Staring back in the mirror at my aging visage while thinking ahead to retirement’s uncertain temptations, I’m frequently tormented by the question of today’s purpose. Fifty years of food movement engagement have left in my wake many exciting achievements, some projects stalled in traffic, and even a multi-car pile-up or two. But as much as I try to live in the present with its suffocating over-stimulation, I’m dragged back to the past by Robert Frost’s lines that “[Life] lives less in the present/Than in the future always/And less in both together/Than the past.” Some say the past is a guide to the future. I’m inclined to say that it is the future.
As my senior moments these days attest, my short-term memory may be atrocious (“What was that person’s name I spoke to on Zoom yesterday?”), but my long-term appraisal of the past is performed with surprising clarity. A case in point is, coincidentally, another “senior moment” because it harkens back to my senior year as a member of the high school track team. My three years as a 400-meter runner had been less than illustrious. Since I placed in the top three in only a handful of races, Coach Palmisano would frequently stick me on the four-man, mile-relay team whose members were fast but not fast enough for the 400-meter – the so-called “Big Time.”
With an extra inch or two in my stride and a strong kick at the finish, I assumed my last year of high school would make me the premier 400-meter man. As fate would have it, along comes a sophomore who must have been cloned from a jaguar. His stride was so natural and speed so enduring that he’d break the tape without breaking a sweat. For most meets, this left me and three other sophomores on the mile-relay team. While not exactly a disgrace, I did notice that more than one woman I asked out told me, “Sorry, I’m busy that night.”
By the time of the season-ending league tournament in June, I’d pretty much had it. Accepted to college and with graduation only a week away, I had lapsed into coasting mode. Skipping the tournament seemed like an easy decision that Saturday morning when I turned off my alarm and caught several more winks instead of boarding the bus with my teammates. That is until the call I got late that afternoon from Coach Palmisano. “Where were you, Mark?” My reply was thin, evasive, and ultimately defeatist, echoing my frustration at only being second best. “Well, you let down three young men who wanted to run today. Because you weren’t there, they couldn’t compete.”
Now, Coach was a second-generation North Jersey Italian. All 5 feet, 4 inches, of him would occupy the track’s finish line zone where he held court with a stop watch dangling from his neck, a clipboard clutched in one beefy paw, and clouds of cigar smoke enveloping his balding head. His words of encouragement, uttered no more than 12 inches from your face, would end with small bits of saliva-soaked cigar wrappings stuck to your cheeks. What he lacked in the nuance of motivational sports psychology, he more than made up for with blunt emotional force.
Deep shame has a way of embedding its daggers forever in your consciousness. Palmisano’s call lasted less than three-minutes but it has played a continuous loop in my head, off and on, for decades. First it was the guilt associated with simply not showing up, but later—many years later—it dawned on me that guilt and six dollars will only get you a double latte. The failure that wrapped itself around me like a stiff, unwashed blanket was not knowing my role in life at a moment when it mattered most; it was falling prey to a bruised ego that told me that if I can’t be number one, I wouldn’t play at all; it was a failure to recognize that all of us, at some point in our lives, whether at 18 or 70, will be eclipsed by others.
None of these shortcomings should mean that we don’t have a role to play, or that we can’t use our reservoir of accumulated wisdom to help others play the game as well as they can. Like Coach Palmisano who most likely forgot about me within a few weeks, I have forgotten, or even never knew the people I may have influenced along the way. But now and again, a ripple I set in motion years ago ricochets off some distant shore to return and gently lap the hull of my boat. Such wavelets have come in the form of 20-or 30-year-old food movement activists who credit one of my books for the career choice they made. In a similar vein, I’m often shaken from my blasé mind set when participants in my trainings and consultations share helpful revelations that resulted from my advice. Most rewarding of all have been the projects and initiatives I had a hand setting in motion, some as far back as 50 years ago, that remain in place today. They are usually bigger, stronger, and often quite different than what I originally imagined, yet they continue in their own ways to make important differences in the lives of others. As far as someone might stroll down memory lane, they will never glean enough from their own history to measure the impact they have had on others.
Your past may portend your future, but knowing your appointed role in the moment allows you to create new feasts rather than merely eat your leftovers. Like a rolling dharma train, I might, alternately, offer to take the lead, be a supporter, be a donor, or be “an attendant lord…to swell a progress, start a scene or two.” Sometimes I might write the book, but more frequently I now write the forward or an endorsement for another author, or help a new author find a way to share their voice. And to the dismay of those who tried to instruct me in my early years, I will become the teacher, even the coach, and sometimes, with less humility, the water boy. I will strive to speak less, and smile more because my encouragement is more important than my ideas.
Though my part is smaller, the briefer moments on stage still matter, partly because there are now so many more players, a bigger stage, and, in fact, more stages on which to perform. That should be nothing to complain about since it recognizes the growth and diversity of the food movement. We should at this point recognize—perhaps even celebrate—three, maybe four generations of food activists. While at times this much activity might feel like a chaotic, three-ring circus, it is certainly not a dilution of the movement, but rather an enrichment and enhancement of an ever-unfolding history; a history that continues to fuel the future.
To my former three sophomore mile-relay team members, wherever you are, I apologize for my indolence and self-pity. I hope the harm I caused you was short-lived. To Coach Palmisano, resting comfortably, I trust, in some grassy New Jersey cemetery, a soft haze of cigar smoke rising from your grave, let me say thank you for kicking my ass. Though I may still be sore, the point has been taken many times over.