

enya: ebudae

Ó lá go lá, mo thuras,
an bealach fada romham.
Ó oíche go hoíche, mo thuras,
na scéalta nach mbeidh a choích'
--gaelic folk song

Saturday, November 27, 2010

running to stand still

"and so she woke up, she woke up
from where she was lying still,

said 'i, i gotta do something
about where i'm going'..."
--U2, running to stand still

our world is a mindset of constant escalating competition. new and larger challenges. more and bigger obstacles. extra and tougher opponents. whenever we're done with one, there's always another one.

our response is always to meet the competition. to match its expansion with our own. in the belief that however much it increases, we have to raise our game to overcome it.

the result is a neverending arms race of threats real and imagined versus ourselves and our determination, with us driving to find and reach and expend ever deeper and greater reserves of energy and effort and intensity and passion and will to meet our desire to win over all that come before us.

it can become an obsession. displacing everything else around us. to the extent that the competition means more than the victory, and the race is more than the end. so that we ignore what is happening and we lose sight of what we're doing. not just to the opposition but also to ourselves.

we forget the adage that a fire that burns bright also burns fast, and we miss the fact that we only have so much to burn. we have limits. we can be consumed. we can be burned out. even before we have lit much, if anything, in the darkness.

which is why it's important to hold to perspective, to keep in context, everything that is happening and everything that we're doing. so that we can realize the meaning of competition as more than a victory and the race as more than its own end. so that we can understand beyond that where we're going and how we're getting there and, more importantly, know why.

because the world is about more than just will; it's also about wisdom.

the wisdom to make whatever we do and whatever we have and whatever we are go as far and as high and as great as we think can be humanly possible, even to the extent that it goes beyond our expectation and surpasses our comprehension and transcends our imagination and lifts us sometimes somehow somewhere someway incredibly and improbably yet assuredly and definitively so that we can reach the inhumanly impossible and can then approach the glory that is the supremely divine.

the wisdom to make a difference.

otherwise, we're just running to stand still.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

the hard run

"you run like a river runs to the sea
you run like a river runs to the sea
...oh great ocean, oh great sea
run to the ocean,
run to the sea"
-u2, one tree hill

there's times when we know it's going to be a hard run.

no matter how positive our attitude, no matter how resolute our demeanor, no matter how prepared our bodies, we know we're going to be in for a tough day. and as much as we can try to wrap it up in bright-color paper and shiny foil ribbon, we still know it's not going to be pleasant to open.

it could be because we're injured. it could be because we're tired. it could be because we didn't train and we're woefully out of shape. it could be because it's too hot, or too cold, or too dry, or too wet, or too steep, or too potholed, or too poorly marked, or too much to deal with. or it could be that it's just simply, irrefutably, inexplicably, incredibly, ineffably, indelibly, inscrutably, utterly just not our day. and as much as we can try to give alms for good karma, we still know that it won't make a difference in what's going to happen.

in which case, the only thing we can do then is to endure. courtesy of the few things on our persons that we know won't falter, if only because they are who we are and they are what we are about--at least really, once we've given up or lost everything else: our spirit, our hearts, our souls. our guts. ourselves.

we just need to remember who and what we are. as hard as it is when all the miles seem to be nothing but hard.

it helps to have reminders. things we can recite to ourselves even in the shortness of breath. a poem, a song, a ditty, a rhyme, a passage, a line, a few words to help us bide the time when moments become eons and each step becomes forever and we lose ourselves in the depths of our own suffering. even just a metaphor analogy allusion suggestion that bids us recall our where and our when in the context of all where and all when so that we can make our way once more back to perspective and find the one question that this is all really about is why and realize that we already had the answer but just had to let ourselves remember. even just a lyric long forgotten. as hard as it is when all the miles seem nothing but hard.

and the run isn't so hard then. once we've understood our place in the distance.

because we know it runs with us.

and that makes all the difference.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

that sinking feeling

you ever get that sinking feeling? that things are piling up, and that the waters are rising? that try as you might, you're falling behind, and getting nowhere, and getting farther beneath the surface, and drowning?

we all get those times. the times when we're overwhelmed. the times when things are just too much. the times when we get a sudden dawning, crushing, horrifying realization of our own limitations and our own mortality and our own insignificance in the face of everything that is in front of us...and just when we get our heads above water, another wave comes out of nowhere and crashes down on us.

at those times, we learn that no matter how strong or fast or smart we are, no matter how much energy or effort we expend, we're not just in danger of not moving forward; we're in danger of not staying afloat.

and at those times, we understand that there's no comfort in thinking about the past and there's not much use in thinking about the future unless we make sure that we're thinking about the present.

and to do that, we have to be mindful of this moment, and focus on what we're doing, and then just keep going. each breathe. each stroke. each kick. each second.


which is why we spent all that time in training working on our technique. all those hours, days, weeks, months, years, life. staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool. drilling in proper form of hands and arms and shoulders and body and hips and legs and feet and breathing turning and rotating and flipping length after length after length after length until we lost ourselves and our bodies and made ourselves that it became mindless and it joined our bodies and it became part of us. all those hours, days, weeks, months, years, life.

because sometimes there are times when we're not strong enough. sometimes there are times when we're not fast enough. sometimes there are times when we're not smart enough. and when no amount of energy or effort is going to make any difference.

because sometimes, our bodies aren't going anywhere but down.

at those times, the only thing that will get us moving forward is the one thing we know that lies beyond our bodies, and that is our technique.

and at those times, it may be the only chance we have of staying afloat, and an only chance is better than none.

