Take the stairs

Nice, France

Most people would just stay at this beach, I bet

Last fall I spent some time in Nice, France, a beautiful place. My wife’s a painter, so she desperately wanted to see the Musee Matisse while we were there. And I was certainly game – Henri Matisse was a brave and unique artist, a bold guy unafraid to try new things. My kind of dude.

We’re the type of people who walk in cities. I like the connection walking gives me to a place. So, sure, it would’ve been easier to grab a cab or figure out public transportation, but instead we decided the way to get to Matisse’s museum was to walk there.

The map told us our destination was northwest from our hotel in the Old Town. Basically up and to the left, in a big green area that signified a park. That’s really all we knew for sure, which was fine. I’m a discovery walker. Gets me in trouble sometimes.

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it's own blog post

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it’s own blog post

The river Paillon, which interestingly is underground for part of the journey, led us north. We knew eventually we’d have to turn west. Nice is extremely hilly, and I figured at some point we’d also have to go UP.

Really, though, I had no idea.

Following the map (and looking every bit the lost American tourist), I decided a road to our left would take us up and into the park. There was a blind curve and the road itself was really narrow. Worse, there was a suspicious guy that we THOUGHT might be following us.

We decided there must be another way.

Returning to follow the river, I noticed the map had a little squiggly line a little farther up that suggested some pedestrian stairs might take us in the direction of the park and the museum.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I suggested. Like I said, gets me in trouble.

Stairs in Nice

First look at the stairs

We were walking in a neighborhood that had gotten a little sketchy when the stairs suddenly appeared on our left. No sign naming them or indicating where they might lead. Nothing.

Just stairs.

I had utterly no idea how many stairs there might be before we reached the park. Or even if the stairs actually led to the park or museum AT ALL. (Well, sort of an idea. The map seemed to show the squiggly line stopped in the big green space. I think that’s something along the lines of what Columbus said to his crew, right?)

Even so, we went up, because sometimes you have to take a deep breath and march forward, even if you don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Sometimes you just have to take the stairs.

And we did. Up. And up and up and up.

I kid you not, a thousand stairs. More, even.

Little hidden views like this

Little hidden views like this

The stairs wound their way up the hill, bending to the left and back to the right. Amazingly, people lived along this strange, narrow staircase.

We passed homes – houses or condos or apartments, it was hard to tell. The inhabitants had chairs out on patios in front of little gardens. They didn’t look like expensive places – I mean, how could you even get furniture there – but we were high enough now the views were glorious.

We kept walking.

Eventually we came out onto a road. We were NOT in the park. This road, it went off and up to the right, down to the left.

We took a break. We were sweaty and hot and a little frustrated. We hadn’t seen a soul all that way up the stairs, which was starting to make me think the people of Nice weren’t dumb enough to actually use them. I took off my sweatshirt and packed it away in my backpack.

A woman came by, and we asked her about the museum. She didn’t speak English, but eventually understood what we wanted, and pointed across the street.

stairs more

That’s right, more stairs. I swear we were down where you see those little buildings when we started

To another set of stone stairs.

After the woman disappeared, there might’ve been some swearing on our part. I will neither confirm or deny.

How many more stairs could there be? We had no idea. The new stairs wound up the hill again, disappearing into its side.

We took a moment to get ready again before re-embarking. I noticed an old man leaning against his car a few meters away, staring at us with his arms folded across his chest and a bemused expression on his face.

Something about him made me realize how ridiculous our predicament was. I smiled, shrugging my shoulders and extending my hands out. I don’t speak much French, so all week I’d been using gestures to convey my state of mind. This one said, “What can you do, you know?”

The old man unclamped his arms and raised one hand to give us a thumbs up gesture. What it meant exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe, “Good luck, you stupid Americans.” Maybe, “Keep going. It’s worth it.” Probably both.

Sometimes all you need to keep going is for someone to give a thumbs up at the right moment.

Eventually, we reached the top of that second set of stairs. There was a sign for a monastery on a door. A locked door. I started to imagine having to go all the way down again.

monastery garden

Jardin du Monastère de Cimiez

But then several more steps appeared to the right, around a corner. We took them, popped through an opening and stepped into an immaculate garden.

We were on the grounds of the monastery, which was in the park we were heading for. It was amazing. I have dozens of photos of this place. Of olive groves and orange trees and flowers and I wish I could share them all. There were even swarms of gnats.

In this place, you could even fall in love with a swarm of gnats.

Still, we weren’t at the Musee Matisse yet. We followed the path through the monastery’s grounds into the rest of the park. Signs directed us toward the museum.

