Friday, July 27, 2012

Nittany Mountain

Musings on Penn State, the Tour de France, happiness and depression

In my defense, and I should state this upfront, this has not been the best time for clear thinking. In mitigation I could and will cite the reasons, but for now I want to describe a trail I ran today against the backdrop of some emotionally wrenching, uplifting and conflicting events. Nittany Mountain in State College, PA isn't on anyone's tick list. It doesn't make it on the list of "50 mountains I must climb before I die". At its highest point it doesn't reach the lowest elevation of my home state in Colorado. And while it is not going to be swamped by the sea as a result of global warming, it isn't what you would call "imposing". But I was here for other reasons that I'll come to shortly.

Of course, it is impossible to drive into State College, as I did on a beautiful afternoon yesterday, and not be struck by the fall from grace of such a venerable educational institution as Penn State. Even the road signs bearing the name seemed to drip with shame. The egregious ethical lapse at the heart of this demise is difficult to fathom. I have always been suspicious of those who have statues built of them in their lifetime (isn't this the prerogative of despots and dictators?) and the very recent removal of THAT statue from Beaver Stadium while symbolic, hardly addresses the issues it came to personify. 

As I set out running from my hotel towards Nittany Mountain these thoughts were swirling around my head. A dark and threatening sky had replaced the clear blue of yesterday and I wasn't in a mood to pay much attention to my watch. But it was 6am. There was no traffic, no human activity of any kind that I could see. The thunder rumbled just as I left the road and hit the first section of trail. I had barely broken sweat.

Yet the recent weekend had been a cause for such optimism. The greatest sporting event in the world - the Tour de France - had reached its climax in Paris and crowned Bradley Wiggins as the first ever UK victor. But it wasn't the fact of his victory that caused me to think of him this morning. It was the contrasting juxtaposition of perspectives on ethical conduct coming from a professional cyclist (where sadly we have come to least expect it) compared to a high standing educational institution (where we just assume it). Wiggins was inevitably asked about doping and the question, although understandable, clearly annoyed him. His response was a devastating statement of personal, moral integrity, responsibility and value. "The question that needs to be asked is not why I wouldn't take drugs, but why would I? I know exactly why I wouldn't dope...If I doped I would potentially stand to lose everything. It's a long list. My reputation, my livelihood, my marriage, my family, my house. Everything I have achieved, my Olympic medals, my world titles, the CBE I was given. I would have to take my children to the school gates...with everyone looking at me, knowing I had cheated, knowing I had, perhaps, won the Tour de France, but then been caught."

I reflected on this contrast as I climbed the initial blue trail as it contoured to the north east before pulling more steeply to crest the ridge after a mile. The oppressive weather fomented dark thoughts and I became annoyed at the skewed moral relativism of Messrs Spanier, Paterno, and Sandusky (and how many others were still waiting to be discovered?).  From those whose ethical values we took for granted we saw many innocents suffer, and from a sport (cycling) so long clothed with a "dirty" label we received a searing definition of the very essence of ethical conduct. It played in my mind for a while. The great, late manager of Liverpool football (soccer) club in the UK - Bill Shankly - once said that "Football wasn't an issue of life or was much more important than that." It was an amusing retort and understandable in the proper context. It is so unfortunate that those who should have known better at Penn State allowed this statement to define their very existence, their ultimate sense of distorted value.

I had forgotten how humid and sticky the weather can be close to the east coast. I had also forgotten the insects. As I slowed down when the trail steepened I was pestered by a large fly attempting to sample the haemaglobin quality in my left leg. I swatted it away several times but it kept coming back. At least I thought it kept coming back. After all, I am sure there was more than one fly in the vicinity. But I needed something specific to dislike at that particular moment and in no time, not only had this fly developed a personality, it also came to represent everything that I detested. I did what every human does, I gave this fly anthropomorphic qualities and then allowed my competitive instinct to do the rest. I flew up the final section of the steepest part of the trail in a barely concealed inner rage. I had completed the first 3 miles at a leisurely pace yet did this last half mile propelled like a dervish. My stupidity knew no bounds and the shallow satisfaction of beating the fly gave way to inner embarrassment which thankfully, no-one witnessed, and I resumed a more reasonable gait.