and to do that, we have to be mindful--and mindless--of this moment, and focus on what we're doing, and then just keep going.

each breathe. each stroke. each kick. each second.


hours. days. weeks. months. years.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

love is a painkiller

love is a painkiller.

really? you don't say? this is a surprise to people?

i don't think anyone who's ever been in love wouldn't find this a statement of the simply obvious (i've put the full text of the article below at the end of this post):
this appeared on CNN some time ago, but i've been letting it percolate in my mind, since i think i've had more than my fair share of experience on the matter (love, not painkillers, although the entire argument here is that they're both the same thing, but whatever).

anyone who is an athlete can probably relate a personal story about how much love can affect their own performance. at least, they can if they're being honest. an athlete's physical performance, particularly at the most extreme levels, is affected by the athlete's state of mind, not just in terms of self-confidence or commitment or ambition or focus but also in terms of calm and inspiration and positive attitude. and all of these factors can be very much affected by the various bio-chemical hormonal emotional responses to the condition of love.

which is why athletes experiencing romantic problems or break-ups sometimes have major deterioration in their performances, and in some cases go so far as to withdraw from competition. i remember a story of an Australian sprinter who quit his country's Olympic qualifiers citing a broken heart arising from his divorce. i can believe it. heartache just saps your energy and it crushes your motivation.

and it doesn't just have to be romantic love. i think it also applies to other forms of love, like the love of family or close friends. the status of those relationships can have a huge impact on your state of mind, and hence on the ability of that mind to muster physical ability.

this is why i think that it helps athletes to be in love. seriously. i really do. i mean good love--not the high-drama, high-chaos, high-anxiety kind of love that plays havoc with your mental state, but the peaceful, stable, happy kind of love that builds a positive peace of mind.

i think this latter kind of love imbues athletes with 1) the comfort of knowing they're supported (and hence are not alone); 2) the knowledge they're approved (and hence are validated as good, erasing any self-doubt); 3) the desire to inspire others (and hence want to do well by giving maximum effort); 4) the sense of joy (and hence a positivity that maintains motivation and belief in overcoming challenges). the end result is a person in a mental state that can withstand greater problems and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles--in short a person who radiates an aura of invincibility, who never falters, who never flinches, who never stops, who never tires, who seems to have superhuman strength and speed and coordination, who seems be utterly in: someone who feels no pain.

see what i mean?

yeah, love is like that.

tell me something i don't know.

Love may be as good as morphine

That rush of good feelings you have in the first few months of being in love don't just put you in a better mood; love may actually be a painkiller, researchers suggest in a new study in the journal PLoS ONE.

"Finding pleasure in activities, and with the one you’re with, can have multiple benefits, including reducing your pain," said senior author Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the Division of Pain Management at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study looked at 15 undergraduates – both men and women – between ages 19 and 21, all of whom were in the "early phases of passionate love," having been in a relationship anywhere from a few months to a year. This is a small sample size, but not unusual for a study involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Participants were asked to bring in photos of their beloved and an acquaintance who was equally attractive. While viewing these photos, a computer-controlled stimulator made them feel pain in the palm of their hand that felt akin to burning oneself on a hot pan, but in a safe way and without causing any actual damage, Mackey said. They were also asked to answer distracting questions while the pain was applied. The fMRI scanner allowed researchers to examine what brain systems were involved during each condition.

The magnitude of pain relief when participants thought about their beloved was comparable to morphine and other clinical painkillers, Mackey said. However, he cautioned that this is not a study about chronic pain, merely pain applied for 30 seconds at a time in an artificial setting.

The results suggest that thinking about your beloved and having a non-love-related distraction lower the perception of pain, but the love effect involves entirely different brain systems, Mackey said. This speaks to the complexity of the human brain, he said.

Distraction involves high level cortical systems that are involved with conducting tasks, Mackey said. Love, on the other hand, involves systems dependent on dopamine, a brain chemical that causes us to feel good and crave things. The dopamine rush also happens upon eating a piece of chocolate, or, in more extreme forms, taking a hit of cocaine or heroin. Drugs that directly engage this brain chemical tend to be highly addictive, he said.

Other recent research also has described love as an addiction. A Journal of Neurophysiology study suggested that love involves the same area of the brain associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction; that's one example of recent findings on the science of love.

Mackey also suspects there is some effect of pain heightening in those who have recently experienced a breakup of some kind, having seen increases in pain among patients who went through divorces. But that was not part of this study.

Future research in this area might additionally explore whether the affection of people who have been in committed relationships for much longer, perhaps decades, can also relieve pain. Other areas to explore are the brain systems that are involved when it comes to homosexual love, the bond between mother and child, and platonic friendships, Mackey said.

"Trying to maintain that spark in one’s relationship and that passion, engaging those reward systems, may very well work the same way as being in that early phase of love," he said.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

dia de los muertos

the end of October in most Western societies, particularly the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., is typically associated with Halloween. this time of year, however, is also celebrated by other non-Western societies, primarily in Latin America, with Dia de los Muertos (in English: "the day of the dead").

in countries with heavy Anglo and Latin influences, these 2 celebrations have largely become conflated. with Halloween falling on October 31 and Dia de los Muertos falling on November 2, the 2 events have merged into an extended holiday. throughout most of the southern and western areas of the U.S., for example, people of all cultural backgrounds have come to largely treat the last weekend in October as a 3-or-4 day vacation with an excuse for enjoying celebrations with ghoulish and supernatural themes, consuming mass quantities of food and drink invariably loaded with sugar and alcohol, and wearing outlandish costumes well outside of personal inhibitions.

