Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Trouble with Context

—which, of course, is also it’s greatest strength.

I will start with an example (though without punctuation):

you gotta go now

Read it again:

you gotta go now

And again, now changing the inflection, the pacing, the punctuation....

Go where?  To do what? 

You get the idea.

Here’s how it actually happened, my senior year (not junior year, may it be known), the CONTEXT:

I used to run.  I was a bit of a track fanatic in high school, and I did pretty well.  Mostly I ran the middle distances—the 400m and 800m—but I also did the long jump, and the respective relays.  While I worked almost entirely with the head track coach, Coach DeBos, who focused on middle distance, sprints, and the jumps, for the 4x800 I had Coach Albaugh, the distance man.

Coaches, teachers, and grownups all seem to have their catch phrases.  My calc teacher had dozens (“That’s what you get,” “Some days you get the bear, some days it gets you,” “You wanna flip burgers the rest of your life?” and so on, all the while waving his thumb and index finger around like a gun).  While Coach Albaugh seemed to use this particular command, “You gotta go now!” all the time—and I figure you can guess how a track coach might use it—there is one particular instance when it didn’t just achieve its intended goal, but even redirected my life.  Or, at least, gave me a pretty good metaphor for it.

My 4x800m relay team made it to the Ohio State Track Finals, all the way back in 1995.  I don’t think I’d ever been happier or more excited.  (And I’ve got probably five or six more great stories from this long weekend, but, fear not, those are for another time.)

 ...  Okay, so I’m really going to have to hold back to keep this the short version....

I ran third leg.  I was fastest on the team, but that was the strategy—put the fastest guy against all the other slowest guys.  It worked pretty well.  I got the baton in last place.  Per coach’s direction, I moved immediately over the first hundred meters into sixth, amidst much elbow swinging and misdirected tracks spikes.  I held my place in the middle of the pack around the first lap, again, just like I was told.  And it was easy.

Now, I don’t know how many of you have been to a big track meet.  A REALLY big track meet.  The Ohio State Track and Field finals are held in the Horse Shoe at Ohio State University, behind a statue of none other than JESSE OWENS!  It’s a big place.  It was packed to capacity.  And even if you’ve only ever been to a small meet, or just watched on TV, you should know that the relays are the big time.  They MEAN something, not just to the runners or the teams, but to everyone.  They are a statement of dominance!  Well, if you win. 

Even now, just in the third leg of the race, the pack a true pack, with no leaders, no stragglers, the crowd was loud.  LOUD!  It was a roar like I imagine a tornado must roar.

I was just rounding the end of the curve at the top of the second lap, tight in the pack.  The noise was growing steadily.

Even though I already knew exactly what to do, my coach—Coach Albaugh—yelled at me.  Somehow, despite the insanity of the crowd, I heard, as though he were running beside me (seriously, it was like magic—and this was before Harry Potter), “YOU GOTTA GO NOW!”

I didn’t think about it; I responded immediately.  I took a side step to the outside of the pack, dodged an elbow, and freaking HIT THE GAS, and the crowd exploded—little bits of fans flaking down all around.  It was awesome.  I took off, left everyone behind, and, three hundred meters later, passed the baton to our anchor a hundred meters ahead of second place.  It was super cool.  The crowd loved it.  It was the highlight of my life!

So what in the world does this have to do with anything?  Context.

The trouble with context is that it entirely limits applicability.  This story is great for motivation, and I’ve used it as such (it’s also really good as an object lesson for the infamous 5-paragraph essay), but practically nothing else.  So screw the context.  (Of course, screwing context doesn’t work so well with my old track coach’s line unless you’re potty training your two-year-old.)

Here’s something else, where dashing context makes absolutely no difference to the applicability and power of the quotation.  I heard it at work yesterday.  (It was a really good day at work, by the way.  Our team’s “assignment” kept us all at our table and quiet enough that we could actually talk.  Fortunately, I have two teammates who are, like me, utter geeks.  It was great, and the time flew!)

...  again, struggling to keep it short and simple; as you can see, that’s stupidly hard for me....

So Matt was talking about his cell phone.  I told him I didn’t have one, and he looked at me like....  Well, you can imagine.  He said something along these line: “I can’t imagine going around without having access to all the information in the world right in my pocket!”  He went on with, “After all, everything that can be thought has already been thought.”

Hmm.  I sure hope not, and I said so: “Matt, you know that’s absolutely impossible to know.”

Then John spoke, entirely without warning (or inflection even)— and I need to take a second and tell you about the amazing balance that John and Matt embody, a true symbiosis, in all that word’s particularly geeky glory.  Matt describes himself, and he’s totally right, as a person who needs no other person to keep himself entirely entertained.  John once commented that he was even jealous, because he’d never seen anyone get such a kick out of themselves as Matt, who finds everything he says utterly and sincerely laugh- and praiseworthy.  Matt said how much simpler life would be if you could really just exclude everyone else for the sake of your own little world and be thrilled to death about it.  That’s Matt.  John, on the other hand, is the very embodiment of soft-spoken and sober.  If I didn’t now know better, I would call him a bore.  But I know better.  He’s not a bore.  He’s freaking hilarious! 

So, getting back:

—John looked at Matt and said, “Yeah, Matt.  Quit marveling and contribute.”

We laughed and laughed.

Okay, so maybe you had to be there.  Maybe you have to be packing cosmetics.  Maybe you have to be so bored that anything is funny.  Regardless, like I said before—and here’s the point—SCREW CONTEXT.

While Coach Albaugh’s line is terribly limited, John’s is not.  Even though the two sentences are, grammatically speaking, practically parallel (“You gotta go now;” “Quit marveling and contribute” —okay, so they’re really just both commands), the second, John’s, is incredibly pertinent to me, the unemployed.  You can extrapolate it all you want.  For me, it’s this simple:

I think I need to stop checking facebook, email, and my blog stats, and get back to my most recent job application.



  1. So it's probably pretty cheeky to comment on your own blog, but I must make a case for excellent co-workers. The last time I had a temp job, I met a friend with whom I'm still in touch. We would never have met or even considered each other as potential friends without having worked together. MATT and JOHN, from above, are EXCELLENT CO-WORKERS. I couldn't be luckier, especially considering the dreary monotony--like a torment by Dante--of doing what we do all day! So, John, Matt, thank you. Thank you. You keep the cosmetics line entertaining.

  2. you're going to think i'm nuts but as soon as i read "you gotta go now" with coach's name following, my heart began to race. i remember those days and coach albaugh's voice is still within me--whether it's a 1/2 marathon, 5k, or just a simple jog. he had and still has a way of sinking in deep and anchoring his voice and power as a coach. someday i wanna coach like him.

  3. You would make an AWESOME coach. Do you think that's something you might pursue? I never thought of you that way before, but it makes seriously GREAT sense.