Conquering Challenges

January 15, 2005 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


I used to have this friend. His name was Greg Levian. We met not too long after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the summer of 1990, some time in June or July I think. All I know is that the ink was barely dry on the lease for my mold-infused cubbyhole of a studio in Mountain View.

Born and raised in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, I’d never been west of Chicago – not even to interview for the job that gave me the excuse to move here. To be honest, the excuse was a flimsy one, because the true reason for my 3,000 mile journey was simple. It’s why many people upend their lives and drop blindy into the challenge of the unknown. I moved for a woman – a remarkable woman of great mystery and beauty.

Her name is San Francisco.

(I know, I know. That was a cheap dramatic shot, but I couldn’t resist. Though I should at this point apologize to my mother since it may have given her a heart attack.)

I digress …

Greg and I met on one of my weekend trips into San Francisco from Mountain View. Every Sunday I would load the trunk of my car – snacks, several changes of clothes (if you’re unfamiliar with San Francisco’s famous micro-climates here’s a tip – if you ever come to SF, especially in the summer, travel with lots of layers of clothing!). So truck laden with gear, I’d head for Golden Gate Park then lace up my Rollerblades (I was a proud early adopter of this trend), and tool around for hours.

Greg was a competitive speed skater. He had this trick where he’d go down the park’s slalom course balanced precariously on the foremost wheel of each skate. These skates had five wheels on each “blade”, and the balancing act turned this stocky speed skater into a lanky wheeled dancer – every sinewy tendon and sharply curved muscle standing in stark relief under his Lycra.
He wasn’t just a showman, Greg was slicker than a greased watermelon on those wheels – a good quality in a professional speed skater. Unfortunately, speed skating isn’t exactly a flush industry, and so Greg kept himself in top shape and expensive skate supplies by working as a messenger.

Trying to keep up with Greg was great fun. No doubt he slowed his pace for me, but never so much that I could really tell. I pushed hard, and he always encouraged me. We had several regular routes, but our favorite was starting at the eastern end of the park. Heading due west for the beach was no big deal. It was largely down hil, making the return a slow slog upward. Though largely a gentle, almost imperceptible grade, there was one particularly nasty hill twoard the end that knocked the tar out of me every time.

One day Greg came up to me as I crouched panting, having just rolled onto the grass by the side of the road at the crest of the hill.
He just stood there, and when I looked up at him, he smiled and asked, “Why do you give up just before you hit your stride?” Being too winded to answer (and probably looking a bit like a fish slopping on a boat’s deck gasping for air – without the flopping part), I shrugged and gestured for him to continue.

“You’re looking at this hill the wrong way, Cathy,” Greg continued. He went on to explain that instead of seeing the hill as a single peak I had to conquer, I should view it merely as one facet of a longer trek. So that reaching the top of this particular hill wasn’t a goal, it was a milestone – just like life.

That day, all I could think about was getting past the pains in my chest to a place where I could breathe again. Now it’s 14 years later and I think I understand what Greg meant. (Okay, so maybe I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but once I learn something it’s locked and loaded.)

In looking at life as a finite race with a start and finish, you immediately limit yourself. Let’s think of this like any sort of physical race where there’s a starting line and finish line. You come out of the gate strong – hoping to set yourself well in the pack. You settle in, find your stride, and maintain a strong but comfortable pace for the long haul. Then, as you see that final marker approaching, you pull out the stops and fire off those reserve tanks to propel yourself over the finish line.

That may be fine for a race. It may even be fine for things like completing projects at work, around the house or reaching personal goals. It doesn’t necessarily translate to the bigger picture. Especially since life isn’t quite so cut and dry. It’s true that there are time when people know when their race will be over. Disease or illness hits – BANG – and their time becomes measured. Sometimes it’s a long-planted time bomb. For others it’s dropped, often unceremoniously, on the noggin’. Most of us, though, don’t have the luxury, if you can call it that, of knowing how long our race will be.

It doesn’t really matter though. The idea of shooting off those reserve tanks in anticipation of breaking the tape at the end of the finish isn’t a healthy way to view life. It’s not that you should behave as if you’re not going to die, but it sure doesn’t hurt to pace yourself with the plan to take life as a marathon rather than the 50-yard dash. During that race there will be moments where you might feel yourself slipping behind or losing motivation. It’s in those moments where you unfurl your legs, take a deep breath, and allow some of that deep energy from your core to radiate out to your limbs. The trick is not to use it all at once.

There’s that moderation thing again.

I’m not sure why exactly, but all these years later I feel this lesson drop into place. Perhaps it’s because I was cleaning out some cabinets and came across his picture.

I’d like to call Greg and thank him for the lesson – even if I was just a touch slow on the uptake; but I can’t. Not long after I met him, Greg died hiking out at Land’s End.

He wasn’t doing anything crazy. He wasn’t doing anything extreme. He just slipped. It was a foggy wet day, the rocks and path were slippery, and as he made his way back to his car after hiking with some friends, he lost his footing and fell to the rocks below.
I thought about Greg the other day when I found that picture. In it he’s sitting in my old apartment out on 24th Avenue. He’s wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves hacked off, tiger-striped Lycra tights … and his skates.


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