prior to the modern era the 2 holidays came from recognizably different origins. Halloween is largely seen as arising from the Celtic pagan traditions, while Dia de los Muertos is more associated with pre-colonial indigenous practices in the Americas. despite this, the 2 holidays share a number of similarities apart from their time of celebration: both are believed to indicate a time when the barriers between this life and the afterlife allowed spirits to pass through, both are seen as a time when the living could commune with the dead, and both were taken as a time to commemorate the deceased. such beliefs are maintained in various ways by various societies around the world, but Halloween and Dias de los Muertos benefited from the mutual influence of the Catholic Church, which mingled their respective cultural origins with Christianity and thereby morphed the 2 so that they became separate but overlapping celebrations observing many common practices and themes.

you can compare them via their respective Wikipedia pages:
living in Southern California, i've had the opportunity to watch both events--which in Los Angeles, consistent with the rest of the southern and western U.S., are largely just 1 big one. however, coming from a Northern European background (or at least, a mish-mashed agglomeration of randomly selected Northern European and Southeast Asian cultures), i've always been more fascinated by Dia de los Muertos, albeit not so much in the modern incarnation it shares with Halloween, but moreso in its older form maintained by more traditional Catholic Latinos.

you can get a feel for the Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles at the following:
what i find intriguing is the modes of celebration. some of it i find very familiar: remembering the dead through attendance at church or visits to graves, communion with prayer, moments of reflection, etc. some of it, though, i find somewhat unfamiliar and thus more intriguing: using joyous celebration and vigorous activities for times that i would consider to be somber and peaceful.

but in a way, i think that this isn't really anything that strange. because what's essentially happening is that people are choosing to remember the dead in ways that respect life--the life of those deceased, the life of those still living, and all of life in general. and the way they are choosing to respect life is not through sorrow or grief or loss or despair, even as much as that is part of how the living relate to the dead, but rather instead to respect life through happiness and joy and progress and triumph, because that is also very much a part of how the living can honor the dead: by affirming that life goes on, and that life is to be lived, and that the dead would want us to do so.

and this is something that i was taught in my own heritage and something that i very much believe and something that i always make a point to remember for all the loved ones that i have lost: that we the living must live for the dead, to live the lives that they could not...because they would want us to do so.

and as much as i have held on to this thought in the course of my daily living, i have even more so held on to it in my racing. because i know that my involvement in activities as so vigorous as sports is in all honesty an intensely personal experience marking a deeper journey towards a greater understanding of life and a closer realization of existence reaching supreme truths that all the dead who have gone before me would have wanted me to know: the joy of God.

and that's no different than what Dia de los Muertos is doing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

cautionary tales: Fran Crippen

by now most of you will have heard of the death of Fran Crippen, one of the elites in long-distance open water swimming, who died this past week in a race in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). in case you haven't heard about what happened, you can reference a brief video report released through the Associated Press:
Fran's death in competition has come as a shock to people in the sports community, partly because things like this are not common occurrences in elite-level sports events, partly because he had no apparent history of medical issues, and partly because it runs so contrary to public perceptions of athletes and athletic endeavors in relation to personal health. it's just not expected to hear of elite-level athletes dying in the middle of competition. it's possible to name examples, Reggie Lewis (Boston Celtics of the NBA, who collapsed and died in a game) being a famous one, but the fact that they can be named is an indication of just how rare and unexpected an event like this can be.

which is why Fran's death has become such a concern in the swimming community. there's been a surge of comments in the media regarding the potential causes and contributing factors. you can read a selection of articles here (some have also videos):
i won't comment on the veracity or plausibility of the statements in these articles, since 1) i don't know enough to evaluate them and 2) the investigations (at the minimum, by USA Swimming, FINA, and UAE) are still ongoing and i want to give them a chance to produce their findings. i will, however, comment on some things which i think relate to sports at large.

