Friday, November 25, 2011

Changing course

My Charlie and I had planned to run the Dallas White Rock Half-Marathon together this year. We decided this last December, on one of those wildly glorious Sunday afternoons that seem to go on forever, the kind that, if the sun sets and you haven't made any pledges or promises, maybe you don't believe -- at least not today -- in magic.

We had driven to Swiss Avenue to watch my friend Laura run the anchor leg of her relay team. As we looked for her, Charlie tagged behind me at first; I don't think he knew what to expect at such a huge race. He may have been a bit overwhelmed at all the runners -- to say nothing of his excited mother's reaction to them. But by the time we spotted Laura, Charlie was yelling, too -- maybe not as loudly as I, but nonetheless yelling, cheering on people whose legs were giving out, but who kept on going.

Twice in the hour or so we were there, Charlie turned to me.

"I want to do this," he said. Hearing him say that made me so happy. I put my arm around his shoulders, told him yes, we'll do it together.

"Hold onto this moment," I said. "When we're training and things are hard, remember how this feels right now." I linked my arm in his as we walked to the car.

Months and seasons passed. I did my usual running, my occasional swimming, my semi-regular jaunts to the gym.  Charlie stayed in the utmost of shape during track season, most of which intersected with club volleyball. Spring made way for summer, which too soon passed. School, and volleyball season, began anew.

We had every intention of following through with our plan to run the half marathon. Charlie hadn't been running, but volleyball keeps him in phenomenal shape. Plus, being 18, I had utmost confidence he could build up his mileage...which he did; the week after the volleyball tournament that ended the season, he ran five miles one day and seven another.

For his October birthday, I gave Charlie a pair of running tights, a stocking cap, an ear warmer, and a nifty pair of gloves that had an optional wind-breaker flap. He was thrilled, and so was I.

By then, he'd started playing club volleyball again. One day, he came home and said his knee had started hurting so badly he had to sit out much of practice. Though he wore knee pads, he'd still had a few knee ailments throughout the fall volleyball season -- not surprisingly, judging by the number of times he went flying through the air after a wayward volleyball, sliding across the gym floor on, yes, his knees.

"I cringe when he does that," I told the orthopedist. "The balls go flying, and they're usually so out of reach they're impossible to rescue."

"Yes," he told me, "but it's those one or two he does get that keep him trying."

 When Charlie told the doctor he'd planned to run the Turkey Trot, which was 36 hours after our appointment, and the half-marathon 10 days later, the doctor shook his head.

"I don't recommend it," he said. "If your knee starts hurting even a little, stop. Having to sit out your volleyball season for an injury you exacerbated by running just isn't worth it."

He sent Charlie to a physical therapist in an adjoining office. Charlie was there for an hour or so, and the physical therapist told him no running, no volleyball, for at least two weeks.

I'd planned to run the YMCA Turkey Trot with Charlie. But when he couldn't, I decided I wasn't up to getting caught up in the excited mayhem of the Thanksgiving morning race. Charlie wanted me to go, but instead I ran eight miles in the neighborhood, and was perfectly happy with that.

I'm not going to skip the White Rock Half, which I haven't run in several years. But yeah, I especially wanted to run it with my son -- for, among other reasons, his calming influence (not that I get jittery before a race or anything). Mostly, though, I wanted us to do it together because he's a high-school senior, making this probably our last chance while he's still living at home. He nixed my idea of training for the 3M half in Austin, or for the Big D Texas Half in April, because track and volleyball will take up so much of his time by then.

I quite understand, as I do his wanting to defy doctor's orders. Several times since his appointment, he's said, "I want to run." Instead, we've gone to the gym, where he's ridden the stationary bike with zero tension, and worked with weights that strengthen his upper-body.

Am I disappointed? Sure, and I know he is, too. Yet as I write this -- on a Sunday afternoon, no less, much like a certain other one a year ago -- I realize this change in plans has taught me and, I venture, Charlie, a lesson or two:

Namely, that not every promise can be fulfilled. And that as earnest and eager as pledges can be, they, too, are at life's mercy. Yet, on Sunday afternoons such as this, despite certain pebbles and plummets on its path, I'm keenly aware that life itself is wild and glorious -- and as filled with magic as we -- and our dreams -- allow it to be.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Winning spirit

The bittersweet truth about a playoff game is this: No matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, no matter what your season record has been, only one team can take home the trophy.

