Bill Long 11/22/07
Obsession and My Life--My First Obsession
As I think of my life, I conclude that I have been happiest when I have been allowed to practice my obsessions or my "focuses." I say "allowed," because there are various forces, both self- and other-imposed, that are arrayed against the person who wants to have a rich obsessive life. In this and the next essay I want to tell you my three great obsessions during my life, and then conclude with what this says about me and human endeavor.
The first time I really focused or obsessed on something was from 1967-68 (when I was 15-16). I know it was an obsession and not simply an "interest" or even "preoccupation" because I can clearly differentiate it from my other activities in that period. My obsession was in throwing or, technically, "putting" the (12 lb.) shot. For those of you who don't know, shot-putting is a track & field event. In those days we were called "putters," but nowadays those who put are called "throwers." My mother, who has managed to get nearly everything wrong about me throughout my life, always asked me if I was going to "shoot the shoot." Here is the etiology and manifestation of this obsession.
I began to put earnestly during the ninth grade. At first I wasn't very good. I was, in fact, only the third best guy on the ninth-grade team. But something about the gracefulness of motion, the Greek-like body needed for being a good putter, the notion that it was just you against this little ball; all of these things took over my mind. I decided I wanted to excel in putting the shot. I didn't want to excel necessarily in playing the piano (I had taken four years of lessons) or in speaking Spanish (I was in my third year at the time), or even in making money (I had both a paper and magazine route) but I wanted above everything to be a superior shot putter. I finished the season in 1966 as the 2nd best putter on the team.
We threw the 8 pounder in 9th grade, but I knew I would move up to the 12 lb. in 10th, and so immediately upon school's completion I bought a 12 lb. shot at the local sporting good store (they looked at me quizzically when I confidently said I wanted a 12 lb. shot; the salesman thought I should rather be buying a bat or some ski poles).
I only put the 8 lb shot 36' in 9th grade. I beat some people, but it wasn't even worth telling anyone about. So, beginning in late June 1967, I took my prized new purchase, my 12 lb. shot, cradle it under one arm with my father's measuring tape in the other, walk the 2 blocks to my former elementary school, and set up in a lawn behind two of the newer wings of the school. In that way I knew I couldn't be observed by many, and I would be able to moan, groan, be clumsy if need be and just put to my heart's content. So, every day (or at least four days a week), I would go to Holmes' school and put. And put. And put. On some occasions the janitor would take his smoking break and just sit and watch me, without saying a word. We would be in our individual worlds--I a 15 year-old, heaving and puffing as I tried to master the 12 pounder, and he a tired school employee just seeking some rest.
I began the summer putting the twelve pounder a mere 26 feet. I really didn't care. I just wanted to establish a benchmark. So, I did. And, week by week I began to improve. By mid-July I had hit 30 feet on one occasion. Then, by the early part of August, I learned we were going to move to CA for the rest of my high school days. So, I redoubled my effort on putting. By August 15, just a week before we were to leave, I hit 35 feet. I had improved 40% over the summer. My last day for putting was August 22, 1967, for we were to leave in our 1967 Ford Station Wagon, CT plate 603.909, on August 24. With a sort of air of desperation, I went down to the school for the last time. I huffed and puffed, put about 20 times, and then uncorked a throw that went 37'11''. I felt so elated that the 3,000 mile drive with my three brothers and parents from Darien, CT to Atherton, CA over 10 days late in August-early Sept. 1967 seemed like a breeze.
California Shot-Putting Days
Fall 1967 saw me preoccupied with football where, unexpectedly, I made "all league" for the sophomore team in my new CA school. Track began in earnest in January 1968, and I picked up my beloved shot. There is always a little bit of a "fall-off" when you start up again, and so I began at about 35'. I was the best sophomore putter, but there were two other guys who would do better than I that year. My battle was not against them--it was against myself. So, I began to recover my focus on putting, and by February I had broken 40'. The sophomore record for my school, held by a guy who went on to win the NCAA title in the discus throw, was 43'7 1/2''. When I heaved a 41'9' at the Blossom Hill Relays in early March, I knew I was going to break Larry Kennedy's record.
The interesting thing about my obsession was that no one was celebrating with me--and that didn't matter at all to me. My performances were not that outstanding for a senior or junior, and no one knew when I participated whether I was senior or not. They just measured the distance and told me how far I threw. But I was so elated that I could barely contain myself. My senses became heightened to all things around me. I still remember my favorite episodes of "Get Smart" airing at that time were the track meets where Hymie, the robot, won all the events.
I finally broke Larry's sophomore record against Gunn High School with a throw of 43'9 1/2''. But it didn't stop there. By the time the season ended, I had put 45'10 1/2''. It was the most satisfying feeling I recall having up to that time in my life. What is interesting for me, however, is that the dual interests of football and track still beckoned me, and I injured my knee badly in football in Fall 1968, effectively ending my meteoric rise in the shot put. Though I would throw further than 45'10 1/2'' inches in high school, I lost my focused desire for putting. But, just as that was fading out, another began.
My second and third obsessions are the subject of the next essay.