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If you’re unaware, Prince Fielder, a Major League Baseball player for the Texas Rangers, posed for ESPN the Magazine’s Body issue this year.

 

Prince is a missed haircut away from six feet tall, and has been threatening 300 pounds for a while now. Compared to his fellow Body issue models Larry Fitzgerald and Serge Ibaka, Prince’s body type is…different. If Larry and Serge are, say, Ferrari 458 Italia’s, Prince would maybe be a Nissan Pathfinder. A Google image search will obviously tell you more.

 

Prince has taken his expected beating via social media after his nude photos (the pics of Body issue models are predominantly sans attire but PG) hit screens around the world. He’s soft and round. Most of the model’s bodies say “athlete.” Prince’s body says “light beer is for middle school girls.” This was never going to go well for him on Twitter. It’s too easy.

 

But this is only the latest example of how we, as a culture, consistently get this discussion wrong. After the predictable fat jokes, there will be the “as long as Prince loves himself” contingent riding to his rescue. Then bickering over what self image means and should mean and all of it, every word, a papier mache conversation.

 

Prince’s father is Cecil Fielder, himself once a MLB slugger. Again, I recommend a Google image search. You will quickly discover that genetics are not working in Prince’s favor. It does not bother me to look at Prince Fielder. I genuinely hope that Prince thinks well of himself. But the man is substantially overweight, as was his father. There is no debate as to the disastrous effects of obesity on the human body, over time. Your favorite buffet would be crushed by the weight of the research. Why, then, are we talking about the way Prince looks

 

It’s nuanced, that I will grant. But there is a word which rarely makes it into the tweets and blog rants and lunch table chats about weight. That word is “healthy.” That’s what matters. What some embittered desk jockey in Portland thinks about Prince’s spare tire, the flippant venom of some duck-faced chick in South Beach…noise. Static. The real conversation is this – negligent obesity puts undue strain on our healthcare system. The real conversation is this – Prince is at greater risk of sustaining an injury, or sustaining a more severe injury, due to his weight. The real conversation is this – Prince has a wife and two sons, and he should care that he is around for them as long as he possibly can be.

 

My brother was once obese. He will tell you, it was a choice. It happened because of decisions he made. It happened because of a lifestyle he chose. Then, he began to choose differently. Then, he was up riding a bike at 5:00AM in the January cold. Then, he was training for a 5K. Then, he was training for a 10K. Then he ran a half-marathon, and another, and he’ll run another this fall. He lost something in the neighborhood of 120 pounds by force of will, by a determination that he would be an example to his children, and by prayer.

 

He did not change because anyone shamed him. It never helped that anyone encouraged him to love the “me in the mirror.” He made the decision to become healthy. It was not an image-based decision. It was a quality of life decision, a longevity decision. It was a health decision.

 

Trouble is, I guess, that you don’t get a lot of “likes” for showing genuine concern for the health of a fellow human being. That’s a pretty boring thing to retweet. And the “love yourself” chorus will have long since moved on to sing under a new balcony when Prince hits second base wrong, tearing the ligaments in his ankle instead of merely straining them, DL for eight weeks instead of two.

 

I don’t want that to happen to Prince Fielder. Pose for a magazine, or don’t. Suck it in when you pass a mirror, or don’t. Just ask your doctor how much she would like you to lose, then devise a plan and do it. Don’t get skinny. Don’t get sexy. Get healthy.

 

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The World Cup is happening right now, in Brazil. If you have no idea what that is, take a minute to educate yourself  if you want, before you go on.

 

Because my sons have adopted soccer as their game, I have adopted it as mine. For the past four years I have soaked in it. Every level of it. From sidelines I have watched eight six year olds gathered within a few feet of one ball, right legs like metronomes, as if a quarter had been placed in some unseen slot in each boy, a dust shrouded herd wandering between goals and painted lines. On my television I have watched FC Barcelona play a game set to music, choreography in the moment, full contact dancing with a ball. And I’ve seen everything in between.