As third-seed in the tournament, and, on paper at least, there may have been a naysayer or two who didn't expect you'd be vying for that trophy in the first place. Where you stand now -- in center court, or behind the bench (how could anyone sit down today?) -- is where the No. 1 seed was expected to be. Yes, that team; the one you fought last night, the one that, at the end of five heart-racing, hair-raising games, you finally beat.

You woke up this chilly clear morning knowing you're the underdogs, yet for once not fazed by the fact that during the entire season, this team you're up against lost only two matches. You lost 15, several to your opponent.

Today, though feels different. There's something in the air you can almost reach out and put in your pocket; it mingles with the smell of dry leaves and of pumpkin spices from the nearby Starbucks, creating an atmosphere of anticipation on this crazy, happy Friday afternoon.

Maybe it's the camaraderie: you've eaten your last six meals together, more than you eat with your families these days. Of the last 48 hours, you've spent two-thirds of them with each other.

Maybe it's the bleachers, crammed with the standing-room-only crowd of classmates, parents, teachers -- bleachers that during the regular season held only smatterings of your and your opponents' own moms and dads.

More than all that though, something else fills the air -- something you find yourself looking around for like you would a voice in the darkness, or the source of a tantalizing aroma you can't quite place. You can't hold onto it, but it takes hold of you, this belief you can't shake if you wanted to -- a belief in your talent and your tenacity, in twists of fate and in today. And mostly, a belief in yourselves, in each other, in your team.

All through the season, the coach has worked you hard. He's honed your talent, sharpened your skill, drilled into you that you have what it takes to be winners. He's gotten frustrated when you let your emotions overtake your prowess, when teams -- namely, the one you're playing today -- broke your resolve. But all along, he's believed in you.

Yesterday, when you asked him to wear a tie for this game, he told you he wants this team to win more than he has any other. The seniors were freshman when he started coaching. "I've watched you grow up," he said. "I want this for you."

So here you are in the championships. You come onto the court smiling, laughing, talking, cheering, doing high kicks, volleying. You warm up to music from Remember the Titans and Lord of the Rings, as well as songs from bands with names like Flo Rida and The Glitch Mob.

You're introduced -- 18 individuals whose spirit for the sport has mingled and made you blood brothers, whose passion has made you a team. Each one of you steps out from the line and waves, first to one side of the gymnasium, then to the other. The crowd roars.

The first game starts as the numbers in the bleachers grow. Guys who ran in the championship cross-country meet earlier today -- the ones that, as a group, you went out to cheer -- show up, some with faces painted blue and gold, or medals dangling from their necks. They scream chants that you, the players, have taught them -- these secret handshakes no other school, no other group, no other team would understand.

"This is B-Stet!" shouts No. 10, after No. 11 earns yet another phenomenal point.

"What up?!" answers everyone else on the team and, by season's end, the spectators as well.

When your team blocks a hit that leads to a point, the kid who shaved his head for the tournament leaps to the center of the court, raises his knee and belts out, "You! Shall not...!!"

"Pass!" screams the team and the classmates and the parents and anyone else who remembers this from the pep rally.

Seeing the cheers put into words and placed on a page seems strange, out of context. They're not meant to be captured, only to be pushed through charged and static air. 

You win the first game handily. The second you lose, surprising yourselves. In the third, you fight to a tie, and then your opponent breaks the tie by the requisite two points. Game four is close; you play with grace and with heart, but you can't pull out a win. You congratulate the winners, accept your second-place trophy. You hug each other and some of you cry, boys whose moms say they haven't seen cry in years.

At home, you find a video of the game online. You flop on the couch and watch it, again and again and again. You nap, wake up, eat something, fall asleep again.

Maybe you don't voice it, but you inherently know that this day, this exact moment with these particular teammates, will never come around again. Sure, you'll play more games -- intramural and pickup and club. Those of you who don't graduate this year will fight your way through another season. But this exact mingling of dynamics, of energy, of passion, won't come along again.

You'll go back to school in a day or two, sit through classes, eat lunch, go home at the end of the day instead of heading for the gym. But forever you'll share this season, this tournament, this game. Your opponent may have taken the victory and the trophy home, but nobody can ever take away everything else, which forever belongs to all of you.

At odd moments through the years, in snippets or in waves, you'll remember this feeling. On an autumn afternoon, when the air is sweet and golden and for whatever reason you feel crazy happy, you'll get whiffs of pumpkin and locker rooms and leather. You'll swear you hear squeaks of shoes on polished gym floors, and cheers that you haven't thought about in ages. You'll sense something you can't quite grasp, but which has hold of you -- just like it did on the day you learned what it means to be part of something much bigger, much shinier, much more meaningful than even the most beautiful and sought-after trophy.