October 10: The Art of Winning

“Did I win?” the ten-year-old boy asked as I lowered him from a climb. Baron, a sandy haired kid with a bowl cut, was my charge for an hour-long private belay session and had just finished flailing his way up a 5.7 route. I had no idea how to answer this question which was asked without a trace of irony or self-mockery.

“Uh, yes?” My eyes involuntarily darted to his mother, who was reclining on the padded floor behind us, watching her son’s every move.

I’d been about to start my own workout when Von, the gym employee who wears a button down shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and dress shoes without fail (the gym uniform is a black t-shirt with the gym name in white letters across the front), asked if I’d be willing to do a private.

“He’s climbed outside before. He’s very advanced,” Baron’s mother informed me within seconds of our introduction. I nodded politely. I have yet to find a West LA parent who inderestimates his or her kid’s climbing ability.

“When he was four, we wanted to take him outside. The guy who was guiding us wouldn’t work with kids that young. We begged him to take Baron. He said he’d do it, but don’t expect to get your money back if he cries. Afterwards, he was amazed and said he’d never seen a kid that young climb that high.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding.

“We went to that wall they used in the movie Planet of the Apes.” Though I hadn’t seen the movie, this was one of the few walls in the LA area I’d been to, so I nodded again.

After trying on 6 different pairs of shoes (we started with size 5, his alleged shoe size, and worked our way up to 7.5), Baron and I headed over to the slab wall. It’s a slightly less than vertical wall (the opposite of an overhang), which means that the climber does more of the work with his legs. This is the wall we start most beginners on. I asked Baron which route he wanted to climb.

“Which one’s the hardest?” He asked. I indicated a 5.11b consisting of tiny red crimps and credit card feet. This, of course, was the climb Baron wanted to do.

Baron’s feet never left the ground. Eventually, I suggested we try a different route, an orange 5.8 on the same section of wall, estimating that this was near the upper limit of what he’d be able to climb.

“Which one’s the second hardest?” he asked.

“He’s stubborn,” his mom called out from where she was observing. It sounded like this was a point of pride for her.

Baron proceeded to fall off the dark blue 5.10b repeatedly. Eventually, he decided he’d climb the 5.10b with the help of an unlimited number of additional holds from other routes. He wanted to know if this still counted as climbing 5.10b. I told him it did not.

I finally got Baron to try a 5.7, which he completed with some effort. We then moved to an overhung wall. I suggested a green 5.9, but yet again, he wanted to know which climb was the hardest. I indicated a 5.11c and prayed he wouldn’t try it. Showing some sense of his own limitations, Baron selected a 5.10a instead. After failing to get beyond the first move, he agreed to switch to the green 5.9.

Baron was clearly athletic and not afraid of heights, but his technique was poor. His lack of footwork and tendency to pull with his arms meant he tired fast on the overhung 5.9. As he alternated between climbing and resting, I tried to offer tips about using his feet and balancing his weight. My success was limited. His mom came up next to us and began telling him specifically where to move his hands and feet, offering suggestions every time he seemed to hesitate.

“Mom, I’m resting,” Baron said, clearly annoyed.

“He’s so stubborn,” his mom repeated, winking at me.

“He’s strong,” I said, uncertain whether I was allowed to agree that her son was stubborn or if that was a privilege reserved for parents.

“Oh yes. He’s got legs like his daddy, strong like oak trees. And crazy upper body strength. He gets that from his dad too.” I nodded, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the phrase “strong like an oak” used outside of books and movies.

“But he’s got my agility,” she added with a conspiratorial grin. I would not have pegged this woman as agile, but judging by her tone and expression, having her agility was a good thing.

“Wow, that’s a lucky combination,” I said. Baron’s mom returned to directing her son’s every move. I considered explaining to her that she was stunting his ability to develop the problem-solving skills necessary for climbing. What will Baron do when he has to try to figure out how to get up a wall without his mom?

“Am I good?” Baron asked when I lowered him from the climb.

“Yes. Of course!” I said after only a slight pause. “Most people your age can’t climb just one color.” This seemed to satisfy him. I wondered what would’ve have happened if I’d said “no.” Would he have quit climbing on the spot? Does he only enjoy the sport because he thinks he’s good at it? What happens when he gets more into it and reads about a dude named Alex Honnold? 

