Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ultrarunning and Life, the Game of Inches

It's well past my bedtime, but I'm awake and I can't stop thinking about running. I keep playing out Badwater in my head: what it must be like to run the race. If I close my eyes, I can see Death Valley. I am running and I can see the road ahead narrowing off into - where? What lies beyond the road except more road? And I can hear the patter of my own feet as they come down on the blacktop. Feel the heat radiating against my legs, and not just my legs, but everywhere really. The inescapable grasp of some awesome power. My God. The One I pray to before every run. The One to whom I offer up my daily sweat.

And after these visions comes the pain of the yearning, because, inevitably, the feelings turn physical and all I can do, as always, is go for a run.

Now, I've just finished watching a clip on YouTube. It is from the football movie, "Any Given Sunday." Al Pacino plays the coach of an NFL team, and towards the end of the movie, he and his team find themselves in an impossible situation: they are down and have little chance of coming back to win. During a locker room break (the locker room break, the typical sports movie Big Speech Moment), Pacino gathers his players and coaching staff around to deliver one last speech.

It's is one of the most stirring, powerfully affecting speeches I've ever heard in a sports movie partly because it avoids most of the sentimental traps typical for the genre (it still remains recognizably a Big Speech Moment) and partly because Pacino is still capable of delivering a tough, fine performance.

He talks about football being a game of inches, how when you find yourself in the depths of hell, when you are down and out, all you can do is fight to claw your way out, inch by inch. You have to be willing, he says, to fight and die for each inch.
Anyone who has suffered hard to get to where they want (need) to be knows, instinctively, what he means. It's not just about football. His words get under your skin and even deeper - they get down to the bone - because he is talking about life. He is talking about you and me and the game we all play.

I've come to realize how trivial and unimportant Badwater must seem to many (most) people. But surely there is something in your life that burns you up, consumes you. Surely you've wanted something so badly that you were willing to do anything to make it real. I think the desire to achieve - and eventually, the striving for that achievement - is what largely defines our characters. What we do defines who we are. What's your goal?

The goal should be something worth striving for. Something that gives us great satisfaction. Something more substantial and enriching than money, fame, or sex. Maybe the goal is to help others: that must be extremely satisfying. Maybe it's to climb a mountain or cross a desert. Maybe it's to be a good father or mother, a devoted wife or husband. Whatever the goal is, and there can and should be several in our lives, we should desire it passionately, and then strive for it inch by inch. Live for it and love it. And maybe one day we can look back and say, "I've done it. I've accomplished something worthwhile."

That must make for a good life.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Ethics of a Hamburger: Man Has Heart Attack While Eating at Heart Attack Grill

I recently saw an item on ABC News about a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas. A man suffered some sort of cardiac episode (possibly a heart attack) while eating a 6,000 calorie burger called the Triple Bypass. Jon Basso, the owner of the restaurant - who acknowledges that the food he serves is unhealthy, dangerous, and possibly lethal - seemed remarkably calm about and unmoved by the ordeal. The whole damn story left me feeling unspeakably depressed; it made me want to go out into the fresh air, go for a run, eat an apple, and sigh for society.

What got to me wasn't so much the attitudes of the customers, who seemed amused and intrigued by the place. It's understandable that people would be curious; the joint has a morbid sense of humor about its business: diners wear hospital gowns, the wait staff dresses in nurses' uniforms (the owner dresses like a doctor), there is a weigh-in station where customers clocking in at over 350 lbs. eat free, and now, after this recent episode, customers can eat at the-place-where-that-guy-had-a-heart-attack. No, it doesn't surprise me that people would want to patronize this curiosity. But, what does surprise me, what does get under my skin and tick me off, is the attitude of the the owner. Mr. Basso seems to think this is all good fun, a good-for-business chance happening that will certainly seal the Grill's reputation as a place to get really greasy fast food.

It's all supposed to be really cute, but I'm not laughing. Obesity is a real problem. Think of all the people you know - family members, friends, public figures, politicians, celebrities - who have died of a heart attack or stroke or whose lives have been diminished by heart disease. Think of the all the surgeries, the drugs, the medical bills, the lost time. Am I the only one who finds all this incredibly sad?

And yet, Mr. Basso will have good grounds - certainly legal grounds - to defend his business. "Anything that is legal that you want to eat or drink that's fun, that enriches your life at the moment, I will sell it to you," he said. But, that doesn't cut it. Precisely because he knows just how unhealthy his menu items are, Mr. Basso is faced with an ethical dilemma that reaches beyond the question of legal compliance. His moral argument is that people are responsible for their own food choices.

He is, of course, right, but that doesn't mean he isn't a sleaze. Just because people are ultimately responsible for what they put in their bodies - and they certainly are responsible for that - doesn't mean Mr. Basso is off the hook. In cashing in on America's food problem, he becomes the worst kind of social parasite, someone who is willing to take advantage of the obesity epidemic in America just to make a buck.

Places like the Heart Attack Grill are not the root of the problem (they aren't: one hamburger, even one as big as the Triple Bypass, cannot, on its own, cause a heart attack; and people surely know going in that the food is unhealthy, and yet still they go), but they certainly are not part of the solution. If nothing else, a place like the Heart Attack Grill presents us with manifest proof of a cruel irony: that tragedies like heart attacks are now accepted as commonplace and "normal" when "normal" should mean living a long, full, and healthy life.