Posted by: cctracker | December 27, 2012

Christmas Hope

I’ve been keeping this blog for one year now. I’m grateful for those of you who have taken the time to read it and especially appreciate the thoughts and comments you’ve shared. Since I kept this project to myself for most of the year, not many of you may have seen some of the earliest posts. I thought I’d  repeat this one I shared a year ago at Christmas. A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!

A few years ago our high-school newspaper asked members of the faculty to share a few brief thoughts on what gave them hope at Christmas.

Last week, a friend was kind enough to  share that one of the alum editors had kept my comments and shared them with his family before dinner this year. He was good enough to send me the words I’d composed in an e-mail and hadn’t otherwise saved. They still feel true and they still hold me to account:

“If I only have a few sentences to say where I find hope, I’d say I find it most in the generosity of human beings I encounter. Not just in the “generosity” of seeing someone intentionally share something with someone else, but in the underlying generosity that allows them to give themselves to the world in the first place, to let others see their true colors, hear their real voice.

I’ll sometimes find myself thinking of a particular person—my niece, my wife, an athlete I’ve coached, a singer/songwriter I like—and I feel a joy well up in me, a thrill. “This person is alive!” I feel myself almost shouting aloud. They are giving themselves and I’ve been lucky enough to be there to experience it. And so, I am filled with hope, an inexpressible sense that continuing to take the risk of giving myself, in spite of all that can and does go wrong, is absolutely the right thing to do.

To me, affirming the importance of that generosity—that “pouring out” of one’s self—is very closely associated with what it means to have faith in God, to believe the “good news” that Jesus taught.

The word “hope” itself indirectly acknowledges a problem. The experiences we desire most deeply in life—love, joy, meaning and fulfillment—don’t come automatically for us or those around us. Fundamental things about life get in the way: the experiences of loss, loneliness, violence, and vulnerability to forces we can’t control, the inevitability of death. Eventually, as mature adults, we come to see that these things will never go away.

Under these very difficult physical, psychological and spiritual circumstances we have to figure out whether or how we can keep pursuing those deep desires. The term “God”—and many other terms in other languages and traditions—has served as a placeholder for the deeply felt experience that we keep going not only by our own efforts or by solving the problem of existence with our own minds, but by somehow being OPEN to a gift that is larger than ourselves. “God” is the name we’ve given to the source for that gift, that hope.

I’d say we are in a period of human history in which the term “God” feels small and irrelevant to more and more people who have mistaken it either for something we human beings made up to solve our problems or for something completely beyond us that might as well be appealed to through magic. Instead, Christianity makes the claim that life (faith, hope, love: the terms all point to the same inexpressible reality) is a GIFT. It is simply GIVEN. And it is best accepted by learning to become a gift one’s self, by pouring one’s self out for all the world to see as God has done in Jesus, as he has done for me in the people I mentioned above and as he wants to do in each of us. That, I think, is what Christmas is all about.”

Every now again I meet someone who makes me question my assumptions. A canoeing buddy of mine e-mailed me this short piece on “fellow citizen” Michael Richard Smith. He’s now on that list.

Man calls 14-foot canoe on Boston Harbor his home – Houston Chronicle.

I know a lot of folks live on houseboats and I’ve lived out of a canoe for a few days at a time, but living out of your canoe for months at a time on Boston Harbor? That caught my imagination as well as my attention.

I read on.

What I liked most about the piece–and what stayed with me for a few days after I read it– was its simple, understated affirmation of human dignity. It would have been easy for a journalist to “use” Mr. Smith in a story like this, either as a backdrop for a commentary on the politics of homelessness or for the entertainment value of another homeless person’s “outrageous” take on life.

But in a few simple sentences, Bridget Murphy offers us something more.  She gives us a few touchstones to help us encounter another mysterious, unmeasurable soul rather than a topic for a story. She does mention some of the places he  parks his boat each night, but also tells us where he came from, what he really cares about. And how he came to name his boat.

At the sight of a shooting star, Murphy reports he wished all of us some self-esteem. I needed a little the day I read this. Perhaps the grace of that gift began with a story-teller who came first to meet a human being and only after that to tell the tale.


Posted by: cctracker | November 25, 2012


What would Lincoln do?

A lot of people are asking that question these days, including the panel on Meet the Press this morning.  The question has some powerful political potential for our country at this moment in history.

The immediate credit for the question goes, of course, to  “Lincoln” the new Steven Spielburg movie based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book  Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Incredibly, the movie lives up to the overwhelming demands of its audaciously simple title.

Think about it: How many American faces captured in photographs have become truly universal–revered by nearly all of us– as sacred American cultural icons? And isn’t Lincoln’s face the most sacred of them all?  Haven’t we all looked upon that face, careworn by  the deepest sadness and creased with unimaginable burdens, and secretly longed to see him miraculously speak and move so that we could know with our physical senses as well as with our hearts and minds that such a person actually lived?

Somehow, Daniel Day-Lewis‘ and Spielberg deliver the miracle.  We see a man with a real body lie down on the floor next to his sleeping young son, curl himself into a chair, plod awkwardly down a long corridor and we understand that he was one of us. We see a face, many times in closeup, and though it is not as grotesquely etched with pain and fatigue as the photographs, we feel as if he is there, returning our gaze. We hear the thin, strained music of a voice telling jokes and stories, using curse words, making speeches and delivering passionate commands and we  feel as if we are hearing the spirit of the man –a spirit we knew until now only in printed words or text read aloud by someone else– at last expressed in the audible words of a very real and particular human being.

I’ll leave to others the task of critiquing the movie. It is a Spielberg film so there is plenty of smoke, dramatic back lighting, romantic affirmation of good and evil and a strong narrative through-line. And since it tries to deal with the uncapturable complexity of real history, it distorts time, places, events and characters, perhaps to a degree that justifiably offends those with a scholar’s grasp of the history around its central event: the passing of the 13th Amendment.

But if you are at all like me, even more than the power of Day-Lewis’ performance and despite any of its weaknesses, this movie keeps bringing you back to today, to the public life and politics of our own embattled 2nd term President,  to our own profoundly dysfunctional Congress. And it asks: What would Lincoln do?

The immediate political form of the question might be: What would Lincoln do about the “Fiscal Cliff?”  But just behind that loom the myriad other questions that divide us as a nation or keep us up worrying late at night: What would he do about the national debt? About entitlement reform? Tax reform? How about the shrinking middle class, energy policy, global warming? Policy toward Iran, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, China?

We all know that finding a workable way forward on each of these individual questions will require immense effort, mind-numbingly complex research and discovery and horrifically difficult negotiations between competing parties and interests. And I think the majority of Americans know that this work will demand virtues like persistence and discipline.

But Lincoln’s life, and Spielberg’s movie, tell us some other things we don’t seem to know–or don’t want to face– about what Lincoln might do if he were President today and what we  need to be prepared to do if we are to meet the challenges of our times.

Lincoln was indeed a magnificent moral and spiritual leader of the United States worthy of our statues and our reverence. But he was at the same time a politician who accepted the unavoidable complexity and ambiguity of the human process of political progress. He compromised not only his ideological commitments, but his personal moral standards to steer the ship of state toward what he believed would be a more just and humane future. He subjected himself and his family to irresponsible  stresses and misery. When the vote on the 13th Amendment was nearly derailed, he lied to save it. He gave orders he knew would result in the massacre of thousands at the service of questionable military ends. But in the face of all of this impossible and unavoidable ambiguity and grief, he nevertheless moved us forward, his gaze ultimately fixed on what he believed was the necessary, good and moral end. And he cajoled, inspired and commanded  as many of those around him as he could to do the same.

So, do we really want to know what Lincoln would do? What Lincoln asks us to face?

