Friday, April 16, 2010

Big Beautiful Picture

Click on this photo and look at it as close as you can. Seriously, make it as big as possible...go ahead and press your nose right up against the screen:

What do you see? As you can probably tell, this is photo is actually a mosaic made up of hundreds of tiny little pictures having absolutely nothing to do with Vincent Van Gogh or his original Starry Night. This mosaic photo hung above my couch in an old apartment of mine for years, and just recently it got me thinking.

We have great days, we have shitty days. There are weeks when we just can't seem to get ourselves together and there are months when it just seems like we can do no wrong. We say the absolute right things sometimes and other times we put our feet directly in our mouths. We can be lost and wandering and we can be right on track. We can be someone's best friend and we can be someone's worst enemy. We feel great about ourselves one day and in the dumps the next. Thats life. And its beautiful.

For all I know, that Starry Night photo mosaic could be made from blurry pictures of people kicking puppies or wrecking their bikes or giving the finger to the camera. Or they could be amazing photos of rainbows and butterflies and donuts...who knows. But for my money I'm going to say that there is probably a good mix of both, some good, some bad, and some right in between. Kind of like different times in our lives. When we're having a particulary bad day or week, its often difficult to realize that experience is just one of literally thousands making up our lives. Its like our nose is pressed up against the screen and all we can see is what's happening right now. The same goes for good times as well. But its not until we step back and look at all our photos, all of our experiences, that we can truly see the big, beautiful picture that is our lives.

; )

Friday, April 2, 2010

Take the Stairs

When I was in the seventh grade, our entire class took a trip to Washington DC. I remember loading a bus late in the evening on Friday night, and driving for what seemed like an eternity but was really only about 6 hours. The weekend was to be full of touring national monuments and museums, making more tangible the stuff we were learning in US History.

I also remember driving into DC for the first time feeling surprisingly awestruck at the site of these famous locales, and being genuinely excited at the opportunity to see them first hand.

It was a hectic schedule without much room for free time, I'm sure the idea was to keep a bunch of 13 year olds out of trouble. We saw just about everything we could, but there was one visit in particular that stands out in my mind.

When we arrived at the Washington Monument, there was a line that wrapped around its base several times. Everyone there was waiting for the elevator ride to the top and the opportunity for a few minutes of a birds eye view of the entire capital city. Typcially, the tour consists of just that...a ride up, a few minutes at the top, and a ride back down. However, one of my friends struck up a conversation with one of the tour guides while we were standing in line, and a few minutes later I saw him waving a few of us over to him. Apparently the guide took a liking to my friend and offered him an exclusive "walk down" tour of the monument. For those that don't know, the Washington Monument is the tall, tower like structure with about 50 floors. The walk down tour would take a while.

Shortly there after we were escorted to the front of the line and rode the elevator to the top. It was from here that we started our journey back down, and it turned out to be quite the adventure. When you take the stairs down, you have the opporunity to experience the monument in an entirely different way. Each floor has a plaque dedicated to one of the 50 states, and each plaque comes with a story. The guide was especially knowledgeable about how each of the plaques came to be, full of anecdotes and information about each.

This tour was rare and involved a little more time and effort, but the reward was significant and the memory stays with me more than 20 years later. I hear they're even harder to come by in the post-9/11 world, but if you get a chance, I highly recommend the long way.

The other day a friend shared with me a personal philosphy of hers and said she takes the stairs in life, not the elevator. This quote reminded me of the tour we took back then, and caused me to reflect on other experiences that I've had.

I've been fortunate to have toured most of the United States and have seen some beautiful and awe-inspiring things along the way. Most of the best stuff I've seen has come from getting off the beaten path, taking the long way, or working a little harder to get to a place not many go. The reward for such work and wandering are views and experiences that not many take the time to enjoy.