Yep. More stairs.There were more stairs. Of course. But these were wide and inviting, like a reward for that narrow, sweaty journey we had made already.

We meandered through a park that was essentially a big olive grove.

I remember being fascinated by the birds.

I remember passing a park bench where two elderly women were deep in conversation, their dogs at their sides. I remember imagining them as very old friends, women who had known each other since childhood.

My mind was doing that thing it does when it gets just the right level of exhausted and exhilarated and fascinated. Making stories.

Musee Matisse

Musee Matisse

Eventually we found the museum. It could’ve been closed. It might’ve taken us too long to get there. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

But if the museum had been closed, it actually would’ve been fine. We had seen so much getting there, indelible images, from olive trees to dogs to old friends to breathtaking views to that smiling old man with his thumb in the air.

The museum was the destination, but it had become the icing on the cake to the journey.

Because we had taken the stairs.

I’m a sports fan AND an arts fan. (Crazy, I know). The NFL playoffs started last weekend and, in one of the games, the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked out the Cincinnati Bengals in a particularly hard fought game.

In the locker room afterwards, Bengals receiver A.J. Green was interviewed. I can’t find the clip now, but in addition to saying the loss hurt, he explained to the reporter it had taken him and the team six months to get to that point, and that now they were going to have to go through all that again, just to get to the same spot. He was willing to do it, because he loves football, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to be difficult.

I identified with this. When a book fails (and…writers, sorry but odds are your book WILL fail – whether you don’t connect with an agent or a publisher or whether no one buys it or reads it…I mean, for your sake, I hope not, but it’s REALLY hard what we’re doing here).

Anyway, when a book fails, some well-meaning person will always say, “That’s okay, just write another one.”

And, true enough, that’s the thing to do. Get back on the horse, as they say. But, man, it’s like an NFL season, right? It’s six months (a year? multiple years?) of hard work to get back to that point where you already were. Six months of trying to be perfect with your story and make it the best it can be and critique and work and more work and revision and…you get the idea.

It’s taking the damn stairs.

And after all that work and time and sweat, you might get to the park and find the museum closed. Again.

The thing is, you have no idea as you’re taking that first step of so many. You do it blindly.

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

That’s why you have to pay attention on each step, because if you don’t focus on the hours at the museum, which are out of your control, and instead zero in on that not-quite-yet-ripe orange on that tree inches from you (that sentence you write at midnight one night that actually makes you tear up), on that smiling old man with his thumb up (your critique partner who tells you she loves your book), on those old friends and their dogs on the park bench (your characters – those fantastic people you created from nothing, IN YOUR HEAD), you’ll realize that you’ve already succeeded.

So when your hear those voices telling you you’re hot, you’re tired, you should turn around and go back down, because going down is easier, tell them to shut up.

Tell them you’re taking the stairs. And keep your eyes wide open the entire climb up.





It’s Super Bowl week and my team isn’t playing (again)

Buffalo_BillsHello, my name is Chris and I am a Buffalo Bills fan. It’s been…23 years since our last Super Bowl and 14 seasons since our last appearance in the playoffs.

That streak, by the way, of 14 years without playoffs, is currently the longest of any team in the NFL.

I’m not sure what color chip this qualifies me for. All of them, probably.

The first Super Bowl I remember watching was in 1980, the Oakland Raiders vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. At that time, I didn’t know much about football. I was nine. I played in the neighbor’s yards a bit, but I was small and skinny and it wasn’t really my game yet.

The reason I remember that year so well is one of my good friends back then had the last name of “Jaworski.” They used to drive me places, and one day as the Super Bowl approached, my friend’s father turned from the driver’s seat and asked me who I was rooting for in the “big game.” He seemed really excited to know my opinion.

Now, I didn’t know much. But what I did know was the color and look of all the uniforms. My father had brought me a big pile of virtually every team jersey, all in my size, one day not too long before. I’ve never been sure what prompted this; I suspect some sort of (very cheap) package deal at the big flea market over on Walden Avenue.

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Hard to Buy for

So apparently I’m notoriously hard to buy gifts for. Even my sisters tell me this, and they’ve known me their entire lives.

“We never now what to get you,” they say to my face, as if I’m some alien that has just teleported to the planet.

College Football book

College Football book

This was perhaps never better proven than this year, when my father-in-law presented me with a book containing the complete history of college football. It’s shaped like a … (wait for it) college football. Really. This thing brings new meaning to “leather bound” (is pigskin considered leather?) It even has laces, which should make it easy to throw … no, no, just kidding, that’s mean.