Are we all willing to admit both hard truths about our economy: that in the last 40 years our public policies have allowed the wealthy to succeeded at the expense of the poor and middle class, and that our government is too large and wasteful? Are we willing to support a politician who tells us both and risks putting forward initiatives to go forward on both?

Are we ready to admit that we are stealing financial security from the same children we say we love and want to serve in our pious prayers and  rhetoric? If so, are we ready to publicly support, even demand that our political leaders reform Medicare and Social Security to delay, shrink or even eliminate our own (or our parents)  benefits?

Are we ready to admit that while science may have a little more fine detail to sew up, the planet is certainly warming dramatically with potentially catastrophic consequences for nearly a billion of us, most of whom are among the poorest and most vulnerable and that human beings are very likely the cause? If so are we willing to support the politicians who dare even to mention this reality much less cajole, inspired or demand  any of us to take meaningful–and no doubt very costly–action?

These questions all depend upon us meeting a less tangible, interior challenge. A spiritual challenge. Are we ready to challenge an underlying, interior craving for comfortable, self-serving answers? Are we willing to challenge ourselves and then our friends, families neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens not only to move beyond our own ideological commitments toward real, practical problem solving aimed at the public good, but also to accept that our political leaders must deal with a political context at least as ambiguous and complex as Lincoln’s? Are we willing to remember that Lincoln was mocked and hated by hundreds of thousands while he served and that many of us may have been among them had we lived in that America?

We have our own crises today. We have our own embattled second term President and our own dysfunctional congress. We also face our own individual and communal temptations to see only the answers that suit us, that feel right, that cost us little.

It is a very good time, indeed, for us to ask: What would Lincoln do?

Posted by: cctracker | November 5, 2012

Team, Tradition and the Torch

Our Cross Country team won the State Championship yesterday.

There are clichés about this sort of thing, but it really was a glorious victory. A cold, clear fall morning. Thousands of young athletes, with many thousands of their families and friends, gathered on a golf course in rolling hills at the edge of the northeastern Ozarks. Our guys were among the favorites, but underdogs for the championship. In a field of 170 or so elite runners the odds-on favorites to win placed their first four runners at 1st, 3rd, 10th and 27th: an incredibly strong showing. But in Cross Country you have to add 5 runner’ s places for your total score and their number five man was well back.

Meanwhile, though our top two nabbed All-State honors at 8th and 21st, the rest of “the pack” was right behind them in the 30’s. They didn’t get sucked out to an imprudent start. They moved up steadily. Finished very tough. But the key was they stayed together. That cohesion, that team approach, was the clincher. They won by three points, much closer than a buzzer-beater in basketball. They had obviously been well-coached.

I’ve been away from coaching for three years, but I’d coached the team for 27 years and this realization made an impact on me. It was a little painful: the program was obviously thriving without me. Though this wasn’t “my” team, as I watched them celebrating afterwards I saw generous, humble, hard-working, virtuous young men who exhibited the kind of character I’d aimed at cultivating above all else as a coach.

That’s when my thoughts returned to my own high school coach. Not long after he died in 2000, I wrote a tribute about him. I’m posting a version of that essay here in his honor and in recognition of the way all of us depend upon cultures of faith and virtue created by those who’ve gone before us, most of whom we never know by name.

Tradition, Class and Pride: In Loving Memory of My Coach

 I first met Coach in the late summer of 1973, a few days before I began high school. I had come out for Cross Country on a dare from a grade school classmate with only the vaguest notions of what I was in for. On that hot, humid morning he led me on a 3.1 mile run. By the time we turned the last corner and surged toward the finish, with him picking up the pace but still keeping me close, my childhood was somewhere on the pavement behind me. By the time I graduated, with eight seasons in Track and Cross Country, a 1975 team State Championship in Cross Country and over 3,000 miles of training behind me, my Coach had become one of the most important people in my life. 30 years later, with 27 years of coaching, four State Championships and my own coaching career behind me now, I see that his influence continues in the lives of hundreds of young men who will never know his name, and through them, will be passed to thousands more.

For the three years before I met him, my Coach had been teaching Physical Education, serving as athletic director and coaching Cross Country, Soccer and Track and Field at my tiny Catholic Seminary High School. My first impressions were of his physical presence. He was a big man: tall, wide shouldered, with a broad face and prominent, chiseled features. His blond hair and mustache completed the picture. I’m sure I was frightened of him at first. But that wasn’t my deepest response. From that first day we ran together, I saw grace in the way in the way he carried himself and humor and compassion in his countenance. And from that first day, his hand was a guiding presence in my life.

He was remarkably light and quick on his feet for a man of his size, soundless when he ran. I remember his first words of instruction about running: “Land on the forefoot, not on the ball of the foot, not on the heel, and not flat-footed. Just behind the ball and slightly to the outside. Then down on the heel, back to the forefoot and off.” I remember thinking this was crazy, too precise. How could you control all that? How could you learn it if it didn’t come naturally? But watching him run I could see he had mastered it. Eventually, I did learn. I’ve never forgotten how to teach it.

He was a Shot Put and Discus man in college. When I first saw him throw the discus, it took my breath away. First, a moment of humble, focused, motionless concentration in the circle. Then, a slow-motion twist into the spin and pivot, a startlingly smooth acceleration and, an instant later, the controlled explosion of release. I remember the  disc spinning away, climbing, spinning flat and true as if it would fly over the school building a quarter-mile away. Much of who he was in body and soul is captured for me in that image: silence, discipline, and control balanced against speed, power and exuberance. Perhaps that is what “graceful” is meant to convey.

When he laughed, the same forces were there: something irrepressible bursting out, something else, restrained and controlled, holding it in. His whole frame shook in the muffled struggle. The team captain my freshman year was a lanky and circumspect intellectual with great competitive drive and a biting wit. Many times I watched them catch each other with subtle, barbed comments tossed back and forth. Sometimes just the arch of a brow was enough to set them off: first one shaking in silent laughter, then the other. It was clear to me even then that he and Coach were friends. That really caught me as a young boy: this man in a position of authority had offered his friendship to a student. The respect between them was as obvious as the humor.

Coach was loved by many for a thousand reasons, but among his closest friends, his alternately wry and outlandish sense of humor may be missed most of all. And it wasn’t limited to witty banter. He once dropped a colleague to the track with an outrageous joke. For ten minutes, his assistant coach– a close friend– was incapacitated with laughter. Coach stood over him, impassively, as if nothing had happened, which made the whole thing even funnier for his victim. What I love most about this story is that Coach was by nature and habit of mind as far from the crude character of the joke as he could be. He knew well in advance that this unexpected arrow would hit the target.

Nevertheless, he was a “stoic.” In fact, when the word came from his lips in one of those early coaching speeches about the nature of Cross Country running, it was the first time I ever heard the word with a real sense of what it meant. In fact, my whole vocabulary of formerly abstract virtues like “courage” and “perseverance” became visceral, lived realities because of who my Coach was. For him, “stoicism” was an irreducible word. It had to be understood from the inside. Being a stoic meant a host of things you might expect to hear from a Cross Country coach: not complaining, accepting pain, enduring interminable workouts, fighting off fear, sobs and excuses. In his view of running you never quit; you ran every step of every run, including every jog unless injured–and even then you had better be relentlessly cross-examining yourself to make sure you weren’t actually quitting on the inside. He believed we had to learn to persevere in this life, to develop courage if we were ever to come to respect ourselves. His workouts did frighten me at times. I dreaded, even hated them on occasion, but I ran them. And I have bragged about finishing them to my team and my family ever since.

Yet there was something deeper and unexpected implied in the word “stoic” for him, something he communicated in posture and glance as much as in word. He was a man acquainted with suffering. He expected life to be hard, even brutal at times. Harsh realities didn’t surprise him and he held no illusions about them. I know there were painful chapters in his childhood, perhaps much more painful than any of us guessed. Whatever the events of his early life, he had somehow thoroughly absorbed the first Nobel Truth of Buddhism: “Life is difficult.” But this truth had not made him a cynic. It made him instead into a person determined to face the world and all of its demons—inside and out—with quiet dignity. We were expected to do the same.

