No finish line

7 09 2013

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“The world’s seen me lookin’ in the mirror,

Images of me, gettin’ much clearer,

Dear Self, I wrote a letter just to better my soul,

If I don’t express it then forever I’ll hold, inside

I’m from a side where we out of control…

My story’s like yours, yo it gotta be told” -Common

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 September 2013. This is my comeback season- my writing comeback, surfing comeback, training comeback, teaching comeback- my everything comeback. These are a few pages I’ve written over the past week to help “clear my head” and justify the planning of a new long distance cycling journey attempt in the summer of 2014. If you don’t mind, I’m choosing to quote some of my favorite lyricists in this entry. I’ve listened to a good deal of hip hop the past few weeks and have found clarity and understanding in much of the music. Society misinterprets “rappers” as lacking intellect when many have an abundance of it. People fail to recognize that experience is the best teacher; overcoming adversity is the real life advance placement course- not just for rappers, but for all of us. Did traditional American authors have more intellect and bravery than modern lyricists? I don’t believe in generalizations; there are geniuses and heroes around us that we fail to acknowledge because of a lens of stereotypes from which we perceive. The worst of all stereotypes are the ones we give ourselves: we’re not good enough, we can’t do this, we can’t become that. I’d like to believe we should strive to be influential and heroic instead of assuming we can’t be like the heroes we’ve been taught about. Often times, we measure ourselves against perfect models of virtue and are not exposed to the full truth- all heroes were and are imperfect. Martin Luther King cheated on his wife but that mistake is overshadowed by the battles he fought for equality. Babe Ruth simultaneously had the strike-out and homerun records in his most historic season. We all make mistakes and struggle to become what we set out to be. There is no finish line in “growing up”: we continue to race, learn, and see the world differently. The deepest education occurs beyond the classroom.

Some legends are legendary just because we were taught that they were- but what do they really mean to us now? I look around at certain modern “rappers” and see more cutting-edge intellect at play than some of the authors in traditional textbooks. I imagine authors like Kerouac smoking cigars with a false sense of sophistication and condescendingly detailing their adventures. Meanwhile, he had to borrow money from his mom to make them happen- this is not aligned with the rugged individualism that many male writers “force.” For a cult classic, On the Road is actually pretty lame from an adventurer’s point of view- smoking cigarettes, drinking, crashing on couches, and doing nothing for society isn’t exactly exciting- or admirable. Without a doubt there are classic writers that deserve their due credit- but it shouldn’t just be given to them because our teachers told us they deserve it. In my opinion, many don’t deserve automatically renewable accolades by generation. They should be able to timelessly relate to their readers. Respect should be given to the writers that truly speak to you, whether they are classic writers or modern “rappers.” Some of the cliché advice stems from American literature and sticks in the subconscious of society’s head: “Live the life you have imagined.” This is a great quote but it means nothing unless it inspires action. Thoreau, an author who inspired the likes of Christopher McCandless (who died for ideals he found in works of writers like Thoreau) lived a short walk from the town of Concord- not exactly in the depths of the wild. What adversity did he overcome while chilling in a house, “rebelling” from society, while his mother picked up the slack he left behind and paid his taxes for him to avoid trouble with authorities? No one is a perfect role model for any ideal; life is not a movie. Whatever the source, words have potential to spark self-awareness and global conscientiousness- they stem from the deepest aspects of our personalities. For the sake of realness, let me pay tribute to some of society’s imperfect, unsung lyrical heroes while making sense of my own “voice” and journey.

Wiz Khalifa, not the best role-model for the present generation nonetheless seems to speak to me in his song “Cameras,” especially when he says, “You hopped on a plane, got airborne, left all the people you cared for.” The past 7 years I have been exploring the world while surfing and competing in triathlons. The allure of exploring different continents and meeting new people has become irresistible. Abandoning comfort zones usually leads to positive changes in perspective. Some people explain that “You need to get it out of your system while you’re young.” The more I travel though, the more I fall in love with it- there is no finish line in sight considering the size of an expanding bucket list. One challenge at home is applying what I’ve learned abroad- restlessness creeps in. Rapper BoB alludes to that post-journey malaise in “Airplanes” when he says, “After all the pandemonium and all the madness, there comes a time when you fade to the blacknesss…that’s just how the story unfolds, you get a new hand after you fold…and as your plans unravel in the sand, what would you wish for if you had one chance?” The hollow stage of recovery after chasing dreams abroad is simultaneously melancholy and strengthening. On one hand, the “story” seems to be over but on the other, a new one needs to be written. You are forced, at some point, to make sense of it all. Lately I’ve been yearning for the opportunity to decompress from a ceaseless series of adventures through writing…before beginning the next phase of “dream-chasing.”  As Common explains in “The Food,” “Though I know to grow I’ve got to learn to let go.” The most difficult aspect of traveling is letting go- of the people and places encountered- and recognizing that they live on in how I let them impact my own life and hence others’ lives. That’s what gives “home” the possibility of being such a special place; it needs to be fully appreciated and I know I need to get my head “out of the clouds” of yesterday to really do so.

