Monday, August 8, 2011

Diary entry: Sherox Triathlon Competition Philadelphia 2011

I have to admit that this year I was a lot less apprehensive about this Philadelphia triathlon event but at the same time, quite ambivalent about it. As the date approached I really didn’t feel like doing it. I’ve worked out very hard all summer and I knew that I was in good enough shape to do it but I didn’t feel like getting worked up….and that’s what always happens before competitions. I get major butterflies and my stomach is a mess and I worry worry worry that something will go wrong.

But crossing the finish line is such an incredible feeling that the struggle is always justified.  The “why?” that I said to myself as I started the run, pretty exhausted, just faded away as I accepted my medal and slowed to a stop at the finish.

The swim: The Schuylkill River is a city river. Its primary use is by rowers. My mother is a rower. Rowers get in these skinny skinny boats called sculls and go backwards! If you've never seen it done check it out, it’s an amazingly challenging sport. In any case no one actually swims in this river and I don’t want to write about the kind of things found in there. (I’ll gross you out somewhere later in this retelling).  The water is pretty murky. You can’t see your arms as you go. You can’t see anything.  They put the competitors in the water in waves. It’s an incredibly comfortable way to start. Very dignified compared with that massive rush at the water’s edge I know from home. Approximately 60 people to a wave. You start treading water near an imaginary line between two orange floats. There is nothing to hold on to. Each wave has a different colored cap so as you swim along you know  you’re doing well when you've caught up to other colors. After all, they started a full 4 minutes earlier. Now in the USA I've noticed that while running is REALLY strong, swimming is not. There are amazing swimmers out there…and I saw them in action close up in my age group start, but there are many just trying to get through it. I actually passed people hanging out in the water, and some that were doing backstroke; tons doing breast.

But it was in the water that I figured out exactly who I had to contend with. I was in a 48-54 age group start. And it was in the water that I learned a major lesson in Philadelphia. The toughest women out there are the 50+ group. In fact those were basically the only ones that passed me!! The 30 somethings were always on the side. I could take them easily…But those skinny, muscle-ly 50 somethings were fierce!!!!

The swim started too fast. Some of those women just leaped out! I went with them and soon enough I found I couldn't breathe. That DOES NOT HAPPEN to me and I couldn't believe it. And frankly, with so many people in the water, not only from all those “wave starts” but also the lifesaving crew checking that no one is in trouble (someone died there last summer in a Triathlon),  it’s kind of freaky not to be able to breathe. I figured I must have pushed too hard. I calmed myself and slowed my pace.  Meanwhile the vapors off the surface of the water and that bit of water washing into my mouth with every breath were just foul. We are so spoiled in the Mediterranean!! I couldn't wait to finish. Now that is REALLY not like me. I love to swim. I wait for the swim. I never want it to end. I don’t want to do anything but swim. But here I was DYING to get out of the water. For me that set a weird tone for the whole race. I started thinking, if I’m really not enjoying this, what’s left? Next up I’d have to get on that darn bike! I might as well try to enjoy this! I focused. I swam strong. Nice long strokes to get through the current which was pretty strong. It was only 600 meters. They keep it short because the swim is what keeps people from participating; the more the merrier for women’s events. I reached the end of the murky water and here they pull you out because there is nothing to hang on to…I was hoisted up and off I went.

The bike: The bike section was really long: 25 km. Of course, that doesn’t compare with Eilat which I thought would never end. I kept that in mind!! But this course is hilly. It includes a challenging bridge up to the Strawberry Mansion area and then a climb through the mansion area. Of course all that climbing is rewarded buy some pretty fun down hills! Anyway, this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for to use my new technique. I climbed those hills standing like a 14 year old thanks to my Coach! Thanks Nir! I was still a bit wobbly (practice makes perfect), and I’m never going to be great at it because my balance simply isn’t terrific (I blame it on poor eyesight) but I knew he would be very proud of me. The course is two loops and after the first loop you can really anticipate those hills. Unlike most races, I also pushed through the down hills. As I mentioned before, I usually did the passing. I felt good. I felt strong. There were two categories of those passing me. One was those riding absolutely amazing bicycles. While I’m happy to have my mom’s old Cannondale, a mid 90s relic with three plates at the crank, it does not compare to the machines on the road. I actually thought an airplane was passing me at one point. Along came someone with those fancy wheels and a bullet (or sperm shaped) helmet. Scary!!! Anyway the second category was the 50+ group. As I mentioned above, I simply COULD NOT COMPETE with them. [Well, we’ll see next year!!!]. Phew!!

The course was littered with people with flat tires. It had poured the day before and also all night until about 5am! There were sticks and stones everywhere. I was incredibly careful. I really didn't feel like ending my race that way.  Plus I think this is where my hearty tires came in handy!! 