The same holds true for less tangible rewards as well. As an athlete and now a coach, I'm reminded every day that there aren't any shortcuts to real acheivement. Legitmate success takes hard work and time...and is rarely easy. Most often there is no real outside motivation to do so, its all about seeing how hard you can work or how far you can go. The situations aren't life or death, and if you quit, there are often no real consequences save having to face yourself in the mirror. However, the internal rewards for success by doing things the hard way - doing things the right way - are far more significant than any outside validation could ever provide.

I'm beginning to learn that this holds true with relationships as well. Too often we don't take the time to really get to know people, really understand and develop friendships, and make big decisions without knowing the entire story. Relationships become tertiary, and when things get tough...which they always will...often fail. By going slow and doing things right, foundations are built that will withstand even the toughest storm.

The next time you're standing at the bottom of a building, skip the elevator and take the stairs. You never know how life altering the rewards might be.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Watch this video...

Then read this book...

And be a man.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Relative and Absolute, Morality and Success

A few years back I had the opportunity to hear a Desert Storm veteran talk about morality. Kind of strange to hear someone who had actually killed people speak on the topic, but the story he shared presented a very important distinction between two types of morals - relative and absolute.

A small group of he and his fellow soldiers were advancing on an enemy front in the Iraqi desert. The enemy had secured some sort of base and was unaware of the advancing American unit. They moved meticulously to avoid being discovered by the Iraqis, and after several hours were within site of the enemy force. The surprise attack was immanent, as well were the deaths of many enemy soldiers.

However, as careful as they were to advance unnoticed, a small Iraqi boy inadvertently stumbled upon the platoon, presenting the Americans with a significant moral dilemma. Would they let the boy go, knowing he would return to his countrymen and alert them of the attack? Or would they kill him, prevent his message from reaching the enemy and preserve their element of surprise?

It is here that the distinction between relative and absolute morality guided their decision. Human casualties are part of war, and is something that every soldier has to come to terms with at some point. During times of war, relatively speaking, certain human casualties are acceptible. However, knowingly killing a young, innocent child becomes an issue of absolute morality, an act that under no circumstances is acceptable.

As the story goes, the platoon allowed the child to go, began their attack early, and eventually succeeded in their original mission by defeating the enemy force. In a world of absolute morality, they had done right.

As a coach, I'm fortunate not to have to make life or death decisions in the literal sense, but I've learned that the ideas of relative vs. absolute still ring true when it comes to success.

When I first began coaching in 2002, the team I inherited was horrible. Generally speaking, it takes about 200 points to win a conference championship meet, and in a conference of 8 teams, we had placed dead last for several years and were lucky to score 5. In my first year as head coach, we followed suit by doing just that, finishing last and scoring in the single digits. It might seem that with such an abysmal performance there was no success, and in part that was true. In absolute terms, the team was not successful. However, looking at a few individual performances, it was apparent that some success was achieved...relatively speaking. Several athletes had performed at higher levels than they had before, jumping further or running faster. At competitions where previous teams had quit, we competed hard until the final race was over. All the while, our competitive spirit was noticed by other teams, and ultimately more talented athletes were interested in becoming part of our program.

The next season was a little better. We moved up to a 5th place conference finish, and we even had an athlete qualify to compete at the National Championship meet. After this season that I convinced the team that if we recognized relative success and worked to perform better than we had in the past, that eventually our success would be absolute. The team bought in, and it worked.

Fast forward to three years later, and we came home from the National Championship meet having placed 7th. In a few short years, we had gone from conference bottom dwellers to a national powerhouse, absolute success.

I was reminded of this philosophy again today with an athlete that I currently coach. After the weight throw competition, I noticed that an athlete was being particularly hard on herself and I wanted to help her reflect positively on her experience. Given that she has just started to learn the implement this year, and is still struggling with some fundamental techniques, frustration is inevitable. When I asked her what specifically she was so frustrated about, she shared she was upset she hadn't won. I was taken aback. Here is an athlete who struggles with basic movements, is in the beginning stages of learning the event, and is upset that she can't beat people who have been honing their skills for many years. It had never occurred to me that she defined success so singularly, and winning was her only barometer.