It seems necessary to debrief on the past, be at peace with it, and to not let it affect one’s future. Underground rapper Immortal Technique wrote a song about just that: “Leaving the Past.” He explains that, ”Some people think I won’t make it but I know that I will. Escape the emptiness cause that…is slow and it kills. You can make the future but it starts with leaving the past.” He highlights how important it is to recognize that the only person that can change his life is…him, which is why he goes on to explain,  “I’m not concerned with condescending advice, because I’m the only…[person] that can change my life” and “…since life is a gamble like the craps tables at Vegas, I freestyle my destiny, it’s not written in pages.” Immortal Technique recognizes that life is unpredictable- it offers the sweet victory of defeat but also the bitter sting of unexpected defeats and setbacks. Despite that, he finds importance in the fact that he is still in charge of his outlook and hence how the story ultimately unfolds. He keeps his hands on the steering wheel instead of letting outside factors like alcohol, drugs, and others’ opinions lead the way. He doesn’t give in to the norm behaviors of his peers in the quest to fully be himself. This is a challenge that we all face. Kendrick Lamar acknowledges in “Swimming Pools” that, “Some people want to fit in the popular- that was my problem.” Kendrick Lamar followed the road to conformity and it lead to disconnect and discontent. He highlights how he found strength and happiness in fully being himself and finding his own voice instead of rapping about what others wanted to hear. He sought change. He said in an interview,  “I’m trying to learn something new. I’m trying to surround myself with people that inspire me or at least inquire similar desires.” Travelling has been my own way of seeking a new perspective and finding my own voice. It has led to that and more than can be articulated.

In high school I went to Ireland, Jamaica, and the Bahamas but the “traveling bug” infected me during my junior year of college when I backpacked Europe after studying abroad in Ireland. A surfing friend from Ireland, Mark Hanley and I traversed through France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. At times, it seemed “ridiculous” to be spending so much money on the trips that would follow- but deep down seeing the world was the most important dream I had. Lupe Fiasco is a lyricist who refuses to make catchy pop tracks that downgrade his intelligence and desire to bring awareness to young people: “Do not let others dictate success and value to you. You will never live up to it and you will die a slave and by God I will never die a slave.” There were no material awards for backpacking through Europe- we collected a hell of a lot of memories though. The spontaneity and excitement of the trip changed our outlooks on what real adventure was- it was more about “getting off the map” and immersing in culture instead of hanging with other Americans at “soulless,” cliché tourist traps.

Once teaching started, surf trips to Chile and Morocco followed- this included a trek to the Sahara Desert. Then it was back to Ireland and on to Scotland. The next summer I cycled across the country and down to the border of Mexico. The next summer I travelled to Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic with students, backpacked in the wild of Alaska, and surfed Guatemala and Costa Rica after traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua.  At times it feels like I’ve put excess mileage in my brain without a chance to recover. In an attempt to live life to the fullest, I’ve overwhelmed my metaphorical memory stick with an unprocessable amount of megapix. I’ve seen so many beautiful places and people that it sometimes results in jaded lenses. My attention span has shortened and I think I could be a case study for ADHD acquired during the 20s. Restlessness and constant planning of adventures simultaneously takes away from the moment while attempting to capture it. Sometimes I end up chasing a fleeting finish line.

