There is a state that long-distance runners sometimes achieve called "the zone." It is described as a condition of bliss, lightness, and euphoria, where the exhaustion of the race disappears and one loses the sensation of the effort of running. There is also a condition known as "hitting the wall," which often occurs to marathoners at about twenty to twenty-two miles. "Hitting the wall" is, according to those who have experienced it, like suddenly sprinting up a mountain after running on level ground. Every step becomes agony. Most runners who "hit the wall" stop running at that point. Those who persevere often enter "the zone."
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I didnt know if I wanted to go to school. Adults kept asking, "Are you ready for school?" or "Are you excited about starting school?" My five-year-old brain had no clue but I quickly learned to say "Yes!" to these questions, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
I liked my first grade teacher a lot. Miss Johnson was a stereotypical fifties teacher: overweight, intelligent, unmarried, and devoted to her students. Had it been a Catholic school she would have been wedded to Christ, but it was Grand Avenue Grade School, Billings, Montana, 1954. She was wedded to teaching instead. In spite of liking Miss Johnson, after a few days I decided I didnt want to go. I solemnly informed my parents, and was stunned to learn that school was not optional. I told them Id never have begun if Id known I couldnt quit. They laughed. I was hurt. Id been certain Mom would intercede on my behalf, welcoming me back into those long days of lunches, stories, art, and naps.
But soon I had compensation: the library. Mom had taught me to read before I started school. Miss Johnson explained the school library, how we could check out any book, how to find what we were looking for. Then she did an amazing thing: she cut us loose. Suddenly the concept of choice hit me hard. Id been to the public library downtown, but only with my mother. Shed picked out a different book from the childrens section for me each week. Id never imagined I could pick my own reading material. It was exhilarating!
My best friend Knute and I quickly got started on a competition: who could read the most books. Walking to and from school became a time of arguments over Beatrix Potters plots, why Dick and Jane were so stupid, whether Uncle Wiggly had any real sense.
Knute moved to Minnesota the next summer. I endured years of angry, incompetent, burned-out teachers. But the reading persisted. I could usually be found sitting somewhere devouring a book. My parents had to chase me out of the house. I was a classic nerd.
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The wall is not restricted to distance runners. Many other athletes talk about running out of gas, of having nothing left to give, after exhausting effort. And sometimes an athlete will enter the zone, playing well above his or her abilities, seemingly unable to make a mistake. Think Kirby Puckett in Game Six of the World Series, or Larry Bird in the NBA playoffs, or Mary Lou Retton in the Olympic Games. The zone doesnt always come out of exhaustion. But it definitely comes out of desire.
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In addition to words, I had numbers. I had a terrific natural sense about numbers and their use. I remember, very young, being put down for a nap. I made the usual protest that I wasnt sleepy. But Mom was very tired. She finally asked me to please, please let her take a nap. "Why dont you count to a hundred?" she asked, thinking that would shut me up.
I didnt think I could, but decided to try. I remember working carefully through the teens, then hitting the twenties, thirties, and forties. Suddenly it dawned on me: there was a pattern here! With great excitement I whizzed through the rest of the numbers until I hit three digits.
"Mommy! Mommy! I did it!"
The whole process couldnt have taken more than five minutes. My poor mother sleepily listened as I counted again to one hundred, correcting me several times. But I had it. I got it.
Math became another feather in my cap. I whizzed through multiplication, and long division. Fractions were a snap. Story problems made me excited. I had no trouble with math.
In fact, all my subjects came easily. I had a lot of advantages as a kid, and one of them was good genes. My mother had graduated from college at age 17 and was teaching high school when most of the kids shed grown up with were still students. My father is equally intelligent. But both had grown up with parents who had pushed them too hard; they were determined never to unduly pressure their own children. I was allowed to slide. As long as I got Cs or better, my parents put no demand on me to excel.
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Athletes know about both the wall and the zone, but they are no more able to avoid the former any more than they can will themselves into the latter. It is only through hard work and focus that either condition appears. An athlete always hopes to enter the zone, and fears hitting the wall. There isnt any shortcut to the zone that doesnt bear the threat of the wall.
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In fourth grade I learned another skill: clarinet. Id been taking piano lessons since I was five, but this was music with a whole room full of other kids. The teacher, although mostly unmotivated, managed to teach us to play a bit. Then when I got to Junior High School, I had Mr. Glenn, who was just what I needed to maintain my interest. He introduced us to many great works, from classical to rock and roll. He moved me from clarinet to bassoon, and got me private lessons. Between that and piano lessons, I was immersed in music.
