And Then I Danced with the Kenyans

One week deep into sleep deprivation and already enamored with the international athletes and officials that had taken over the University of Oregon campus, I sat with the visiting teams to watch a perfect race unfold: the junior men’s 10,000 meter final. And as the setting mid-July sun dramatized the sky and a symphonic melody filled the Hayward Field air, I danced with the Kenyans.

Let me explain. For two weeks, I spent virtually all of my waking hours at the IAAF World Junior Championships, but I only actually saw about four events. I worked in the Athlete Village, interacting with international people constantly in one of the coolest experiences of my young life. My co-workers and I were anchored to our welcome desk, but on the day of the Opening Ceremonies, we managed to briefly escape. Armed with our signature dorm food salads, we entered the stadium just as the music started and people circled the track with every participating country’s flag.

Since we lived behind that desk, we were buried in our own World Juniors experience, but had not witnessed any of the big-picture effects until then. We sat in the athlete’s seating area and listened as each team would cheer upon their flag’s announcement. To our left, Brazil hollered and below us, Canada hurrahed. Midway through, it became apparent that we were sandwiched between the Kenyans when their flag’s entrance incited cheers all around us.

Excuse the non-smart phone picture.

Excuse the crappy non-smart phone picture.

Eventually, all 175 flags filled the track and the crowd stood for a live symphonic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Once the flags exited, the symphony remained and it set the stage for the event’s first final: the men’s 10,000 meter run. The cloud-littered skyline bled pink and red as the gun went off, and the symphony did not stop playing until the last runner crossed the finish line. The Japanese took the immediate lead, but two laps in I turned to my co-worker, pointed to a Kenyan in the middle of the pack, and said, “He’s gonna win. I’m calling it.”

Around us, the Kenyans brazenly cheered for their athletes with each passing lap. While their runners did not set the initial pace, they took off with a third of the race to go. A Ugandan latched on with the two Kenyans, and all three took the lead as if the 17 laps prior had been a convenient warm-up. Their pace quickened and they picked off runners a lap behind like it was part of a childhood game. I have become accustomed to the African style of dominating distance races, but watching it unfold with athletes my own age on the stage I have frequented my entire life left me breathless.

The Kenyan excitement grew in sync with the leaders’ increasing gap. Athletes and team officials rose to their feet and my co-worker and I were moved to do the same. With three laps to go, the Kenyans overtook the Ugandan. The cheers around us amplified and the team’s involvement with the race became a full-body endeavor. Several people sprinted to the front row and leaned over the barrier while others fell to their knees and praised some higher power.

With two laps to go, the Kenyans maintained the lead over the Ugandan. Those who remained standing began to dance and sing unabashedly. Their pure, unfiltered joy was so electrifying that I joined them in their dance and yelled, “I AM KENYA!” which in hindsight doesn’t make much sense, but in that moment felt like absolute magic. I cheered for the Kenyans in those last few laps like I would if an American runner was on his way to Olympic gold right in front of me.

But the race only intensified and the Ugandan somehow out-sprinted both Kenyans, leaving the runners with the lesser two medals and the team with complete devastation. The last 100 meters silenced all songs and halted all dances. While the elation I had absorbed moments earlier still remained, I watched dozens of people go from euphoria to anguish, and my heart broke with all of theirs.

The Kenyans arriving to Eugene. Imagine their smiles during the race. Photo courtesy of Marcia.

The Kenyans arriving in Eugene. Imagine their smiles during the race. Photo courtesy of Marcia.

Still, those few minutes of joy I shared with the Kenyans lifted me to a state of communal ecstasy that I have not experienced since an ODESZA concert earlier this year. This enchanted atmosphere only exists when a crowd of people simultaneously abandon all qualms and accept the present so completely that the past and future seem irrelevant at best. It’s the kind of feeling that Beatles songs promise will definitely come with LSD use and probably come with world peace. In short, it was bliss.

I spent over 200 hours at the World Juniors, but dancing with the Kenyans was my favorite moment because it was a moment of paradise. I learned so much from all the federations I interacted with, but no lesson so profound as what it means to believe in something with every atom of your being. While I also learned what it feels like to watch dreams perish, the physical outcome still seems secondary to the anticipation that precedes it. After all, the Kenyans came back to win the 1500, so I can only begin to imagine the exhilaration that filled the stands in those precious moments.