Actually, I sort of love my college-football-shaped college football book. I opened it up and it immediately started with  Walter Camp and Yale and the key role they played in developing the game in its early stages. It reminded me of a piece I wrote in college.

I honestly can’t remember if it was for the Yale Herald or the Yale Daily News, but it was an interview with Clint Frank, who won the Heisman trophy in 1937 while playing for Yale . By the time I spoke with him, sometime around 1990, he was about 75 years old. It turned out to be just a year or two before his death. It had been years since anyone wanted to talk with him about football and he was more than happy to have a long phone conversation with me, from which I pulled material that allowed me to write probably my best article from those days.

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SBXXXIVFirst, I promise this post has nothing to do with the pop artist Pink….although (hangs head in shame) I do confess to enjoying her new song “Try” every once in a while. Stop judging me.

Today is the Super Bowl. And though I’m not enamored with the teams that made it this time around, I will be watching along with well over 100 million of the rest of you.

Football is in a strange time in its history. It’s more popular than ever; certainly the NFL makes more money that it ever did. On the other hand, mounting evidence that concussions have long-lasting effects on the health of those who play it have made many consider whether to allow their children to participate in the sport. Even President Obama.

I’ve also read many accounts from others who used to watch the game but won’t even do that any longer, comparing it to supporting dogfighting or gladiators in the coliseum. This opinion is supported in much more eloquence than I can impart by blogger and author Nathan Bransford (a 49ers fan, by the way) here and here.

As a result, many parents are making the same choice the president has suggested he might – prohibiting their children from participating in the sport of football . In some cases, even stretching that ban into other sports: basketball, soccer, baseball, hockey.

At one time or another, at many different levels, I’ve played all these sports. And I certainly can’t fault anyone for making a decision they feel is protecting the long-term health of their children. But I want to add one thing to the conversation here: there is perhaps no more direct translation of effort to visible results than on the fields of athletic endeavor.

Or, in other words, in sports, trying matters.

Okay, so in truth, trying matters everywhere. In the classroom, in relationships, at work, in life. We must all give forth great effort to achieve success in these areas. But I’ve also found that in many walks of life, simply trying doesn’t always pay off. There are some very difficult things one can attempt and not meet success no matter how much effort is expended. This is for many reasons I won’t go into here. The short explanation is “life isn’t always fair.”

But in sports, it can be clearer to see, easier to evaluate, the results of trying. On the basketball court, if you move your feet and stay in front of the other player, you will play good defense. Sure, how fast, tall or strong you are can matter, but honestly if you give forth maximum effort, you can guard a person in front of you who is a better athlete. It’s just that simple.

The shortstop who just made the extraordinary play did it because, before the ball was hit, he assessed who he was on base, how fast they were and who was at bat. Is the batter left-handed or right-handed? Is the pitcher about to throw a breaking ball or a fastball?  Where is the ball most likely to be hit as a result? To my left or my right? What will I do with it once I field it, since there are runners on first and second base?

Quarterbacking in football is much the same. Peyton Manning is so good because he knows where all his teammates are going to be at any given time, can merely glance at a defense and know how they are going to react to the play he’s about to run. He’s achieved this through hours upon hours of film study.

And so on…or, you can just stare at your shoes and hope no one hits the ball at you.

Trying matters.

This can be an important thing for young people to learn, especially if they are finding that the axiom doesn’t hold true in other walks of life. Some may be trying just as hard as they can in the classroom, but some concepts simply elude them. They become confused because they feel they’re trying so hard and aren’t seeing the results they hope for. They might even hide their struggles as a result.

The concept of trying, of intention, is an interesting one to me. At kyudo seminars, we often recite something called the Raiki-Shagi, which contains the following:

After having acquired the right inner intention and correctness in the outward appearance, the bow and arrow can be handled resolutely.

Kyudo’s full of these zen-like sayings one can spend hours trying to understand the meaning of. In short, to me, this one means you can’t excel at kyudo until you bring the correct intention to it.

I’m also reading a very well-written book called Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (one would hope a book called Good Prose is well-written, right?). Inside they talk about how the word “try” is used in Ghana.

In Ghana, once a British colony, where English remains the official but a second language, they have an interesting usage for the verb “try.” If a Ghanian does something particularly well, he is often told, “You tried.” What might be an insult in American English is high praise there, a recognition that purity of intention is at the core of achievement.

So I will be watching the Super Bowl this evening. What do I hope for it? I hope if they’re watching in Ghana that after the game, there will be a conversation like this:

Ghanian 1: How was the game?

Ghanian 2: Great. Both teams tried.

Oh, and I’m rooting for the Ravens, because of this kid:

And….all right. Here’s Pink, after all.