to begin, i'll offer my observations on the news reports:
  1. something was not right. and i mean wrong. in law, they use the term "res ipsa loquitur," meaning that "the thing speaks for itself." used in association with tort cases, it references the idea that there are some events which just don't occur without cause, and hence that there was some negligence or mistake involved. i think this is one of those events. from what is known, the situation involved a young man (age 26) with no known history of medical problems (as far as we know) in a state of supreme fitness (Fran was an elite multi-sport athlete--not only was he among the top long-distance swimmers in the world, he was also a very good runner, having qualified for the Boston marathon). this suggests that whatever happened, it didn't happen with him, but rather with the race itself.
  2. race conditions were unusual. perhaps not for Abu Dhabi, where it was held, but certainly for long-distance swimming. Fran reportedly told his coach the ambient air temperature was >100 degrees F and the ambient water temperature was around >87 degrees F. ocean temperatures typically vary, with patches of water having varying degrees of warmth or cold. this means that given the distances involved, the swimmers at the race probably went through sections of water above and below 87 degrees F.
  3. swimming in warm water is hard. very hard. and 87 degrees F is very warm water. it's analogous to running in temperatures >100 degrees F. water that warm acts as an insulator, meaning that it makes it hard for the body to release heat through perspiration, accelerating the rise in core body temperature caused by physical exertion. this raises the risk of dehydration, overheating, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. on a personal note, i've had swim workouts in a swimming pool used by platform divers kept at ~75 degrees F, and i felt like i was overheating (even though the ambient air temperature was ~65 degrees F). i can't imagine what's it like to be swimming in water above 80.
  4. athletes who have not acclimated to heat will struggle more in warm conditions. this is true for runners, and i suspect true for swimmers. i don't entirely know for certain, but some news reports indicate that Fran had been training in the coastal waters of Southern California, which are notoriously cold (especially this past summer, with water temperatures around 55-60 degrees F). this means that he was used to cold water swimming, and would not have been acclimated to the conditions in the UAE.
  5. regardless of acclimation, given the difficulty in race conditions race organizers should have increased their monitoring of athletes. long-distance swim races do not have "aid stations" like they do for marathons, and athletes are expected to have their own nutrition (typically, they keep gel packs in their swimming suits). but i'm starting to think they should. in long-distance running, race organizers provide aid stations for specific reasons: a) provide medical check-ups of athletes, and b) provide nutrition, including fluids to help athletes cool. race organizers also have medical observers patrolling the race course. and the tougher the race conditions (i.e., hot days), the more attention is given at both the aid stations and on the race course. even for elite athletes. given the demands of distance swimming, i think it would only be logical that race organizers increase their monitoring of athletes and allow hydration, even if only for those athletes in distress.
  6. the temptation for race organizers is to treat elite athletes as an exception to race management, that because the competitors are supreme physical specimens that it allows race organizers to ease their responsibilities in managing the race. this is a fallacy, because a) elite athletes still require care because they are pushing themselves to the physical limits, and are mentally so driven that they may very well push themselves over the limit (i.e., they may push themselves so hard that they lose their mental faculties, to the extent they cannot recognize when they are trouble or even recognize what is happening), and b) every one deserves a well-managed race--everyone--and no race organizer should ever absolve themselves of their responsibilities to the human lives that have been entrusted to them. legally, i know that many races require athletes to sign liability releases, but i don't think that these releases are blanket licenses for criminal mismanagement and outright dereliction of respect for human life.
  7. the race organizers are quoted as saying that Fran died from "fatigue." i don't buy that for a second. who are they kidding? an experienced world-class athlete facing the premier event of his race season? fatigued? there must have been an error in translation or a mis-statement by someone unfamiliar with sports medicine or a poor transcription from a news reporter, because it just doesn't make sense.
apart from this, i also want to say that what happened brings up an issue that i've written about before: knowing when to quit.

if elite athletes are saying race conditions are tough, then it is tough. in which case, everyone involved--race organizers, athlete support crew, even athletes themselves--all should be making efforts for better care and greater caution. this means that a) somebody should have said something at Abu Dhabi, and 2) somebody should have done something.

i don't mean they should have called the race off (although it appears that after Fran's death and athlete complaints about the race conditions, a later longer-distance race at the same location was canceled), but i do think that at the very minimum race organizers should have taken note to increase their precautions. and i also think that support crew (including coaches, trainers, doctors, etc.) and competitors should have escalated their concerns about racing, even if it meant going so far as to make individual decisions to quit or perhaps not even start (the dreaded "DNF" and "DNS," respectively)--or having someone make the decision for them to do so.

this latter point is something that probably runs contrary to the popular perception of athletic spirit. as an athlete it's sometimes hard to make a decision regarding quitting. it's not a value that sports encourages. if anything, sport is about the opposite: persistence in face of all challenges. and in the heat of competition, with the build-up of expectations carried over from training, the will to persevere can be overwhelming.

my argument, however, is that sometimes this kind of mindset can lead to a loss of perspective. sports is, among other things, about developing persistence, and this is laudable in terms of personal character development. that, however, is where the dividing line can be identified and is the reference point from which we can locate perspective: development. sports gives us values for a purpose, and that purpose is about making ourselves better. physically. mentally. spiritually. as all-around human beings. it is not about self-debilitation. it is not about self-destruction. it is not about death.

it is because of this that i believe we as athletes have to take time outside of training and racing to figure at what point we are willing to quit...and, because we sometimes push ourselves to states where we lose our mental faculties, when we are willing to accept someone else making us do so.

we can't trust race organizers to do these things for us--what happened in Abu Dhabi is a clear example of this--even though they may be responsible. to protect ourselves from whatever negligence or mistake may be made by others, we have to take the precaution of deciding for ourselves (hopefully, when our faculties are clear and our perspectives are in order) when discretion is the better part of valor and when we are willing to accept something as being self-destructive versus being self-constructive. and then we have to commit to following through on our decisions on race day.

i've written about this before, and referenced some cautionary tales from Ironman. you can read my thoughts here:
the reason i'm stressing this is that as athletes we sometimes become centered on ourselves, particularly in terms of how we're feeling and how we're acting. the resulting tendency is to become self-centered, sometimes to the extent we lose track of everything else around us.

which is fine to a degree, since sports is about self-development. but we are more than just athletes; we are also human beings. and sports is meant to be about development that complements living as human beings...and human life is never about only ourselves, but also about everyone else around us, particularly others who are close to us in our lives.

in which case, we have to be mindful of what we represent to others and the value our presence has in their lives. as such, being self-destructive isn't just about hurting ourselves but also about hurting everyone else in our lives; it's about making the world worse. conversely, being self-constructive isn't just about improving ourselves but also about improving the lives of others around us; it's about making the world better.

and if the worst possible circumstance comes to pass and our time on this earth really does come to an end, which of these possibilities do we want to be the testament to our lives? which of these do we want to have given our best efforts? which of these do we want others to get from us?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the pain thing

one of the things that they never tell you when you're being recruited into athletics is that it involves pain. and not just a little, but a lot. and not just possibly, but certainly. sports, in short, hurt.

while such a failure to disclose is not a lie, it is an omission of a material matter, since it has the consequence of subverting our decision-making process by taking out a factor that most of us ordinarily would choose to avoid.

