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Archive for April, 2011

Road Trip

Last fall we did a six-week, five state, 32 school, and 15,000 student tour of Nametags program on the East Coast. Touring Nametags attracted me from the beginning for the stories of the people I’d meet and the new places that I’d see. Originally, I envisioned a ten-month driving tour through our country. The lure of the odyssey, as in the Odyssey, or Karouac’s On the Road, framed the miles, spaces, people and places as the stories. Waiting for my plane in Charles de Gaulle as a high schooler I’d read Peter Jenkin’s Walk Across America. Our country was out there to be seen. I wanted to journey as an explorer—to learn bits from the people I met. In my mind it seemed so different than being a tourist—made more real by the struggle of getting from place to place and interaction with the people in the schools instead of just being a window shopper.

I’m thinking about the tour as we make plans to put both our Nametags program and our film on the road this coming fall. (Let us know if you’d like us to visit your community.) But, I’m also thinking about it because over the last three weeks, I’ve effectively been on tour. Since the beginning of April I’ve been in Vail, CO; Park City, Hampton/Exeter, NH; Dallas, Memphis, Vegas, Park City, Winnetka/Geneva, IL; Park City, San Diego, Park City, and then Newport Beach, CA tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful time to see friends and family, and to finally show our film in festivals, but it’s also been about the little things that I’ve learned along the way and the people and moments that have touched me.

At Phillips Exeter I attended a mysticism class prior to my Nametags presentation. We opened the class listening to a chant and meditating. As I touched my index fingers to my thumbs, I thought we never would have done this when I was in high school. After the meditation the student to my right said, “We should introduce ourselves and say what we like to do.” Every student in the class, from one of the most prestigious and competitive prep schools in the country, stated that what they liked to do was some form of art. I like to “write,” “paint,” “dance,” “act.” Inhibition didn’t even creep into their voices or eyes. I thought of Gordon McKenzie and a friend of mine. McKenzie wrote Orbiting the Giant Hairball, about slipping the bonds of corporate normalcy. He often spoke to students marveling at how the artists in the class slipped from unabashed everyone in first grade to 10 out of 30 self-conscious souls by the third grade, yet I’d just experienced a group of seniors who were all artists of one sort or another. Maybe by the time they start professions they’ll remember their art and something that a friend said when asked what he did. “I hike and surf,” which begged the follow-up question, “For work?” “No, that’s what I do for fun.”

Even though I’ve done fifteen presentations in the last three weeks, I’m completely ill at ease asking a question in front of a group. My heart races. My palms dampen. I loop over and over in my head what I want to say. Feeling my own pain, I marveled at Eyob. Not only did he ask one question, but he asked two questions in front of a room full of adults. I empathized with him in one way. This presentation was in a church. Eyob, in his wheelchair, was an add-on to the end of the pew. In that position I feel like a potential obstacle. He couldn’t have cared less. I think he’s a third grader, just recently adopted from Ethiopia, and still taking English as a second language, yet all I could think when I met Eyob and then talked with him at his school the next day was, “at ease.”

Our film showed for the first time at the Memphis International Film and Music Festival. It was a tremendous first showing in a real theatre, on a big screen. We won “Best Feature Documentary” (and would win again at the Geneva Film Festival), but the thing that stayed with me was a comment that my father made after the film’s conclusion. Speaking to the film’s director, Amanda Stoddard, he said, “It’s a wonderful film. I cried from the beginning to the end.” Obviously, I’ve known my father my whole life. During that time I’ve known him as a measure of control and composure. I never would have expected him to say that he cried through the whole thing.

I’d started this blog with the idea of recounting the interesting things that I’ve seen on my journey. I didn’t think that I’d have a theme, but I seem to—the things that we see in others that we want for ourselves. One of my primary goals in this project has been to achieve the kind of honesty that the Exeter students, Eyob, and my father displayed. Dropping the mask, being at ease, that’s what I wanted.

Recently I read an article that Boston Globe columnist, Charlie Pierce wrote about the recovery of Ryan Westmorland, the Red Sox top prospect who had delicate and possibly debilitating or fatal surgery for a cavernous malformation in his brain in the spring of 2010. Charlie said it much better than I can and I apologize but I’m going to quote a whole paragraph,

“The individual people who live their lives as athletes live them out side by side with constructed identities, public doppelgangers created by their talents and fashioned in every aspect by the worth that society places on those talents. There are athletes whose basic humanity becomes utterly subsumed by the identities that are built for them, a process in which they usually are more or less complicit. And the great majority of them don’t know that this has happened at all until something – simple aging, a catastrophic injury, legal problems – explodes the constructed identity and leaves them with nothing but their essential human identity, which they may not even recognize anymore. Those who have managed to hang onto their basic humanity, their fundamental sense of their actual identities, are the ones who survive. The others are lost, and often to themselves, most tragically of all.”

I guess that’s why we go on journeys, because we learn about ourselves. After my accident, I created the mask that I could do whatever I wanted. That mask became more firmly affixed as I competed for fifteen years and won medals and World Championships. It was exactly the opposite of being disabled and I liked that, yet I worried about Pierce’s doppelganger, and worried that I could be lost to myself. Maybe I started my journey to learn other people’s stories, and relish the gifts of our country, but I’m also learning about myself. Thanks Exeter students, Eyob, and dad for the lessons.

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I hope they like my baby

Now that the film is done there’s the worry that people won’t like it. With a friend, I drew the analogy, “It’s like having a kid and sending him or her off to college. You think your kid is a good kid, but you’re not sure if you think your kid is a good kid because he or she is your kid or if your kid is really a good kid.” We made the film that we wanted to make. That in and of itself is an achievement, but I really want people to like it. That desire breeds a little anxiety, so much so that I drew an analogy to having a kid. I’m sure some of you are saying what does he know about having a kid? Good point. I think having a kid is a bit like making a movie.

So far people like the film. We’ve won “Best Feature Doc,” at our first two festivals: Memphis and Geneva. It’s quite a start, though I hope the kid doesn’t flunk out in the second semester. In Memphis we showed in a theatre with a “U” shape from front to back. The seats in the middle were lower than those nearer and farther away from the screen. It was surprisingly comfortable. My parents came down for our big screen premier. Our Executive Producer, Pablo Nyarady, hustled an amazing collection of friends. For me, and I’d imagine for Amanda, watching the film that we’d slaved over for years, was a bit like that scene from Tom Sawyer, where he sneaks into the church attic to watch his own funeral. Everyone else was a spectator. We were subjects, and we felt conspicuously in their midst, hoping they’d like it.

As best I can tell there’s an arc of making a film, which might be similar to having a child because you need to approach both with unquestioning optimism and naïveté, again I present the caveat of never actually having a child. We started thinking that this will be the greatest movie ever. It will change the way that world sees films. Then there were the moments of total desperation. Nothing made sense. We were hemorrhaging money. We were totally overwhelmed. It seems like we wouldn’t even get started let alone create the greatest movie ever. I can’t tell you how many times I wished that someone just had an answer for how to continue—how to make sense. Everything was going at a hundred miles an hour and I felt stuck in the mud. I call this the “What the ____ am I doing? Phase.” Then there was the shaping. In this phase we felt like we had something. There was a story in there, but it was really deep in there. Finally, it was off to college, where you think, “I hope they like my baby.”

I don’t think that we will ever lose that feeling. I will always hope that they like my baby. Funny this might be like raising a child too…I worry and Amanda did all the heavy lifting. It’s been a great journey so far. I’m interested to see where our baby will take us.

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