So I shared with her the story of the previous team and the idea of relative and absolute success. She needed to understand that today success might be measured by throwing a few centimeters further than she had yesterday, and tomorrow throwing a little further than today. I explained that she must be happy with this relative success, and with enough of it, someday her success would be absolute. Some day, she would be winning competitions. All this time she had been striving for the top rung of the ladder before she had barely climbed onto the first.

Success rarely comes by windfall and is rarely absolute. If we measure ourselves against the best in the world without understanding the years of hard work and dedication they took to get there, we will be set up for failure. By looking at success relatively, we see each rung of the ladder, and can strive every day to reach higher and higher. Eventually, we will be the best in the "world", however we decide to define it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I Must Be Getting Old

Phrases like “in my day” and “when I was your age” aren’t anything new, but lately I’ve been using them more myself and its frightening to think I might becoming a cranky old fart at the age of 34.

Last semester the local papers extensively covered the contract negotiations between the University of Illinois’ graduate teaching assistants and the University of Illinois. Teaching assistants play a vital role in the educational process of major universities across the nation, picking up the slack for tenured professors who, aside from educating undergraduates, also perform vital research in the field of their expertise. From teaching classes and conducting review sessions to grading exams and papers, there is no doubt that their work is essential to a university such as Illinois. It came to my surprise, however, when last semester the teaching assistants threatened – and then did – strike over what they felt was inadequate compensation. Even more surprising was the fact that they were unionized, and actually had the power to act on such tactics.

I was once a graduate assistant, and know first hand the sacrifices and difficulties that come along with such a position. Imagine working a full time job where your pay comes in the form of an education, a few meals a week, and maybe (if you’re lucky), a small monthly stipend of a few hundred dollars. I, like many others wishing to land a good collegiate coaching job, was happy just to get such a position. Even with the low pay and long hours, the lure of making a career out of something you are passionate about draws huge pools of applicants and the competition for these positions is tough. These jobs have become something of a rite of passage for those wishing to coach full time, and a way to weed out those that are less than 100 percent committed to the field.

Before the contract negotiations last semester, these part-time teaching assistants at the University of Illinois were compensated with tuition, health benefits, as well as salaries on the order of more than $13,000 a year. Taking into account the value of graduate school tuition and health benefits, it could be argued that they were paid approximately $27,000 a year for their part time position. Keep in mind that school is in session only about 28 weeks out of the year, and all of the sudden (at least in my opinion), this doesn’t seem like too bad of a way to spend two years of your life.

A few things to note about the financial situation currently facing the University of Illinois:
  • The state of Illinois currently has the second worse credit rating in the nation, and this year the University has received only 7% of what is normally allotted from the state.
  • Recently, a hiring freeze has been implemented for all vacant university positions. Many departments will have to continue to maintain their high standards with less personnel.
  • All university employees will be forced to take a salary reduction called a “furlough” resulting in a 2 or 5 percent reduction in pay for faculty and administrators, respectively. Teaching assistants are not affected by this action.

Despite this economic climate, described as “grim and worsening” by interim President Ikenberry, their union had the audacity to act on their threatened strike.

More frightening than the dire financial woes currently facing our institution is the attitude shown by the young people making up our teaching assistant population. More and more younger generations seem to feel a sense of entitlement, sometimes viewed by the older set as spoiled kids used to getting whatever they want. In the past, older generations could always fall back on the “wait until they get to the real world” philosophy, knowing that stomping your feet and holding your breath might work with parents but falls short in the professional world. No, the most unnerving thing happening here is that the University of Illinois teaching assistant union couldn’t see past the financial tumult of the times and shoulder their share of the fiscal responsibility. Rather, they threw the equivalent of a pubescent tantrum when they didn’t get what they wanted. In the “real world”. And it worked.