All the trips were a gamble to a certain extent, which made the rewards incredible and the punishments rough. In Central America, for example, I went from being laid up in a cheap hotel in El Salvador for days with some type of food poisoning I contracted in a village of Guatemala to surfing in a beautiful thunderstorm with locals in Costa Rica. The clattering of raindrops on my surfboard, laughter amongst friends, and the imploding of small barreling waves provided an incredible sensory experience. On that same trip, I accidentally drove an ATV off a 10 foot bridge into a giant rock and somehow escaped unscathed- hours later I almost peed my pants while zip-lining through the jungle with my friends Mark, Steve- and monkeys. In Alaska, some of the nights inside my tent were piercingly lonely and cold; having frozen dried food for two weeks didn’t help. The experience of being surrounded by vast mountains covered with snow and glaciers in July and no signs of other living activity other than bear tracks was surreal. Nature engulfed us and we recognized our small place in a wide-open desolate wilderness. No access to cells phones and internet forced us to be in tune with our own thoughts and our own breath. One day we accidentally had a close encounter with an enormous bear and her baby walking into a ravine; the angry mother got on her hind legs 10 feet in front of us- and was probably about ten feet tall. Sheer terror ensued and luckily the two gracefully ran away with speed, disappearing beyond the horizon in moments. 50 Cent poetically point outs in “Many Men” that “Sunshine wouldn’t be so special if it wasn’t for rain. Joy wouldn’t feel good if it wasn’t for pain.” This philosophy mirrors life closely.

The “good and the bad” with travelling have gone hand in hand just like they do in life. As far as positives go, I understand the world and people better and I have have acquired a comfort zone with activities I used to fear. After surfing in Ireland all winter, I decided to make winter surfing a part of my life in the colder New Jersey Atlantic. It is now my favorite time of year to surf. It is an unparalleled experience to glide across barreling waves being held up by smooth west winds blown over snow-covered sand.I felt challenged to go sky-diving after zip-lining- I went and it was more epic than I imagined. My trip to Alaska inspired me to be more “in-tune” with my body- so this year a competitive edge returned and I had my first legitimate triathlon season. A newfound passion for cycling was cultivated through straying a bit from the run and shifting my attention to the bike instead (pun intended).

Adorned with lobster gloves, booties, a face mask,  and a comfort with the cold because of surfing, I logged miles all winter. Hoping to harvest the planted seeds of labor, I had the best race of my life at the Orange County Duathlon in California, placing 8th overall, qualifying for the World Age Group Championships in Canada. The bike course was exciting, with long winding uphills and 40 mph descents in the aerobars. The last 10k was run under 6:00 mile pace. Afterwards, I got to surf Salt Creek and Trestles for two days during an overhead swell. The next successful race was Stafford Sprint Triathlon in LBI where I placed 2nd with a 17:45 closing 5k. The third positive result was a 4th place finish at the Born to Run triathlon in Asbury Park. Along with the highlights were significant “lowlights.” I completely bombed the first race of the season- the Jersey Devilman as I raced sick and my lungs felt like they were going to collapse in the shrill 60 degree water.  I almost had a panic attack. The focus of the season was the Eagleman 70.3 Half-ironman. The new training strategy of focusing on the bike and relying on a running background simultaneously paid dividends and backfired. In my other half-ironman in 2011, I raced a 4:55 with a 20 mph average. At Eagleman the hard work proved to pay dividends on the bike with a 23 mph average- a 3 mph improvement, and was ready to achieve the 4:30 goal. After 4 miles on track in the 13.1 run course, I “bonked”- my energy became depleted and I death-jogged the rest of the race, coming in at 4:50 after being on pace for a sub 4:40 or even 4:35. The last stop of the journey was the World Duathlon Championships in Ottawa. I placed 16th out of 23 in my age group and felt flat on the windy, boring course. My bike split was disappointing and painful- the left knee injury that I spent months in physical rehab during the winter was retriggered. The effort that I put into the year was not reflected and I drove home crestfallen and disappointed- and in need of reflection that I’d put off too long.

In Cameras, Wiz Khalifa hints that we should be proud of our mistakes as they help us change and learn: “Oh, it’s hardly a secret, you ain’t gon stop tryna get where you going until you reach it…Feel your scars knowing what your pain is but what’s it all worth if its painless?” Too much is too much- burn out is unavoidable from travelling and competing if not prioritized properly. Four months of spread out racing is unproductive- next time I will pick out two races within a 2 month span and gun for them instead of trying to hold such a long “peak” phase. In all, I’ve learned that I really don’t care about the results- that’s a superficial outcome- the real rewards lie in putting a best effort forth to improve, explore unseen locations and meet new people. The stats and numbers can be “deleted” from the memory stick. More importantly, how these experiences shape “real life” is paramount. Have I become a better teacher? –a better person? If not, what the hell was the point? As J. Cole puts it in “Crooked Smile,” “What’s real is something that the eyes can’t see, that the hands can’t touch”…” What’s real is not what our resumes say we are, what our jobs say we are, what other people say we are, but who we really are underneath it all when no-one is looking. The best souvenir you can get from traveling is coming back with a new perspective- having more love or understanding to offer is priceless. The accolades and money that could be amassed in life are not going to buy character or the peace of mind that living dreams will.

