We all have a history about ourselves that we carry around in our heads. Some of it is based on clear and definitive moments in our lives, our own memories. Yet some of it is created from things people tell us about our own past. We assimilate that information, insert a picture of some sort to go with it, and plunk that into the run-on sentence of our lives.
But here and there along the way, we insert a comma or two. For emphasis. As we all know, the meaning of a sentence much depends on where we insert the commas. For example, if we take the following sentence at face value, it reads like a plain enough statement:
I love triathlon and think I could have been a pro.
But add a comma and the meaning seems to slightly change.
I love triathlon and think, I could have been a pro.
That comma changes the nature of the statement from a casual observation that may or may not be true to something that reads more like a definitive claim. Of course it also sounds like a woulda-shoulda-coulda claim. And that’s never pretty.
Let’s do one last experiment to illustrate the point about commas and how they change the meaning of sentences. This comma turns out to be for emphasis only, and it has no grammatical foundation.
I love triathlon and think I could have been, a pro.
Now that statement sounds cocky doesn’t it? The fact that the placement of that comma doesn’t come around until the end of the sentence sets turns the last two words into some sort of triumphal statement about the nature of what surely might have been.
But that triumphalism also raises the question of what really took place. If the person making that statement never actually became a pro, what stood in their way? Was it circumstance? One bad race? Did life intervene?
Well, these are questions that we all apply to the resume of our lives in some way. The act of creating an actual resume of work experience or filling out a Linkedin profile forces you to put ‘commas’ of time and place on the things you’ve done. For some that’s easy. But for others it is a painful wrestling match with self-image.
Yet even those who seem to breeze through life with successful job transfers and work promotions do not necessarily have it easy. None of us is a pro at everything we try.
A real pro
But there are people who “go pro” and can teach us much about the challenges of competing at a top level in anything.
Take the career of Gwen Jorgenson, the Gold Medalist in the Olympics in triathlon. She is shifting her focus in sports to pure distance running and is training to do a marathon one day. Her competitions in shorter races on the track have been a massive learning experience. Some of that has a been hit and miss. She aims to run 10K with times in the very low 30:00 range.
Gwen is also a relatively new mother. Mixing all those life changes together can’t be easy. Granted, her husband has held down responsibilities on the daily side of life to make it possible for Gwen to achieve what she has.
But this new venture of pure running is in some ways harder than the three sport regimen of triathlon. Where her running skills once gave her such an advantage, now they are immersed in a world where the other gals are just as intensely focused and able. Winning ain’t so easy any more.
But the point here is that Gwen Jorgenson is bold in taking the sentence of her life and inserting some commas of experimentation. It’s a safe bet most people would have just stuck with the success she was already having in triathlon.
Michael Jordan tried the same ‘comma’ thing with pro baseball after the first stage of his career in the NBA. He made it up to AAA ball with the White Sox organization, but ultimately went back to playing basketball.
The most successful two-pro-sport athlete was likely Bo Jackson who excelled at both pro baseball and pro football.
But unlike Bo or Mike, most of us are not faced with decisions on whether to choose one pro sport or another. There was a point where I had to make a tough choice between playing baseball and track in high school. I pitched the coaches on the idea of my doing both, but the academic advisors saw things from a different perspective. “You’re grades don’t indicate you can handle one sport, much less two,” said the high school guidance counselor. And they were right. I’d have flunked out of school and not been able to play either sport.
It only proves that we all face choices and interpret our experiences as we move through the sentence of life. People even insert commas into the sentence of our lives when we don’t know where to put them ourselves.
Revisions and edits
Sometimes we come to a point where new information arrives that either encourages or forces us to change the image we have about ourselves. For years after a national track meet in which I’d gotten deathly sick the night after a steeplechase in hot and humid conditions, I believed it was the heat that got me. But after a really great 10-mile race on a hot July morning I realized that whole “I can’t run in the heat” was a falsehood.
So I went back and thought about the events of that day running in the heat and realized that the real cause of my illness was not heatstroke, but food poisoning. I’d eaten an entire medium pizza from a national restaurant chain that was obviously tainted. These days there is an entire website devoted to such instances, called Iwaspoisoned.com. But back then in the 1970s, I’d never even heard of food poisoning.
That realization encouraged me to revise and edit the narrative of my life in a significant way.
Some commas get inserted for unexpected reasons. Back when I was a sophomore in high school, my father up and announced that we’d be selling our house and moving to a town twelve miles away. At that time, I was the class president and the top runner on the cross country team. But like a good son, I went along with the change as best I could. It meant changing high schools and starting all over making new friends. That all worked out fine. But at the time, it was a harsh change.
Years later, I asked my dad why we moved. Was it the gas shortage? Was it money?
My dad told me, “Nawww. I just didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball for that coach with the slow-down offense.”
I stood there with my mouth open for a moment, not quite believing what I’d just heard. “But what about me?” I asked my father. “I gave up so much that I had at that other school.”
My father just smiled and said: “I knew you were a social kid. I knew you’d survive.”
That made me move another comma in the sentence of my life.
When August comes around each year and I hear the fine little voices of goldfinches gathering nesting material for their late summer rush to make nests, lay eggs and release young into the wild, it is hard not to want to fix the comma of life into place. If I had my way, I’d stay this age and condition forever. I’m doing well, yet my body shows signs of age, and some of those come on suddenly. Age spots. The texture of skin grows wrinkled. Even the shape of muscles in the chest, the legs and calves. They are less taught.
But I long ago lost my hair and have been silvery grey for years as well. In some ways it is an advantage to get some of the commas of life out of the way early. That way you can relish the feeling of “going pro” at this aging thing and face it like a boss.
So I’m going to become a pro at that. Own it. And put the darned commas where I want in the sentence of my life.