Monday, November 08, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Perspective - by Nick van der Leek

At the moment I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself. I usually do when I tip the scales at the wrong end of 80-something. And the litmus test of whether I have let myself go too far is if I walk into a gym and I can't do 10 continuous pullups. Recently, that's exactly what happened.

But there are more symptoms besides, including 4 pairs of trousers torn at the crotch, all of which went to a shop for patches, only to be torn somewhere else. And injuries, particularly to my left leg, which bizarrely isn't the leg damaged in a brutal 1990 car accident which saw my right knee knifing into the dashboard of the vehicle upon impact. Since then my left leg has done a lot of overtime, and with recent weight gains, and powerdowns [extended hours seated beside the computer] the left leg hasn't been able to resurrect itself as effortlessly back into training with this extra weight burden. So I've made a few visits to physios...

Blah blah but the punchline is this. I was in the gym running uncomfortably on the treadmill, and very slowly, and feeling miserably unmotivated when in wandered a huge ogre of a fellow. I'm not sure when last I saw such a grossly overweight person. This person was so fat you felt sorry for his shoes. You wondered where he was able to find a t-shirt of such massive proportions. You ended up staring, fascinated, noticing that walking was more like waddling, and everythign was fascinated because it required a such varying orders of magnitude compared to 'normal life. It seemed to require an effort for him just to get a leg in front of another leg because in the middle the fat overlapped so much.

The point of this encounter with this very obese person brought a newfound perspective. See, here I am berating myself for being overweight and unfit and basically SLEG, and in wonders someone who has for reasons unknown, allowed himself to become monstrously unhealthy and propelled himself towards imminent death. One wonders how it was possible that this guy took so long to realise - Hang on, this isn't right, maybe I should do something about it.  If I am feeling despondent because of the amount of perceived effort that is required to shed my boep, how must he feel? His journey to normality looks doomed before it has begun, and if he succeeds, it ought to take him months, if not years. He looks like he is covered, his entire body, arms, legs, even his head, in layer upon layer of fatty marshmellow. He looks to be literally drowning in his own body. And it's doubtful he can even do a quarter of one pullup.  What manner of bad habits contrived to become this giant globule of margarine?

In any event, I surmised, slowly jogging on the treadmill as he tried to get on an exercise bike, an exercise in itself, that this very fat guy should have one simple goal. To simply move his body as much as he can in the gym [and that's not much], and then, on his next visit, to do a little more, and so forth.  Consistent effort, and gradual improvement.
This doesn't differ much from my goal. It's hard for me to believe I did two half ironmans this year, when it's tough to run more than 20 minutes now.  It doesn't take long for good efforts and hard work to unravel. The secret lies in focusing on what one can do and doing that, not on what is past, and not on the extent of one's loss. Focus on what you can do, and do that. And then keep doing that, and keep finding new possibilities.

The same, of course, applies to other things. The one thing that upsets me most is having my time wasted. This is due to huge chunks of my time being wasted, in my opinion, as a youngster. For example, having to wear an external brace for all my years in high school [5 in other words, which must be a new world record]. My mother's suicide just days before my final matric exams which, theoretically, put pay to my entire school career. Going to do my national service shortly before it was cancelled was another year wasted. The end of a 5 year relationship that coulda shoulda woulda become marriage and living happily ever after, but instead led to years of emotional convalescence. And so on. I know the challenge is to see all these experiences as valuable, and perhaps they are, but if you want to know why it aggravates me more than the next person when my time is wasted unnecessarily today, now, in 2010, you have a slight idea.

Recently I experienced that pain again. Sports Illustrated accepted a pitch for an interview with world champion SA breastroke swimmer, Cameron van der Burgh. Their Q&A article is a very formulaic story, which means it's 700 words [that's quite short, barely one page in a magazine], and since most of the questions are from a staffer at the magazine, it leaves me very little room for spin. Even so, I jumped at the chance. I have a background in swimming

so to speak to a world champion is an incredible opportunity for me personally to get a few sniffs at the mindset and what makes a world champion.

