by Dante Zappala

I opened her door without ever really making eye contact. Just another nameless, faceless person I was responsible for shuttling from the airport in a new, well-appointed Lincoln Town Car. The pick-up sheet didn’t offer any clues, other than the fact that we were heading from LAX to Malibu.

I got back into the car on my side only to realize I had left the radio blaring. I don’t remember what I listened to back then. This was 14 years ago. I was in the middle of one of my many incarnations. At this moment in time, I was a chauffeur for a limousine service in Los Angeles. Fittingly, I had moved out to LA mostly because I had been gifted an old, not so well-appointed Lincoln Town Car by my uncle. It was ugly with a plush interior; two couches on wheels. With enough trunk space to fit everything I owned, it begged to be driven. Let’s go someplace new. I packed it up and took it about as far west as I could go.

Driving a newer version of the same car for work was a treat. I didn’t mind the job at all. It fit a flexible life with shifting aspirations and ambitions. I did, however, try to maintain a professional face and I was somewhat embarrassed that this customer had to be subjected to whatever I was blasting.

Sensing this, she says to me, “Hey, listen to whatever you want. Turn it up. I was in a rock band for 30 years.”

“Oh, yeah, which one was that?” I say.

“Jefferson Airplane.”

“Oh, that’s cool, what did you do in the band?”

“I was the lead singer, Honey.”

So, here’s Grace Slick sitting in the backseat of my car, travelling under an alias. We’re hitting traffic on Lincoln Boulevard and we’ve some time to talk. This should be fun, I thought.

The movie “Almost Famous” had come out recently. It follows the rise of a rock band in the same era that hers was on the ascend. I asked her if she found it believable. “We had more sex and did more drugs,” she said flatly.

She went on to explain her take of the band’s roller-coaster history. When they first came out, no one knew what to do with them. They had incredible creative freedom because they were popular and sold records. But as the band members started to age, have families, and more responsibilities, something changed. Their audience was going through the same transition. They began to bicker and fight amongst themselves about money and the use of the band’s name, hence the various changes it underwent. They made music just to sell records and for no other reason. In short, she said, “Don’t listen to or buy anything I did in the 80’s. It was all [expletive]!”

I remembered this story as, sure enough, Starship’s “We Built this City” topped number one on WXPN’s recent 88 worst songs countdown. I had been listening to it for much of weekend and was tiring of the cynicism. What had started out as an exercise in good natured fun and camp was devolving quickly into nastiness and pretention. Yes, they had a lot of “bad” songs on there, but it was mostly what you would hear at your average wedding; which is to say, music people are familiar with and like to dance to.

We have the right to judge that, of course, but why make that choice? The real world provides enough raw material for sincere cynicism, why do we have to manufacture more of it? If 1980’s Starship songs make someone happy, if they hum along or smile when it comes on, then even Grace Slick has to accept that. I happen to really like Milli Vanilli (“Girl You Know It’s True” was number 65 on the countdown), the Grammy winning then Grammy losing band from the early 90’s that was exposed for not singing their own songs. And when I say I like them, I don’t mean it in an ironic or nostalgic way. I actually enjoy the experience of hearing their music.

In running circles, you can find similar disdain if you look around the periphery. On one side, you have a crop of recent ex-collegiates who are still at it, winning local road races and maybe pursuing bigger dreams. Some of them like to label the normal runner a “hobby-jogger.” It’s a derogatory term meant to differentiate what they do—90 or more miles a week, 5k’s under 15 minutes—from what most of society does.

On the other side, you’ll see some runners who are overwhelmed by the idea that someone would want to run so much or so fast. They are very comfortable on their 3 or 4 day a week plans. They view running as a way to exercise and socialize. Races are motivation, not competition. These people who are fast and who train everyday are just strange with their ambition.

There’s a palatable disconnect. It’s not the majority of runners, to be sure, but it’s present. The uneasiness can be felt right before a race between the guy with 5% body fat doing striders off the starting line and the guy queuing up his playlist on the iPod while positioning his double stroller in the corral.

Running, as a sport, is booming in one regard. More people are signing up for races than ever before. The popularity of the professional version of it has not benefited from this much. But there’s an easy solution to meld these two realities and strengthen the sport. Running is built around both community and individualism. What those individuals aspire to is deserving of a cohesive and broad community that supports them whole heartedly, no matter their level of talent or commitment. As runners, let’s resolve to save the judgment and the vitriol for the things that count.

All things being equal, if we can’t bring ourselves to make the positive choice, then let’s just turn down the volume.

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