Rewind this memoir back to my first foster home. I’m reclining on the couch in the living room watching Superman, a whatever's-on-tv-saturday-afternoon-movie. "Give A Little Bit" played from the soundtrack. The Supertramp song reached out from the screen and into my own complicated teen-aged life. Oh the words of that song blindsided me, hit me hard in the chest with a sad yearning, an emotion I had ignored forever like that elephant in the room too big to push out the door. Because life was so hard, too hard, and lonely on and on, and the world gives only just enough that you keep breathing, but you wonder why. Yes, please someone give just a little....
But at the time I hadn't known anything else and I just stuffed that overwhelming sad lonely feeling. Too much need wears out a welcome in someone else's home. It seemed most everyone else had family, security, some money for perhaps things like a pair of cleats to run in school track if you have the desire. Its called belonging or opportunity and I was acutely aware I wouldn't have it.
Fast forward 25 years; business for my glass art studio is rewarding. I live in Cleveland, or what I called Purgatory. I like the city though; I think the motto should be "Its Not That Bad." A tough steel town, unpretentious to a fault, tenacious, it inspired the Clean Water Act because the river was so polluted it caught on fire. People who live there just don't quit, except that the biggest export is young people. The streets are eerily empty, the quiet steel mills are epic sculptures of rust. But its not that bad. Now they make a tasty beer called Burning River. Sometimes they gamble on unconventional ideas because they've reached the end of status-quo. One can even surf there, when the wind blows a Nor'easter in the fall, just before the lake freezes. The wave break is nicknamed "Sewer Pipe"; one can imagine why.
I biked with a club there; cycling part of my life-blood. Life was pretty good, blessed with measures of contentment and happiness and family, even through so many challenges. Except I'm stuck pedaling a trainer in the basement most of the long winter. It was during an endless, gray February that I was inspired by an idea: a Velodrome. Its one of those banked tracks people in America only see during the Olympics. Cover it, and people could have a bicycle park all year-round with palm trees in the winter, in Cleveland. Its a blast of a sport with serious American heritage. A velodrome is a place where all a kid has to do is show up and with enough heart he or she can make it to the Olympics. They wouldn't need money, just 100% heart. It would be the kind of opportunity I didn't have when I was a kid.
So I decided to take on the responsibility to build one... not to be afraid of the price tag, or how to do it, or let a label like "disabled veteran with a head injury" daunt me. I figured my role was to get the project started and motivate others to do other parts. I decided not to discuss my shortcomings, introduce myself with that label, or use it as a disclaimer. As many times as I wished I had a chalkboard sign around my neck saying, Please excuse the mess, I had to tell myself it was not an excuse.
There would need to be many others; but the fact that I knew only a dozen people on the planet didn't stop me either. Two people inspired me. Kyle MacDonald had a dream to barter a paper clip for something better, trading that for something else, anything else, until he had a house. I thought I could start with an old laptop, a couple thousand dollars, and my idea. I'd work to leverage each bit of progress, not knowing what they were yet. Thats how anything gets done, right? Erik Weihenmayer is a blind alpine mountain climber, conquering even Everest. He didn’t let anyone convince him what he couldn’t do, and didn’t let impairments keep him from his goal. He didn't let blindness, the fact that he couldn't see the top as well as others, make the goal any less enjoyable for himself. Also, there’s no way he could have done it without help.
There are no business plans for a Velodrome or someone else would have built more of them already. I'm good at figuring things out, what with having to relearn things all the time. I don't quit because that has never seemed to be an option. Resourcefulness is my middle name, having to put my life back together every year or so. Certainly the project was eccentric but as an artist I've never really cared about what others thought. I certainly didn't have a reputation for sanity to maintain. Professionally, I’ve had experience with so many factors of development: from paperwork at the back end as a Project Assistant, to designing it as a Mechanical Drafter, to constructing it as a Steel Detailer. I understood this project.
Every time I discovered something needed to be done, I'd figure out how to do it. I took an online tutorial and put together a website, attended communication seminars for better speaking skills, learned how to recruit a Board of Directors, took classes for fundraising, won a few grants, and started a non-profit. I had to buy a couple of suits for meetings. I kept hoping someone who knew what they were doing would take over, but that never seemed to materialize. What I thought would be a few months turned into several hard years of work, learning new things on the fly like politics, business etiquette, computer programs, how to understand and write financials and business plans for stadiums.
It felt like cramming for finals, taking exams for classes I never attended. I didn’t just burn my candle on both ends, I was torching it in the middle too. Every challenge I had ever gone through seemed like it was a preparation for this one. Many times I wondered if it was all for nothing; so many dead ends and frustrations and years where the project was barely on life-support. Mistakes and wrong turns making people mad, losing faith in me. Would it ever really happen? I kept imagining what my bike wheels would look like under my handlebars as if I was ridiing on the track, listening to the same particular songs on my ipod for motivation.
A small tangent here, a digression back to the fifth grade and my favorite teacher. He was about as tall as his students. Mr.A (our nickname for Mr. Anderson) was a barrel-chested little person but I didn't notice it till years later because he was so cool. He was the first teacher, the first person actually, who encouraged me to be myself. I was a little kid, a couple years advanced and bright enough to be skipped again. Tthat would have been ridiculous since I was already too small. I would get my work done early in class, and he would let me spend time doing whatever, encouraging my creativity. I distinctly remember making little scale models of parks out of construction paper. I would start by making a rectangular tray, and then fill it in with ponds, benches, and oval or figure-8 tracks for bicycles, elevated roller-coaster paths for walking. It was my way of creating a whimsical place that felt good in my difficult life. No lie, I was building bicycle tracks when I was 9. That memory faded away until I was several years into the actual Velodrome project, trying create a light-hearted park on the edge of a ghetto. This was my life's ultimate Art Project; made with wood, steel, and tenacity. It made me wonder about a life's purpose... still just a what if... but cruel if there wasn't anything to it.
There is a necessary role for the dreamer. Visionaries help to break status quo, introduce new solutions. Sorting through the banal with unique perspective, the random is reassembled into intriguing newness. What is creative nature? Is it obsession to improve things, the need for approval, resourcefulness within limits, or perspective outside boundaries? Is it tenacity to the point of obsession, focus to the point of selfishness?
Thankfully, a few devoted people did take over after a few years and worked hard to raise the serious money. In 2012, Phase 1 of the Cleveland Velodrome opened to the public. Presently they are raising funds for Phase 2 to cover it. By chance I was there the day the track was finished and got a chance to ride it. All I wanted to do was one thing: listen to those songs on my ipod and see my wheels under the handlebars on the track... in reality. I didn't want to race or be recognized at some celebration. I just wanted to ride a few laps, happy just to have a role in building it. In less than a year there are already training programs, youth cycling classes, and teams competing. Through community grants and volunteers, its all free to anyone under 18.
Not to be forgotten, some thanks should go to one supportive teacher who helped a scrappy kid dream. Schools measure math and science so valuable, for good reason. But this favors one brain’s side of thinking. Initiating and working for the construction of an urban renewal project and improving a neighborhood is traceable to the exact same idea assembled with clumsy school scissors, white glue, and construction paper, during 5th grade free time.
I can't wait to hear the news of some tough kid from East Cleveland getting to the Olympics.