A while back, facebook had this deal where you'd list 25 radom things about yourself. Even though I thought it was dumb idea to post it on facebook, I wrote my list kept it to myself. Now I'm posting it here, but since it's a blog, it's cool.

I am well aware of most of my limits, mainly because I've gone WAY past most of them. Several times.

Life balance is an elusive concept for me. I guess I've never been much of a multi-tasker.

If the beer mile (google it!) were a seriously contested event, I’m fairly certain I would finally be a world class athlete.My sister thinks that we are 99% polar opposites.

I think she might be surprised at how much we actually have in common.

For the past 7 years, my full time job has been coaching collegiate track and field.
Yes, it really is a full time gig, and no, I don’t also have to teach. I love it in the way that if I won 10 million dollars today, I’d still work 7 to 7 tomorrow without even thinking twice about it.

When someone asks me what my pet peeve is, I can’t even imagine where to begin.

I’d much rather beg forgiveness than ask permission.

It turns out I’m not much for compromise. For the most part, I do what I want when I want, and don’t do well when I have to take someone else’s feelings or agenda into account.


I’m pretty good at solving problems on the fly, and as such, I’m not much for plans or agendas. That being said, some of my most stressful times have come when I haven’t planned well enough. But dammit, stress sure can be exciting.

For the better part of my 20’s, I kept a journal.
I still do now, but not nearly as often. It’s an unusual feeling to go back and read stuff from 5 or 10 years ago.

Ten years ago, I would have told you I’d have it all figured out by now.
Turns out, the only thing I know now is that I have no idea what “it” even is.

I’ve filed taxes in four states – Pennsylvania, California, Wisconsin, and Illinois. That list will grow longer.

Helping someone else succeed is, without a doubt, the most fulfilling feeling I know.

A few years back, I had three athletes qualify for the NCAA National Championship meet.
One decathlete, one triple jumper, and one long jumper. None of them were ranked first going in, but all of them won the national championship in their respective events. That was a good day.

Most of my life has been immensely happy and rewarding, but the summer of 2006 might have been a few of the happiest months of my life. I wish I had the insight to realize it at the time.

I hate cold weather. No…seriously…I HATE cold weather.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never felt comfortable in a church. However, I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful and inspiring things in nature, and that, more than anything, has convinced me that somebody up there is running the show.

I trust that everything happens for a reason and everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, then it’s not the end.

Road trips are awesome.
There’s no greater feeling of freedom than cruising down the road, not sure of where your going or what you’ll do next. Many of my most fantastic experiences have started out that way.

My entire extended family lives within 15 minutes of each other near Pittsburgh and get along remarkably well. However, my sister and I still managed to find lives hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I’ll take a small college town over a big city any day.

My parents are cool people and look great for their age…let’s hope that runs in the family!

I find it tough to be happy with what I have right now.
It seems that I spend a lot of time wishing I still had something I left behind, or looking ahead for something bigger and better.

I make a conscience effort to be exceptional with even the most ordinary tasks. Not necessarily exceptional as in the best, but exceptional as in not following the status quo. One of my biggest fears is being just another typical guy in the crowd.

I still miss her.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

You Might Be Right, But You're Still an Asshole

"Don't be an asshole."
~Nelson L. Erb

I can't tell you how many times I heard my father utter this phrase growing up. Whether I was harassing my younger sister or getting argumentative about wanting to stay out past curfew, it always ended with the same five words - "Hey, don't be an asshole." And with that, it was over.

Now that I'm older and wiser (no laughing!), I've realized just how true and how widely applicable that simple phrase can be. While I don't have kids myself, I do coach collegiate track and field, and I can't tell you how many times this phrase has come in handy. The look you get when you fire that phrase to a kid that's clearly being an asshole - and usually they know it but just aren't expecting to get called on it - is priceless. Generally something somewhat dumbfounded followed by a realization that they should stop what they're doing. Brilliant in its simplicity.