Overlooking the ocean from the boardwalk, one can see how small we are. It almost seems pointless to feel the need to “debrief” on my life considering my vastlessly small role in it.  Hurricane Sandy reminded us that the force of nature is beyond our control and that the flow of life is often times inescapable and not even worth fighting. However, on closer examination of the ocean’s incessant energy, I’m reminded that, although humble, I’m hungry to adventure, learn, and teach. I share the ocean’s ferocity and endless drive to launch myself on a new shore- to meet new people- because I now know I belong to both. The time is always now- to make it happen and not look back.  Notorious B.I.G. advises in “Sky’s the Limit” to, “Stay far from timid…make moves when you’re heart’s in it, and live the phrase ‘sky’s the limit’” After staring at the same sky that Christopher Wallace ruminated on and the same ocean that Leif Erikson pondered over, it seems obvious that the importance of time is to make an impact on people- not to have a fast race that will be remembered by no one. I feel challenged to be strong yet peaceful like the ocean, to be one with my surroundings instead of a separate entity navigating through the day to the peaceful finish line of sleep. Instead of planning amazing experiences, it makes more sense to attempt being constantly in tune with the moment- and making it adventurous somehow if it’s not. Moments could be represented by a single piece of sand- they seem unimportant but they compose the “whole” of the shoreline’s existence. Moments make up our lives. The real battle is to live in the now and to find meaning in it even when planning what’s “next” down the road.

The tides approach and recede throughout the seasons as they are aligned with the moon. It seems like a challenge to stay aligned with meaning as the adversity in our lives fills in with the tides. The meaning always lies in following the dreams that stem from the deepest parts of ourselves…in changing the world instead of letting it change us. Macklemore is a new rapper who has produced songs “calling” out hip-hop for its degradation of women and gays and its prioritization of money and the superficial. His music stands for progress;  in “Same Love” when he advocates “Here we go American the beautiful still fears what we don’t know…Press play, don’t press pause, progress march on.” The lesson to progress from the past is reiterated, and much of his music reflects a quest to find meaning in life now. He recognizes the challenge of finding real wealth when he says, “Make the money, don’t let the money make you, change the game don’t let the game change you.” It’s easy to blend in and “go with the flow.” Nature seems to suggest that we’re rewarded by following what seems to be right- but that’s not always true. Sometimes, we have to face our fears and deal with discomfort to do what’s right. It’s easy to take the easy route and not take risks. At the end of the day, that would equivocate to a life not fully-lived.

Jay Z famously asserted in “Can I Live” on his cult classic album Reasonable Doubt“I’d rather die enormous than live dormant.” When I was younger I used to think “enormous” would need to involve the excess we see in American media: fancy cars, women, and an exorbitant lifestyle. If not that, I believed it would at least involve being adventurous in as many locations as possible. Although I’m still a proponent of the latter, I’m beginning to realize that if I can’t create content and happiness for myself and others at home, “I’m doing it wrong.” In other words, I’m trying to live more in the moment, appreciate it and the beauty around me- much more often- instead of imagining the possibilities of it somewhere else. Eminem must’ve made a similar realization after getting out of his personal rout when he details in Recovery on the song “Not Afraid,” “I’m raising the bar. I’d shoot for the moon but I’m too busy gazing at stars. I feel amazing and I’m not afraid.” I’m planning a large scale adventure next summer but this time I’m taking my time planning it; I’m too busy with the people and waves of opportunity here and now. The sound of crashing waves lulls me to sleep and I find peace knowing that the sun will illuminate itself on glistening ocean swell in the morning. I’ll watch them break on the shoreline over a cup of coffee that I won’t rush in route to getting “somewhere else”…for now….


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7 09 2013
Dennis Hagan

I hope your 2014 adventure brings you through my town again and that I am afforded the opportunity to break bread and pow wow. When you breezed through a few years ago, the passion for freedom was obvious. However this last post has exposed a side that is reminiscent of the spirit of the peoples who originally inhabited this area. They recognized the rhythm and music in the world around them and responded to it not in spite of it.
Roll on my friend, it is people like you that gives positive life to the world we share. Be sure to route your trip through Raywick…

Dennis…

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