This weekend in Madison we arrived at the starting line for the Half Ironman at 5:30 am. As I stood around watching athletes get ready and waiting for my wife Sue to emerge from checking her stuff into transition, I took a look around at the way in which people almost seemed to be posing for a painting by Georges Seurat.
You may know his work. His most famous painting hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s titled A Sunday in La Grande Jatte. It looks like this:
Seurat was one of the painters known as Neo-Impressionists. The version of the painting shown here is actually a study piece he did before engaging in the far more finicky final version done in a style call pointillism. That is, he executed the massive work in a system of finely painted dots that when seen while standing back from the painting are no longer distinguishable.
Here’s an interesting kicker: This method anticipated the manner in which modern photography now works. When people use their camera phones, they snap an image that is captured in an increasingly dense set of digital color representations called pixels. What we’re actually seeing even in the finest grade of digital photography is a virtually seamless cloud of these pixels that make up each and every photo.
Of course we take this artistic miracle for granted. We’re so obsessed with the look of our bodies in the mirror or the angle of our face in that recent shot from a party we don’t stop to think that we’re the beneficiaries of an amazing brand of Neo-impressionism that just 15 years ago was unimaginable to the average person.
And to make things even more interesting, our smartphones can handle some amazing tasks as well. Which is why I stood facing the crowd (photo above) who were waiting to use the Porta Potties. Then I performed a panoramic scan of all those people. A few of them moved a bit while I was scanning. That results in a fascinating twist on the human form.
A few minutes later I turned to face the crowd gathering for the start of the race. This also produced an interesting study of the human condition. All those people served as an interesting statement on the human condition.
It got even more interesting when I moved closer to the starting line. There were hundreds of athletes wrapped in neoprene. Their forms were reduced to the simplest statement of shape and gender while swim caps wrapped heads and highlight faces.
Finally I moved close to the gates where athletes were funneling down to the water. Some of the fastest swimmers were perched here. Many of them sat on the grassy hill together. This formed a bit of a perceived performance roadblock. “If you’re going to ease past this queue,” their quiet protest seemed to say. “You had better be a much better swimmer than all of us.”
Their stolid posture made me think of another Seurat painting in which bathers are perched on the banks of a river. The summer haze is visible and the skin of those sitting by the shore seems ripe for a sunburn. Everyone seems lost in their own space either daydreaming or half asleep in the sun.
The same held true with all those swimmers lost in their own concentration. I reasoned this mood was best captured in the solemnity of black and white photography. In the photo below you can feel the pre-race focus of the athlete as he broods a bit. Race management had canceled the swim warmup for medical reasons when the ambulance failed to show up until 7:00 am. But look at this guy. He’s ready to go.
First out of the water
It can be intimidating to hang around in the company of the most elite swimmers in the race. Yet one 19-year-old kid had the genuine daring to walk to the front of the queue and stay there. His name was Billy Barth. By casual conversation at the check-in station the day before, I’d chanced to meet his father Ed who shared that Billy is a swimmer for the University of Notre Dame. His son’s broad shoulders explained the strength behind his confidence in winning the swim. He was first out of the water in just over 26 minutes for the mile distance. Then he ran up the hill to face the bike segment and then the long run in the heat.
That’s how the triathlon is for many people. They do the best they can in the event where they have the most experience and build on it from there. Some like Billy are excellent swimmers and count on that leg to give them a head start. Others hammer the bike leg while the best runners count on closing fast.
But the wonders of the sport are its confusing ups and downs, triumphs and failures. Even on the best of days, there can be things that go comically wrong. Testimony to that fact were the pile of water bottles gathered by volunteers just after the race course crossed a set of diagonal railroad tracks not 400 meters into the race. There was nutrition of every type that bounced out of carefully assembled packs and pockets. It seemed no one turned around to pick up their valuable stash. The world is chaos at times. Such is life so often that we go looking for solace in natural places.
Which explains why I took the longer route back to the car during the day to walk. That afforded a closer view of the bright white and lily blossoms were in bloom. I stopped to take some photos of those too, thinking of course about the work of Claude Monet, one of the leading Impressionist painters.
I love sports like triathlon. But I also love the unstructured world in which the eye can do the lazy work of taking it all in. It’s a wonderful thing that so many people convene to participate and cheer at a triathlon. In some respects it is representative of the best of the human condition.
Yet we also know that our celebrations of life are almost always a ruse of sorts. As athletes were are the pixels in a grand pastiche that we call sports. Because beyond that realm, there is the broader world where the pixels of the human race all seem to be in chaos.
Indeed, some people seem to thrive on scrambling the order of things, and laugh out loud at their ability to muck things up like a hand in the mud of a deep clear pool. Their efforts raise clouds of silt and makes things harder to see, but this makes them feel bold and expressive like the bully in a grade school art class. “Look what I can do! Isn’t this genius!”
The untalented and deeply disturbed always seem to call their cloying, egotistical tendencies great art. Nero. Hitler. Mao. Trump. Then there are those that celebrate this dark-hearted ugliness through self-absorbed literature. Ayn Rand comes to mind.
But the so-called work of the self-absorbed ultimately leaves a void. People suffer as a result of their careless brush with responsibility and alternately sloppy and narrow visions of what constitutes great leadership.
When this brand of dispassionate rule is enabled by society, we are left not with people catching moments of clarity on a grassy hillside next to a river, but with broken, abandoned souls reduced to lying on the ground with no explanation for their presence except that they can go no farther.
This is also what I found during a day in Madison under a hot sun. The man shown in the photo above lay on the grass near the Alliant Center for the entire afternoon. He had found some shade and laid his shirt on the ground to protect his face from the grass. There could not have been a stronger contrast between that man and the steady stream of athletes returning to their vehicles from park where the race was staged a half mile away.
The world is dichotomous. It always has been, and always will be. But now I am kicking myself for not stopping to check on that man. He left a strong impression on me, and raised the question about where true reality lies. All of life is a series of impressions. It’s what they ultimately make of you, and you of them, that truly matters.