 

All of that to say that this is the first World Cup for which I am truly, DVR-setting excited. I finally get it.

 

Over the course of the next month, you will hear much about the culture of Brazil. You will see a statue of Jesus Christ hundreds of times. You will hear of protestors clashing with police. You will hear guitar strings plucked the same way a guitarist from Amsterdam or Brisbane or Paducah would pluck them, but the sound will be more languid, seductive, for reasons you can’t name. You will see women curved like rivers, wearing smiles and face paint and very little else. You will see a city sunbathing by a turquoise sea, rock monoliths standing watch in the distance. And you will see soccer. Football. Futbol. The beautiful game. It is a spectacle so grand and broad that entertainment can be found even by those who do not appreciate the game at the center of it all.

 

But if I could sit down in a corner booth for a cup of coffee with America, it would be neither the protests nor the music nor the women nor the natural beauty nor even the game that I would discuss.

 

I would ask instead, how many evenings you believe you’ve spent doing the exact same thing as a 12 year old Ghanaian girl? Granted, that child’s circumstances may be wildly different than yours, but for about two hours on Monday evening (if you watched, and if you didn’t you should have) you and that Ghanaian girl watched a soccer match together, six thousand miles apart. When you were cheering, her face was in her hands. When your stomach fell, she was leaping in celebration. A small but vocal group at the Café Imperio in Lisbon will be with you to watch a desperate Portugal try to save their world cup against our boys on Sunday. And when you fall back into your sofa next Thursday to catch our match with Germany, you’ll join a few thousand Germans on their sofas in a soccer stadium in Berlin.

 

I believe we live in a deeply fractured world, a world that too richly rewards extreme opinions and divisiveness. Somewhere along the way we became a planet of differences. So today, as you scroll through the headlines of jihad and pro-life / pro-choice and people picketing funerals holding Bibles and votes on who can and can’t get married, I want you to stop for one moment and think about that girl in Ghana. Can you see her? She’s pretty and thin, with a sunrise smile and red and yellow and green stripes of paint across her cheeks. Her television screen is convex and it flickers and she doesn’t care. She’s just as glued to it as you are your flat screen with a 240Hz motion rate. Her heart is pounding just like yours. A new friend you’ll never meet, and it didn’t take a terrorist attack or tsunami or any other global tragedy to bring you together. All it took was a ball.

George Leigh Mallory’s first view of Mount Everest would have been from Pang La Pass in Tibet. As the pass is still where the pass was in 1921, and as the mountain also has not changed its location, size, or shape, he would have seen this, exactly.

Mallory has been a diversion of mine over the past few years. I read anything I can regarding he and Sandy Irvine and their dealings with the mountain. I have grown to believe that Mallory was a singular man, cut by the Maker from strange and rare cloth, stitched both elegantly and durably. He was a soft and even-handed father to three girls and to Ruth Mallory he was a husband from a song. He was a prodigy on a mountain, supple and rugged and rolling over its ridges and through its crevices with an ease that belied effort, like water spilled upward. And he was a poet. Of his first view of Everest from Pang La, he wrote “It was a prodigious white fang, an excrescence from the jaw of the world.”

