Last weekend, I watched the Preakness hoping to see a potential for a triple crown. I developed an interest in horse racing a few years ago when I was invited to attend the Kentucky Derby, all-expenses paid for by Playboy and Brown Forman (a missed benefit of my past life). Having associated horse racing with OTB I was pleasantly surprised to see people with teeth whose clothing didn’t stink of their own urine. I loved the pageantry and the grand traditions of the event – the oversized and exaggerated hats on women, the crisp linen suits on men, the morning mint juleps and the good old southern hospitality and food. But mostly, I came away with a genuine interest in the sport.
As I cheered on Street Sense who was quick out of the gate, I knew that didn’t matter. It didn’t guarantee a win. After all, he came from the 13th position in the Derby this year to win it. It came down to the wire, literally, with a photo finish and Curlin beating out Street Sense in the final stretch to take the Preakness title.
Life works the same way.
I didn’t get my first tooth until I was over a year old and I didn’t lose a baby tooth until I was 8. I was wearing training bras when my friends were getting their learner’s permit and I was still having growing pains when my friends were having labor pains. I seemed to lag behind in the race of life. Not that life is actually a race, unless of course, you consider the finish line a coffin. But life seems filled with short sprints that seemingly feel like endurance tests where our placement is graded, marked and scored. It is always about firsts and lasts, about placing somewhere on the gamut of contenders.
As a kid, it was who was picked first and who was picked last when choosing sides for red rover. Then during the teen years, where life seems to be littered with contests and competition, it is hard not to judge yourself by your placement. Who got boobs first, who got to first base, who turned 16 first, got their licenses, a car and a social life. For those kids who were held back because their birthday was on the cusp of the cutoff, suddenly found themselves at an advantage around their 16th birthday when they could load up their mother’s sedan with 8 kids, a few six-packs and drive to Saunder’s Woods to drink and pretend to be cool.
I have always felt I needed to play catch-up in life. I was a tiny, short, scrawny little kid with spindle-like legs that were always covered in bruises from falling out of trees or climbing stone walls as I searched the woods behind our house for ancient artifacts left by the early Pennsylvanian settlers. A good 6 inches shorter than my contemporaries, I could pass for 7 years old when I was 10. Now, I would take 3 years shaved off my age graciously and with delight, but as a proud 10 year old I was all but destroyed when the woman at the gardening shop asked me if I was starting 2nd grade when I was about to enter the 5th grade. “I’m so sorry,” she said to my mother who was standing next to me holding a palate of daffodils while I wailed and cried. “She’s just so small. She looks like a little porcelain doll,” she whispered to my mother hoping to backhand a compliment my way.
When we got into my mother’s Volvo station wagon I was still crying. “Am I going to be a midget? Why does everyone think I’m some little kid? It’s so not fair. Can you ask Dr. Zavod for some drugs to make me taller?” I was short, but I was precocious.
“Your father and I are normal height. You will grow. I promise. You just may grow a little later than everyone else.” My mother reasoned with me hoping I would hang on to the hope that everything comes in time. She also gave me a corresponding pillow that was embroidered with the saying, “Please be patient, G-d isn’t finished with me yet.”
Still, it sucked. I spent my first 15 years on this planet under the 10% line on the growth chart that the pediatrician, Dr. Zavod gave me to take home which I studied and pencil marked constantly. I would measure myself on the same wall, where despite the fact that my father would not allow us to write on it, I was able to notate my height by scratches in the paint. Each summer, after I came home from camp, my sneakers too tight, I would rush to the wall hoping for a mega surge. I would pray that my head would clear the in-wall speaker and nicknames such as shrimp, shorty and smidget the midget would evaporate.
I hate to say it, but my mother was right. Just when the brawny giants on my softball team growth halted at the standard 5’2”, I surged ahead – finally landing at a healthy and slightly above-average, 5’6”. I was late, out of the gate, but I finally caught up to everyone else and surged ahead. I had graduated from the petite department.
My single status mimicked my earlier plight. One by one my friends found boyfriends, got engaged and continued down life’s primrose path of having babies and starting their adult lives while I shrunk in the distance, lagging a leg behind. Marriage and love became what boobs and a driver’s license once were – a goal to reach in an unspoken race with others. And I was worried I was on my way to the glue factory.
The race of life is long – with many hurdles and many small races along the way. It is a race only with yourself. And if watching horse racing has taught me anything, it is to never bet on the favorite and to always look for the come-from-behind winner. Some horses are slow out of the gate, but once they hit their stride, there is no stopping them. Funny how that applies to people too.