Band was the glue that held my life together through Junior High. I got into trouble as a seventh-grader, but trouble in those days didnt involve drugs or sex. It was more like sassing the cute new Art teacher and playing keep-away with girls purses. I got called to the principals office one time and that was the end of it. I shaped right up.
In high school I was put on the college track, in spite of my mediocre grades. Band was a lot harder now than it had been in junior high school, with much greater expectations. I joined the orchestra, too, increasing my exposure to music. But I had enough talent that I didnt need to practice much. I just slid along.
I won a full scholarship to the University of Montana to play bassoon, but I knew Id never make it. Despite all the lessons, Id never learned the technique of working through difficulties. I had no interest in playing four or more hours a day. Id hit the wall in music. I now realize this is very common. Ive seen many young "phenoms" pick up a horn and start playing. But after a week or a year or five, they hit the wall. And because theyve never learned to practice, they have no concept of what to do. Neither did I.
So I entered Montana State University, in Engineering. College brought me face to face with reality, but not for three years. I was a junior, taking Differential Equations. Id never learned how to study. Math had always come so easily that when it finally did get tough, I had no idea what to do. Meanwhile, my "stupid" classmates, the ones whod always had to do their homework and struggle just to keep up, plodded on past me. I was stuck. Another wall. I had no idea what to do, so I did the obvious: I dropped out. It was the Viet Nam era, and I had found that marijuana and LSD covered any feelings of failure I might have. And the draft lottery had removed my last reason to attend college. I was done.
What did I learn after I left college? Many things. I may have learned more the first year out of school than Id learned in fifteen years in school. How to get a job. How to spot a narc. How to roll a cigarette. How to get an apartment with no money. How to panhandle. How to fight forest fires. The list goes on and on.
Over the next thirty years I learned how to be a husband, how to be a father. I learned how to be a file clerk, and how to be a cost accountant. I learned container leasing, silver jewelry construction, art supply warehousing, paint sales, window shade manufacture, school bus driver supervision. I learned how to find work when there isnt any and how to keep a job you hate. I learned musical instrument repair, the first job I loved. And I learned how to teach it.
I learned what to do when you are poisoned by chemicals you work with. How to make your own job when the one you have becomes intolerable. What to do when your fourteen-year-old daughter is an alcoholic. Why sometimes you have to push right on through the wall. Why sometimes, for the sake of your life or your family or your child, you have to go on past what you thought were your limits. I learned that some things are more important than how tired you are.
* * *
Athletes who enter "the zone" always had some reason for pushing on after they hit the wall. Usually they will stop the first time they hit the wall, and then learn from others about the price of "the zone." That price is the desire to persevere, whether because of the quest for victory or the inability to accept defeat. A purpose larger than oneself is often a motivating factor: a parent, sibling, or child. Whatever the reason, it is that reaching inside when one feels completely empty that propels a person into "the zone." It is the labor to produce something from nothing.
* * *
I learned about making mistakes in the woods. I learned what its like to lie bleeding on the side of a mountain, hypothermic, hungry, and dehydrated. I learned to drink dew when you have no water, eat ferns when you have no food, crawl when your legs wont work. I learned about pain, healing, growth, and the realization that there are no accidents. I learned why you must move relentlessly towards what you want. I learned that if you dont, you die.
And I learned about disability. Two years ago, after twenty years of musical instrument repair, I could no longer force my hands do the intricate and powerful movements required to perform repair. I was heartbroken. My body had hit the wall.
I learned that the Department of Labor & Industries considers repetitive motion injuries as having no relation to a persons work. And I learned about attorneys and lawsuits and Independent Medical Evaluations. About bilateral epicondrolytis and osteoarthritis. About pensions and disability insurance and retraining options.
All that learning, even with the walls, was good for something. Now that I am back in school, I value every class, every homework assignment, every deadline. They are all gifts to me, the essential me, that child who sat at home to read on a sunny mornings in fifties Montana.
I have come back to my first love, the written word. But I remember hitting the wall. I remember realizing I was through in music, and in math, and pushing on in other places. I dont plan on letting that happen again. Not with something as important as my writing. Im hitting the books this time, not the wall. And if I do hit the wall, I know enough to push on, and fight, to enter the zone.