Suggested Song: One and Only, Adele Suggested Drink: DNA Cocktail (gin, Blue Curacao, lime and pineapple juices, strawberries, sugar) served in a test tube
You are uniquely gifted and capable of doing at least one thing better than any other person on this planet. If this one thing happens to intersect your personal plane of passions, that collection of things that frames your ambitions and stimulates your drive, then all is possible.
We are truly unique creatures, each one of us. Find a mirror and take a close look. Every angle and line, crease and scar and blemish that decorates your face, the blend of colors filling your iris, the line of your hair, height of your ears, and curl of your lip; the composition of your face is exclusive to all others. This singularity of design extends to the rest of the body as well, but we’ll spare the details for those of us hitting midlife entropy. Our abilities and liabilities are equally unique. Start with one’s genetic disposition, a cocktail of DNA inherited in some unpredictable combination from our 2 parents, with strains of unpredictable combinations from their 4 parents, flowing down in some random allocation from their 8 parents, and on and on. This solera system of blended genetics creates one very unique You.
Michael Phelps is a case study of genetic disposition mashing with uncompromised passion. His body is remarkably well suited for going fast in water. His extended “wingspan” – fingertip to tip – exceeds his height by 4 inches (80 inches/76 inches); we’re supposed to be proportional (remember da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man?). His size 14 feet are said to bend 15 percent further at the ankles than most other swimmers (some would say he’s double jointed), blessing him with a flipper-like propulsive advantage. Phelps’s torso is unusually long (typical of a man 6’8”) and legs abnormally short (typical of a man 6’0”) for his height (6’4”), which provides less drag through the water and a faster, tighter turn at the wall. His “freak” anatomy is a gift from his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on; from this trickle-down phenomenon of genetic donation.
Still, Phelps’s supernatural achievements – most decorated Olympic athlete ever, most gold medals over a career, most gold medals for individual events, most gold medals at any single Olympics (we’re just getting started) – would go unrealized without a supernatural passion for the sport; his desire not only to win but dominate competition at the highest level, the willingness to swim 50 miles per week and consume 12,000 calories per day, to stay mentally focused through the grind, lap after lap after lap, day after day after day.
Other factors equally elemental to our individuality are the roads we travel and people we meet. No two journeys are the same, and the singular map of each life history only compounds the unique inventory of our abilities. We learn from our experiences (mostly). We take note of mistakes, enjoy successes, and slip another tool in the box for future reference. Even the identities of identical twins diverge with age, with falls from the swing set, triumphs and tragedies and broken hearts, and other singular experiences. Nothing is more beneficial than personal networks, and while my circle of friends and colleagues may overlap yours at the margin, no two networks are identical, none. A principal element of Phelps’s success was his connection to coach Bob Bowman, whose military style of strict discipline and an exhausting regiment forged Phelps from the young age 11 and through this many successes.
Your inception was truly a miracle and your genetic inheritance was unimaginably unpredictable. Consider that going back just 10 generations (to keep the math digestible) all of the sets of parents in your inception line (your mother and father, your grandparents and great grandparents, and their parents to 10, so about 250 years) managed to survive wars, famines, plagues, terminal disease, premature birth, and other unpleasant forms of nasty demise before siring. Somehow each survived long enough to forward their genes, some of which are floating around your corporeal vessel at this very moment. The 10 male forbearers each produced about 250-300 million sperm per day if healthy, of which 1% were tasked with fertilizing an egg (the rest are hunter/killers). Still, that’s one heck of a lot of sperm and each and every one had a unique DNA profile, some elegant piece of genetic code that on some enchanted evening made it upstream through the generational spawning ladders to you. In the book “Sperm Wars” Robin Barker calculates that the probability of our unique inception over 10 generations is 1.0 divided by 6×10^100 (the hundredth power). Feeling special?
Are we obliged to share our unique gifts and talents? Can we agree that exceptionality resides within each of us, even when not manifest in a form easily harnessed or appreciated? Can we agree that genius in a cave is unrealized and pointless? The greater world, both intimate and anonymous to us, becomes a richer, more fascinating and meaningful place when we offer the best of ourselves. Would the 2008 Olympics have been as intriguing without a Phelps?
You will probably die around the age of 83 (if you are reasonably healthy now). For me that leaves 10,000 days, not all necessarily productive. Seems like a lot, seems like so few. If you choose to discount the possibility of a life hereafter, be it with harp-strumming angels or rebirth as a butterfly, than this is it. Can you imagine your wondrous gift unrealized? What do you have scheduled?
Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence