The wonderful new Pixar movie Inside Out chronicles the emotional journey of a girl named Riley whose family moves from pastoral Minnesota to the city of San Francisco. The breadth in exploration of character and response to life events is illuminating.
Watching the film brought back memories of our family’s move from Pennsylvania to Illinois. I was heading into eighth grade at the time. Not the easiest time to move and make new friends. My next eldest brother had it worse. He was entering his senior year in high school. Meanwhile my oldest brother was caught between two worlds. He was enrolled in college back in Pennsylvania.
Life in Illinois was so different from Pennsylvania. There were far fewer trees, for one thing. The landscape was relatively flat. The soil was black rather than clay-colored. Those might seem like strange concerns to those less attracted to nature. But for me they formed a baseline of strange new adjustments that took time to love.
I made friends soon enough. Yet there was still the longing to be with my peer group from Pennsylvania. In particular one close friend was badly missed. We’d done everything together from the age of five through twelve. We grew up stuffing wash rags in the shoulders of our tee shirts to pretend we were real football players. Our baseball team won a big city championship. We played basketball for hours, kicked soccer balls and swung golf clubs. In fact the first day we met at five years old he whacked me in the head with a seven iron.
Our lives converged on the social front and we fell in “like” with girls. From the first grade on, all the boys kept lists of girls they liked. Our Top 10 was always carefully updated.
By the seventh grade we held Spin the Bottle contests at parties and thrilled at the chance to kiss certain girls. There was an interesting communal aspect to all that exchange of interest. Yet most of us paired up with steady girlfriends and sat around in basements during parties making out with the girl of our choice. I distinctly recall the taste of Fritos in the braces of my girlfriend. Such was the life of a twelve-year-old in “like.”
We tried to prove ourselves to these girls through our exploits in sports. I was a good athlete and a shy romancer. Never had the self-confidence or perhaps the ultimate looks to ask the most popular of all girls to be my girlfriend. Their cliques seemed impenetrable to me, yet one of my friends waltzed in and out of those circles of girls with fearless panache. He had olive skin and surfer hair with blonde highlights. And he could sing. On one trip back from a winter basketball game at which all our teams had lost, he tried to cheer up the bus by singing a popular protest song with soaring notes, “America, where are you now, don’t you care about your sons and daughters…” only to be told to shut up and sit back down by a coach angry over our losses. We were far sadder that he’d been told to stop singing. The real magic of sports often happened outside the lines. That’s why the girls loved him.
Up and gone
When we moved to Illinois my friends held a big Going Away Party. They gave me copies of Abbey Road and Let It Be along with my first real second-hand watch. These new belongings were tossed in the big Mayflower van along with the rest of our stuff for the long journey to Elburn, Illinois.
We pulled out our long driveway in Lancaster with my brothers and I crying quietly in the backseat. My oldest brother and I took to singing Beatles songs together. “Onetwothreefourfivesixseven, allgoodchildrengotoheaven…”
It was a strange time for the four of us brothers. The Beatles had just broken up. All of life seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Two days later after an overnight stay with a college friend of my father’s, we pulled up to our house in Elburn. Within days I’d made good new friends and fell in like with a girl down the block. The race of life was still on.
Dealing with it
Yet there were deep emotional ties back East. I was depressed at the loss of those friends. Some summer days were spent lying with my head between two giant stereo speakers listening to the album All Things Must Pass by George Harrison. I’d pile those records up on the spindle and fall half asleep while the fan whirred on in the living room. It was not exactly mental health strategy at work, but it somehow helped me get over the sense of longing felt over leaving Pennsylvania.
I tried to wield the intensity of those experiences as an element of mystery with my new friends. Girls wondered what I actually knew about sex until I found myself behind a tree with a girl on a dark night outside her parent’s house. I knew how to kiss but that was about it. She seemed disappointed. It was all I had.
When things like that failed me I went back to sports. Fortunately I was decent at that, starting on the basketball team, pitching in baseball and even winning the Punt, Pass and Kick contest in Elburn to advance to the regionals.
But in the end, my father shoved me in the cross country locker room and my life was changed forever. Running was something I quickly grew to love. And need. That propensity for anxious thoughts and occasional depression was manageable with running in my quiver of coping mechanisms. Yet I learned that internalizing too much about your performance could also be a difficult factor in life.
I emerged as one of the top runners at Kaneland High School and was the top points earner as a sophomore on the Varsity team. We won conference for the first time in school history.
And then my father told us we were about to move again.
This time it was only twelve miles east. That was almost worse. This time around my new team would compete against my former school. Yet the new experience in St. Charles was just as vibrant and challenging as the new school at Kaneland.
I asked my father years later why we moved from Kaneland to St. Charles. Was it because of the gas shortage and mom’s commute to work?
“Nah,” my dad told me. “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball in the slow-down offense at Kaneland,” he said.
I was stunned. “What about me?” I asked.
“Oh, I knew you were a social kid,” he replied. “I knew you’d adapt.”
Running into opportunity
Of course he was right. And I’d have to adapt again two years later when heading off to college out of state. My running continued there as well. Competition forces the social adaptations right out of you. You fight to survive and survive to fight. No one said life was easy.
Which reminds me of the saying cyclists often use about their sport. “It never gets easier. You just go faster.” Which happens to align with my Twitter feed @gofast.
Yes there are times to slow down in life. Settle in. Take a seat. Think it through. But then the sun comes up and change comes pouring into your life like a beam of sunshine. And that’s how it works. You add a sport here, subtract one there. Set a goal and live in it like it’s a real place.
And you move on.