And so Coach had lots of rules. Sometimes they felt harsh and utterly inflexible: “Always be on time.” “Never miss a practice.” “Observe every detail of every routine no matter how minor.” But ultimately, every one of his rules was really about discipline, honor and respect and those, of course, were non-negotiable.

One of his assistant coaches told the story of an elite Track athlete one year who seemed a lock to win the District in his event and might have even contended for a high medal at State. He had already missed one practice, however, and in Coach’s book even one missed practice meant an athlete could not compete in the next meet. The next meet in this case was District and the athlete was late. The assistant coach remembers sweating nervously in the locker room, looking up at the clock again and again hoping the kid would show, wondering if Coach knew what the stakes were, whether he would be willing to be flexible. But he went on with the pre practice routines saying nothing. Then at some point, when his internal clock told him the line had been crossed, Coach looked up and flatly announced: “That’s too bad.”  Those of us who loved him laugh about this story now, measuring our own greedy, shallow standards against his.

The rules I remember most of all, though, were about character and values. “Our teams always stay together in tight packs before and after a race.” “Never return an insult no matter what anyone says to you.” “never hot-dog a finish and never hit the dirt, either.” “Shake your competitor’s hand.” “And always, always have CLASS. ” We never had any doubt that he lived that message himself.

Many years after I graduated I heard the story of his first marathon. He had “hit the wall,” as so many runners do, at 20 miles or so and it looked as if he would never finish. Somehow, he kept going. The pain made him oblivious to everything but his resolve not to quit. When at last he crossed the finish line, friends and relatives had to wrestle him to the ground to convince him that the race was over.

The last race began for my Coach in the fall of 2000. Our high school had closed and Coach had gotten a Phys Ed., Track and Cross Country job with a public school district. The adjustment to a new context was frustrating and difficult for him, but he endured. It took him a few years to begin to establish a tradition, to communicate what he meant by “class and to teach his athletes that genuine pride in your accomplishments must never come at the expense of virtue. He endured in sowing those seeds and in time, they took root. On a perfect fall weekend during the 2000 Cross Country season, his “new” team captured the Championship at a prestigious Invitational. After many years of building a program with few runners and little success, he had again found a group of young people willing to make his vision for achievement and character a reality. They looked so familiar. I hear he had nicknames for all of them. His team captain was a young man Coach obviously loved and admired. I could tell by the way Coach talked about him that he was a friend.

The evening of that victory, Coach had an aneurysm. He spent the rest of that season in the hospital slowly recovering, with his wife and their three children devotedly caring for him. At the end of the season, with Coach still in the hospital, his team captured a fourth place trophy at the State meet. The team left the awards stand with tears in their eyes, carrying the trophy they would later present to him in person. Though I was 25 years their senior, I felt like one of them that day.

After some very positive signs in late November and December, Coach suffered another series of strokes. He spent his last few weeks peacefully, at home with his family. His long race ended on Christmas Day. I never had an opportunity to see him much in his role as husband and father, but from the conversations I shared with his family during his illness and afterward, I could tell he had been wonderful at both.

Several seasons before I retired from Coaching, searching for a way to capture for incoming freshmen what Cross Country at our school was supposed to be all about, I found myself thinking of my Coach. The words that came to mind were “Tradition, Class and Pride.”  My athletes latched on to them right away. “TCP” they called it as if it were one virtue. It looks good on a t-shirt sleeve. “TCP” is a whole host of virtues that was embodied for me by a man they never met, but to whom they nevertheless owe much of what they became as athletes and as young men.

Thank you, Coach. May your legacy endure for as long as there are young people ready to run and perfect fall days for racing.

Posted by: cctracker | October 29, 2012

Wonders, Wisdom on the Wide Missouri

I have two large river maps on the back wall of my office. One charts the winding courses of the Current and Jacks Fork as they flow out from springs on the north central edge of the Ozarks, come together near Eminence, Mo. and run down off the map toward Arkansas. I’ve floated both streams many times, spent many nights camping on their gravel bars, sometimes with my boys. I know the names of put-ins and take outs and can call many stretches to mind from memory. Bee Bluff. Jam-Up Cave.  I never get tired of squinting at the map, trying to see and remember more detail. Floating Ozark streams and camping, particularly with my own boys, is a personal barometer for measuring how in touch–or out of touch as the case may be–I am with who I’m supposed to be and what life is really about.

I hadn’t been floating or camping since taking a short float with my wife and some friends on the lazy Huzzah Creek and camping overnight at Red Bluff near Davisville in early summer. It had been well over a year since I’d been on the water with my sons. When school started and they’d all settled back into jobs and school, I promised them a fall float. But by the time October arrived I hadn’t picked a weekend or made any plans. That’s when my friend Andrew e-mailed to announce what he called “The Concept.”

The other river map behind my desk is of the Missouri rolling southeast into St. Louis County, merging with the Mississippi and running off the edge of the map down toward New Orleans.

I hardly ever look at it. When I do, I realize now that part of my mind was always picturing ugliness: mud, trash, debris, carved silt banks, barges, channel dikes and effluent pipes running through a relatively featureless landscape, never far from suburbs or industry. My friend Andrew’s “Concept”  was to float the Missouri from Washington, Mo. to just below the riverfront at old St. Charles–a trip of just over 40 miles– with an overnight camp across from the bluffs and Katy Trail at Weldon Springs, an area I’d hiked and biked many times.

Katy Trail at Weldon Springs Photo James Burton

I’ve been intrigued by our big rivers my whole life and, like almost everyone I know, have always been embarrassed by how little I know about them, how little time I’ve spent on them or near them despite the fact that they are overwhelmingly the most significant geographic features in this region. When I’d heard of people floating the Missouri or Mississippi I pictured them in tiny crafts dwarfed by water, land and sky. I  admired their spirit of adventure, but though I knew ought to say yes to my friend, my immediate reaction was to look for an excuse. Adventure called, but danger loomed larger. Andrew had never been on the Missouri and neither had I. What about barge traffic? Whirlpools and undercurrents? Rising waters on a sandbar overnight ? The invasive, (take a look!) jumping carp I’d seen on YouTube?

My attempt at a dodge was to tell Andrew I’d already promised my boys a float weekend on the Current. “Well, call ’em and see what they say about the Missouri!” He had me there, so I e-mailed them. Two out of the three were free and said they were both in.”The Concept” was feeling inevitable, the Missouri river undercurrent pulling hard.

For the next few days, the trip still over a week away, I contended with a rising tide of anxiety and dread. I told myself the feelings were about safety, especially now that my boys were involved. But the real obstacle I was contending with was spiritual and harder to admit. I’d be giving up a luxurious, empty fall weekend, something I’m still not used to having after decades of coaching. The trip would demand days of preparation: camping gear jumbled in damp heaps and dusty tubs in the cellar would have to be gone through; food and supplies would have to be bought; I’d have to figure out how to move two kayaks and a canoe on top of my ailing 2003 KIA Sedona. And underneath that was an even more humiliating truth: I didn’t want to deal with two days of discomfort.

HH Ranch, New Mexico

When camping and being outdoors are a regular part of your life, it’s as if you’ve got a second skin. Your regular, daily work skin may recoil like everyone else’s does from whatever is gritty, clammy, cold or greasy, but because you’ve been out in the mud, the heat, and the dew so often, because you’ve been incensed with wood smoke and anointed with the holy oils of your own skin mixed with DEET and sunscreen, your second skin doesn’t mind. It knows that life is wet and dirty. It has gotten over those petty discomforts and waits underneath for your next trip when you’ll strip off the cheap suit and breath the real world in through open pores. I’ve had that second skin for months at a time at various times in my life, but I didn’t have it now.