Reconnecting with Society through Books

Books have always been my thing. I started reading the Harry Potter series in first grade and did not stop until a week after the Deathly Hallows release in 2007. In between books, I racked up hours devouring Sharon Creech novels and other fantasy series. This helped secure my annual victory in “Tons of Reading,” an elementary school class competition to determine the most avid reader.

By high school, I had read Fahrenheit 451 and was well into Gone with the Wind. But then life became busy and my pleasure reading was limited. Still, I managed to read classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World through my classes, and I savored every word.

But in my interactions with other readers I have noticed a glaring hole in my book repertoire. I have not read some of the most essential stories that seem to grace every must-read modern classics list. Against all odds, I have missed Kesey and Steinbeck and Vonnegut. I have not even read the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. When I fail to effortlessly quote and discuss these books–due to the fact that I have not read them–I feel inadequate as a self-proclaimed reader.

Imagine if a runner did not know about Steve Prefontaine or Joan Benoit Samuelson or Mary Decker Slaney. These people defined the sport of American middle distance and distance running. They paved the way for every distance runner that would follow. And they should be celebrated accordingly. Of course I know all about these runners because running is such a massive part of my life, but so is reading.

Alas, there is only one solution, and that is to read these books. So that is what I will do. I now present my list of Top 10 Books I Must Read Before I can Consider Myself a Fully Functioning Member of Society:

1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1972)

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

3. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (1964)

4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

5. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

9. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

As I compiled this list, I noticed an alarmingly common theme: all but one were published within a 20 year period between 1952 and 1972. This also happens to be the time period where I belong. My father recently said, “You are a flower child.” I am confident that these books will allow me to better understand my flower child roots and the era in which they began.

Surprise! I have already started my reading journey. In a recent week of strikingly sunny weather, I laid outside and read about war and time travel. That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut, I can now say “So it goes” without fear that my fraud will be detected. And I am well on my way to understanding Ken Kesey a little bit more through the eyes of Chief and McMurphy.

I will track the rest of my progress here and add a few thoughts as I finish the big ten. But for now, I will delve back into the Oregon insane asylum until I emerge one step closer to fully functioning personhood.

The Problem With Time

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.”

-John Burroughs

There is one problem that I cannot seem to solve: time will not slow down. Two weeks ago, I found this so alarming that I simply laid on my floor for hours in a desperate attempt to stop time. Not only did this fail to change the Earth’s course, but I became even more tuned in to the day’s revolution as I watched the room steadily darken. So I got up, finished my day and arrived at class the next day wholly unsatisfied with the weekend’s length.

This problem embeds itself most ruthlessly in my life during the school year; in the summer, I can easily escape via a spontaneous camping trip or hike. There, I can revel in simplicity and nature like the hippie that inhabits my soul. There, I can engage in hour-long conversations about the brevity of our existence. There, I can stop time.IMG_3857And the next day, I can escape reality again. I can explore hidden trails for miles atop an animal that understands my deeply rooted need for freedom. On horseback, I can fly.IMG_4009 - Version 2But at the end of these three glorious months, the same thing always happens. School always returns. And the weeks become monotonous steps in the gateway to conformity. I doze through science classes, eat tolerable dining hall food and evade the general population. By the time night arrives, I find schoolwork too mundane to capture my attention and avoid it in hopes that I can feed my intellect with information more vital to my entity. Every weekday brings routine and–for many months–an omnipresent drizzle.

My only release comes when I step outside and face the limits of my mental and physical capability. Because when I do this, when I run, I feel alive. I feel connected to the world and to the basic human condition. And even amid the muddiest and hardest runs, it feels like summer.Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 10.23.57 PM                        Plus I get to explore trails like this. And 85 minutes running these hills feels eons longer than 85 minutes in biology lab.

I find my freedom here so I can live without fear that I am missing something big, something meaningful that should reveal itself in society’s ingrained conventions. Because I know that right now, my classes do not exist to inundate my day with significance; they exist to teach me to think. And if I can think, then I can observe and experience the world with intent.

Time may not slow down, but summer will return, and when it does, I can marvel once again at sights like this:IMG_4216And that beauty is anything but ephemeral.