A Personal Best

I’m not much for team sports. For whatever reason, football, baseball, all those kinds of sports have never grabbed me. Perhaps it’s because when I was young I went to Catholic school. The nuns weren’t much on girl’s team sports either, except volleyball. They loved it. I didn’t. I always stood in the back row and ducked when the ball came near me.

However, I love individual sports. The kind of thing where you are competing against yourself as much as against the other guy in the pool, the ice rink, the horse show arena, or on the gymnastic floor. The sports announcers call it “personal best.” I understand that kind of competition, challenging yourself to get better, to try harder, at something that is very important to you.

This couple of years have been filled with personal best challenges for me. Some I didn’t think I’d accomplish, but somehow I’ve managed to achieve a few of them. And, glory be, I’ve just pulled off another one. I can get into—and out of—the swimming pool without using the handicapped lift chair.

I can hear the murmurs now. My two year old does it all the time, I hear someone back there say.  So did I until I ended up with only one leg.

I’m not going to describe here how I can do it, but suffice it to say it’s damn hard and scary as all get out. I really didn’t think I could do it until I met a man at the pool who also was missing a leg and climbed in and out routinely.  I stopped him to ask how he did it and how long he’d been an amputee. If he’d been young, bulging with muscles, I wouldn’t have asked, but he looked to be about my age and in not much better shape, so–.

He’d been an amputee since he was a teenager so was a lot more practiced at this stuff, but I decided that didn’t count. If he could do it, so could I. I tried climbing out first. Half the lifeguards were standing by, ready to pluck the old girl out of the water, but I made it. The next time, I went down the ladder into the pool. They were all still there, but they weren’t holding their breath quite so obviously. Now, they just ask which way I’m going in or getting out. Yes! One more hurdle jumped. Figuratively speaking, of course. But this frees me up just a little bit more. I can go to any pool without asking if they have a handicapped lift. So—hotel pools, friends pools, the Y pool near where I live, I can go to any of them.

Challenging ourselves and winning is a great feeling. We all do it, in almost all facets of our lives. We challenge ourselves to be better at work, to be better parents, or grandparents, to be better, healthier cooks, gardeners, tennis players, to loose weight, do a better job balancing our budgets, the list goes on. We’re not always going to win, I still struggle with that blasted budget, but if we keep trying, and set realistic goals so we don’t defeat ourselves before we ever get started, its amazing what we can accomplish.

Writing is no different. You are in a competition with yourself to write the best book or short story possible. You’re going to test how well you did by sending your manuscript out to compete with thousands of other writers who are also sweating blood and tears to come up with the next best seller, or just to get into print. And, as certain as death and taxes, you are going to get rejected. If you keep at this long enough, you’ll have enough rejection slips to wallpaper the dining room. But, like getting in and out of the pool, if you keep trying, good things happen. It may not come in the form of a publishers contract, but go back and read something you wrote a year ago, two years ago, and see if you have improved. See if you are learning, finally, to do this very difficult thing, write a good book. Now go back and read the chapter you just finished. How does it read? Flows better? Characters seem more real? Dialog not so stilted? Plot makes sense? You haven’t used every adverb you’ve ever met?  Ha! You have a personal best. Celebrate. Sing your own praises, crow like a rooster, dance an Irish jig. Make yourself a hot fudge sundae. Then, go pull out that desk chair and plant your behind in it. Crank up the computer and take another look at that great chapter. Can you make it even better? Probably. And, what comes after that? The next chapter, of course. And this one will be better still. Because personal bests exist only to challenge us to do more, to reach another harder and more rewarding goal.

I’m going to follow my own advice. The next chapter in the book I’m writing is going to be more exciting, I’m going to push the story forward without getting hung up on tangents, the characters will be more alive and my dialog is going to sparkle. And, I’m going to keep getting in and out of that pool without using the lift and who knows, maybe I’ll get up enough courage to actually try swimming across it, Maybe. If I do, that will be truly a personal best.

So, I raise me coffee cup in salute to you, to me, to all of us who have achieved a personal best. Let me know what yours was, and how you managed it. I’ll bet there are some pretty interesting stories out there.

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