“Time is train; it makes the future the past
Leaves you standing in the station
Your face pressed up against the glass.” -U2, “Zoo Station”
We recently saw some social media feed welcoming back the student athletes to our alma mater, Knox College. Knox starts classes in early-mid September. The athletes would report to campus about two weeks prior to other students. This led me to start thinking about the Cross-Country Team in 1997. On the men’s side, we had started on perhaps the best period of sustained success in school history. We finished 3rd in our league in 1996. We wound up finishing 2nd-3rd-2nd-3rd in the subsequent four years. (Note that we never won the league; it was a run of us being very competitive, and that was an accomplishment. Most of my victories are “moral victories”).
That 1997 team was a great cast of characters. I still love those people to this day. I had been given, somewhat arbitrarily, the nickname “Lenny” (in fact, to this day there are about a dozen or so men that still use that name, and I rather like it). We all had nicknames given to us; you didn’t get a say in the matter. And we ran a lot. We ran hard. We managed to slowly chase down our arch rival, Monmouth (I still don’t like them) during the course of that ’97 season. We had been behind them for years. That season, we got closer and closer. At the Illinois NCAA D3 state championships, we still finished behind them, but we were finally in striking distance.
Our coach, in a bit of great psychology, went to the coaches meeting the night before the conference championships. They polled the coaches to rank the teams. He knew we had improved, and probably were the third best squad in the conference. But if things broke right, maybe we could take 2nd. So he went to the meeting and talked to the other coaches. He was trying to downplay our team. “Yeah, we’ve had a good season, but we’ve got a lot of injuries. Just don’t know what we have left.” We were picked by the coaches to finish fourth or fifth, I don’t remember specifically. But we weren’t ranked either 2nd or 3rd.
We had a team meeting at our hotel. He showed us the rankings but didn’t say much else. We. Were. PISSED. The order by our captain was given: no one, and I mean no one, gets passed in the last mile, and we were to pass everyone from Monmouth you possibly can. We all shaved our heads that night. We ran the race in 25F weather with 25+ mph wind gusts in tank tops and shorts. The statement was that nothing was going to bother us. And we pulled it off, by one stinking point. On the drive back to Knox, we cracked every “one point” joke imaginable. Oh, and Grinnell won that year, like they pretty much do every year. That Warren Buffet money must be nice.
But that’s not why I’m writing. Because, let’s face it, being on a team that took 2nd place in a small, upper Midwest conference doesn’t count for much 2 decades later. It was important to us collectively at the time, but even with that in mind, we need to keep a little perspective.
I’m writing because I almost wasn’t a part of that team. Or the one the year before. Or the year after in 1998, as a senior.
I poured my heart season after season into training. I squeezed every last drop of talent out of me that I had by training year round. But to be honest, there weren’t many drops to squeeze out, because I wasn’t very good. (This isn’t some “aw, shucks” thing. Objectively, I was mediocre at best.) I was barely able to be on the team, let alone actually be a real contributor. Combine fatigue from high mileage, a tough load of classes, work, and sometimes research, and by the end of a season I was spent, physically and emotionally. Just drained. A season would finish, and I would have an overwhelming sense that I just couldn’t hack it, that I just wasn’t good enough, even at a NCAA Division III no-athletic-scholarships level. I swore after each season that I was done. No mas. Uncle. It was time to move on.
And a few weeks would pass, I would start resume running after finals (about two weeks after the conference meet), and my stance would soften. “You can handle this. You’ll be faster this season. You just need more miles. The breakthrough is coming.” And I’d come back. And while I still wasn’t that good, I was always glad I came back. College would have been a different, maybe bleaker experience without those people. I’ve learned not to make concrete decisions until I could get a clear head, but it’s against some of my natural tendencies. This specific issue was definitely a yearly “fork in the road” for me.
This got me to consider other “forks” in my life. What amazes me, in some respects, is that some these decisions were made with careful thought, deliberation, and planning. But others weren’t. Many decisions were made for reasons that are now less clear to me, or at least made for reasons different than one would expect. In a way, it’s kind of “life, by accident.” I try really hard to not stumble my way through things, but face it, I’m human, and some of that is inevitable. This is not a comprehensive list, but is the best list I could come up with on my 20 mile run today.
-I almost didn’t wind up at Knox. It was neck and neck between them and Cornell College (not the Ivy League school). I really liked both places. On Christmas Eve 1994, I received a letter from Knox stating I was in the running for a full ride scholarship. By the guidelines laid out for the scholarship, I didn’t meet all the written criteria. Somebody, I’m convinced to this day, really want me there (I’m 98% sure I know who had their hand in this) and waived one of the criteria. I didn’t get the full ride, but my consolation price was just good enough that the financial aid package was better at Knox than Cornell. Hence, I went to Knox.