as a result, a fair number of newcomers to active lifestyles invariably end up finding themselves afflicted by a measure of discomfort that they never really expected and in a magnitude that they never really encountered. unprepared and ignorant of how to deal with the pain, they often become overwhelmed by an experience entirely contrary to what they had been led to believe. intimidated, they then do the one thing most logical but ultimately most counter-productive: they quit.

there's a frequent perception--sustained by both sedentary and active communities--that this is just the way things are, and that sports and athletics are things reserved for those of special character, and that they serve as a litmus test revealing those who have the fortitude to deal with hurt and those who lack the qualities to persevere. the mindset is that sports and athletics is the domain of the strong, and that it seeks to weed out the weak. this attitude is reflected in the mantras recited as part of everyday lore: "either you have it in you or you don't," "either you play or you get played," "either you're a player or you're a player-hater," "only for the strong," "only for the brave," "only for those with guts," "you're not in the club," etc.

the underlying message tied to this reference frame is that the ability to participate in sports or athletics is genetic, with athletes being those who don't feel pain and non-athletes being those who do, or alternatively athletes being those who are "strong enough" to deal with pain and non-athletes being those who are "too weak" and crumple before pain.

this is unfortunate, because it runs entirely contrary to the goal--a goal shared by so many in sports and non-sports community alike--of trying to promote active lifestyles in the general population, whether as a form of physical health or personal development. if the goal is to inspire and encourage more people to engage in athletics, then it is entirely self-defeating to delimit them before they even start.

more than that, it's also just simply wrong.

there has always been a contingent of coaches, athletes, and sports medicine personnel who have asserted that athletics can be taught. these perspectives have always argued that as much as athletic ability is determined by genetics, the ability to engage in athletics is not, but is instead something driven by the person and the person's environment. which means that 1) the ability to overcome the challenges of athletics, including the challenge of pain, is driven by a person's ability to deal with those challenges, and 2) such an ability is something that can be trained by the person's environment. in other words: people, if given the right coaching and right coaching environment, can learn how to deal with pain, and deal with it in ways typical and expected for athletes and athletics.

there was an article in the New York Times that references recent sources confirming this:
if the link doesn't work, the full text of the article is at the bottom of this post.

the implication of this is significant relative to sports: anyone can become an athlete. they may not be great, they may not be good, they may not be elite, but they can engage in sports, and in that sense they can be athletes. anyone can adopt an active lifestyle. meaning that the benefits of such a lifestyle are available to anyone willing, able, and accessible to appropriate training.

on a personal note, i have to say this is something i've heard from almost every coach i've encountered: pain is something anyone and everyone in sports encounters and will encounter, but the difference between those who achieve their goals and those who don't is how they respond to the pain...and that response can be trained.

i'll reference Chris Carmichael as an example. Carmichael, long-time coach of Lance Armstrong, always insisted to his amateur clients that Lance felt the same pain they did, but that he had learned over his personal and professional athletic career how to deal with the pain--and to not only deal with it, but to deal with it in ways constructive to his performance as an athlete. Carmichael would always stress that the tools Lance used to do this were the same tools that he taught to everyone, and that they were tools that could be used by anyone.

the message of this is that no one, including newcomers and neophytes, should surrender their athletics too easily, and that they should recognize that active lifestyles and the benefits of active lifestyles are not genetically predetermined but things that can be gained with the right training. all you have to do is to choose to pursue it.

and that means it is not destiny; it is choice.


How to Push Past the Pain, as the Champions Do
By Gina Kolata
New York Times
October 18, 2010

My son, Stefan, was running in a half marathon in Philadelphia last month when he heard someone coming up behind him, breathing hard.

To his surprise, it was an elite runner, Kim Smith, a blond waif from New Zealand. She has broken her country’s records in shorter distances and now she’s running half marathons. She ran the London marathon last spring and will run the New York marathon next month.

That day, Ms. Smith seemed to be struggling. Her breathing was labored and she had saliva all over her face. But somehow she kept up, finishing just behind Stefan and coming in fifth with a time of 1:08:39.

And that is one of the secrets of elite athletes, said Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners, the group that puts on the ING New York City Marathon. They can keep going at a level of effort that seems impossible to maintain.

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” Ms. Wittenberg said.

You can see it in the saliva-coated faces of the top runners in the New York marathon, Ms. Wittenberg added.

“We have towels at marathon finish to wipe away the spit on the winners’ faces,” she said. “Our creative team sometimes has to airbrush it off race photos that we want to use for ad campaigns.”

Tom Fleming, who coaches Stefan and me, agrees. A two-time winner of the New York marathon and a distance runner who was ranked fourth in the world, he says there’s a reason he was so fast.

“I was given a body that could train every single day.” Tom said, “and a mind, a mentality, that believed that if I trained every day — and I could train every day — I’ll beat you.”

“The mentality was I will do whatever it takes to win,” he added. “I was totally willing to have the worst pain. I was totally willing to do whatever it takes to win the race.”

But the question is, how do they do it? Can you train yourself to run, cycle, swim or do another sport at the edge of your body’s limits, or is that something that a few are born with, part of what makes them elites?

Sports doctors who have looked into the question say that, at the very least, most people could do a lot better if they knew what it took to do their best.

“Absolutely,” said Dr. Jeroen Swart, a sports medicine physician, exercise physiologist and champion cross-country mountain biker who works at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.

“Some think elite athletes have an easy time of it,” Dr. Swart said in a telephone interview. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And as athletes improve — getting faster and beating their own records — “it never gets any easier,” Dr. Swart said. “You hurt just as much.”