So why, you ask, am I moved to reflect on childhood discipline? Well, unless you've been under a rock for the past few weeks, there's no doubt you've seen some version of the University of Florida student getting forcibly removed from the Senator Kerry Q&A session. If you haven't, google a few words in that last sentence and you'll instantly have more video than you know what to do with, but more on that later.

There's an interesting phenomenon occurring with younger people today. Myspace, youtube, facebook, and other social networks have opened up previously unheard of people and situations to the entire world via the internet. Previously private moments are now up for public display, and many embrace this faux-stardom. Whether its skateboarding, singing or just acting silly, cameras are everywhere and everything is open to everyone. George Orwell would be having a field day, but in this case we've made it easy on the government by using our own equipment. Its no surprise then, that there are different types of videos surfacing now, very similar to the one from the University of Florida.

A few weeks ago I stumbled on a different online video, this one shot from a camera mounted on the dashboard of a car - kind of like those police videos we see on COPS. However, this camera wasn't mounted on a police car, but rather on the dashboard of a car owned by 20 year old kid from St. Louis. He had previously gotten a ticket he felt he didn't deserve, but had no proof that he was in the right. This way, he figured, he would have all the evidence he needed if it ever happened again. And did it ever.

Not long after the debut of the dashboard camera, his video caught a police officer threatening to arrest him on "made up charges". The video clearly showed a cop saying he would make something up to arrest him for and take him to jail. Initially it sounds like the typical, Napoleon complexed cop with a chip on his shoulder looking to ruin some young kids night for no reason. Good for the kid for having the video.

But something told me there was more to the story that wasn't being shown, so I googled the camera man's name (its Brett Darrow, if you're curious) and found some very interesting stuff. Not only was there a lot more to the original video of the threatening cop indicating Brett was pushing the officer's buttons to get a reaction, but there were several more videos - all showing him being "unjustly" harassed by the police.

Now maybe I'm just naive, but I've been in my fair share of traffic stops (way to many in my 31 years, I've got the insurance premiums to prove it), and never once has an officer gone out of his way to give me a hard time. Never once have I been threatened with jail time for simply speeding or not wearing a seat belt. I've never even been asked to step out of the car. But here's a 20 year old kid who's almost gone to jail every time he's ever been pulled over. Strange, until you realize one thing. Every time he's been approached by a cop, he's acted like an asshole.

Instead of just answering yes sir/no sir, he'll barrage the officer with questions, argue his rights, and refuse to cooperate. While he technically isn't doing anything illegal, he is doing everything he can to get a reaction from the police. When he does, he has it all on tape and is standing by with a lawsuit. While the police might not be doing the right thing by giving him a hard time, neither is he by acting like an idiot. You get what you give.

It reminds me of my 6 and 4 year old cousins whenever things get too boring for them. Inevitably, one of them will take a toy they want nothing to do with except that the other one was playing with it, wait for a negative reaction (usually a smack in the face), then go crying to mommy and daddy. Did they want to toy? No. Did the smack even hurt? No. But there is just something satisfying about getting attention by causing someone else misery when you're five years old. Or if you're Brett Darrow, I suppose.

It was a similar thing that happned on the campus of the University of Florida during the Kerry speach. Here is a kid who clearly has an agenda, and was being obnoxious in his line of questioning. He was asked to leave, but didn't. When he didn't leave, police stepped in and removed him. Rather than say to himself, "okay, there's six cops, maybe I should just go easy and save myself some hassle" he resisted arrest and shouted for people to get it all on video, presumably so that he'd get even more attention after the altercation. He then got thrown to the ground and tased. Later he would be quoted as being paranoid about a government conspiracy against him. Now I've never met this kid, but I'll be he's not just acting like an asshole, my guess is that he's the real deal.

Maybe most intersting to me are the people that are so concerned with their rights, privacy, and the government's involvement in their lives are the very same people putting their lives on display for public viewing. My message to them? You can't have it both ways, and you've got to be careful what you wish for, or you might just get it.

Oh, and don't be an asshole.