On to the run: Again, “Why am I doing this?” Did I forget to mention that although the temperature was in the mid 70s, very comfortable, the humidity was 95 percent? All of my body parts were simply stuck together. GROSS! The good thing was that there was a cloud cover the entire race. NO SUN! How different races are without that sun beating down!!! The run is a straight shot out to the Art Museum and back.  It’s relatively flat but it is never ending. I started out comfortably and said, “Okay. I have to make a decision here…have a dull run like Herzliya and be disappointed in myself or actually go for it.” I started to quicken my pace just a bit. For the record, I was DEAD TIRED. I kept a close eye on my heart beat and decided on a target number. The woman who completed the bike section and moved on to the run was a great runner. She jumped out ahead of me and I decided that I was going to stick with her. AND I DID! I had her in sight the entire way. She had a beautiful runner’s gait. I was so envious.  But I kept her in sight during the whole run and unbelievably, 500 meters from the finish, I realized that I actually could go a bit faster. I passed her!! And without sprinting!! (I learned a painful lesson about sprinting at the finish of the Tel Aviv Night race of 2009).

Finish line 2011: I did it! It was over. And yes, I knew, right there, that I’d do it again next year. Lessons of the day: 1. I’m strong--very strong. Thanks to Nir for torturing me several times a week. 2. It’s a lot more fun to do this with my friends. I was pretty lonely before and during the race. Not only did I not know anyone on the trail but no one cheered me from the sides except the race officials who were actually GREAT and numerous. 3. Rami deserves major thanks. Not only for waking up at 5am but also for cheering me at every opportunity. Next time he promises to memorize my swim cap color so that he knows when to expect me from the water! With 1700 participants (there was a TRI and a Duathlon) it was crowded and difficult to figure out who was who as we emerged from the water. 4. Women 50+ should not be messed with. They are tough as nails. 5. I love doing this despite the butterflies.

The results: I placed 14 out of 114 in my age category 45-49 (I’m the oldie). Overall 98/940. Last year I was 22nd. I’m more than satisfied!!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Education, Professional Success, and/or the Liberal Arts

About a month ago, sick of seeing it continually lambasted within the press, I decided to put in my two cents on the value of a liberal arts education. Since then the subject has popped up in at least three separate conversations, convincing me of its relevance to just about any dialogue and delaying the publication of this particular blog entry.

What's the point of a liberal arts education? With unemployment high in the US, and job opportunities slim-to-none, it’s definitely legitimate to debate the value of non-professional higher education. The main issue, and definitely not a new one, is whether a student majoring in, say, Anthropology or English, will ever be able to find a job. Over a year ago an article in USA Today, citing a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, stated that the US economy was in serious danger due to a growing mismatch between the skills needed for jobs being created and the educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) of would-be workers. This same study was republished in last weekend’s (24 July 2011) New York Times Education section. Apparently we’re all quite interested in just how unprepared our children might be for “real life” and how we might better “direct” them if we want to remedy this situation.

Compounding the problematic discord between chosen programs of study and future job success is the continual insinuation that colleges are not adequately preparing their graduates for the "afterlife." A recent article in outlined the pitfalls for those with a liberal arts degree (too esoteric, disconnected, irrelevant, and impractical) while simultaneously supporting its intrinsic value; most significantly suggesting that universities should be taking a more active role in the future of their graduates. In response to these discouraging studies and the bashing of the liberal arts, multiple businesses (ironically under the direction of liberal arts graduates--so they have in fact found some way to make a living), specifically aimed at easing the way for these graduates, have cropped up throughout the country.

The issue of marketability, in reference to academic studies, cannot be ignored. In fact, the direct relationship between college major and median earnings and the growing attraction of the more “practical” fields of study, such as that recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, indicates the urgency of this issue. Engineering, for example, has taken over as the most popular concentration nation-wide, with English (just an example) way down the list. The underlying implication of such data is that a liberal arts education, at the astronomical price of $200,000, might, just possibly, be an official waste of one's time (and money)--leading nowhere.

What all of these studies fail to address and identify is the true significance of the liberal arts education. The original concept of liberal arts study was based on the study of the seven liberal arts by ancient Greeks: grammar, dialectic or logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The goal of this curriculum was to impart general knowledge which would develop the student’s rational thought processes and intellectual capabilities. Carefully excluded were all studies that had anything to do with professionalvocational or technical preparation. According to much contemporary commentary it is this latter omission, the provision of no specific instruction, which leaves college graduates inadequately prepared for the real job world.

My personal experience actually proves that the concentration on what might seem to be esoteric or impractical fields within the liberal arts can, albeit in an "undefined" fashion, actually prepares students for their professional lives. Having been educated precisely in the manner set forth by Plato and Aristotle it took just one fascinating course on 20th century Architecture by larger-than-life Professor William Jordy to forever alter my pre-college plan to become an attorney. Swallowing up the liberal arts concept whole I became an art historian. While liberal arts studies are a natural drawing card for future academics—and indeed many of my childhood friends expanded their study of fields such as Comparative Literature, Religious Studies, Economics and Biology into careers within academia—it is just as relevant for the more “professional” or “practical” fields like law, journalism and business.