But, he added, “Knowing how to accept that allows people to improve their performance.”

One trick is to try a course before racing it. In one study, Dr. Swart told trained cyclists to ride as hard as they could over a 40-kilometer course. The more familiar they got with the course, the faster they rode, even though — to their minds — it felt as if they were putting out maximal effort on every attempt.

Then Dr. Swart and his colleagues asked the cyclists to ride the course with all-out effort, but withheld information about how far they’d gone and how far they had to go. Subconsciously, the cyclists held back the most in this attempt, leaving some energy in reserve.

That is why elite runners will examine a course, running it before they race it. That is why Lance Armstrong trained for the grueling Tour de France stage on l’Alpe d’Huez by riding up the mountain over and over again.

“You are learning exactly how to pace yourself,” Dr. Swart said.

Another performance trick during competitions is association, the act of concentrating intensely on the very act of running or cycling, or whatever your sport is, said John S. Raglin, a sports psychologist at Indiana University.

In studies of college runners, he found that less accomplished athletes tended to dissociate, to think of something other than their running to distract themselves.

“Sometimes dissociation allows runners to speed up, because they are not attending to their pain and effort,” he said. “But what often happens is they hit a sort of physiological wall that forces them to slow down, so they end up racing inefficiently in a sort of oscillating pace.” But association, Dr. Raglin says, is difficult, which may be why most don’t do it.

Dr. Swart says he sees that in cycling, too.

“Our hypothesis is that elite athletes are able to motivate themselves continuously and are able to run the gantlet between pushing too hard — and failing to finish — and underperforming,” Dr. Swart said.

To find this motivation, the athletes must resist the feeling that they are too tired and have to slow down, he added. Instead, they have to concentrate on increasing the intensity of their effort. That, Dr. Swart said, takes “mental strength,” but “allows them to perform close to their maximal ability.”

Dr. Swart said he did this himself, but it took experience and practice to get it right. There were many races, he said, when “I pushed myself beyond my abilities and had to withdraw, as I was completely exhausted.”

Finally, with more experience, Dr. Swart became South Africa’s cross-country mountain biking champion in 2002.

Some people focus by going into a trancelike state, blocking out distractions. Others, like Dr. Swart, have a different method: He knows what he is capable of and which competitors he can beat, and keeps them in his sight, not allowing himself to fall back.

“I just hate to lose,” Dr. Swart said. “I would tell myself I was the best, and then have to prove it.”

Kim Smith has a similar strategy.

“I don’t want to let the other girls get too far ahead of me,” she said in a telephone interview. “I pretty much try and focus really hard on the person in front of me.”

And while she tied her success to having “some sort of talent toward running,” Ms. Smith added that there were “are a lot of people out there who were probably just as talented. You have to be talented, and you have to have the ability to push yourself through pain.”

And, yes, she does get saliva all over her face.

“It’s not a pretty sport,” Ms. Smith said. “You are not looking good at the end.”

As for the race she ran with my son, she said: “I’m sorry if I spit all over Stefan.” (She didn’t, Stefan said.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

blog action day 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

ok, i'm going to see if can get a little bit of a jump on this year's Blog Action Day. it occurred to me that the rest of the global internet community will be well into this event by the time daylight comes to the Pacific coast of the US, so i better post this early so it can join the rest of the international operation.
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for those of you who don't know, Blog Action Day is an annual occasion (for 2010, on Friday, October 15) of global internet activism, where bloggers around the world cooperate together to highlight a particular issue. the idea is that if many bloggers all make posts about the same issue at the same time it will garner greater public attention, and thereby awareness, for the issue of concern--and thereby hopefully have a greater chance of motivating a response to fix it.

the issue chosen for this year's Blog Action Day is water. water is one of the most fundamental components necessary for life on Earth, yet increasingly is being put under stress, with more of it becoming less usable and less accessible with each passing year. i won't go into details regarding the global water crisis, since you can get the necessary details at the following:

my contribution Blog Action Day in this post will to concentrate on water in the coastal regions of the planet. for those of you involved in the endurance sports community, particularly those of you living in coastal areas, this is something of which you are no doubt already intimately aware. you are as aware of it as much as any of the other members of the aquatic recreational community, including swimmers, surfers, boaters, etc. some of you may belong to multiple groups, and hence have even more exposure to shoreline waters.

regardless of the group, however, we share the same waters and we share the same recognition that the state of the waters along our coastlines is something with an immediate impact on our lives and something which we can monitor within our daily consciousness. to borrow the academic term for this, it is something salient to us.

i am sure that each of you has encountered days when you realized that our coastlines are not as clean as they could be nor are as clean as they should be--ans in some situations nor as clean as they need to be. it may have been via a news report, a public warning, a friend's mishap, or even your own personal experience. regardless, it involved something that threatened the health of the water and in so doing threatened the health of you and others around you.

those kinds of experiences are not unique to you nor your community. they are becoming increasingly commonplace. whether as a result of development, industry, waste, consumption, or overuse, coastal waters are becoming increasingly damaged, sometimes to an extent harmful to life--not just marine life or littoral life, but all life, including our own. this is true not just for those of us in Southern California or the Pacific Coast of the US, but for coastal waters around the world.

in which case, they should be taken as an alert to all of us to recognize the deteriorating condition of our shorelines and to start taking action to fix them. just as the problems facing our coastal waters impact more than just us as individuals, so too the solutions for our coastal waters involve more than just us alone. if we want to fix them, then we need to work together in a collective effort that produces a clearly significant long-term solution.

thankfully, we are not alone, and there are already collective efforts being undertaken. you can see their findings and follow what they're doing at the following links (apologies for the ones specific to California, but these are groups of which i am most aware, being in Los Angeles):

i'm not going to say much more than this, since i don't want to belabor the point and come across as preachy. but definitely take a look at the above links, and take some time to check out Blog Action Day. and if you feel sufficiently concerned, feel free to support these organizations--or similar organizations in your coastal region if you are not from Southern California--in their efforts to improve the health of our shoreline waters.

it's not just about you, it's about everyone and everything else.