In 6th grade, my math teacher told our class that there was always going to be someone out there who was smarter, faster, stronger, better in every category than we were, and that was life; we had to deal with it. At the time, I’d struggled to wrap my head around this idea. What was the point of existing if someone else could do what you were doing only better?

When I first started rock climbing at the age of 9, I’d enjoyed being good for my age and the praise I’d received, but did little to ensure steady improvement. Eventually, someone came along who was younger and better. I stopped climbing when I entered high school so I’d have more time to pursue other sports, sports for which I still received praise. When I got to levels where I no longer received praise for those sports, I quit them as well. It took a two year stint as the worst player on Yale’s varsity softball team to realize I was selecting my “passions” based on what I was good at rather than what I actually enjoyed. I guess this is more or less the future I imagine for Baron unless his mentality changes (or he becomes the next Alex Honnold).

I’m still not sure I have an answer to what the point of existing is if someone else can do what you’re doing better, but I do know that it’s not a productive line of thought. I’ve interpreted it as license to do what makes you happy.

On her son’s last climb of the session, Baron’s mom resumed her narrative of their time at Planet of the Apes wall.

“He’s fearless; he climbed 600 feet in the air, and it didn’t scare him.” The Planet of the Apes wall is a top rope wall. A standard rope is at most 70 meters, which means on a top rope route, the climber isn’t getting more than 35 meters off the ground, 115 feet. I realized then that I was being incredibly petty. We all live with our own delusions (though they might seem reasonable enough to us). What did I care if Baron’s mom thought her son had been 60, 600, or 6,000 feet off the ground? My job was to make sure the kid had a good time climbing.

I lowered Baron for the last time. Back on the ground he turned to me. “Did I struggle less than other kids on that climb?”

I’m pretty sure this was the moment where I was supposed to give him a speech about how climbing is about competing with yourself, striving to be the best that you can be, etc., etc. But I’m also pretty sure any impassioned speech I could have given, no matter how poignant and filled with introspection, would have gone in one ear and out the other as it would have for me at that age. To this day, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the “you’re only competing against yourself” philosophy. It’s the intellectually and morally superior philosophy, but if I’m being honest with myself, I only ever use it as a crutch in situations where I know I’m not going to win.

September 29: Shooting Stars

Located just about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and largely devoid of what Angelenos would describe as “sites of cultural significance,” Bakersfield is not the typical Friday night destination.

As we pulled into town at sunset, we passed windowless buildings, chainlink fences, and oil wells. The air was dry and filled with particulate matter. While it’s population makes it the 52nd largest city in America, in 2015, Bakersfield earned the distinction of being the 2nd most polluted city in the country. We parked along the side of the road to avoid paying and joined the throng of Bakersfieldians making their way toward the large ferris wheel silhouetted by orange sky. The sound of mariachi music and arcade games became increasingly loud, and the breeze began to smell of fried dough. After a 2.5 hour drive and a ten minute walk, we had arrived at The Kern County Fair.

How, you might be wondering, did three good-looking, intelligent millennials with a car end up in Bakersfield on a Friday night? While the rest of our peers were heading out to bars and movies and art museums (or staying home and pulling up The Office on their parents’ Netflix accounts), we were on our way to see Smash Mouth, the one-hit wonder whose song All Star had spawned countless Shrek-themed memes.

I’d had to select my companions for this adventure with great care. It’s not just anyone who will drop everything, duck out of work early, and spend hours commuting at rush hour to one of the least exciting cities in California in order to see a band they don’t care about. Jared and Katie were temperamentally well-suited for this idiotic mission–good-natured people who are routinely kind to those around them. Katie’s the kind of person who’s up for pretty much anything out of the ordinary and has a good time no matter what. Jared DJs in his spare time and engages with music as a craft. He’d been ready to turn down my invitation until he learned that the concert was free with the price of admission to the fair ($10). In particular, I worried he would regret the decision to come.

Unlike Jared and Katie, I am as close to an un-ironic lover of Smash Mouth as a millennial can be. In early September, when I heard the lead singer, Steve Harwell (a Guy Fieri look-alike), had suffered from some kind of heart episode and had had to cancel shows, I knew I needed to act fast or risk never seeing Smash Mouth perform live. While in the early 2000s, the zenith of the band’s popularity, they’d won a Kid’s Choice Award, featured prominently in the Shrek opening credits, and filled stadiums, in 2017, they were mostly performing at county and state fairs. The Kern County Fair was the only place they’d be performing in California during the month of September, so it was either make the pilgrimage to Bakersfield, or gamble on Steve’s heart lasting into October.