-My advisor when I got to Knox was Dr. Larry Welch, a chemistry professor (analytical chemistry to be precise). I was deciding between being a chemistry major vs. political science. Somehow, I was paired with him. He was the only advisor I ever had. I never went on to take a political science course. I wound up working in his lab, ultimately doing two years worth of work under his direction. Had I been paired with anyone else, I may not have gone in to medicine, ever worked in a chemistry lab, and I wouldn’t have been able to give a presentation to the Knox Pre-Med Club in 2005. I stay in contact with him to this day, even having dinner with him and his wife before they saw Hall & Oates in St. Louis this year.
-I had to be pushed into asking Sonia out on our first date. Even with being repeatedly assured that the interest was mutual, I almost couldn’t do it; I nearly chickened out. I shudder to think if I passed on that opportunity if I would have had the guts to try again later. Whew! As an aside, our first date were burgers at Cherry St. (local bar) and watching The Three Amigos. If you can find a person to watch that movie with you on date #1 and they’re still interested in you, it’s an 80% chance it’s a forever relationship. Guaranteed.
-In my third year of medical school, I nearly threw a punch during my surgery rotation at the fourth year resident on my service. The two senior residents were jerks, and I’m being kind. (As an aside, the stereotype of surgeons is they act more like House than Hugh Laurie, and it’s frequently accurate.) My 8 weeks were nearly over, I was exhausted, and I was sick of being yelled at every 20 minutes for things beyond my control. It was an early morning, the team was making rounds, and the senior resident asked me to get a patient’s chart. I fetched it, and I guess I took a nanosecond too long, because I got a forceful, two handed shove in my back to get me in the patient’s room. It damn well near knocked me over. My fist clenched. I wanted to throw a right haymaker. Badly. And I sometimes wish I would have. But I didn’t, and I’m not 100% sure why. Partly fear. Partly because we were in a patient’s room. And partly because there was another medical student in the way, and I wasn’t sure I could get a clean shot on my target without hitting an innocent bystander. For the record, I still remember this resident’s name, they still look like a smug S.O.B., and they should be thankful to the tooth fairy on a daily basis, even though they have no idea how close they came to losing their chompers. This also served as an event to remind me on how NOT to treat people I worked with; it wasn’t the only example, but I was determined to pay it forward and treat people who “worked for me” with respect. That’s the only good thing that came from this particular day.
-I wound up at Cardinal Glennon for my residency, basically because I wanted to extend a winter break. I had completed four or five residency interviews prior to the holidays. I interviewed at Cardinal Glennon so I could spend a few days with my family in January. My plan initially was to interview, but rank one of the programs in Wisconsin higher so we’d wind up there. I would just blame the event on computer randomness, and my family would have been none the wiser. I interviewed, loved the place, and told Sonia that I really wanted to shake up my rank list. After a little discussion, I put them #1, and I was fortunate to match there. (Incidentally, since it doesn’t matter anymore, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin took the silver and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH took the bronze.)
-I considered going into a specialty of pediatrics. Under consideration were neonatology, emergency medicine, critical care, and pulmonology. I really was interested in those four areas, and I worked for some dynamic attendings. So why didn’t I do it? Two reasons. One is that my brain seems to do better with a broad base of knowledge, and it would have have been out of my comfort zone to know exquisite detail about one particular, more narrow field. The other is that I didn’t want to put my family through three more years of training, and perhaps another move. The slight potential increase in intellectual fulfillment wasn’t worth three more years of trial by fire. At least, it wasn’t worth it to me at that time.
-Going in to my last year of training, I wanted to have a job locked down with a newborn at home. The organization didn’t have formal recruiting, I just fired off my CV to them at the behest of my advisor. I interviewed, toured, and took the job. The same company called me four months before I finished training and asked if I wanted to work them, but in a different office. They needed to know quickly, as the opening was urgent, but I was working in the ICU and didn’t have time to tour. So I did what any reasonable person would do, and I said “yes.” Basically, I wound up working for an organization because I felt under the gun to provide for our family’s future, and wound up making great friends and colleagues by switching and taking a job sight unseen. How’s that for a leap of faith?
You get the point. Sonia and I do our best to have a Plan A and Plan B for things, but we’ve learned, and aren’t above making up Plans C, D, and E on the fly. Not everything fits in to a plan or a process. Sometimes, things just happen, and there has to be a reaction. Time isn’t always a luxury that we always have. You just do the best you can with the information you gave AT THAT TIME. I don’t want to be under duress for everything, but I can’t bemoan most of the decisions I made quickly, for whatever the reasons were at that time.
I do, however, look back and see numerous branching points that would have wholly altered where I am now. And in some of those situations, I had some people that were clearly looking out for me, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But some things just kind of happened. And beyond with being ok with results, I’m happy with mine. The arbitrary nature is puzzling at times, and with hindsight, some of it is amusing. Some of it is a little scary. I’m certainly fortunate, that I know for sure. I just hope and pray that I’m not in some crazy flow chart that will wind up having me boxing a kangaroo on a reality TV show. I don’t always know what I want, but I’m sure I don’t want that.