“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” — Vince Lombardi
I don’t know much about Vince Lombardi, but I know he never rode a horse named “Rocky.” If he had, there would be one less famous quote in the world.
Before Rocky, I’d never been a quitter. Quick example: I watched the first few years of the TV series Bones on DVD while doped on flu medication. After my illness, I continued to watch the series even though somewhere around season five it became a parody of itself. The main characters solidified as completely unlikable individuals, surrounded by a supporting cast so cartoonish Mel Blanc should have voiced their dialog. Nevertheless, each week I propped my eyelids open with modified eyelash curlers, Clockwork Orange-style, and watched. How could I quit something into which I’d invested 100 hours of my life?
I didn’t watch Bones because I loved the idea of street-artists morphing into computer geniuses with eponymous all-knowing crime-solving “Angela-tron” computers. Just saying “Angela-tron” makes me want to punch myself in the face. I watched Bones to slow my own personal slide into apathy. In my youth, I committed to every challenge with a special combination of fervor and stupidity. To change that behavior would to be to admit I’d lost my edge. I didn’t want to be a quitter.
Then I met a horse named Rocky.
When my girlfriend asked me to take riding lessons with her, I knew, much like a cast member of Celebrity Apprentice, I’d have to check my self-respect at the door. She and I rode competitively from third grade to ninth, but I had only been on a horse twice since then. I had no illusions of becoming a spaghetti western stunt double my first day back in the saddle. Largely because they stopped making spaghetti westerns in the late sixties, but also because I understand riding is an art that requires muscle strength I no longer possess.
My first riding lesson damaged both my pride and my legs. I wore the wrong clothes and rubbed deep holes into the side of each calf. An illustrious kulat modeling career was crushed before it began.
For the next lesson, I bought high boots to protect my legs, skin tight breeches because the world just doesn’t see enough of my ass, and a riding helmet. I felt more comfortable in the saddle, particularly once it was discovered I had mistakenly used a child’s saddle the first time. Still, my ankles and leg muscles ached after trotting just a few times around the ring. On the upside, the clear reminder of how out of shape I’d become was an excellent way to prompt a mid-life crisis. All my friends were having them and I felt left out.
Third lesson, my steed Rocky decided demonstrate that he didn’t enjoy trotting around a ring anymore than I enjoyed bouncing around on his bony spine. Rocky threw down his head, ripping the reins from my hands, and bucked like a rodeo horse. I did my best to hold on, but Rocky also eschewed the “quitter” label. He refused to stop until I hit the dirt.
“Wow,” said my unimpressed instructor. “Rocky hasn’t bucked anyone off in like a year.”
I felt honored.
Dejected and dusty, I walked Rocky back to the little step stool and climbed back aboard, hissing the story of dog food manufacturing through gritted teeth. I trotted around the ring to prove my fearlessness and then headed back to the barn, but I could feel my relationship with Rocky had been inextricably altered. Rocky had my number.
Next lesson, Rocky didn’t bother to pretend things between us were civil. Again he tried to buck; somehow I wrestled back control. I attempted to resume cantering. Ten feet down the rail Rocky again threw his head, splaying me across his neck. Mane in my teeth, I yanked back on the reins. Rocky stopped dead.
I had underestimated Rocky’s sense of humor. Over and over we repeated this dance.
Head down! HEAD UP! Stop. DON’T STOP! Head down! HEAD UP!!
Flustered, I walked Rocky to the instructor and explained my dilemma. Too late, I realized I was telling another human being that I’d been outsmarted by a horse.
“Use your ab muscles,” she said.
“Right,” I said. “Why didn’t I think to pick those up with my new boots?”
Horrified, I notice my voice was cracking.
The instructor turned her attention toward my more deserving friend, still trotting around the ring like a pro.
“You need more confidence,” she said, striding away.
I walked Rocky back to the rail fighting tears of shame and frustration. No one had ever told me I lacked confidence. I’d always been the brave one. I could demand a different lesson horse, but I wasn’t even enjoying myself.
I was trapped between a Rocky and a hard place.
Back at the barn, my friend asked if me if I was OK, and the answer rushed from my lips before I could stop myself.
A peace came over me. No one wants to be a quitter. But not every cause is a winner. Many of the things I committed to finishing in the past I did so due to lack of money, desperation or inexperience. Now, I was older and in a more comfortable place. I didn’t have to commit to winning the war against Rocky.
Maybe it was time to redefine “quitting” as “making a wiser decision.”
Enjoy your sweet feed, Rocky. You gave me bruises, you gave me scars, and you freed me from the tyranny of foolish commitments.
You miserable, old nag.