Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Letter from California-November 8, 2004

Stop and think about how far technology has come in the last 20 years or so. Do you remember the inconvenience of having to actually be inside a building to get a phone call? Or how about the nuisance of having to look at your date book to remember what was on your schedule rather than having an electronic beep to remind you? Then there was that old-fashioned Emergency Broadcast System that would break into the program and do that high-pitched sound whose purpose was to burst your eardrums as a way of getting your attention. That was terrible, but since it was during the Cold War, broken eardrums could have been the least of your problems. When that signal came on, you had to wait a few second before finding out whether or not you were going to be able to finish your episode of My Three Sons before the world as we knew it came to an end.

No matter how far technology goes in providing us with more and more gadgets that beep for more and more reasons, Nature has even more powerful ways of sending us important messages. Sure, a little computerized alarm might get you to look away from your game of computer Solitaire. Perhaps. On the other hand, if a Zulu Warrior shoots you in the neck with a blow dart, Nature sends you a signal in the form of extreme pain that you might want to put down the mouse and investigate.

Generally speaking, Nature discourages you from activities that might not be in your best interest by making them uncomfortable. Running, for example, must not be one of those things that we’re supposed to do all the time. Your dog, by contrast, can run all day and night, for no reason other than that he keeps thinking his shadow is an enemy dog sneaking up on him. Does he run for a few minutes and then stop, wincing in pain? Does he stand there, hunched over feeling humiliated at his inability to catch that phantom puppy? No, because unlike you, he’s supposed to run like that.

This morning, I got up much earlier than usual for a weekend day, woke up the whole family, put on athletic clothes, drove an hour through the semi-darkness and stood waiting in a chilly drizzle for almost an hour. I wasn’t alone either. Hundreds of other people who apparently didn’t get Nature’s email were there too. It was the warm-up area for a 5-kilometer road race. (Since the metric system has completed failed in this country except for measuring road races and 2 liter bottles of soda, I’ll go ahead and tell you that I did the math and 5k is 3.1 miles.)

California has a reputation for being full of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed athletic people who spend their weekends tormenting themselves with high-intensity recreation like bungee-jumping and high-altitude cliff diving. For all I know, that may be true, but in my case, I had driven 30 miles for the chance to move very slowly and painfully around a track, while much more gazelle-like people ran past me like I was a fire hydrant. As I walked through the parking lot before the race started, I got a feel for the fact that the competition in this race was going to be a little past my abilities. One tall, East African runner would have looked unhealthily skinny if it weren’t for all the muscles and his general air of being created in a lab to live 200 years and run really, really fast. Some of the women were so thin that if you looked at them in profile, they became invisible. I turned to my wing-footed six-year old son, also racing with me, and said, “Jake, I think I might lose this race.”

“What do you mean? Of course, you’re not going to WIN!”

“No, Jake, I think I might lose to everyone here…all 600 of them.”

He laughed, which wasn’t exactly reassuring. Somehow he wound up with the same rogue gene that these other people did. The one that makes them look like they’re enjoying a relaxing ride on the Disneyland Monorail as they tick off the miles with winning smiles on their faces. For most of us, of course, running three miles involves considerable pain, suffering and an intense concentration on the goal of not dying.

Well, I didn’t die, and I didn’t actually lose the race, thanks to the elderly and oversized people who kept me company at the back of the pack before I made my power move on them at the very end. Of course, it wasn’t 100% fair, since they had to push those dialysis machines and carry those oxygen tanks on their backs, and all I had to carry was myself.

Still, a win’s a win. Or more accurately, a non-loss to everyone else is a non-loss. Maybe I wasn’t super competitive in the race, but I learned a valuable lesson just by being there.

And that lesson is: as long as you can cross the line before they turn off the time clock, you might as well keep racing.


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