I’ve written before about being fortunate to have received many gifts and then spent large parts of the post listing the sources of my gratitude.
When I was in my late 20s I started playing in a Friday afternoon basketball game with fellow teachers at an elementary school gym at Newton where one of the players taught. I was part of the group off and on for seven years, and even would occasionally drive in to play from Western Massachusetts the year after Dunreith and I got married.
Grateful for the end of the week, we’d warm up, shoot around and played five or even six pitched battles of games up to seven points before showering and having a few beers to wash down some fries or some of the other offering at Dunn Gaherin’s, an Irish watering hole.
Over the years my motivation for playing in the games changed.
At first, and for several years, it was all about winning with whatever combination of teammates I had and of playing without surrendering an inch of focus and determination.
My desire to do my best never left, but the meaning I drew from the game evolved.
I came to understand that the game mattered to each of us in different ways. One guy, a mustachioed math teacher with whom I taught, spoke openly about how banging in the post against us on defense helped him handle some of what he considered the more outrageous behavior of his ex-wife. (We eventually learned to gauge how things were going with his ex by the fervor of his defense.)
Others sought to stave off physical decline.
Many expressed body image insecurity in subtle ways, by making an offhanded joke as they went to shower.
Over time, too, I came to value not so much the victory and the competition, but rather the counsel I received.
Most of the other guys in the game were at least two decades older than me, and had wives and families and mortgages that felt impossibly adult.
They provided examples of how to live a moral and balanced life, and one guy in particular helped me when I was grappling with a difficult relationship decision.
Listen to your heart, he said in effective, if unoriginal, advice.
It always knows.
He was right, and I did.
I thought about the shift in the basketball game today when I went to work out at the Evanston YMCA.
We first joined the facility shortly after we moved to Evanston in 2002, and have been active members since.
In the early years I loved to go there, blast out my treadmill or lifting or shooting or yoga or biking without talking or engaging much with other people.
I was there to exercise, not to talk.
Yet, like with the basketball game, that purpose started to shift and to melt, like snow does in the rain.
I still derive satisfaction and peace from pushing my body hard, from trying to reach new levels of speed reached or weight lifted or distance covered.
But I also enjoy at least as much from seeing a former intern from The Chicago Reporter whose graduation from Columbia College I attended several years ago.
We saw each other near the entrance to the sprawling floor filled with row after row of stairmasters, exercise bicycles and treadmills.
At the Reporter we were examining the issue and experience of the children of incarcerated parents when she started working for us.
I am one of those children, she told me one day. My father was incarcerated.
From that revelation she eventually wrote a piece about the second time her father was arrested shortly before her eighth grade graduation, if I remember correctly.
Her dad, who had been imprisoned before, had made two promises to her.
The first was that he would not get arrested again.
The second was that he would cook her breakfast on the day of her eighth graduation.
In the story she described waking up for her big day and not being able to hear or smell the sizzling bacon she had expected.
Her father was back in jail, a first stop on his way to prison.
He had broken both promises.
By the time she wrote her story her father had been released and her parents had reconciled.
But the impact from his absence remained for the young woman.
Today we chatted and caught up and complimented each other before resuming our workouts.
I also saw a friend who was waiting for his daughter to finish on one of the machines.
The younger of his two sons has had Ulcerative Colitis, a disease that, in his words, caused him to lose 45 pounds in a month.
As opposed to the intern, for whom the absence of the anticipated smell of bacon meant her father’s repeated disappointment, the smell of bacon, eggs pesto and garlic taunted him, he wrote in a college essay.
His face resembled a balloon, he said.
My friend, his family and, above all, the young man showed extraordinary grace and courage under excruciating pressure.
He’s made a strong recovery and is planning to attend college.
My friend and I talked about the Chargers-Bronco games and shopping missions accomplished or yet to come.
The knowledge of what they’ve endured surfaced, though.
I wrapped up my workout, the hardest I’ve done this year, and walked down the stairs to a shower and well-earned feeling of relaxation.
As it did in the latter part of my membership in the basketball game, gratitude mingled with the sweat on my T-shirt and the appreciation of the unsung strength of so many people I have the good fortune to know.
The shower water felt divine as it pelted my face.