Monday, June 1, 2009


Four neighborhood kids crammed into the back of the Sinai’s Volkswagen bug. I had long legs, so I got to share the front passenger seat. Luckily we were both skinny. One of the older Sinai sisters drove barefoot down to the Louisville Water Company fields at the Ohio River. I pulled my socks up to my knees.

Our coach was a ding dong. And he could get angry. I didn’t mind to let him know what he was doing wrong. When he got angry with me I would pull my socks up. Repeatedly. Like all kids, we loved to play, so we worked it out. One time during a game he got frustrated and told me that if I thought I could do better to go ahead and coach: call the substitutions for the game. So I did. At halftime everybody came to me to get in the game, and tell me what position they wanted to play. I was trying to get it straight, which was admittedly difficult, when our coach stepped in and said he was taking back over. Although I could have pulled it off, I was relieved for both of us.

Three men that I got to know growing up represent how I now think of integrity. The first was the referee for Crescent Hill soccer. He had dark hair and a tidy dark mustache. He dressed sharply, with his striped jersey tucked into his black shorts, and his black nylon socks pulled up to his knees. He ran to keep up with play and knew just how to move to stay out of the way. He called the game the way he dressed: crisply. He wasn’t detached, though. He was generous with guidance and compliments for players, once the play was called. One thing I feel sure of in retrospect: he wasn’t thinking of anything else on Saturday mornings.

I was riding my bike down Payne street one afternoon when I saw our referee mowing his yard. The yards, like the houses along there, are tiny. I was surprised at the modesty of his home, but not at the care he took of it. He waved and smiled when he saw me.

Although I didn’t think of it at the time, I reckon now that the referee noticed me because of the way I played: effortfully. I could be gangly and awkward. I wasn’t the quickest, nor did I have the best ball skills. I did not give up on plays, though. I chased down balls that others let go. I ran the field to cover offense and then ran back to cover defense. I don’t know if there was any other way for me to play. Several of my friends who went on to be good at soccer played a more intermittent style. It’s like the difference between the hunting technique of dogs and cats. Cats are sneaky; they get into position and spring with mighty and fearsome speed. Dogs run, in the open, and just wait until their prey is worn down.

Fernando was the best soccer coach I had. A group of us formed an indoor soccer team toward the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. He put me in to run the field at halfback. Run behind the ball to support the forwards on offense, he told me, and run after the ball on defense to give our defenders a place to put the ball forward. On both ends of the field the other team ended up feeling dogged.

It seems obvious that soccer, especially the way I played it, helped to develop a strong foundation for the running career that developed when I started high school. I was already fit when Coach Worful called a preseason one mile time trial for freshman. In preparation, I wanted to see how fast I could run a mile on my own. I knew that it was “a mile” from my house to Field Elementary, where I first went to school. So I started where my street intersected Frankfort Ave and ran as hard as I could to the turnoff for Field. It took a little over four minutes. I told coach my time and he said, “that wasn’t a mile.” When we ran the time trial on the track behind the school I ran about 5:40. He didn’t make any fuss about it, but I know now that any high school coach is going to get excited if a freshman just shows up before the season and runs a 5:40 mile.

It may be a little less obvious that I played soccer, in the style that I did, because of my capacity to run. Understanding this has to go beyond a simple accounting of the volume of oxygen that my lungs can utilize, or the type of muscle fibers in my legs. But it can’t go as far as a mysterious netherworld in which my spirit somehow takes over the controls for my body. I don’t want to say that I played soccer and later ran just because I have an unusually high VO2 max, and so I am not really due any special credit. I also don’t buy that I decided to play soccer the way that I did, and later to train and run competitively, and therefore I should get all the credit.

After cross country my freshman year I had a real choice. I could continue to run and compete in track and field, or I could play soccer. I don’t think the outcome was inevitable. Had some things been moderately different, I might have made a different choice. For example, I had friends on the soccer team. They were good friends, but what if they had been very close friends? What if one of them had made a very strong appeal for me to stick with them? Like many of our choices, this one sat at a fork in the road. One step left or right determines widely divergent destinations.

That we make decisions with real consequences does implicate a being who should take responsibility for those decisions. This doesn’t mean, however, that all options are open. In fact, my decision to run instead of play soccer was based on my relatively low status among soccer players. Other players were quicker and more skilled – likely due to factors beyond our control. Our manipulation of factors that we can control relative to those we can’t gives us the only kind of freedom we can hope for – natural freedom.


  1. Natural freedom. Nature.

    You speak of it as a driving force incapable of being escaped or altered. You do attribute some power to self; words and phrases such as decision, manipulation, factors we can control.

    "I want to explore a natural account of our capacities. I want to accept all the pushes and pulls on our behavior, not as something we must fight, but as forces that we must reckon with. The self has no leverage – it can only use nature. We may be able to ascribe some reasons as our own, but they can only be can only be nature's reasons."

    What is this Nature? You are attributing all power to it. Is it the authority of all that exists? Humans are certainly beings with incredible intelligence, awareness and mental capacities. We have abilities that the rest of nature does not posses. Certainly our physical abilities pale in comparison with other natural animals, but we have a mind and spirit that senses things much greater than simple raw survival. How does nature account for this?

    It seems instead that we can make an account of nature. We can probe it to discover how it's systems work. We can chart and interpret it's paths. But how can nature account for us? Our mega-accelerated luminosity seems to outpace nature's observable patterns.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jackson.

    Yes, we do feel like we outpace nature -- which is the sense I am working to get over.

    I do think nature is inescapable. It is the whole set of physical laws governing the universe.