Taking the Joy Out of Killjoy

It sure would be nice if our feelings of accomplishment could last a little longer. Take this past weekend for example. I went on a hike with some friends. What started out as a moderate hike on fairly flat ground wound up as a pretty strenuous 10-mile roundtrip trek to the top of a waterfall that included scrambling up sheer rocks which someone in the National Park Service had the sense of humor to call a trail. By the time we got back we were a little sore, mildly sunburned, very hungry, and extremely proud of ourselves. At least until I read the newspaper.

It turns out that the very same day -- possibly the same time if you adjust for being halfway around the world -- a 35-year-old Sherpa named Lakpa Gyelu took a jaunt from Mount Everest's base camp to the highest point on Earth in just under 11 hours. Four minutes under to be exact. To put this in humiliating perspective, he hiked about 11,000 feet higher than we did -- on ice and snow with precious little oxygen to breathe, no less -- in just about twice the time, a climb, by the way, which takes most people four days. His climb, not ours. As if that wasn't bad enough, he did it alone, partly because no one else could keep up with him, but mostly because, as my mother always told me, no one likes a show off.

Although he stole our thunder and made me feel like the out of shape American I am, at least I can console myself with the knowledge that he probably felt bad afterwards too. When he got back to the Internet café at base camp he discovered that a Sherpa named Appa had set his own record that same day by becoming the first person to reach the summit 13 times. "Big deal," Gyelu probably muttered in Nepali. "Do it 13 times in one day and I'll be impressed." Face it, none of us enjoys being one-upped.

I suspect Appa's feeling of glory was also short-lived. Once the glow of having scaled Everest an unlucky number of times started to wear off he probably felt bad because he didn't have any fabulous stories to regale everyone with, such as how he had to amputate his arm with a plastic spoon to free it from a rusty yeti trap, sauté that obnoxious woman in his expedition who had more money than muscle tone so he wouldn't starve to death, or place another Sherpa under citizen's arrest for exceeding the uphill speed limit of 2,900 feet per day. And who can blame him? After all, it's hard to sell the movie rights to your story and retire if all you did was the same thing 13 times in a row. Unless, of course, you're Danielle Steel, Ron Jeremy, or the producers of the Friday the 13th series.

Feeling cheated out of personal glory isn't confined to hiking. At least not for me. Not long ago the House of Representatives passed legislation that would raise the maximum amount of money the government will insure in a bank account from $100,000 to $130,000. Damn! Just when I was 2 percent of the way towards achieving my personal goal of having more money in the bank than the government will insure, Congress goes and moves the goal. It's like being a pole vaulter and having someone lift the bar just as you're about to go over it. Or, in an analogy most of us are better able to relate to, lowering the limbo bar as we're about to go under it. Or try to anyway.

Athletes have to contend with this all the time. No sooner does someone set a record than someone else breaks it, usually by one point, 1/1000th of a second, or in the case of major league contracts, an extra million dollars a year. That's why instead of being better, it's more important to be first. It's something no one can take away from you. Except maybe the referees, but they only do things like that because they're cranky since they'd rather be playing and earning the big bucks except -- whoops!--they just don't happen to have any talent.

One person who probably doesn't have to worry about being outdone is Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese professional speed-eater. Yes, despite what your guidance counselor told you, there is such an occupation. Kobayashi is the guy who won the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest for the past two years running. In 2001 he chowed down 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, easily beating the previous record of 25 1/8. It's true, the judges actually measure hot dog eating by the eighth of a hot dog. Or rather the seven-eighths that's left. Last year the 113-pounder beat his own record, but only by half a dog. Okay, so it hit 100 degrees that day. And the 50 hot dogs he swallowed equaled 6 percent of his body weight. We're looking for glory, not excuses.

The contest is coming up again soon and, unlike Sherpas, athletes, and me, he'll probably hold onto his feeling of accomplishment. I'm happy for him. I truly am. After all, accomplishment is the one feeling he'll have that I would want. He can keep the fullness and nausea. I have enough of those when I read the newspaper and find out I haven't accomplished half of what I thought I had.

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