I met early the next week to plan the trip with Andrew and Mike, another teacher friend who’d decided to join us, and spent the rest of the week going through gear, shopping for stuff gone missing or broken and loading supplies into dry bags for my two sons and me . On thursday Andrew and I figured out how to strap the kayaks and the canoes to the roof of the van. Thunder storms were added to the weekend forecast that night and my mood brightened. The trip might yet be scuttled. Weathering lightning strikes on 200 open yards of water was something even Andrew would agree was a deal breaker.

My friend Andrew is a hero of mine.

Photo James Burton

He is a relentless promoter of events around his passions: frisbee golf, biking, floating, camping, Bob Dylan. His invitations are delivered with a bare minimum of words, but they hit a target that makes you feel like a kid watching TV inside who knows he ought to be out playing ball or walking the creek. He doesn’t say it out loud, but the message is: “What the hell else do you have to do that could be better than this!?”

Kayaks are “yaks” in Andrewspeak. I remember an e-mail I got from him a few years ago with the title: “Yakin’ or Slackin’?” He wanted to float about 20 miles of the Meramec on a frigid, wind-whipped early spring day with sleet in the forecast. But the trip was on the calendar and he’d been building up karma for it for weeks. We couldn’t talk him out of it and none of us were willing to fight his relentlessly positive mojo. It wasn’t until we were actually at the put-in with the car sliding out of control in the ice that we finally cancelled. Even then, we had to pull the plug without his actual verbal consent. He simply couldn’t bring himself to say no to getting out on the river, even when the worst of the elements were against us.

He’s a hero for me because a relentlessly positive spirit is indispensable if you’re going be an outdoor person, or an adventurer in any endeavor for that matter. I don’t always have that spirit and Andrew helps me keep it alive. There are always excuses and never guarantees. If you’re  unwilling to risk exposure to chaos, you’ll rarely know the joys of being in the wilderness. Thanks to Andrew, I’ve had a whole set of experiences I might have otherwise given up on. The weekend that lay ahead was to be the best of them all.

Photo James Burton

But  the night before we left I was still in turmoil. I’d finally finished packing gear late friday night, tired from a week at work and emotionally spent by anticipating the demands of the ordeal ahead. Camping gear and food were in the bags, but a storm was coming Saturday night and would likely last through Sunday. As I imagined it, we’d be breaking camp in a thunderstorm, the most miserable of outdoor tasks, and then do 20 miles of paddling in the rain on Sunday. Mike gave us notice in advance that he was out for day two; his wife would be picking him Saturday afternoon at Weldon Springs. Andrew said he was in for camping on Howell Island, but understood we needed to think about it. My boys and I  agreed we’d play it by ear.

The next morning on our way out to Washington, the van began to lurch and skip. We burned through nearly a 1/4 tank of gas in 30 miles. Then a 2 x 4 we’d used to secure the canoe came flopping off the roof rack onto the interstate. We pulled to the shoulder. Thankfully, no cars were directly behind us and it was smashed to splinters by passing semi’s in a few minutes. I ran out onto the roadway to haul off the remaining chunks and we re-tightened the straps. I couldn’t help but read the mishaps as bad omens for what lay ahead.

Photo James Burton

By the time we limped down to the landing at Washington, hauled out the gear and loaded the boats, I was at last out of the mode of anticipation and deliberation and into the moment. The vast Missouri swept along beside us. My wife was willing to drive the van home and had someone to call if she ran into trouble. Like the Corps of Discovery to whom we couldn’t help but compare ourselves, we bid farewell to our party of well-wishers, pushed off the landing and steered out to the middle of the longest river in the United States.

From the moment I was on the water, revelations, pleasures and wonders came faster than I could count: the relatively unspoiled contours of the surrounding land, the ease and safety of navigating back and forth across the current, the astounding scale of wing dikes built and rebuilt over many years to channelize the river, the size and rugged beauty of bluffs that could easily justify setting aside large stretches of the Missouri riverbank as a National Park. The whole experience on that first day was slow, easy, and grand.

I realized almost immediately that I had known almost nothing about this river. And the most surprising revelation of all was that almost none of us appear to know it. We’ve turned our backs to it, just as we have to the Mississippi. A friend from school who is a masterful canoeist and spends more weekends on rivers and streams than off, admitted he’d never been on the Missouri. He’d assumed it wasn’t safe. It hadn’t occurred to him that it might be beautiful. We saw two boats, in total, over the course of two days. If not for the wing dikes, it was easy to imagine ourselves as the Lewis and Clark party going downstream, heading home.

Photo James Burton

The navigation was easy; Andrew had brought the maps and done his homework. River miles are marked at points of interest. Every few miles there are bright, white day-beacons to guide barges back and forth across the stream to catch the fastest and deepest part of the current. We mostly followed this path, gliding along next to the dikes for a half mile or so with very little paddling, then paddling hard for five or six minutes to head over to the other side when the river took a gentle turn pushing the water to the opposite side against the next long wing-dike line.

It was at the end of these dikes that we usually saw the Asian Carp–spooked by the boats as advertised on You Tube–leaping three or four feet into the air. At one point a six or so pound fish leapt right into our canoe and flopped wildly around until Andrew scooped him out with a paddle. Even at our speed they’d pack quite a wallop if they slapped you upside the head. I don’t think I’d be willing to take that chance in an open motor boat at 30 miles per hour. For the rest of the trip Andrew went into martial arts mode with his paddle any time we got to the end of a run along the dikes.

One of the most striking visuals on the trip was watching the man-made dike border passing by us at one tempo while seeing the true boundary of a bluff or a distant ridge appearing to sweep grandly by more slowly.

Seeing this double footprint of the river reminded me of a great book I read several years ago: John Barry’s Rising Tide.

Barry tells the story of the devastating flood of 1927 that destroyed thousands of farms and homes in the Louisiana lowlands. Levees were blown open with dynamite upstream on the swollen Mississippi to save New Orleans. It’s a book for both historians and engineers, full of astounding details about how we have tamed our great rivers with bridges and bent them to our commercial will with massive channelization projects.

In a larger sense the book is about our ignorance of what a river really is. We think of them as streams existing naturally within defined banks that occasionally flood. But that is what we have made of them. They are–or were– much more like living organisms: writhing across the landscape, changing constantly in intimate and ultimately creative and sustaining interactions with the every species in the environment. A river in flood should extend into thousands of capillaries, spreading the life blood of nutrient rich sediment, seeds, and fish eggs all across the flood plain. Huge extra volumes of water from snow melt, spring rains or sustained storms that we see almost exclusively as a threat to be contained by levees and sent downstream for the next community to do likewise, are meant to be taken up by wide lowlands like a sponge.  This is what a wetland is. And it’s why they are among the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet.

Preserving wetlands and limiting the degree to which we channelize our great rivers and build hundreds of miles of so-called “500-year” levees would not only make environmental and aesthetic sense, but would protect us from the cycles of catastrophic loss and destruction that inevitably come to channelized rivers. The water has to go somewhere. For a hundred years or so the water has been mostly destroying our crops and the occasional small river town. Increasingly, as our patterns of suburban development have become more aggressive, the water eventually rolls out over our outlet malls. Floating the Missouri certainly personalized for me these truths about the harm we’ve done to our rivers and our communities. The surprise was that it also gave me frequent glimpses of what the river once was.

Photo James Burton

When we passed through the Creve Coeur basin on the second day where the vista is so wide-open that you can’t see the bluffs and ridges that define the river valley, my imagination boggled at what the coiled, monster of the Missouri might have been like as it rolled through here on a bright spring day, long before the Lewis and Clark  party somehow dragged themselves and all their gear upstream.

