My Victory Lap

Long before I began to think of my life as a mile (= four laps) run, I knew the popular version of a saying from Psalm 90: “the days of a man are three score and ten or by reason of strength, four score.”

There was a good deal wrong with my memory, apparently. The King James Version, which I was pretty sure was being quoted, actually says, “”The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Psalm 90:10

So the point of the verse is that it is soon over and we “fly away.” [1] I never got beyond three score and ten. Also, I never really liked the way the translation scanned in English; too many syllables. “Or by REA-son of STRENGTH four SCORE,” places an emphasis on every other syllable and I like it better that way. And it isn’t “of a man,” as I recalled, but “the days of our years.” Oh well.

I started running seriously in 1968, the year I first visited the University of Oregon. The people I saw running there took my breath away long before I started running myself and discovered that that takes your breath away, too.

Then I noticed that I was twenty years old or so when I first married and forty years or so A very young professor at Westminster Collegewhen that marriage ended and sixty years or so when my second wife died and I got to wondering what was going to happen when I was eighty years or so old. Partly for that reason—it wasn’t just the symmetry of the design—I decided to propose that Bette (third wife) and I move to a senior center in 2017, when I would be eighty years old. This picture is from that same era and I did remember to take a victory lap around the track at the University of Oregon when they granted me a Ph. D. The kids all ran with me.

That’s the timing part. Now comes the part where I have to apologize to my children, all of whom are in their 50s by now so they are more likely to forgive me this flight than when they were in their teens. In 1976, I began a project to “celebrate” the bicentennial of our country. The project was simplicity itself. We were to run one thousand, seven hundred, seventy-six miles between the fourth of July 1976 and the fourth of July 1977. That’s less than six miles a day for each of six days a week for a year. No problem. I was still in my 30s, with relatively fresh knees and something to prove. But…things happen in a year’s time and I showed up in March of 1977 about 280 miles behind the pace. So that’s roughly 36 miles a week built into the schedule PLUS somehow those extra 280 miles.

Last Mile.At that point I began to resort to mind games of one kind or another. One of them is the “victory lap,” which is the subject of today’s reflection. We lived on what was called “new faculty circle” in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where I taught at Westminster College. The “circle” was half a mile and I made it a practice to run that little extra loop every time I came in from a run. What the heck; it’s another half mile added to the total. I was desperate. I did it, though. Here is 39 year-old Dale running the last of the 1776 miles.

But then something really interesting happened. I noticed that running that extra half mile didn’t feel at all like running the ten or fifteen or twenty before it. If I had been having blister problems, for instance, they stopped bothering me on the “victory lap.” The strong task orientation I felt, especially on longer runs that really tested my body, seemed to go away on the victory lap. I was reflective and peaceful on the victory lap. I looked back on what I had done with a willingness to celebrate.

At that point, I began to think of the victory lap as a metaphor and I thought about those sets of double decades as the laps of a race and I thought how really terrific it would be if, when I finished the race, after my fourth lap, I could run a little longer with that reflective and celebrative cast of mind. It all sounded good to me.

It did not sound good to my kids, who were 16, 14, and 12 at the time. The “end of the race” didn’t mean beginning of a post-run celebration; it meant dying. They didn’t want me to die and they didn’t want me to think about dying. And if I did think about it, they wanted me not to talk about it. And I have mostly not talked about it, at least not to them.

But now it appeals to me more and more strongly. I’m not sure I can do it, to tell the truth. It appears to require skills I have not yet mastered and have only, in fact, caught sight of every now and then. I thought I might treat my retirement from the Oregon Higher Education System like that, but I didn’t. I signed up to teach in a doctoral program at Portland State and I worked at it like a sonofobitch!

As I think about it, there really was no way to do a bad job of the victory lap. All that still confronted me was a hot soak for my feet and a cold beer for the rest of me and then taking on the rest of the day. But there are a thousand ways of teaching badly and I hate each and every one of them.

After leaving Portland State, I took on a year-long Bible study class at First Presbyterian church, here in Portland. For an odd mix of reasons, I worked the course pretty hard. We were supposed to become “a community,” in the process of reading the entire Bible in 34 weeks. That takes some emailing and some phoning and some coffee drinking and some visiting and, in our case, some praying as well. Also, I had been thinking I knew a fair amount about the Bible because I keep reading the parts of it I like best. You don’t do that with a class, so I read a lot of things I hadn’t read in years and that I had never understood at all. I worked it pretty hard, but not like the doctoral studies. I’m prepared to call that an improvement.

Leaving our house in the West Hills of Portland is easier—so far. It’s still a year or two out, but already I am experiencing some of the victory lap feelings. [2] I remember when we planted the Austrian Pine that has gotten so big now. I remember years of “bagel parties,” each different; each a pleasure. [3] I remember the pleasures—sometimes the sorrows, but mostly the pleasures—of living here with my second wife and doing the little things that helped her die more comfortably and brimming with family. I remember with pleasure the mess I made of rototilling the back yard.

All that is victory lap stuff. It isn’t how long the lap is. It is what the lap is for. It is tacking on an extra half mile, all the while remembering the run with pleasure and not feeling the discomfort, discomfort that was undeniably apparent ten minutes ago, but has gone somewhere during the victory lap.

My idea of ending a phase of my life is like closing a long-running and highly successful Broadway play. There are no tears of sadness; there is no lamenting. Everyone celebrates what a glorious run the play had, how many people saw and enjoyed it, how many careers got their start on that cast, and so on.  No one complains that its “run” on Broadway is over.

In December of 2017, I will turn 80 unless something unforeseen intervenes. By then, I hope to have thought through and named and practiced the crucial victory lap skills. I want to be good at them because I really don’t want to have to work very hard at them and I really don’t like doing it wrong.

[1] The actual meaning of the verse was, in other words, entirely opposed to the reason I remembered it. In a long life of biblical scholarship—reading it, not producing it—I have found that to be distressingly common.

[2] “Victory lap skills” would be a great deal better than “victory lap feelings” but be begin where we are able and progress as means, motive, and opportunity enable us.

[3] We really do make and eat bagels at a “bagel party,” but I put the term in quotation marks because of the way we do it. We divide the group into teams of four and each takes a turn shaping the bagels and leaving them to rise. They group one returns to “their bagels”—the ones they claim to remember having made or, failing that, the best-shaped bagels on the table—to boil them and bake them. The boiling is carried out with completely unnecessary precision; there is an official timer; there is a bagel-flipper, etc. Then each remaining group does the same until Group 1’s bagels come out of the oven and the “eating phase” begins. THAT’S a bagel party.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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