Any understanding of the relevance of a liberal arts education, so ostensibly “erudite” as to be considered by some as outdated, entails an acknowledgement of its roots.  From the get-go the American system of higher education, originally modeled after that perfected within esteemed, and in many cases ancient, European institutions, was intended as an "experience:" a four year bubble in which the still developing and maturing young person could develop their thoughts and ideas within a supportive, nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment. For the most part, the farmers of Virginia weren't sending their sons to Harvard to study agrarian science. They understood that the value of a liberal arts education lay not in its curriculum, but rather, in its discourse and rhetoric.

This is precisely why many academics alternatively claim that a liberal arts background can increase a student’s marketability, thereby ensuring his future professional success. USC Professor Robert Harris has beautifully outlined its multiple benefits, specifically mentioning the manner in which it teaches you how to think, improves your perception and, by offering deep knowledge, enhances potential creative thinking. Furthermore, in an article in the Financial Post answering the multiple criticisms of the inability of business schools to prepare its graduates for leadership roles, business entrepreneur Ray B. Williams actually encourages a return to the education developed in classical Greece wherein individuals were, for example, taught to sit down and critically discuss the effectiveness of their rulers. He proposes that this broad, idealistic form of education endowed its students with a wisdom which made them more valuable to their employers in the future.

The combination of this means of teaching with a more directed plan of study, such as that noted in the more professionally-focused system embraced within Israeli higher education, may offer a solution to current cynics. In Israel students begin their studies after 2-3 years mandatory military service and apply directly to a specific course of study. Unlike the typical eighteen year old American beginning his studies, the Israeli student seeks acceptance into a specific degree program, beginning his or her higher education with answers rather than questions.  His undergraduate experience accordingly more closely resembles the American graduate one. While "Liberal Arts" are included amongst the other majors (such as literature, art history, economics and political science) offered in Israeli institutions of higher education, similar to those found in their American counterparts, one can also opt for what Americans would consider "professional" courses of study (such as Law, Dentistry or Medicine) usually reserved for graduate education in the US.

For the most part, courses of study in Israel are heavily focused on the student’s main concentration and include a minimal amount of “tastings.” Although this might seem barbaric to an American audience, I mean where is the hit-or-miss process wherein one makes amazing discoveries within fields one has never heard of (my own experience!), it makes quite a lot of sense for this slightly more mature demographic. Several years older than their American high-school-graduate counterparts, with unique life experience behind them (active military duty or an extended stint contributing to the Israeli public through social service), this population is somewhat better positioned to make concrete decisions regarding what they want to study and eventually do with their lives. Eager to get started, the university experience for them is very much a means to an end. Critics of the seemingly disconnected and irrelevant aspect of liberal arts study might appreciate the middle ground between the two systems: a combination of the "exclusive education for education’s sake" offered within the American one and the more “focused” approach which is the substance of that noted in Israel. Ironically, the latter, suggests the kind of maturity whose acquisition was one of the original goals of the liberal arts curriculum!

While it would be natural to expect a certain decline in interest within the more esoteric concentrations, especially in light of these statistical studies, the state of the economy and recent journalistic attention, that isn’t entirely the case. Indeed, even in Israel, liberal arts-oriented fields are somehow holding their own. Although not as popular as the departments of engineering, international relations, economics and computer science, the "purer" fields are still alive and kicking. The best proof that this next generation values the theory and thought behind the matter is my own sixteen year old son’s choice to study the Philosophy of Science as part of a summer course at an American Ivy League institution. Bypassing many of the courses with a more practical orientation, such as medicine, engineering or law, this product of the nuts-and-bolts Israeli education system opted to acquaint himself with writings on space, time and dimension by the likes of Berkeley and Abbot, Einstein and Van Cleve.

I’m way over my head. I’ve taken on a subject beyond my academic acquaintance and although my words somewhat assuage my own irritation and anxiety about liberal arts-bashing I’m aware that they barely skim the surface. Nevertheless, I’m continually reminded of the significance of the topic. Two few weeks ago I attended a performance of Ballet X—a company known for a repertoire showcasing contemporary choreography quite different, save for its incorporation of classical technique, from that of traditional ballet. The last piece of the evening, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was intended as an exposé on the life of the last castrati, those young boys who sacrificed their manhood for the sake of their art. The work describes these castrati almost as lab rats: laid out for inspection by the audience for whom they perform; depicted under strobe light meant to reveal their oddity more than their artistry. It demands that the audience understand something of 17th century European history, the particular plight of these unfortunates and their sacrifice in the name of art, while simultaneously accepting their own complicity as peeping Toms whose interest has encouraged this atrocity.

Working on this essay at the time, I sat in the dark and wondered, “Where do the synapses required to create this conceptually clever and intensely revelatory dance originate, if not in the rhetoric and discourse espoused by the Ancient Greeks." I’m a confirmed adherent.