Speed of Life
Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit,
and resign yourself to the influences of each. – Henry David Thoreau
On April 27th, I ran a footrace against Chris Williams. We ran against the clock in different cities, on different days. But no matter. Be it Beijing or Kingston, world records get broken. The stopwatch doesn’t lie, no matter the time zone.
Here’s the setting: it’s a Sunday afternoon, early spring, and I am bouncing on my toes with my four-year-old son Atticus in front of our Chicago bungalow. After thirty seconds of stretching, in which I attempt to touch the toes of my ratty green running shoes while Atticus tortures ants, we measure forty yards down the cracked sidewalk. The yellow tape measure feeds out in 25-foot increments. Twice Atticus fumbles with the end of the tape, unleashing a twisting metal snake that raps my knuckles, but we eventually mark off 120 feet. Our racetrack takes us past Pat and Naomi’s house to the remodeled bungalow the Indian family has curiously put a wrought iron fence around. We mark the start and finish line with purple chalk. I pinch a clump of grass and toss it the air. There’s a slight breeze blowing from the southwest. Forty yards never looked so long.
Atticus points to my superhero t-shirt, last year’s Father’s Day present. “Who we going to be, Daddy?” I stretch the white t-shirt out like a canvas. I can identify five of the twelve heroes shown, many being minor super humans in the Marvel Comic Universe. “I’m him!” Atticus points to Captain America.
“Who should I be?” I ask.
“The Thing,” he shouts. The boy is psychic, or perhaps just mean-spirited, having saddled me with a body of orange rock. Nobody looks at the Thing and thinks speed.
Chris Williams is the reason I am running sprints past the early tulips. I was introduced to Williams in the Tribune sport section over my morning coffee. The Chicago Bears had selected him in the first round of the NFL draft the day before, a 6'6", 315-pound offensive tackle. The scouting report detailed his great footwork, average strength, and pretty good speed. Yes speed. Williams ran a 5.169-second 40. As I scanned to the top of the draft rundown, I found an even larger specimen, first round-pick Jake Long. Another tackle, Long, at 6'7" and 313 pounds, ran a 5.219 40 at the NFL combine.
I set my coffee down and reached for my socks and shoes.
The question I needed to answer was simple: Is it possible that a man the size of a refrigerator is faster than me? At 5’8” and 160 pounds, I can’t compete against these guys in any category except speed. And speed is my thing. It’s an American birthright to be a speedaholic: speed dating, day trading, fast food, 24-hour news cycles, and high worker productivity, the one business measure where we’re still competitive. Speed has become synonymous with high aptitude and efficiency. A sped-up life is an important one. But what is fast enough? And does anybody even know where the brake is? Is there a brake? Perhaps it’s high oil prices. My frantic need for speed keeps me from reflecting on this life, but the symptoms of mid-life—achy knees, rising cholesterol, new-technology bafflement—are gaining on me. In my head I zip past Chris Williams, but can my body make it so?
A seminal moment in my history of speed: 1975. Picture a crisp fall day. Morning recess on the Lakewood Elementary playground has begun. And up the hill, between the soccer goals, the fourth and fifth graders play smear the queer. You know the premise: grab the football and run for your life. Every man for himself. And Ricky, a fourth grader, was king. The speed freak of Lakewood. The day I tackled Ricky was the day I knew I was fast. He wore blue cords and a knit cap. We lived in Ann Arbor, so I’ll dress him in a #42 jersey like the U of M tailback at the time, Rob Lytle. Now, smear the queer has as much to do with angles as it does with pure speed, but I didn’t blindside Ricky. I caught him from behind. I remember our legs tangled together on the grass. I was only a first grader, so after I caught the king, I earned the respect from the big kids. (Plus, I was flexible enough to take their hits; they liked that too.) Speed defined my athletic career. It compensated for a lack of summer sport camps and God-given ability. I could run down any ball on the tennis court and kill off penalties on the hockey rink. My speed is like Long’s and Williams’s speed. And I’m using the word, speed, generically. What the big lugs and I have in common is game-speed, bursts of power, not straight away jetting. Speed refers to how fast an object is moving, the rate at which an object covers distance. Carl Lewis has speed. What those offensive tackles and I have is velocity, which refers to the rate at which an object changes its position.
