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Tighter, cooler, and sassier. That’s how I remember them. My first pair of designer jeans. It was 1981 and this new purchase made me feel like a supermodel/super hero with legs of steel and rear pockets etched with magic. It was with this newfound confidence, albeit a superficial one, that I marched my eight year old self down the street to THE birthday party of the year. Everyone was going to be there and I was ready to have a very good time. My sassy clad legs kicked my shyness to the curb and my deep seated wit came bubbling to the surface. Before long, me and my jeans were leading a posse of kids up and down trees, scaling fences, and challenging foot races. I had that thing--that thing that entreats others to follow and I won’t lie, it felt AMAZING, until…

Until I was shining too brightly, picking up too much speed, miscalculating the root system from the old oak tree that was not a root system at all but an extended network of slippery, smelly, smoldering dog poop. And there I went, toppling down at top speed, sliding through the fresh poop on those magically etched rear pockets with the whole crew quietly observing in that way that suggests it really sucks to be me and that it was probably time to go have cake anyway. They slunk away and the moms stepped in, as they do, to de-stank me and see what they could do about my quickly dwindling pride.

Leader or follower?

I was reminded of this stinky childhood moment this past Saturday. Our coaching crew braved the rain and did some reconnaissance work in honor of our upcoming season. Knowing that I was super excited about seeing new trails, I knew I wouldn’t be riding too well, so I positioned myself toward the back of the crew. I get really, really excited about new sights, which means my mind drifts and all technique becomes non-existent. I can’t even fake it (not even in my awesome Specialized Demo riding pants--the contemporary equivalent to those 1981 designer jeans). At one point, we crossed a small footbridge over a lovely creek. Well, almost everyone made it. I forgot to look ahead and became too enchanted with the rustling creek and of course, fell right off the bridge and into the creek below. Completely. Fully immersed with my bike on top of me. Just as I went over the side, I was magically transported to my eight year old self sliding confidently until I wasn’t, into the inevitable murky point of saturation.

Why do we lead? Why do we follow? How blindly do we often do both? As I steadied my legs and did my best to stop giggling, my mind couldn’t help itself but consider how often we get things really, really wrong. How insistent we often are (good on us for the confidence), but we don’t always have a basis for this insistence aside from how it puffs us up with a semblance of self worth. And what if that puffery comes from control--pushing and/or keeping others down? Can one find self worth in dehumanizing another? Is that what we’re after? Oh god. That’s not hardwired, is it?

Maybe not hardwired, but it is a part of history. What part of that history lives in me? What lives in you? Can you put a finger on it?

One night as an undergraduate at Cal State University, San Bernardino (again, so long middle-aged self is making itself known today) I was walking across campus with my friend Kealon. We were talking about stereotypical films about the college experience and got the GREAT idea that we should go streaking. Because, well, you know you’ve been to college when you’ve stripped down naked and run through campus. Within minutes this was no longer a speculative endeavor but a very real one with clothes shed and two very naked bodies making their way to the football/soccer field. Ohhhh! The field felt so great underfoot as we dashed forward without a care in the world, the warm night sky pushing us along. We could have sprinted freely forever. Until...

Until the spotlight came from the campus police, shining over the field. We ducked down quickly, watching them try to watch us. They kicked around our discarded clothes (again, a great day for favorite black Levi’s). Kealon looked over at me with real fear in his eyes and said, “Your white ass is gonna get my black one in a lot of trouble tonight.” Literally and figuratively. It would be difficult to be much whiter than me. My backside was practically glowing from the dark field--a beacon, if you will. This standoff had much deeper ramifications for him if we were caught. We both knew it. He felt terror; I felt remorse not only for our mirth, but for ALL OF IT. The unfairness of years and years and years of ALL OF IT.

We burrowed into the ground as effectively as we could, holding our breath. The spotlight roamed the field, searching us out. Finally, the two officers got bored, turned the light off, but had one last gift for us. A big kick to our clothes and a flip to the sprinkler “on” switch. The field sprinkled to life, drenching us as we silently held our position, unwilling to get caught. Stubborn. Twenty minutes later, we emerged from the depths of the field, collected our clothes, and very luckily, were simply college kids enjoying an evening of shenanigans--the weight of what might have been tucked away, but not forgotten.

Leader or follower? At any given time, we are both. At any given time, we have the opportunity to check the roots--to make sure they are indeed solid and not a pile of sizzling dog shit. Let’s make that time now.

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