Beside the Asian Carp, we didn’t see much wildlife on the trip. A few Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Gulls and King-fishers. One Bald Eagle. Evidence of hundreds of deer coming down to the river’s edge on Howell Island. But there was a “wilderness” quality to the huge, man-made objects we passed along the way. The hulking, apocalyptic monolith of the Labadie Power Plant just seemed too big to have been built by us. It had its own waterfall, but like a ghastly, anti-spring, the water coming out into the Missouri was warm, not cold, to the touch.

Photo James Burton

Passing under highway bridges was weird. In an abstract sense I knew there were people in cars passing far above me sealed in the highway experience of the world to which I would soon return. For them the river was, at best, a moment of shimmering, expansive, release  from the business of the day. Meanwhile for me, fully immersed in the world of the river on its own terms, floating under the bridge was like passing through a monumental stone archway, the sounds of passing cars not tires echoing but mysterious, awesome rumbles of unknown origin. The drivers above and I were not in the same plane of existence; these were separate worlds. When I mentally stepped back from this experience to reflect upon it as I passed out into the open again, I knew that it would be strange to drive home Sunday across that same bridge and remember myself in another world, a world so much further away than 120 feet.

As we got to the middle of Saturday afternoon, some of my pre-trip sourness returned. Mike had called his wife to pick him up at the Weldon Springs access. Theoretically, this was where my sons and I were supposed to take a last look at the weather and make our own decision about going ahead with the plan for camping at Howell Island or calling it quits. Even after an incredible 1st day, I was ready to call it. Storms were almost certainly coming; nothing had changed to challenge my initial grim forecast of what Saturday night and Sunday would be. Why not just end the day on a glorious note? But as we sat at Weldon waiting to help Mike pack out, it was obvious how this was going to be decided. Andrew respected our choice of course,  and he’d have had to quit if we did, but he wasn’t going to ask us what we thought and we weren’t going to bring it up if he didn’t.  We had a few beers courtesy of Mike’s wife, repacked the gear and pushed off from Weldon to look for our camp. We’d left one of our party and a cozy night in a warm bed behind.

The Missouri is pretty low for most of the autumn and that was a problem for finding a campsite on Howell. The typical shore profile was 5 to ten feet of mud, sand and driftwood at the water’s edge, then a weed-choked incline of 20 feet or so leading to a 12 foot sheer wall of silted soil leading up to the island’s forest floor. We stopped at a few prospective sites just down stream and across from the Weldon access, but they were unappealing: hundreds of deer tracks meant there would be ticks and flies and there was no level ground. The prospect of dragging our boats and gear up the embankment into the forest was no better. We kept floating downstream, thinking we might have to give up the island and find a spot back in the woods on the north side near the Katy Trail. We paddled over to the north shore. It wouldn’t be a pleasant place to camp but at least we’d be on ground high enough and flat enough to ride out the night’s storm.

Then, about a mile further down, we caught site of what appeared to be a small strip of sand near a driftwood bundle behind a jetty. We paddled across resolved to make it work if we possible could.

The place was a river rat’s dream: a steeply elevated sandbar for safety from rising water with a flat crest for tents; all the driftwood you could ever want for firewood; tucked just below the steep embankment for cover from the wind. And an absolutely magnificent view  across the river to the Bluffs of Weldon Springs.

There were whistles and laughter all around. “Perfect!” “Tents right here!” “We’ll use this dead limb for a cooking shelter!” In a few minutes the fire was going and the camp felt like home.

Evening came on as we ate dinner and a familiar calm settled on our stretch of the river. Gravel bar camping on an Ozark stream you expect a night like this. Winds die off. The surface of the water, though still moving downstream, becomes almost still. Sounds and voices stand out clear and rich against silence. Your stretch of the river feels small, complete and utterly your own as the stars come out. But I never expected to pass one of those “Ozark”  evenings camped on the banks of the Missouri. It was as if the whole scale of the river changed. As the water calmed and the light faded so that we could no longer see the distant cliffs clearly, the opposite shore seemed a stone’s throw away. The experience wasn’t wide and grand any longer. We were tucked into a cozy camp on the water in the woods. The only break in the illusion came when tiny floating headlamps of late-night bike riders appeared, heading east for St. Charles on the Katy Trail almost a half mile away.

Sometime around 10 o’clock a hard rain did start in and lasted through the night until just before dawn. But by the time we got up, only a few low, dark clouds were left hovering just above the bluffs. Gold light from the sunrise was slanting across below them to light up the rock and the autumn colors.

Photo James Burton

We drank coffee and contemplated another five hours the river. So much for my nightmares of day two. Another friend put in at Weldon early that morning and paddled into camp that morning to join us for another 20 miles on the river.

Those moody, low clouds below scattered sunlight lasted all morning Sunday. Our eyes were on the sky as much as the land and water .

We passed under the bridge at Highway 40, through the Creve Coeur valley and under the bridge at the Page Extension. I recalled all the environmental disputes about this “bridge to nowhere” through the wetlands. We caught a glimpse of the Ameristar Casino even before the bridge at I-70  came into view. That finally broke the spell of “wilderness” that had held for two days. Paddling in from that point was a ritual of leave-taking.

It ‘s taken me several weeks to post this entry because I couldn’t step back from the experience for a few days. It was too big, spiritually and physically. Even a week later when I took that photograph of our camp from the Katy trail, part of me was still on that sand bar.

Photo James Burton

As I’ve gone back over the photos and the images in my mind to collect my thoughts and impressions, I can feel the direct and honest experience of those two days slipping away, being replaced by thoughts about thoughts, images of images. I’ll need another stretch of water very soon, and maybe a storm that does actually douse me for a day, to keep myself honest. If Andrew calls, I hope I won’t sweat it too much before saying yes.

Photo James Burton

David Haskell Finds Biology Zen in a Patch of Nature –

This past weekend I was walking in a park near my home to watch a Cross Country Meet. It was strange, as it has been ever since I retired from coaching, to be out of the loop on a race day, so clearly feeling myself the outside observer rather than a participant on the inside of the experience.

But being an observer had its spiritual benefits. It was a cloudy, windless fall morning, one of those patches of autumn stillness that automatically induces meditation on things profound and full of feeling, but impossible to specify. I had brought my camera to give myself some official role to play for the team, but the colors and textures of the trees were so astonishing that I had to try to capture them.

That’s when I caught a glimpse of this fellow stretched out on a branch.

Photo James Burton

He seemed as captivated by the filtered gold and orange light I was. Who can say what a squirrel meditation might be like if we could, like the Once and Future King through Merlin’s magic, occupy that brain and body for a few seconds?

When I ran across Haskell’s piece in the times this week, I thought about that basking squirrel again, and about the believer’s–or in Haskell’s case, the agnostic’s–struggle to capture an affirmation of the transcendent character of being alive in words and concepts. (Check out his blog here.)

David Haskell spent a year watching what he came to call a “mandala:” a single square yard of Tennessee forest.  And while much of the language he employs draws on spirituality, he reports that a close look at nature, including disturbing details like wasp larvae that eat the insides out of their host caterpillars, caused him to leave behind conventional ways of talking about transcendence and religious faith.

And yet, for me, he affirms–with a meaningful kind of “faith”–the value of working to find language for transcendent experience. He affirms the value of sharing out loud with one another our experience that life is “asking” for a deeper response from us that merely naming and noting things. Here are two excerpts from the piece in the NYT:

“Science, deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s workings become clever graphs.”

His mediation on squirrels leads him to this insight:

“They are alive; they are our cousins. And they appear to enjoy the sun, a phenomenon that occurs nowhere in the curriculum of modern biology. Science is one story, true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story.”