The mountain killed George Mallory, but it did not defeat him. He went in 1921 and 1922 and finally again in 1924, when he and Sandy gained the northeast ridge and were last seen making progress 800 vertical feet below the summit, before a storm closed the curtains on their spotter, Noel Odell, and gave them to history. In 1999 Conrad Anker, one of the foremost mountaineers of our generation, found George Mallory’s body high on the slopes of Everest. He had all of the things that one would have expected to find on his person: altimeter, watch, rope. The accoutrements of the climber. There were two items, however, conspicuous in their absence. It is known that Mallory and Irvine carried with them a vest pocket Kodak camera. The camera was not on Mallory, so it is presumed to be with Irvine, whose body has yet to be found. Also missing was a picture of Ruth. George had taken with him a photo of his wife and promised that he would place it on the summit of the mountain.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are rightfully credited with the first summit of Mount Everest. They made it to the top in 1953, provably so. 800 feet and color photography and weatherproof down suits and insulated boots with crampons higher than Mallory climbed. Maybe. You could disassemble a steam engine with a fork in the time it would take to read all of the speculation as to whether or not Mallory and Irvine stood on the roof of the world. From their last known position a fierce adversary still awaited them, the “second step,” a one hundred foot stone rampart at twenty eight thousand feet. Think of climbing the prow of an ocean freighter, with thousands of feet of nothing behind you, beckoning you to slip. Most knowledgeable Everest folk will tell you that Mallory and Irvine could not have conquered the second step. If you get sucked into the ‘did they or didn’t they’ though, you’re missing the point.

Take your mind off of Facebook right now. Take it off of productivity reports and soccer matches and the dumb thing you argued about with whomever. Go back and click the link above. Stand at Pang La Pass in 1921, look at that jagged horizon and listen to the staccato bursts of Sharwa from the Sherpa porters, smell the musk of yaks and feel the cool thin blades of air in your lungs. Five of the ten tallest peaks in the world are in view. In the midst of them, stabbing the tropopause, stands twenty nine thousand feet of ambivalent murder. Look at that thing. See that knife edge ridge running from the left flank to the summit pyramid? Just being there will kill you, the lack of oxygen starving your lungs until you collapse. One misstep and you’ve got seven thousand feet to regret it. Don’t get me wrong. Everest doesn’t have anything against you. It’s not trying to kill you. It just does. It can’t help it.

You’re merely George Mallory, six feet and a buck-seventy of plain man looking for the first time at 357 trillion pounds of rock and snow and pain. You’ve been on boats and trains and horses and your feet for months. Your head is pounding while your body re-acclimates to the altitude and you’ve got diarrhea from the shrimp you shouldn’t have tried in Kathmandu and in the saddlebag of your pony rests a letter from Ruth telling you your daughters cry every day, missing daddy.

What would you do? Look at that mountain and say it. Tell the truth, it’s okay.

Yep, me too.

George Mallory did not do that. He wrote down his words about what he saw and then closed his journal and stood and said “You hold still sweetheart. Papa will be there directly.” Then he went to the mountain. With hobnail boots and a few layers of cotton and gabardine and wool and rejiggered aviator goggles and homemade oxygen tanks and a lion’s heart, he went to the mountain. Then he went again. Then he went again. And yes, he’s still there.

I like to think of a picture of Ruth Mallory, buried a few inches deep by trembling bluish hands, each year another layer of white over her and by now she’s three feet under. Beneath the feet of Hillary and Norgay and every other man and woman who have stood on the summit of Mount Everest, smiling up at them with a secret she will never tell. “Before any of you, another man was here. My man was here.” It’s nearly impossible she’s there, but if you’ve read 58 Day Miracle you’ll understand why impossibility doesn’t upset my dream of her.

She didn’t want him to go. In the fall of 1923 they had terrific disputes about his final trip in the spring. I doubt she even understood why he had to go. But what I do believe is that, without even knowing why, she loved him for it. She loved the thing in him that would go to the mountain, the thing that would not allow him to turn back at Pang La.

We all have our Pang La, the place from which we catch the first glimpse of the dream of our lives. Most of those views don’t include anything quite so intimidating as an unclimbed Himalayan peak jutting five and a half miles into to sky. But there is something there, and it may be scary or difficult, and we face a choice.

What I hope you find when you come here is writing that goes to the mountain. Brave writing, words with heart. This blog, if it is anything of significance, is my leaving the pass and making for higher ground. I’m weary and every step brings a new doubt, but this picture in my pocket has traveled too far, too long, to rest here.