Monday, October 11, 2010

how to run a straight race

"where does the power come from to see the race to its end?
from within."

the modern Olympic movement drew much of its spirit from the late Victorian/early Edwardian British school sports ethos. when Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics in the late 1800s he sought to replicate on a global scale the lessons found in athletics by the British educational system. because so much of modern sport derives its worldview from the Olympics, it is from this that we have developed many of our notions of athletics as being associated with character, virtue, and values, including those of courage, commitment, cooperation, composure, discipline, diligence, decisiveness, sacrifice, sportsmanship, and truth. it is also from this that we find the premise of sports is not about victories or records, but rather about development of the self attained through competition with others.

the temptation is to think that since that time the nature of sport has changed, and that such ideals are antiquated, romantic, unrealistic, hopelessly sentimental daydreams of an outdated, delusional, and by some accounts misguided era. in the years since Victorian & Edwardian England, the focus has very much become one of victories and records, promoted as epic story via drama built upon high stakes raised by national pride and unimaginable wealth and unlimited glory. it's easy to think that development of the self was a quixotic delusion.

but such a perception is dangerous. because it leads to cynicism. and cynicism leads to despair. and despair leads to a loss of faith. and a loss of faith leads to an abandonment of ethics. and without ethics, victories and records becomes ends in themselves, justifying their achievement despite whatever costs--despite all costs--to ourselves and to our surroundings. it's no wonder that so many see no point to running a straight race.

which is unfortunate, because such a perception is also a fallacy.

because no matter the glory or wealth or pride or stakes, no matter the drama or the story, no matter the victories or records, we can never get away from ourselves. because everything fades and is erased in time, leaving us just with what we began, and we began with us alone.

which means that we do in sport is not the result of anything other than what we do ourselves. and that who are as athletes is a reflection of who we are as people. and how we compete is a reflection of how we live.

and how we live is who we are.

so when our race is run we should be able to say we ran it true.

in which case, sport is not about victories or records, no matter all the pressures to the contrary, but rather instead about the only thing that remains when all of it is done: the self.

Friday, October 01, 2010


on the eve before my first Ironman, i was a near-total wreck. like so many others, i came into race day in a state of nerves that expanded exponentially with every passing moment in a mixture comprised of equal parts uncertainty leading anxiety driving fear causing neurosis producing dread becoming awe approaching paralysis in the face of something on a scale so vast, so great, so massive as to be utterly incomprehensible. my only singular thought on race day morning was: who am i to even dare? who am i to even try? who am i to even be?

it was not a good state of mind to be in for an Ironman.

seeing the look in my eyes that explained it all, my coach at the time paused and pulled me aside just before i entered the transition area, faced me square across the shoulders and said:

"i know what you're thinking. we've all been there. everyone goes through it. everyone. all the time. but know this: to do an Ironman, you have to believe. you have to believe you can do this. you have to believe that no matter what, you have what it takes to get you through this. now you don't have to believe in destiny, you don't have to believe in people, you don't have to believe in God, you just have to believe in yourself."

what he said, of course, applies to many things other than just Ironman. but i think Ironman stands as a ready metaphor for any challenge we may encounter involving magnitudes in spectacle, consequence, and meaning beyond our ken.

these kinds of challenges involve moments of supreme uncertainty, tied as they are to a personal awakening to the limitations of our mortality and a realization of just how insignificant we are before all that is unknown in the infinite spaces of eternity.

in these moments, we go beyond what is known. we go beyond fact. we go beyond the bases of reason. we enter a realm where there is only belief.

the problem for us, however, is about belief in what.

because belief in destiny can be unrequited. destiny is fickle, destiny is not kind. events that seemed destined end up evaporating in futility. things that seemed destined end up being taken away. lives that seemed destined end up being denied. destiny cannot be understood.

people are no better. if the history of our species has proven anything, it is that people are helpless to their humanity, fragile and frail and prone to the forces of our existence, both of our own making and of our own circumstance. the workings of others cannot be known.

as for God...or gods...let's not get started. for some it helps, for some it does not. it's purely subjective, supremely personal. take from it what you will. but the supernatural, the sacred, the divine, by definition cannot be substantiated.

which leaves you. you. mortal. limited. finite. but because you are mortal, limited, finite, it means that by definition you can be substantiated, you can be known, you can be understood. the only thing you really know. the only thing you really comprehend. and as a result, the one thing--of all things--that you really control. and thus, the one thing--of all things--that in the face of the unknown can move and proceed and continue and journey and go

past the uncertainty and anxiety and fear and neurosis and dread and awe and paralysis

of the moment so vast so great so massive so incomprehensible

and dare

and try

and be


you don't have to believe in anything, you just have to believe in yourself.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

around the world in 80 diets (the book)

for those of you who've engaged me in discussions about nutrition over the years, i'd like to recommend one to add to your library. it's entitled What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, and it's written by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio. it was published this year, and has been gradually making its circuit in press reviews.