Finally, in an excerpt from his recent blog post on Rachel Carson, I see another confirmation of the “religious” dimension in his work. Rachel Carson was asked what she hoped her legacy would be. Haskell reports that she hoped her work would help ensure that children would retain “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

I spent the first part of my life compelled by the story of transcendence. For the last 15 years or so I’ve been trying to absorb the tiniest fraction of the story science tells of how matter and life have come to be in the staggeringly long progression of cosmic time. There have been, and no doubt will continue to be, dark days when the two stories are difficult to hold together in one heart and mind. But on that autumn morning in the park, I felt open and humble before the immensity of both.  Maybe that is something of what it is like to be a squirrel.

Photo James Burton

Photo James Burton


Though school seems to start back earlier every year, Labor Day is still the practical end of summer. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m melancholy today.

The house is quiet. Our two younger boys are back at college and didn’t come home for the long weekend. The oldest has been gone many months now with his first job. “Why don’t they call more often?” my wife asks, but we both know the emptiness is more about us than them.

Overcast skies crowd into these hollow spaces with autumnal feelings. It’s too soon. The drenching rains we waited for all summer came too late to do any good for midwest gardens and farms. Instead they just slapped down the desiccated leaves already dotting lawns and lying in damp piles in gutters.

Fall is an emotional landscape that feels natural to me–I welcome the meditative, fading ripeness of it each year– but I’m not in the mood to cooperate. Yet. I’m going back to savor the summer while it’s still closer than the first frost.

We got back to the beach this summer. I hadn’t actually had to plan a vacation for years. The kindness of friends extended us a nearly free mountain vacation at a Colorado ski condo in the previous five summers.

We hiked through sprawling wildflower meadows tucked below the peaks of Summit County.

Photo James Burton

Gaped at snow-shrouded cascading waterfalls in the middle of summer.

Photo James Burton

Clambered through scree fields to get the terrible, unprotected summit-beauty of fourteeners Mts. Lincoln, Bross and Democrat.

Photo James Burton

And ended many nights with pie, ice cream and a magazine at our favorite cozy corner: the Crown Cafe on main street, Breckenridge.

I was grateful every summer to get back up into mountain air.

But we were still dreaming of the sea in those years. Not condo-canyon walls crowded against the white sands of the Gulf, mind you, I mean the Ocean.

Lonelywind-sculpted dunes and tufts of Sea Oats.

Public Domain Photo

A wide, gray strand, strewn with the strange discard of man and nature: clumps of seaweed, a pink comb, speckled shells, sand-polished bits of colored glass, skate egg-cases.

Photo at

And most of all, the ocean itself.

Photo James Burton

Breakers, surf, and a horizon of endless breadth and depth, that while it may be bound by another shore somewhere in theory, says in the real and immediate voice we hear,especially just before nightfall: ” for ever and ever.”

That’s what I was dreaming of, but I didn’t have much free time in February to plan an ocean vacation. We’d been twice to the Outer Banks and loved it, but I thought we ought to try something new. North Carolina was great, why not try South Carolina? I figured the surf would be just as good.

The mention of “South Carolina” brought Hilton Head to mind. I had only the vaguest of notions of the sort of place it was. I called a guy in the neighborhood, got a glowing recommendation on a resort called Sea Pines, made a phone call and within a few minutes had the four of us–my oldest son, the employed one, couldn’t get loose–booked into a condo in the “Plantation” section of the resort.

Though I looked at a few pictures and read some stuff online about Hilton Head, we arrived flying pretty blind. I knew this was pine forest rather the open dunes of Kitty Hawk. I’d been told there would be birds to watch and that everyone rode bikes.

I was so ready for a vacation that going anywhere might have worked, but we had a great week. Being on the road was full of familiar family pleasures: music old and new, jokes about local signage, customs and accents, memories of catastrophes in the cross-country drives of yesteryear.

Our week at the ocean more than satisfied the minimum expectations for an ocean vacation: We went to the beach every day, went out for dinner, cooked a couple of great meals, lounged, swam, sauntered and snacked. We were four adults remembering and enjoying that we used to be Mom, Dad and boys.

Photo James Burton

But Hilton Head the place, the island, was a revelation.

It is–or was at one point–part pine savannah, part palmetto swamp.

Photo James Burton

Early in its history as a settled place it was a rice plantation. Wealthy conservationists set aside a patch of the swamp and the old rice fields to create a preserve. You can walk through it now and get a sense of just how hostile this country is.

Photo James Burton

It’s hot, so humid that epiphytes, the great streamers of hanging moss one associates with the deep south, thrive on the moisture they suck from a wet blanket of air. Biting insects are fierce. Alligators lurk in every other creek and slough.

Photo James Burton

And yet 60 or so years ago or so they built a resort here.

It’s an upscale development, at least by my standards, that alternately knocked me out for its “natural” beauty and gave me the creeps for being an altered version of the Truman Show. Wherever the Live Oaks and Pines give way, manicured lobes of fairways and greens swoop into view.

Alligators float motionless in water hazards. Anhingas, Egrets, and Herons,  exotic birds I’d only hoped to glimpse from a distance, stretched and preened at water’s edge like movie stars.

Photos James Burton

Anhinga Close Up
Photo James Burton

By the end of the week I almost regarded them as extras on a faded backlot.

Clumps of condos and rental homes are tucked into groves of towering palms and oaks; you’re never completely out of the trees unless you’re hitting a golf ball. Driving around you get lost looking for stores because one clearing in the pines looks like  every other.

And curving in and out of every corner of Sea Pines are the looping, asphalt bike paths. The advance billing was accurate: everyone rides them on fat-tired, single-geared rental bikes parked by the hundreds at every condo complex, shopping venue or beach access.

Photo at Travel Reader Blog

If you go, though, don’t park your bike when you pedal from your condo to the beach. You’ll miss our greatest, most unexpected pleasure of the week: riding the wide, flat strand at the edge of the breakers on sand so firm we hardly needed to pedal.

Photo James Burton


The first time we rode at dusk was magical. Gliding along on the thin sheen of water reflecting evening sky and clouds was like flying. Like being in one of those huge bicycle-powered airplanes you’ve seen in documentaries but without the wingspan. Or the effort. I followed the water down to the tumble-line as it receded by leaning left and swooping down, then banked back to the right and pushed the pedals a time or two to climb back up ahead of the next line of surf.


I shot this i-phone video of another ride a few days later at an earlier hour of the evening. Though it doesn’t nearly capture the experience, when I took a look at it later I was caught by the quality and mood of what I’d recorded.

We spent conventional time at the beach too, of course: body-surfing, swimming, reading, tossing the frisbee.

Most of Hilton Head’s beaches are long, shallow shelves, the surf not nearly so wild as what we’d enjoyed on the Outer Banks.

That was a little disappointing at first. I think the boys and I thought that would take most of the adrenaline out of the experience. But when this land-locked mid-westerner got out 50 yards with swells coming in and felt himself immersed in something incredibly vast and powerful, my pulse was racing. I found I couldn’t suppress a kind of laughter that came so often in childhood: glee mixed with fear, the thrill of real danger inseparably connected with the joy of intensely pleasurable physical and emotional sensation.

Photo James Burton

We were surprised by the dramatic change in the beach from morning to night.  At low tide, the edge of the surf could be a quarter-mile from the trees. At high-tide, there might be  hardly enough space between the  last dune and the surf to put up a beach umbrella.

The view from the ocean back to the beach was unexpected, too. Seeing a forest growing to the edge of the dunes was an aesthetic pleasure I never tired of taking in. Brown pelicans patrolled the strand in long, undulating lines.

Brown Pelicans
Photo James Burton

On our next-to-last day, we spent a few hours in Kayaks on the bay side of the island.