We had some time to kill before Smash Mouth was scheduled to perform at the Budweiser Pavilion, so we headed for the second most exciting entertainment option listed in the fair’s program, The Great American Duck Race.

Robert Duck (who claimed that this was his actual last name), served as MC. He introduced us to his ducks who have won The Great American Duck Race hosted annually in Deming, New Mexico twelve times. He selected volunteers from the audience to come up and hold the ducks. When the whistle blew, the lucky duck-holders would drop their ducks into channels with water (like lanes in a pool), and the ducks would swim to the other side. The person with the fastest duck would move on to the finals.

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No matter how many times I raised my hand, I was never chosen. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was competing with 6-year-olds for Robert’s attention. The first round of racing ducks had names like Michael Phelps, Simone Manuel, and Katie Le-ducky. The next heat was filled with ducks named after NASCAR drivers. The third heat was a Duck Dynasty round. I was very impressed by Robert’s ability to tell all the seemingly identical mallards apart (how could he distinguish Michael from Simone every time?), until he let each kid name their own duck in the finals and I realized they were randomly assigned jokes. In the finals, most of the competitors selected duck puns for names, except for the two littlest kids who named their ducks Lucy and Jake. After a short but intense race, Jake proved victorious, and his temporary owner was crowned with a duck mask. After the ceremony, Robert said he wished he could give everyone a chance to race the ducks, but there just wasn’t time. However, for only $5.00, we could buy the right to race a duck. This $5.00 purchase included a complementary duck whistle. A tempting offer, but Jared, Katie, and I had places to be.

After purchasing the most expensive, least satisfying burrito bowl of my life (for $9.50 it only included meat, rice, and beans. Everything beyond that was an “add-on,” including salsa), we got in line to enter the pavilion. Jared and Katie were shocked by how many people had come to see the has-been band. Nearly all of the pavilion’s 3,000 seats were full. There was even a VIP section cordoned off with rope. Who these VIPers were and what exactly they were hoping to get from this experience remains a mystery. The band was scheduled to go on at 8pm. When 8:30pm came and went, and there was still no sign of the performers, the audience began to chant “Smash Mouth.” Logan, the eight-year-old in front of us, informed Katie that Smash Mouth was a fake band that did not actually exist.

Just as I began to despair that Steve had actually suffered the fatal heart attack, the man himself walked on stage, red solo cup in hand. The band launched into their first song, “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby,” and the crowd went nuts (several people were wearing Shrek masks). I’ve been to a number of concerts for bands I actually admit to liking, but this was the first concert where I knew the majority of songs on the setlist. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time. Up on stage, Steve didn’t seem to know how to interact with the audience. While he sang, he paced back and forth between the bassist and the guitarist. He’d encroach on their bubble of space, placing an arm on their shoulder and singing directly to them. At one point, he kicked the guitarist on the butt. I wondered if there were women out there who fantasized about being romantically involved with Steve.

Logan turned again to Katie and told her that the man on stage was not the real Steve Harwell. He pulled up images of Steve on his iPhone as evidence. It was hard to say from such a distance if the man on stage was really Steve. He’d lost weight since the band’s early years and was now bleached blond. He didn’t sound like the recordings, but then again, neither does Katy Perry.

As the performance wore on, the anticipation built. There was one song everyone there had come to hear, and it wasn’t Walkin’ on the Sun, Holiday in my Head, Pacific Coast Party, Road Man, or even their cover of I’m a Believer. The couple behind me started chanting “All Star” every time a song ended. What’s it like to be a band and know that the thing you’ve created far surpasses you in terms of significance?

All Star was the very last song of the night, and it was glorious. The people in the Shrek masks jumped up and down in time with the beat. The crowd lit up with cellphone screens as people recorded the moment for their Instagram accounts. 3,000 voices joined Steve’s for the chorus that has scored this milenium. The concert ended with Steve softly repeating, like a mantra or a prayer, the words “only shooting stars break the mold.”

“That was awesome,” Jared commented as we walked back to the car in the dark. Katie nodded in agreement. I felt inspired, rejuvenated, a part of something much larger than myself (like a generation or a social media platform or something). I looked up at the night sky, searching for a sign, maybe a shooting star. There were none to be found, of course. The air in the 2nd most polluted city in the USA does not lend itself to stargazing.

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