My dad had been running for years. I remember him taking me out when I was still in grade school to try to keep up with him on quick jaunts around our neighborhood in the Berkshires. The only distinct memory I have of these limited forays into the world of adult exercise was my dad, slightly in front of me and to one side, saying, “Come on – just make it to the next telephone pole,” and then, upon reaching that distant object, imploring me even further while repeating the mantra.
Shaped by this experience, my attitude towards running was about as positive as George Carlin’s attitude towards golf, which he described as
a mindless game. Think of the intellect it must take to draw pleasure from this activity: hitting a ball with a crooked stick. And then … walking after it! And then … hitting it again! I say, “Pick it up [expletive deleted], you’re lucky you found the [expletive deleted] thing! Put it in your pocket and go the [expletive deleted] home!”
Why I would voluntarily engage in an activity that centered around me trying to repeatedly run to an object that wasn’t my final destination seemed plain dumb to my grade-school self. The fact that my father was kicking my ass the few times that I tried it didn’t make me all warm and fuzzy inside either. But then came 9th grade. And wrestling.
I only wrestled for a year in high school. But by midseason, I was in absolutely exceptional shape. Two-plus hours in the basement of our school every afternoon and the relentless pace of those practices left me rock solid. I’ve never been in as good shape, before or since.
So when on a cold Saturday morning in 1985 my father invited me to go running with him, I took him up on the offer. I figured I might be strong enough to finally hang with him for a while before he blew me away on the final climb back up to our house.
The run started with a long downhill. Predictably, I kept up with him no problem on this initial descent. We reached the long straightaway that paralleled the harbor on Long Island Sound and continued another mile and a half until we reached the turnaround point at the power plant that was an eyesore and a blessing (it kept property taxes in our town low).
As we started the return, I wasn’t really paying attention to much of anything – just running along like an automaton, feeling neither pleasure nor pain. As we closed in on 3 miles, I noticed for the first time how quiet it was. I always associated the end of a run with my dad encouraging me onward, repeating the old mantra: “Just get to the next street sign. Then the fire hydrant. Then the …”
But now I heard nothing. Crickets. I looked over to my left and realized that I was still going stride for stride with my dad. Now really paying attention, it hit me that he was quiet because he was out of breath, gasping to maintain the pace that I was holding without a care in the world.
The enormity of what was happening suddenly hit me, and being the devoted, loving son that I was, I immediately resolved to run the old man into the ground. The last quarter-mile of the run was a dead uphill, and I leaned into it, blasting forward, not looking back. I reached our driveway, hands behind my head, sucking wind and turned around to see my father still slogging up the incline 20 yards away, arms and legs pumping but his head looking straight down. Defeated.
We see this moment recreated in sitcoms and movies all the time, often played out not on neighborhood streets with running shoes, but instead on basketball courts with high tops. Son defeating father and coming of age long ago jumped the shark from simply a shared father-son experience into the realm of pop-culture cliché.
But losing a limb before my kids were born changed that for me. Max quickly learned that when I stood in front of a hockey goal, firing to my left would lead to a good result more often than not. He learned that if he could get me moving in one direction laterally, I couldn’t make up that ground when he quickly shifted gears. And I accepted that without complaint.
All of this came to me as I spent the weekend before last in Max’s room playing guitar on a song he wanted to record. He has taught himself the drums. He has been taking voice lessons for less than 3 months and guitar lessons for less than four. He has purchased the necessary equipment – mics, interface, etc. – to record multiple tracks and splice them together on his computer, another skill he has mastered without formal instruction.
As I heard the playback of the finished product from him – me on guitar, him on everything else – I felt slightly self-impressed. It wasn’t half bad in my estimation. “Old man can still keep up with the kid, at least on guitar,” I told myself.
That illusion lasted for only a week. Last week, Max played me the first track that’s his from beginning to end: music, lyrics, instruments – everything. When I heard the first arpeggios play cleanly through my ear buds, I asked him, “Where did you get the backing track from?” I knew it couldn’t be him on guitar.
Except it was.
In the space of a few intensely focused months, he has done what I did to my dad in the winter of 1985: surpassed me. If this happened and I had all my limbs, I’d still be proud of Max, I think. But there would also be an undercurrent of self-pity, an awareness that the superiority I grimly held onto to support my sense of self slipping from my grasp.
Thanks to my life with one leg, the only emotion that washed over me as his first self-written track came to a close was pride. Pure and unadulterated.