Photo James Burton

Our sunset encounter with shimmering flat water, islands of marsh grass, nesting terns and gulls, piled-up reefs of oyster shells and even a few dolphins was as satisfying a feast for the senses as the ocean side, even if the inexperienced tour group and cautious guide we drew meant we couldn’t wander much on our own.

Photo James Burton

The last night we returned to the beach for another evening ride, hoping to catch the magic of that first ride again. The sand was softer and it wasn’t quite as easy to glide along.

Photo James Burton

We did find a few huge Horseshoe crab husks washed up in the shallows looking remarkably like the Devonian Trilobites I remember from  the illustrations in grade school science text books.

Photo James Burton

Perhaps no two nights can ever be the same except in southern California.

Turning my back on the Ocean that night was a deliberate leave-taking for me. It always feels that way when I take a last look at the open sea. I’m aware that I might not see it again.

Photo James Burton

On that night, I was wondering, too, if I would ever feel like a father on vacation with my boys and their mom again. This might have been the last one, the last of the summer vacations that belong to the string of them connected back to our very first real family vacation: a week in one of those canyon condos on the white sugar sands of Destin.

By the time we got back to our condo and began packing, those thoughts were almost gone.  I’d already turned–mostly–inland, toward the school year.

Now that I’ve taken time to return to the gifts of  this summer’s vacation one last time, I feel ready to complete the turn. Perhaps tomorrow will be that first crisp, September morning that inclines the soul toward the melancholy, meditative joys of autumn.

Posted by: cctracker | August 31, 2012

Of Photographs, Memories and the Buddha

If you are a collector of books–or of anything that reassures you of who you are and what life is about–read this essay by James Santel in the Paris Review. It’s a stabbingly beautiful meditation on how the things we gather conspire to help us build a rich and tangible self. And how we have to begin letting them go if we want to respond to the deeper truths the soul must feed on to remain vital and generous.

I moved my office recently, downsized a bit. Reading Santel’s essay I looked up at one point searching for a mahogany “Fat Merchant Buddha” my uncle Jack gave my grandmother after a military tour in Thailand. It came to me after she died. Somehow it has always magically taken me to her house as it was 50 years ago in U. City. I see her as she cooks and cleans, realizing her time as a mother who physically cares for her children is over. I’ve picked up that figurine and rubbed its belly hundreds of times thinking of her in those years, dusting and cooking just for two at last.

That’s about where I am as a father at this point. I’d like to have that Buddha to make our connection real again across the years, now that I am catching up to her. I thought it had made the cut of objects I had to shed to move into this office. I’ve looked everywhere. It’s gone.

Double Turns the iPad Into a Telepresence Robot –

When I see an innovative form of technology for the first time, I’m usually thinking: “Very clever, but I was expecting that.”

Then I encounter technology like this.

A screen on wheels stopping by a office cubicle for a chat . A disembodied head on a screen taking in an exhibit at a museum.

 How long before we see groups of screens on wheels walking along cafe sidewalks to reserve a table?

I didn’t see this coming so soon, but I should have.

I’ve spoken to groups about how quickly virtual experience is replacing our embodied presence in the world. I’ve talked about how important it is that the conversation about what makes human life meaningful and rewarding and what encourages people to be responsible and respectful of one another go forward in step with the technology. Drone strikes come to mind as another example of why.

The need for this conversation bears in on me more and more everyday. This technology makes me wonder if keeping up will be possible.

Posted by: cctracker | July 10, 2012

In Life’s Olympics: “Love the Process”

The London Olympic Games are only weeks away. That means my brother and I will see each other soon and have our ritual conversation:

“Hey, it’s the Olympics.”

“Yeah. What are you going in?”

“Well, no Track and Field events left for us. You got any ideas?”

“I read about some guy in his fifties shooting a gun or something for Finland.”

“OK. Let’s get some guns. Time to start practicing.”

I don’t remember when the conversations began, probably in the mid-sixties. We would count the years forward by fours trying to figure out the first possible games we could qualify for–and in what event. The sprints were our ultimate glory prize, but early on we said we’d settle for a spot in any Track and Field event.

We organized neighborhood Olympics, jumping over fences for the high jump and heaving stones around for the shot. A lamppost-to-lamppost run was our 100-Meter Dash and  all the distance events were wrapped into a ’round the block run that was probably no further than a 1000 meters but felt as dramatic and painful to us as Abebe Bikila‘s barefoot marathon.

Gold Medal Decathlete Rafer Johnson, Athens 1960

My earliest Olympic memories were built around revered legends from the 1960 Games in Athens I’d never seen: Marathon champion Bikila and Gold medal decathlete Rafer Johnson.
We’d learned their stories watching recap footage on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I especially remember a program in which Johnson and ’68 Decathlon Champion Bill Toomey did a demonstration competition together. I don’t remember if they declared a winner, but the image of a white man and a black man competing against one another in an atmosphere of deep, mutual respect burned a lasting impression on my moral imagination.

Watching that show was a church service on a Saturday afternoon for us, the swelling theme music more spiritually evocative than ranks of organ pipes and Jim McKay‘s voiceover as stirring as any sermon: “Spanning the globe to bring you the human drama of athletic competition: the thrill of victory–and the agony of defeat.”  We never tired of watching that spectacular soccer goal scored and never failed to shudder when the ski-jumper fell coming down the ramp, spiraling into an absolutely brutal wipeout.

We couldn’t have said so at the time, but I think it was that human drama, or more precisely the humanizing character these dramas revealed, that impressed my brother and me more than the victories– or the defeats– we watched.

Ethiopian Legend and Two-Time Marathon Champion Abebe Bakila

Bikila had reclaimed his race for himself by chucking the shoes of his corporate sponsor. His suffering had that much more dignity and meaning because of his integrity. When reporters asked him why he had run barefoot, he is reported to have replied: “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” In Tokyo in ’64, Bikila was still recovering from appendicitis and wasn’t supposed to compete. The 70,000 gathered to watch the finish erupted in shock and jubilation when he entered  the stadium alone in world-record time, but Bikila jogged right through the tape, hit the ground and immediately started a calisthenics routine. “I could have run another 10K,” he said later. The image of the great champion doing those exercises was shown often on “Wide World.” It’s still a visual reference my brother can site without saying a word by jogging along and suddenly hitting the deck for sit-ups. Commentators agree that Bakila would likely have won the ’68 Marathon in Mexico City if he hadn’t had to drop from the race due to a broken bone in his foot suffered days earlier.

I realize now that much of this romantic messaging was a part of the way sports were sold in that era, but considering the messages so often attached to today’s sports celebrity marketing plans, I refuse to be cynical about an era in which noble ideals of character and integrity were built  into the symbols of athletic mastery as a matter of custom.

’68 Olympic Long Champion and Decades-Long World Record Holder Bob Beamon

By ’68 we were watching the Mexico City Games live. Bob Beamon‘s miracle long-jump re-ignited our childhood obsession with the games. We kept Beamon’s story alive for four years, jumping over driveways in training, waiting for the next Olympics.

When Munich arrived under the gloom of the Israeli  murders, we felt like we were on the edge of our own athletic careers, resigned to the truth that despite great neighborhood-caliber speed our best chances for the games lay in the distance events rather than the sprints.

Arguably the Greatest American Distance Runner of All Time: Steve Prefontaine

Dave Wottle in His Trademark Golf Cap

And so it was with utter shock and disbelief that we watched Prefontaine  passed in the final stretch of the 5k and Jim Ryan fall to the track, tripped up in his bid to beat Kip Keino in the 1500. But  we nearly jumped through the ceiling for pure joy when Dave Wottle–an unknown guy in a golf hat who seemed to be left in the dust as the gun went off in the 800–came from the back of the pack to lean for gold.