For all of Nittany Mountain's insignificance it does provide for some pretty vistas of the surrounding area. One overlook towers above Beaver Stadium. While pausing and reflecting again the rain came like stair rods and it crossed my mind that this wasn't the best place to be with lightening flickering in the distance. Later in the day, when driving by Beaver Stadium, I saw the habitual nutcase bearing a sign proclaiming recent events to be the product of God's wrath with repentance the solution. Well, if repentance wasn't enough to prevent the incidents of shame I failed to see how it would be the solution. I recalled the then Pope - John Paul 2 - who bestowed papal credit for him surviving a shooting attack on Our Lady of Fatima, a somewhat obscure nun who apparently prostrated herself and prayed in a manner that he believed caused his survival. If she was so much more effective than modern medicine in curing him, why hadn't she prevented the bullet hitting him in the first place? I am sure the victims of this abuse find total relief and release from this kind of posturing.

If the Nittany trail is completely runnable this doesn't mean it is uniformly easy. Once I had completed the 5 mile circuit of the Blue trail my auto-pilot steered me to the White trail for another 3 miles. This brought even rockier terrain - not exactly South Arapaho Peak rocky, but maybe Mount Sanitas rocky. It was good fun and the new ground opened up different outlooks across this sad community. Returning to the main trail junction I felt I had to make a conscious decision to return to the hotel otherwise, so lost in my thoughts,  I'd have kept running in circles all day. I had good reason. What bizarre circumstances had created this emotional confusion?

I hate redeye flights. The previous day, evening, night and morning had been swallowed by an unsatisfactory flight from San Francisco to Newark. 6 hours of hell. The arriving east coast dawn failed to lift my spirit and the anticipation of a long day on such little sleep asserted its influence. Verizon 3G connects and the phone and email messages start to click in. And then a text. Texts come from family. It's just how it is. Work is email, family is text. I always read texts first, but this came when everyone should be sleeping. I could then see it was from the UK. I scanned it quickly as the body blow floored me and I had to sit down and process my thoughts. I don't express emotions. It's more than a "guy" thing. I have feelings, but for the most part they are deliberately suppressed and I am able to fool those around me with a superficial confidence that is difficult to penetrate. I am called "cold" and "intense" for good reason. At work it's a strength, at home it's a weakness. Or maybe I'm just deluding myself and it's a weakness, period.

This all came flooding back as I pushed myself at a silly pace back along the road to the hotel. The rain was streaming down. I was soaked to the skin. Mist, cloud, thunder and rain concealed the hurt. But it was deep and visceral. It was barely contained.

We knew this was going to happen but it didn't make it any easier. When such a good friend is lost to cancer foreknowledge enables a certain poise to be practiced but never mastered. And I try to look at these situations positively. As Richard Dawkins wrote in "Unweaving the Rainbow", "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." As brutal as this sounds it represents a truth that forces us to be thankful...thankful that someone like David was born and lived and thankful that we got to share the same space and time. 

More reflection. Only a week ago I got to spend a wonderful evening with my daughter on her birthday in San Francisco and today I was spending time with my son on his birthday in State College. Sandwiched between them in age is David's daughter...their friend...a person they grew up with and shared so much. This mixture of uplifting and depressing emotions were processed by my brain in simultaneous accord. I could never understand why, as a child, my father would express his pride of my brother and I. I couldn't see what we had done to deserve this. When I was very young I just didn't understand, when I was a teenager it just felt awkward. It is only as a parent that I truly came to appreciate that he expressed a feeling that was so important to him. As I look at Amy and Tom as young adults, facing the world and making their own decisions it makes me feel my wife and I did some things right just as my own parents had with us. My father was right to be proud and I, in turn, couldn't be prouder of my kids.

And this is what brought me to the slopes of Nittany Mountain. It explains a roller coaster of emotions from such great happiness to depression, from anger to hope and it played out against a environment that seemed to want to intervene have its influence. As I flew out of State College I looked down on Happy Valley. It's a current misnomer, but it is a valley that has some reason to feel happy.

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