The Thing has neither velocity nor speed. He’s the longstanding wrecker of the Fantastic Four. Heck, his battle cry is “It’s clobberin’ time!” But today he’s a superhero with a new mission, to out run Chris Williams over 40 yards. A foolish marker to be sure, but perhaps the final race to demystify the fantasy of speed I’d clung to my entire life.
On the sidewalk outside my house I have to use the stopwatch on my cell phone, which makes my “practice” attempts rather cumbersome. Atticus’s most spirited sprint, which includes a large swerve into the grassy parkway, clocks in at 14.9 seconds. When my neighbor, the retired Naomi, asks what we were up to, I draft her to be timekeeper, having grown impatient waiting for my wife Kristi to emerge from the house. (She lives by her own rhythm.)
Naomi takes the phone and pulls her eyeglasses to the tip of her nose and squints into the LCD screen. “I’m not very good with these things.”
“Just hit this button twice,” I instruct.
“There.” I place her thumb in the start/stop button. “That one.” Atticus and I jog down the sidewalk. “Tell me when to go,” I call up the street. We take our positions on the purple line. I close my eyes and visualize our cracked track.
“Go!” Naomi squeals.
Atticus takes off.
“Not so fast,” I shout. “Say, ‘Ready, Set,’ then ‘Go.’”
She nods. Atticus trudges back to the starting line, his best time of the day behind him.
“Ready?” She asks, making eye contact so as not to screw up.
“Okay.” She raises the phone to her face, “Set?” More eye contact.
I bounce on my toes. Breathe deep. “Set.”
I run ten feet past Naomi and double over, breathing from the top of my chest, which limits the maximum airflow to my oxygen-starved body. The run is probably my fourth or fifth of the day. And, as you probably know, repeated sprints slow down muscle contraction, leading to a fall in maximal power. I’m bushed. On the verge of passing out.
For those of you who had the football coach as your Health Teacher and didn’t learn squat, let me digress and review what makes us fast before I divulge my time. Sprinting is difficult, and can be uncomfortable as you push your heart rate close to the brink. Exercise physiologists follow the ironclad rule that maximum heart rate slows every year after age 25. To determine your maximum follow the simple formula: 220 minus your age. For me, at 39, it’s 181.
Think of it this way: if you can walk and talk then you’re probably at the lower end; if you’re doubled-over in front of the Indian family’s bungalow communicating to your gray-haired neighbor in gasps, and the veins in your wrists are visible pulsating and you’re saddened you might keel over and die in front of your four-year-old, you’ve probably reached your maximum heart rate.
Since Atticus’s birth, I have let my aerobic training slide, and so my cardiovascular system did, too. Now my training, if you will, consists of running 12-minute miles on the treadmill in front of Drew Carey on The New Price Is Right. If you want to be fast, train fast. In sport medicine parlance I was “locked into a slower muscular recruitment, thereby getting a slower muscular response—and no speed.” If the Ph.D who wrote that line in the Journal of Applied Physiology happened by, she might have hooked up some sensors to my hamstrings to measure the average force, power and velocity of my starting push-offs. You can bet those NFL first rounds went through similar tests.
Speed, like most things in America, is data driven.
Why are so few of us fast? Weight plays a part in it. Obesity is a real speed killer. So is low oxygen in the blood. Muscle helps. Sprinters carry a huge amount of muscle in their quads and hamstrings. “Look at Michael Johnson or Carl Lewis,” says Tom Seabourne, who has a doctorate in exercise science. "They're all muscle from sprinting, using ATP [adenosine triphosphate] as their energy source." Sprinting requires fast-twitch muscle fibers; slower running does not. World-class sprinters have a predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which contract up to 10 times faster—and fatigue faster—than slow-twitch fibers, which prevail in marathon runners. The average person, however, has roughly equal numbers of slow and fast fibers. If your goal is to increase the muscle mass in your legs, then include sprint training in your workout. “In short, it appears that world class athletes are both born and made,” writes author and Muscle and Fitness columnist Clarence Bass, who, at 70 years young, is ripped. He resembles the construction worker from the Village People, if he’d shaved his mustache and swallowed a washboard. As he says, athletes are “born with a desirable fiber ratio, and made through training that converts the intermediate fibers in the direction required by their sport.”