We were in high school during the Montreal games when American boxing grabbed the spotlight with the Spinks bothers and Sugar Ray Leonard. We were almost men. Suddenly, there were people our age aiming for the games in some events. Since Track was still king for us, Bruce Jenner‘s quest for gold in the decathlon was in the center ring. But our fascination with that event wasn’t the product of the celebrity machine already cranking up in the mid-seventies. Long before we saw Jenner on a Wheaties box, we loved the decathlon because it had been won by the one man who could claim the all-time title of the World’s Greatest Athlete: Jim Thorpe.

Jim Thorpe, The World’s Greatest Athlete, at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden

Thorpe isn’t an easy fit in an essay about virtue. Possessing  incomprehensible talent, he was nevertheless infamously lazy about training. He failed in marriage, drank heavily for years, was stripped of his Olympic honors for violating his amateur  status and spent most of his adult life after his sports career in a degrading struggle to survive. But, again, for my brother and I there was no question: Thorpe was a hero for reasons that were as much about character as records. We were, of course, blown-away by the records. Even now, after years of coaching Track and Field, I am stunned by some of the numbers as I type them out:

Shot Put: 47’9″

100 yd. Dash: 10.4

220: 21.8

Mile: 4:35

Long Jump: 23’6″

440: 51.8

880: 1:57

High Jump: 6’5″

Pole Vault 11′

And all of that without even talking about being an All-American in Football and taking his tiny school to a National Championship, or reaching the Pro’s in baseball.

But Jim Thorpe a role model? Absolutely. His story radiated virtue for us in a way I can’t easily capture. He was an Indian, so we knew intuitively he was overcoming vast societal and interior obstacles to succeed. His legendary “Thanks, King.” as the Swedish Monarch crowned him Olympic Champion in the Decathlon and Pentathlon said so much to us in two words. In translation I guess it was something like this: “You and I are both just human beings. I’ll give you your due, but I won’t sacrifice my own dignity by trying to measure up to your rules.”

Image of Jim Thorpe with his Children from a Photo Gallery Posted at the Washington Post

And then there was the underlying, most basic lesson: talent aside, the courage, heart  and effort he had to have expended on the track and in the field to have delivered on all of that talent. When I had the opportunity to coach some great high school champions years later,  I came to see very clearly what I’d only felt intuitively as a kid: winning wasn’t just a matter of genetics; it was the product of intense, single-minded desire, a willingness to risk and the decision to endure. For these fundamental virtues, Jim Thorpe was, for us, the undisputed patron saint.

The Moscow Games in ’80 were boycotted by the U.S. and I still recall the shock. I was 22; these were, at last, our games. Never mind we hadn’t gone to the trials. The point was we could have! A friend in College had made the U.S. Soccer Team. Instead of a trip he got the uniform he would have worn to the opening ceremony. World politics had killed  the Olympics. Civilization was coming to an end. The center couldn’t possibly hold.

By the ’84 Games in Los Angeles  our dreams of actually being Olympians were over. I was already married and my brother and I both had jobs. The ritual of picking an event became a way to enjoy who we were as kids and to poke ourselves out of complacency about staying fit enough for whatever a 30, 40 or 50 year-old ought to be able to do with his body.

But as the years passed our passion for the Games remained. When the super-rivalry between Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson was being hyped by Reebok, NBC and just about everyone else in advance of the ’92 Barcelona games we were all in. Besides, O’Brien looked just like another one of my younger brothers–the best all around athlete our family had produced. He couldn’t lose.

Promotional Photo of Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson Before the ’92 Games

Dan O'Brien No-Heights at the Olympic Trials in '92

Dan O’Brien No-Heights in the Pole Vault at the ’92 Trials

But he did lose. In fact, he didn’t even get a chance to compete. At the trials, he passed on the early rounds and no-heighted in the Pole Vault, his best event. We were adults with our own kids by ’92 but the feelings of bitter disappointment and shattered dreams might as well have sprung from a 12-year old psyche. O’Brien’s shocking failure recalled the excruciating image of Jim Ryan lying on the track in ’76. Only this was much worse. Ryan’s triumph hadn’t been prepackaged and sold before he stepped on the track. And he hadn’t tripped himself.

O’Brien Celebrates Gold in the Decathlon at the ’96 Games in Atlanta

In 2007 I had the opportunity to meet Dan O’Brien. He had, of course, triumphed in the ’96 Atlanta Games, at last capturing the Gold Medal the celebrity-marketing world had all but handed him in ’92. He was a presenter at a coaching workshop I was attending. He still looked like my other younger brother and I found I was still very focussed–as were most of the folks at the conference–on the fiasco of ’92. But no one was asking about it in the Q and A. I decided to risk it.

“I know you probably get tired of being asked this after all of your success, but what was it like for you to go through that in ’92? And how did you overcome it?”

For a second I could see the frustration and exasperation coming through. Part of it was certainly the question, but I thought I could also read signs of the original wound. But he immediately brightened. I could tell he had something important to say.

He began by trying to capture the humiliation and utter despair of the moment and the paralysis of the days and weeks afterward. But he went on to tell the story of slowly returning to practice and taking steps that would eventually lead to Gold at the Atlanta Games. His story contained a simple, three word phrase that has become for me not only the most important coaching tool I have ever acquired, but one of the central spiritual lessons I return to again and again to aim for that razor’s edge of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance:

“Love the Process.”

O’Brien explained that at first he couldn’t bear to think about Atlanta, or even the Decathlon.  What he could do, was enjoy the physical feeling of his body in motion. The pleasure of familiar drills and routines. And eventually, repetitions of each event, including the vault. “I had to fall back in love with every part of it, one thing at a time,” he said. “I had to learn, again and again, to let go of the goals and simply love the events, love the process of practicing, of being an athlete…In the end, that brought me back. It’s what got me the Gold medal and it’s what I urge you coaches never to forget and to find a way to share with your athletes: Love the Process.”

Photo SLUH XC Archives

That phrase captures so much territory for me now: spiritual lessons I wasn’t ready for at 30, or even at 40. And it had an almost immediate impact on my own coaching. We’d had great Cross Country teams for years at my school. But we’d only won one State Championship in a year we’d been heavy favorites– and that by only a single point–a margin much closer that a buzzer-beater in Basketball.

It’s too long a story to explain all the reasons why we weren’t the team we should have been, but after that workshop I began to find different slogans to capture how I wanted the boys to approach races every week. Where we had talked about “race plans” and “mental focus” and how “all our hard work has led us to this contest,” we started talking about “taking whatever race we got” for a particular day and “trying to stay out of our own way.” We worked harder than ever, but I pumped them up for winning less. And enjoyed their quirky personalities more. The big race–even the State Championship–was, in a certain sense I told them, “Just Another Day at the Office.”

Photo from the SLUH XC Archives

It was my incredible good fortune to have teams that really did “love the process.” Most of them loved to run. And those that didn’t loved being together. In the next five years we won two State  Titles and were second twice. It certainly helped that we had spectacular talent and a line of great champions in those years. They were young men even more impressive for their virtues of generosity and hard work than for their many medals.

Photo from the SLUH XCArchives

When the gun went off, they were champions full of courage like Thorpe, risking giving everything they had to capture the prize.

But they also modeled for me this other great truth, one that better sustains the vast majority of us who will never be champions. One that serves all of us in facing, with peace and even joy,  the inevitability of loss. One that is coming in handier and handier for a runner in his mid-50’s.

So my brother and I won’t be buying any guns to make a last-ditch effort to qualify in some obscure event for the London games in a few weeks, though we’ll still pick some event to shoot for in the next Olympics. But we both still love the games and can’t wait to see what Rupp will do in the 5K.

Meanwhile, in life’s Olympics, I’ll be trying to live by the many lessons I’ve learned from my brother, and from the many champions whose wisdom I’ve tried to absorb. Most of all, I’ll be leaning on the one Dan O’Brien learned best by failing and starting over:

“Love the Process.”

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