To cut to the chase, the process of the story was a bit more complex than usual. Normally I'd just contact the interviewee via Facebook or twitter, but after a week it was clear that this wasn't happening and wasn't going to work. Clearly Cameron was on both networks, just choosing not to respond. Thus I discovered Ryk Neethling is his manager, and thus every communication needs to go through Ryk. Further time was wasted as Ryk was off in Italy or something and not responding to emails. To cut a long story short, I finally did the interview after numerous calls from Sports Illustrated while I was travelling in the Northern Cape and busy with other work. To get the piece done and dusted I woke up at 2am in my hotel room near Kleinzee, rattled it off and emailed it to SI at 4am.  I actually never quite recovered from that lack of sleep, since from there I caught a cold and was unable to shake it, which made the rest of the trip, and thousands of kilometres still to travel, more problematic than i would have liked.  Whose fault is it that I didn't get the story done before I went on this trip?  Not mine!

A few weeks later I received an email to say Ryk Neethling didn't like the story, and so it had been culled. What a ginormous waste of my time, and Neethling has the cheek to accuse me of being unprofessional and unprepared when it took weeks for me to make contact with his own client. But then I had a perspective shift. Literally, just like the enormous fat man waddling into the gym, right in front of me, with personal trainer in tow. But my fat man in this verhaal came in an entirely different guise.  It came, in fact, in the person of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.

See, I watched the movie The Social Network, which is about how Zuckerberg shafted all the people that were involved in creating Facebook. His partner had a 34% stake, but through contractual trickery, this was later diluted to 0.03%. His partner was entitled to around $300 million but Zuckerberg fleeced him into reducing that to small change.  Well Zuckerberg eventually settled to pay him a measly $65 million, perhaps a fifth of what he should have been entitled to. Zuckerberg's partner literally put his ass on the line, working 14 hour days and putting all of his money in the business, only to find himself screwed entirely out of the company, and to gain any recompense he had to sue his former friend and employer for what should have been his to start off with.  How frustrating is that?

That puts my week and my missing R1400 pay checque clearly into perspective. Ryk's sister sending me a message on Facebook this evening, saying I should lay off on her family because she has cancer also puts a different spin on things. Her second message, calling me a 'ginger haired idiot, ROFL' makes for an even more bizarre cause célèbre.
That's me in the circle, and Ryk, or Rytjie, bottom left, in this snapshot of the Free State swim team in 19voetsek. 

Speaking to Ryk on the phone a few days ago has been an interesting experience, not so much because of him, or what he said, but because it reminds me of who I am. It reminds me also of who I was, because for a large chunk of my life I was a swimmer. I remember contacting Ryk via email and Facebook just before the races that defined his 2004 Olympics and cemented his career and celebrity status. He said he appreciated the signature of my email, which at the time said, "No one can have any power of you without your permission."  Quite good fighting sentiments to take into the Olympics. Still at the Olympics I asked him if he'd consider me writing his biography and he replied 'Def' [Definitely]. Years later I had coffee with Clinton van der Berg at Rosebank's Vida e just before his exit from AVUSA, and asked what went into the writing of Ryk's book.

I would have appreciated a simpler life, like Ryk's - just swimming, or just writing, or just photography, or being a textbook lawyer or one something. No such luck.  I've been a teacher, a statistician, communications specialist, a cubicle slave for various insurance and financial companies, triathlete, photojournalist, and writing has been the background to all of these.  I mean writing manuscripts, which takes months.

Anyway, it pains me that I've lost a slam dunk story into a nifty new magazine thanks to that little brat sitting in the bottom left.  But in the scheme of things, it doesn't matter what others say or do, what matters is what we do with the time that we have. In the end, we judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions. So if you're being run out of town, get in front of the crowd and make it look like a parade.

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