Back on the sidewalk my time doesn’t stand. It turns out Naomi is not very good with electronics. She clocked me at 4.5. Which puts me in a class with the fastest 22-year-olds in the NFL draft. 4.5 is a Flash-like number, not a Thing-like number. I smile and thank Naomi. Then Atticus and I lumber to the front stoop to wait for Kristi to emerge.
At Atticus’s sports class Saturday mornings in the Warren Park field house, parents clap for all the kids, but we exchange knowing glances when one of the youngsters beats coach Bianca in warm up sprints. The last child across the line gets the most applause because publicly we’re supposed to encourage diversity and a range of abilities. But secretly, we parents hope it’s not our kids bringing up the rear. Not that any of them will be world-class sprinters, but because it’s a metaphor for life. No parent wants to report, “my child is the slow one.” It’s a false indicator. I know this. But I’ve been conditioned to respect speed. Nearing 40, I’ve lost a few steps since college, and lately Atticus is tougher to corral during our games of chase-around-the-house. I am not so worried about mortality, but about what I have missed by racing through life. As every aging NFL player with crumbling knees knows, speed can only get you so far. Slow isn’t sexy, but slow is gaining momentum—Americans are pushing back, many from the downward dog position.
Thoreau said he wanted “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” He said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Life coaches and simplicity gurus have adopted Thoreau’s yearning for an elemental life into the concept of simple living. He’s sort of a poster child for the movement.
One 21st century equivalent to living near Walden Pond is selling your stuff. You hear the phrase “My stuff owns me,” bandied about. Folks toss, donate, and sell their plastic clutter on E-bay so they can feel like they’re living clearly. “We want to be in clean country with like-minded people with access to clean food,” said simplicity convert Aimee Harris, who, along with her family, were written up in The New York Times. “They are trying to get rid of it all,” the Times reported, “down to their fancy wedding bands. Chasing a utopian vision of a self-sustaining life on the land as partisans of a movement some call voluntary simplicity, they are donating virtually all their possessions to charity and hitting the road at the end of May.” The Harrises, formerly of Austin, Texas, hope to homestead in Vermont. (When you go simple, you use words like homestead.) You can follow the Harris’s journey on their blog, cagefreefamily.com. No matter how simple we go, it’s hard to wean ourselves off the Net. The information age has taught us to fear being unconnected and to be solipsistic.
The voluntary simplicity movement has its roots in Seattle, back when Starbucks was just another cafe. The act of selling all your crap and moving to Vermont or Oregon to homestead falls under the larger lifestyle umbrella called Slow Living. “Slow living is a complex response to processes of globalization,” write authors Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig in their book of the same name. “It connects ethics and pleasure, the global and the local, as part of a new emphasis on everyday life in contemporary culture and politics.”
So who encouraged so many to hock their stuff and buy organic from the local coop 163 years after Thoreau homesteaded on the shores of Walden Pond? Scholars who study this stuff trace the roots from the Puritans to Jack Kerouac. Or it might have started with our stomachs; it seems foodie culture wants to change not just what we eat but how we live. Italian food writer Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, is one of those responsible for this gastronomic and lifestyle transformation. Petrini founded Slow Food as a response to the opening of a McDonalds near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986. The Slow Food USA site proclaims, “Slow Food seeks a rediscovery of authentic culinary traditions and the conservation of the world's quality food and wine heritage.” In the U.S., the movement is associated with chef and food activist Alice Waters. The title of her latest books says it all: The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. Slow food is about the pleasure of eating, buying local and eating while sitting down—and not while watching The Wheel of Fortune. It’s a lifestyle Julia Child discovered in France in the 1950s. Child described her first meal in Rouen as opening up her spirit and soul. For 40 years Child channeled French food and lifestyle into American living rooms. In his book In Defense of Food, author Michael Pollan, America’s resident expert on all things food, puts forth a simple philosophy for health conscious (and overweight) America to help them negotiate supermarket aisles: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’ll align myself with those who take inspiration from foodie culture by adapting Pollan’s seven-word mantra for my slow living mid-life correction. How’s this: Work hard. Take frequent walks. Always connect.
