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Archive for Leah Etling

On track

Twenty years ago today, I ran in my first high school track meet at Santa Barbara City College.

It was one of the best days of my life, and a day that would change my life.

I was a freshman walk-on who had run in one track meet before, a junior high affair with no real competition. It didn’t count.

I had no expectations for my race, other than anticipating that there would be plenty of girls faster than me, from bigger schools outside of Santa Ynez. I told my family not to come to the track meet, because I figured I’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I didn’t want them to waste their time.

I was taking the whole thing so unseriously that midway through the track meet I snuck out of the stadium, which we weren’t supposed to leave (such a subversive), and ran down into the Santa Barbara harbor, where I found my Grandfather Mitchell working on his boat.

photo(20) Surprising him, I mentioned that I’d be running in a race across the street in a little while, and if he wanted to take a break, he should come by. I’m sure I warned him that I probably wouldn’t be very fast or beat many people.

The memory of the race itself – a 1500 meter distance, is not perfect. I wasn’t nervous, or scared. I just went out there and ran my heart out. After the first lap, there was no one in front of me. So I kept running. It was a beautiful day, there were tall palm trees swaying, I could smell the ocean. People were probably cheering me on, but all I could see was the red rubber track. My focus was entirely on the act of running, which felt like the most perfect act of physical being that I had ever experienced. I ran faster. No one caught me, in fact, everyone had fallen a half lap behind.

I won the race. My time actually would have won the varsity race. All of the sudden I wasn’t some anonymous little freshman walk-on anymore. Somebody asked me why I hadn’t run cross country in the fall. I think I told them that I thought a three mile race was a little far.

My grandfather was ecstatic. My family isn’t known for its athleticism on either side, and there I was acting like I sort of knew my way around this whole running thing. He drove home, arrived well before the high school bus, and told my parents, brother and cousins. We happened to be having a family dinner at my grandparents’ that night.

When I got there, they had made be a congratulatory sign, and it hung from the front door. My birthday was in a few days, and I remember walking up that sidewalk to see my family and feeling like I had not only done something that I could be proud of, but that they could be proud of too. In one single day, running became one of the most vital parts of my identity. 20 years later, it’s still that.

I’m not as fast as I used to be. Competition hasn’t been important to me in the last few years. I’ve lost two of my ever-loving grandparents, both who were very supportive of my athleticism. But I still try to run every day if I can.

Running, to me, is the heart of my life. I have failed in so many ways in my almost 35 years. I’ve let people down that I care about, I haven’t achieved all my personal or professional goals, and I’m far from being the person I thought I’d be at this point. But I’m also better and kinder in many ways than I ever thought I could be.

Every single day, running invites me to come back and try again. It gives me a fresh start and leaves me assured that I will survive, look forward, and find the right path. I will keep going, keep trying, and get more things right tomorrow than I did today. Two decades later, I am on track, and I’m OK.

This piece is dedicated to my grandparents, Ben and Marion Etling, Renton and Doris Mitchell, and to my parents, Bill and Debra Etling, who have always cheered me on in my races and in life. Thank you, I love you.

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Once upon a time in Santa Ynez

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez, a beautiful Southern California valley known for its fast horses and perfect pinot noirs, there was raised a little girl who probably should have grown up to be a Luddite.

After all, she was brought up on Little House on the Prairie (the books, not the TV show). Television was expressly verboten in her family, because they lived too far out in the boonies for cable and satellite dishes were prohibitively expensive. Instead, she harvested acorns and played wilderness-themed games with her little brother. They ran around outside, built forts and treehouses, and used their imaginations a lot.

The day her father brought home their first computer, an IBM PC circa 1985, she typed: “Dear Mr. Bill Etling, Thank you for making me a self.” She was trying to thank her dad for building her a wooden bookshelf with cut-out hearts, which hung in her bedroom. The rather adorable typo was officially her first. The shelf still hangs in her bathroom today.

Her elementary school didn’t get computers until she was in fourth grade. Classes would trek to the computer lab to play games – Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego were her favorites. But in fifth grade, thanks to a technology-savvy teacher, she discovered NYCENET.

The New York City Educational Network was an early internet set up to provide educational connectivity between public schools in New York City. An enterprising teacher came up with the idea that expanding student horizons by connecting them with other students across the country would be a tremendous learning opportunity. They set up a 1-800 number, which was supposed to be shared only with the teachers. But the West Coast students had to enter the number into an old-school modem to access their NYC counterparts. Hours of pointless chatting from home computers ensued.

The unusual experience of talking to kids so far away, living such different lives, was an eye-opener. So was the lesson on how 1-800 numbers worked when the access was revoked for running up hundreds of dollars of charges on the New York City School District’s phone bill. So in the sixth grade, she tried a different approach. She set out to get a pen pal in every single state.

Dashing off letters that were mailed to “Any School, Any Sixth Grade, Town, State, Zip Code,” she received hundreds of responses in reply. Not wanting any potential pen pal to be disregarded, she answered every single letter by hand. Some of the pen pals became correspondents for years. She never got every single state crossed off the list, but the local newspaper ran an article about her quest, and it was there that she got the idea that writing articles for a newspaper might just be a good career.

These are the things that I can’t tell you on my resume – but they give you the start of the story of how writing, communicating, sharing information and using technology became part of my life’s work and world view.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.