you can check out the reviews from the LA Times and NPR:
in past i've written, and some of you have responded, and we have conversed, about the nature of nutrition and what comprises "good" nutrition versus "bad" nutrition. we've discussed this in terms of physical needs, personal lifestyle, societal context, as well as in more scientific terms of caloric requirements, nutrients, ratios (protein v. carbohydrate v. fat), glycemic index, insulin, timing, frequency, volume, ingredients, recipes, cuisines. we've also compared notes on different diets of different athletes in different sports relative to different sedentary or active modes of living in different societies.

one of the things i've realized over the years as a result of all this discussion is that as much as we end up believing that there are very specific and strict guidelines regarding the nutrition that is "good" for our lifestyle, there is in truth quite a bit of flexibility and freedom. even for athletes, i think there's more freedom than we think.

nutrition does have to fit within certain guidelines, but those guidelines allow for a fair amount of permutations in terms of the types of diets that can be enjoyed--and the key word is enjoyed. nutrition doesn't have to be boring. it doesn't have to be fixed. it doesn't have to regimented. it can be exciting. it can be diverse. it can be varied. it can, in short, accommodate our curiousity for things different and our desires for things new while still satisfying our needs for things healthful.

this book, i think, serves as a measure of proof for this. it presents the dietary habits of people around the world, and shows the range of calories and nutrients that are consumed. while some of it is not by choice, a fair amount of it is chosen by people based on their lifestyles in the context of their societies. the result is an amazing array of human dietary regimens. and what becomes clear is that as much as our food affects the nature of our living, so too does the nature of our living affect our food.

it makes for an interesting read. not just in terms of what it suggests about the nature of nutrition, but also for the education it gives regarding culture. in short, highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

the ontology of competition

the word ontology is used in philosophical discussion to identify issues as to "what" is being studied and the meaning for that "what" existing. in other words: what is it that we wish to know and what is its significance?

we're often told in sports that the nature of sport is defined by competition, and that whatever purposes we think are in sport invariably arise from the primacy of competition. competition, we are taught, is the basis upon which athletics proves itself in sport. unfortunately, however, we never really think much beyond such instruction, and allow ourselves to miss its implications in the urgency of training schedules and race seasons.

competition is not without its meanings. but its meanings are not without their consequences. and so as much as its meanings are a matter of our own choice, so too are their consequences a product of our own decision.

competition, in the sense of struggle against others, can be done for glory, for pride, for vanity, for material gain. all of which can benefit the self, to the extent that proof of being better than others can reap greater rewards to the self at the expense of those we defeat. but all of this is tied to the depths of our desires. and our desires, despite our best intentions and our best efforts, tend to be insatiable, so that the more we feed them the more they grow. and if allowed to grow unchecked, their appetites will demand every sacrifice we can offer and then ask for even more, until they consume everything in our lives and then finally turn upon the only thing that there will be left to take: ourselves. and in the end all there will left is a record of our brutality and the pain we brought to the world.

in which case, was it really worth it to leave the universe worse than when we entered? what purpose was there to our lives then? especially when all that we did was bring about our own self-destruction?

competition, however, in the sense of struggle against the self, can be done for no other reason then to be better than we were yesterday. and as much as this is an expression of desire, it is checked by the attendant realization of what we were. and what we were was something less when placed in the context of our stature in the greater realm of existence. and no matter how much better we become, the memory of that will always remind us of just how far we--all of us--have to go. in which case, our desires become transformed, so that they are no longer merely about the self, but instead about what the self can do for the one thing to which we want to give the most: others. so that in the end when we are done there will still be left a record of our compassion and the comfort we brought to the world.

in which case, it will be worth it to leave the universe better than when we entered. and this will be what gives us purpose to our lives. especially when all that we do gives to others what we give to ourselves: something better.

Friday, September 17, 2010

the deep 6 relay (or, a real pleasant weekend frolic in the ocean)

i'm going to pause my usual posts for a current event news item that at the time of this writing is ongoing. it's the Deep 6 relay trying to set a world record for an open-water relay swim.

i won't go too far into the details. you can reference them in the LA Times article here:
there's also a video at Swimming World magazine that interviews the team:
for pictures, you can check out the gallery of photos (one of them above) taken by the Ventura County Star newspaper:
in short, Deep 6 is a team of (you guessed it) 6 swimmers from Ventura County, all middle-aged men with a fairly extensive background in swimming. they're trying to cover 202 miles of open ocean, with a route following the Southern California coastline starting from Ventura Harbor to Santa Barbara and then back down again to La Jolla. each man takes a 1-hour turn before taking a rest on an accompanying charter yacht.

apart from the fact that they're setting out to obliterate the old relay record of 78 miles (set in freshwater Lake Taupo in New Zealand), here's what i find amazing:

according to the requirements maintained by the Federation Internationale de Natation (in English: the International Federation of Swimming), the swim has to be done without wetsuits. meaning that the men are swimming completely exposed to the waters of Southern California. for those of you who don't know, the waters off California originate in Alaska, with the summer California water having been Alaska winter water 6 months before. currently, water temperatures off Los Angeles County are below 60 degrees F--and those kinds of temperatures are the kind of cold that you can feel penetrating your skull.

add to that the danger of stings from jellyfish, bites from sharks (including the breach attacks of great whites), and collisions with random pieces of human pollution from passing ships and Southern California cities, and you have yourself a real pleasant weekend frolic in the ocean.

they started this past Thursday and are supposedly set to finish by Monday. i hope to catch the news of their completion, since i want to know their condition and see the photos. it sounds like they're having an adventure, and they'll have definitely done something very, very few people can even think about doing.

that, and they'll have had a real pleasant weekend frolic in the ocean.