During my early thirties, I came up with a personal motivational concept called “transfer of excellence.” The idea centered around taking the best things you’ve learned from doing one thing and applying it to another. I wanted to carry over the experience I’d gained from years of running from the age of twelve through the age of twenty-eight. That’s about when I “retired” from competitive racing to focus on my work and family life. The goal I had in mind was simple: What can I take from all that training and competition?
I’d already learned early in life how to transfer experiences from one sport to another. My baseball career started at the age of nine when I tried out for the Local 285 club but didn’t quite make the cut. I played for a less prestigious team that summer and gained the motivation to try out again that following spring. I practiced hard on my own in advance of the tryout. I made the team and even pitched in the crucial second game of the region’s top baseball competition, the Lancaster New Era tournament. We won that contest and the final game as well. We became champions, and I was a part of that.
So I learned early on that I had a powerful capacity for persistence in competition. That continued through middle school years with the sports of baseball, then basketball, and finally track and field in eighth grade, where I was the top 880-yard runner for the Kaneland Junior High team, setting a school record of 2:25 on the cinder track.
Our basketball team also won the conference that year. I was a starting guard along with a top athlete named Ron Ackerman. But it was the bucket I made from half-court in the final game of the season that fulfilled a fantasy held by every kid that ever played the sport. 3…2…1…!!
Through high school, I led the distance squads in the cross country and track programs at both Kaneland and St. Charles high schools. Yet I also learned that while I was a good runner, I was not a sensational one. The pursuit of excellence also involves learning the limitations of one’s talent. Sometimes even hard work can’t fulfill all your dreams. For example, I never made it downstate in either cross country or track. Some of that was context. We competed in some of the toughest district and sectional meets in Illinois. But there’s no value in woulda-coulda-shoulda claims, because they mean nothing. So one learns to move on in life.
The writing life
While I was trying hard in sports to be among the best, there were other pursuits claiming my attention during those formative years of high school. One of those ventures was writing. I joined the English and Writing club called “Circus” at St. Charles. Getting my first short story published in “A Journal of Creative Writing” felt just as good as winning any cross-country race.
My story was titled “The Hunter’s Loss.” It was based on a friend I knew back at Kaneland high school who hunted the fields east of Elburn where we lived. I imagined what it might mean if he took to hunting a snowy owl in the fields of Illinois.
The story began, “It had been a calm winter until January, when moist southern had crept into the area, causing a heavy blizzard. From that storm until now there had been a perpetual covering of snow on the ground. Each new snow made while the facing sides of the trees and the evergreen shrubs held icicles aloft ’til they stretched to the ground. Cardinals searched longingly and silently in the naked limbs for a seed or two. The rabbits had pared the bark and dying berries from every bush, leaving their droppings and shuffling tracks as a testimony to their harried search for food. Some deciduous leaves still hung stubbornly to the oak’s cold twigs, their chatter and flutter interrupted only by the sibilant call of a migrating lark that had come to light on the windswept giant of a tree in the yard of the farm.
Now, I’ll admit that story could have used some editing. But here’s the point: life itself is a series of hard edits. We all seem to do a little more than we should. From that bulk of experience we learn what matters and counts most. We learn to edit ourselves.
The Hemingway Factor
Consider what Cliff’s Notes observes about Ernest Hemingway’s writing style: “From the beginning of his writing career in the 1920s, Hemingway’s writing style occasioned a great deal of comment and controversy. Basically, a typical Hemingway novel or short story is written in simple, direct, unadorned prose. Possibly, the style developed because of his early journalistic training. The reality, however, is this: Before Hemingway began publishing his short stories and sketches, American writers affected British mannerisms. Adjectives piled on top of one another; adverbs tripped over each other. Colons clogged the flow of even short paragraphs, and the plethora of semicolons often caused readers to throw up their hands in exasperation. And then came Hemingway.”
What a wonderful metaphor Hemingway makes about my prized belief in the “transfer of excellence.” Good writing is all about learning to cut out the excess and arrive at our best efforts. There’s a parallel there in words written by Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore, who once stated, “Running is hard, clean, and severe.” I strive for that. It’s hard work, but I love it.
Ethics and values
As my story about the hunter and the snowy owl evolved in my mind back then, I thought about the values at work in the pursuit of such prey. What might be the goal of bagging such a bird? Was the hunter aware of the illegality of shooting a protected bird? Would it matter? Here’s what I wrote about the moment the hunt concluded:
“The white giant sat nervously on a post by the pond. Mark could feel it watching him as he stood erect on the ridge. He felt alien to this perfect predator; his gun was brutal and primitive in his hands. Mark felt the compulsion to get closer. He lowered his binoculars and crept carefully from post to post on the wire fence. He was a hundred yards away now, and again he stood erect to see the bird through magnifying glasses. The owl crouched low on the post now, fearing Mark in his human form. Its feathers quivered in the wind. Again the bird lifted its wings to fly, but Mark gave it several great strokes of leeway and fired at the great owl. The bird stuttered in its flight with the pain of the lead. It flapped higher against the wind before its wings collapsed in poison death. The owl hung limp and heavy in the air and fluttered down into the wet, gray lake. Mark sat in a slump in the deep snow and watched through the glasses as the owl’s white feathers soaked through with the dirty water of the pond. The rabbit it caught was still clutched in its once powerful talons. Mark had lost the only fruits of his hunt to a hungry bird, and they sank with the owl to the bottom of the pond.”
I wrote that passage nearly fifty years ago, and the pathos is still recognizable. I was writing to process feelings about the world, especially how greed and the acquisitive need to conquer seemed to overwhelm justice, social and otherwise. I saw nature as a pure form of existential reality and hated the idea that some people felt the need to destroy it in order to satisfy their sense of worth or fulfill some notion of biblical dominion over the earth.
Those values of justice and nature’s worth remain consistent in my life. Along with trying to do my best at whatever I tried to accomplish, those truths remain at the core of my being.
The artist’s life
Through college I kept pumping out poems and stories, writing and producing cartoons for the College Chips newspaper. I also dove into my artwork. While my interests were somewhat provincial with a focus on painting birds, I kept taking risks, both competitive and otherwise, to “push the envelope” as people say. And life keeps handing you challenges.
I once fell in love with a girl who was given the advice (while I was listening, no less) to “never marry an artist.” She ultimately married someone else but confessed in a moment of doubt that she regretted it. Well, I don’t begrudge her. She was better off with the other man. Life with me would not have been as predictable as she would have liked. That much I do know.
Yes, I’ve spread myself too thin on many occasions in life, and that artist’s life is filled with cycles of wins and losses, some as thin as the paper on which that reality plays out. Yet at sixty-five years of age, I believe that my work is better than ever, and the best is yet to come. That’s as it should be. And I can still give credit to that seventeen-year-old kid for writing and painting his heart out. For better or worse, on that part, I’ve been consistent.
Perhaps I’ve been clear enough in these explanations of motivation that you grasp the broader meaning of “transfer of excellence.” It’s not a claim to superiority. But I’ll also not apologize for pursuing whatever talent I possess to the fullest of my ability. That said, we all seem to make mistakes and harbor regrets that can never be reconciled. Time calls us to an honest accounting. If we’ve tried to transfer whatever level of excellence we can achieve from one part of life to another, that is a life well-lived.