This morning as I ran my typical 8:30-9:00 pace for four miles in the early September humidity, I thought back to the training I was doing 40 years ago, in 1978. That was the year our college team took second place in the NCAA Division III national cross country meet. I ran 25:12 for 8K as our fifth man. It was quite an experience.
But it was a long and fast road getting there. I was a roommate to our top runner, a Minnesota product that had put in 1000 miles over the summer. He won our own invitational meet against many of the top college teams in the Midwest.
He liked to run fast whenever we trained. I specifically recall an 8-mile run we did together in the morning before an 8:00 a.m. anthropology class. As we took off from the dorm, he reminded me that we needed to cover all those miles in 6:00 pace. That we did. Flying along before the sun was even up, we whipped through mile after mile at a pace I cannot even achieve any more. Not for a single mile.
So this morning I had one of those weird synapses in which you wonder what it would be like to time travel. What would it be like to go back and have that kind of speed again? That endurance. There’s a part of me that wishes that was possible.
But what would I actually say to that twenty-one-year old self if I were to go back in time and talk to him? Or just as importantly, what might that twenty-one-year old say to me today?
In either case, the answer might be, “Wish you were here.”
Which brings me to the music I was listening to this Labor Day while completing two new paintings for my upcoming art show titled Road Trip. I listened to three entire Pink Floyd albums: Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals. But it was the words from the title song Wish You Were Here that sort of captured it all. They work whether they were being addressed to my 21-year-old self or my 61-year-old self:
So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
Those are good questions to ask at any age. But then there’s that “gap” in the middle of life when you’re going through so much stuff (at least I did) that you can hardly make sense of it all. The middle lyrics of the song cover the realm of principle. These are tough questions to answer at any age:
Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?
About ten years ago I attended the funeral for the sister of a friend. She’d gotten caught up in alcohol consumption and never wrestled free of it. My friend’s wife had also been an alcoholic for years, and over the stretch of several high school reunions she made no secret of the fact that she’d had a high school crush on me. She’d get drunk and start telling me (in front of many others) that she wanted to go somewhere and fuck.
So perhaps it was no surprise that at her sister-in-law’s funeral, she walked across the room and stated, quite loudly, “I’ve been waiting to do this for a long time!” Then she opened her arms wide, threw them around my waist and grabbed both of my ass cheeks in a firm grip.
The buddy I’d brought along to the funeral looked at me in terrified wonder. What does one even do in a circumstance like that?
Thus we walked into the funeral feeling a bit out of place. Then the entire scene morphed into a post-modern scenario. Partway through the ceremonies, a group of three people walked to the front of the room and picked up guitars. They started strumming, and then singing…the words to the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here.
How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
And how we found
The same old fears
Wish you were here
The effect was a bit macabre for a typical funeral service. But the entire world has now moved past traditional remembrances to these era-sensitive adaptations of what dying is all about.
Yet I recall feeling very much alive and yet wanting to be in a different place one day while listening to those exact same Pink Floyd lyrics floating down to a running track on a hot spring day in April, 1979. The song was blasting out the window of a dorm room on the college campus where our track meet was being held. The hipsters of the day were hanging out their windows smoking pot and drinking beer while watching the track and field spectacle playing out below them.
I was lying on the grass waiting for the 5000 meter run to be called. The day wore on and the meet schedule fell far behind. I warmed up a couple times and laid back down. Warmed up again and learned the race was still not going to be held for another hour. It got hotter and hotter as the day wore on. The will to run seeped right out of me.
At that point, I would much rather have been up on one of those windows smoking a joint and drinking beer than running a three-mile race in hot and humid conditions.
Yet if my sixty-one-year-old self were to walk up to my twenty-one-year-old self at that moment, I would likely say: “Go find some shade. Just do your best. You won’t be able to run this fast forever. Appreciate it.”
And truth be told, that’s pretty much how I deal with it back then. I did go find some shade, I did okay that day. Not great. But okay.
And if my twenty-one-year old self were to pop out of time to find my sixty-one-year-old self running past in the forest preserve this morning, I think he’d say, “Keep it up dude. You’re doing great.”
So it turns out that there’s no real wishing I was here in all this. I really have been here all along. And that’s a good thing.