Of course, some of us choose a change of pace, and others have it thrust upon them. The talk over our kitchen table in recent months is about moving out of Chicago. Not quite homesteading—we’ll keep HBO and live on the grid, thank you—but a countrified environment. Hills and grass, not flat cement and steel; a less-adorned and cluttered life free of city slickers, gated yards, triple-digit murder rates, and neighbors who can spy into my son’s bedroom from their living room. On a recent trip to my nephew’s graduation, my wife took a side trip to a house on three acres in Ashford, Connecticut she found online. It was built in 1776. The widow living there can’t keep it up. Kristi traveled alone to the graduation and upon her return we had a digital slideshow of the house. She said, “I could picture us there. It has six bedrooms. Plenty of space for your office.” The real estate agent told her about organic farms, but was mum about the local schools. After the slideshow, the discussion turned to our future with the boys, and finally, our happiness. But can such an abstraction be quantified? The question that always comes up is, “What will we miss of the city?” The culture? Our friends? The pace? And, can we afford it? For now we’re staying put. “You get me a job,” I say, ending the conversation, “And I’ll move.”
Later that night, after the slideshow, Kristi lays awake in bed cataloging the home’s accoutrements and livestock. (It comes with goats and horses). She’s really feeling it with this house. I lie awake too. Could a revolutionary-era dwelling be my Walden?
Kristi, in overalls and sandals, trots down the front stoop between me and Atticus. She has dirt on her bottom and under her nails from tickling the soil in our small square of backyard.
“I’m ready now,” she says, without a hint of irony, and we lumber to the purple line. But first she wants a go. In her sandals, her leggy frame records a clippety-cloppety 8.5 seconds down our craggy course. When she catches her breath she reminds me of her school-girl track prowess, and I recall a grainy color photo in her parent’s house of a lanky preteen in pigtails, head down, hands on hips, tube socks knee-high, pacing the lined asphalt of the South Davis Elementary School track. Atticus’s attention wavers, and he wanders into our raised flowerbed to pick at the lavender. I nod and stretch—wait patiently for Kristi to finish her story. And then, after a quick tutorial on the stopwatch, I backpedal to the starting line.
It’s go time. Chris Williams, you’re mine.
In act three of Thornton Wilder’s master work Our Town, a play about living life and the life we live, the recently deceased Emily Webb can’t yet shake the feeling of not being, you know, a live person. She observes her husband George at her gravesite and laments, “I never realized before how troubled and how…how in the dark live persons are. Look at him. I loved him so. From morning till night, that’s all they are—troubled.” The town’s deceased, residing on a hill above Grover’s Corners, encourage her not to go back and live her days over because “you not only live it; but you watch yourself living it.” And, more importantly, “You know what’s going to happen afterwards.” Undaunted twentysomething Emily decides to revisit her 12th birthday. On stage, her mother enters a well-appointed kitchen and starts breakfast. Bacon sizzles. Eggs scramble. Realism abounds. Seated at the kitchen table, Emily, “with mounting urgency,” rattles off future marriages, babies, deaths, and regrets to her mother (who can’t hear her). Emily ends with, “But, just for a moment now, we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment, we’re happy.” She implores, “Let’s look at one another.” Eased of the living’s petty worries like eating bacon and birthday purchases, Emily grows frustrated with her distracted family and wants to go back up the hill, but not before one more look back. Here’s the play’s famous farewell: “Good-bye, Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners . . . Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking . . . and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Emily turns to the stage manager character and asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” He answers, “No,” then adds, “The saints and the poets, maybe—they do some.”
Our Town connected the dots. It did what good art should—hold a mirror up to the culture. And I saw myself as part of our disconnected matrix. Now, I am no saint, and as a poet, a hack. But the 40-yard dash, Slow Food, Connecticut real estate, my wife, the play—all of it—made me pause and look closely at the unshaven chump in the glass. My race against Chris Williams was a race against a clock in my head. And I lost. (The fridge beat me by 3- tenths of a second.) I fear what I will see when I trot back down the hill to revisit the live people. I know I’ll go no matter the dead’s warnings. Will I lament, like Emily, that all human beings are just blind people? If I pick a date before 2008, I am sure I will.
Work hard. Take frequent walks. Always connect.
After our final sprint, we sit on the front stoop to catch our breath. Atticus leans his head on my shoulder; he says he’s ready for some bubble water. A minute later he stands and steps to the door. “Come on, dad.” The little dude picked the stone-footed Thing for a reason. Perhaps it’s time I opened my eyes to the rocky superhero’s glorious potential for slowness.