The Barefoot Medalist with Foresworn Earbuds
Like everyone, I am still processing the news of this past Tuesday
Last Tuesday I enjoyed an appointment with an endodontist, an expert in root canals. I remember the very phrase “root canal” inspiring pity and fear in me when I was a child, when my stepmother endured multiple iterations of the procedure. She had my sympathy, but I never asked her for details about the experience.
My new specialist explains the upcoming tortures thoroughly. In the town of Davis, Dr. Ramesh Thondapu (what a great name!) treats us with the respect of a colleague. Thinking of the medical professionals, thinking of their patients, I estimate 10 or more doctors in the building, including myself. I suppose that we all deserve thorough explanations. An informed consumer and a mentor teacher, I appreciate expert instruction from my dentist. After four years of regular meditation training, I’m also grateful for my expertise in sitting still.
That said, today I am on the move. Looking at the clock, I drive home briskly from the appointment. An inveterate walker, I’m not used to driving, but Kate is still recovering from (driving) foot surgery, so I am the family chauffeur and gofer. I arrive home with only 30 minutes available for the 40-minute walk to campus; I grab my safari hat and a snack and head out.
Running late for class, I can’t process the day’s events in Texas. Kate texted me during the lessons from the endodontist: “The news is devastating.” She sent me a broken heart emoji for each person reported killed in an Uvalde elementary school. She would send more such hearts later in the day, and video of an impassioned speech by Steve Kerr.
Race-walking to work with my tooth still in pain, I’m reminded of Dustin Hoffman’s character, history graduate student Thomas “Babe” Levy, in the film Marathon Man. I first watched that movie as a runner, and long before I was a graduate student. Even though I also read the book, details of the film are fading from my memory. That said, I can still remember the film’s central question: “Is it safe? Is it safe?” This query was a sort of a sick refrain shared by a sadistic “dentist” played by Laurence Olivier, and the allusion was then repeated as a bad joke to the rest of us since 1976.
The Olivier line is more haunting and less corny than the jokey advice a dental hygienist once shared with me: “Only floss the teeth you want to keep.” On the walk, I ask myself the question the endodontist asked: “Can this tooth be saved?” Is it safe?
In order to make a 40 minute walk in 30 minutes I accelerate my pace, take the shortest route, and never take a breath. Forswearing my earbuds, I cross diagonally across intersections, my ears hyper-alert for possible oncoming cars. Is it safe?
Dustin Hoffman’s marathoner Levy is shown to be training in the beginning of Marathon Man, emulating his hero, Abebe Bikila, the first Ethiopian Olympic gold medalist and the first athlete to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title. Levy is shown sprinting around The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park, an area of New York City that I also got to explore in the 1970s. The camera crew probably encountered Jackie O. while filming some of the film’s famous scenes around that reservoir.
Levy’s training as a runner came in handy later in his adventures, inspiring me to keep up with my own training as a runner. That film made me want to run as Bikila did (though with athletic shoes, rather than barefoot). On this Tuesday, my own training as a walker – more than seven miles a day so far in 2022 – makes it possible for me to dash to class on time.
I wanted to focus on my task, but I walk past Montgomery and Peregrine Elementary Schools, where I know children, parents, and teachers. Later I walk past the Campus Early Childhood Laboratory, a nursery school mostly for the children of my UC Davis colleagues. I see mothers and fathers picking up their children.
No one hears gunshots, except in our imaginations. No one is stopped by the police from reuniting with their kids. I imagine that during the short drives home, the car radios are left off as the schoolchildren are asked about show and tell and snack time. So much love in those cars.
Because a new surge of Covid has ravaged the bus driver workforce, my son Jukie is kept home today. I hugged him before leaving for work. Is he safe? Jukie is safe.
I think of Jukie’s older sister Geneva, finishing up a shift as a paraeducator at Patwin Elementary. She is safe. All the children there are safe.
I think of our youngest, Truman, as at that hour he bikes home from the high school. There were no incidents at the high school today. Is he safe? He is safe.
I imagine the trees waving their branches to me like cheering bystanders as I reach Olson Hall, the site of my afternoon class. I pause before masking up and entering the building. Above us, I see only sky. I walk into the classroom with 90 seconds to spare. I imagine smiles behind my students’ masks. They are world-weary and underslept, but still ready to get to work.
An echoing question fades as I stand up at the whiteboard, blue marker in my hand.
Is it safe?
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This week’s Pub Quiz will feature questions about issues raised above, as well as the following: Simple ideas, beautiful faces, mountaintops, religious warnings, free rides, bachelor composers, dangerous collections, equality before the law, long streaks, steep escarpments, forms of reparations, the Honourable East India Company, violent delights, welcome targets, public servants, best men at weddings, unusual rain showers, literary destinations, numerous islands, Benedict Cumberbatches, fabled treasures, first and last sermons, alternatives to gutter journalism, protest songs, new attorneys, couches, moral superiority, current events and Shakespeare.
P.S. Here are three questions from a previous quiz:
Countries of the World. With a population of over 200 million, what is the world’s most populous Roman Catholic-majority country?
Spices. Both starting with the letter C, two different spices in the parsley family are confused with one another. Name one of them.
Books and Authors. In Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, Virgil refers to what author as "Poet sovereign," or the king of all poets?