I recently heard a story that has been circling in my head like a fish in a bowl.
It's about the famed sports reporter Howard Cosell. He was a man who switched careers from law to broadcast in the 1950s, and he had enough nerve to break into the athletic world, first as a radio commentator and then as a television personality.
He was known for a "tell it like it is" brashness, and he was once "simultaneously voted the most popular and the most disliked sportscaster in America … loved and loathed for the same undisputed characteristics: his cocksure manner and his ebullient, unqualified immodesty," New York Times reporter Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in an article the day the sportscaster died in 1995.
Cosell was known for drawing attention to himself, wearing a bright yellow ABC Sports blazer anywhere he went, regardless if he was on the air. One night, Al Michaels, another famed sports reporter who now works for NBC, saw Cosell put on an amazing display in that jacket, and he wrote about the experience in his memoir, "You Can't Make This Up."
On the way home one night after dinner, the limo driver took Cosell and Michaels through a seedy part of town where a street fight was going on. Two teenagers were throwing the blows, and they were surrounded by other teenagers egging them on. When Cosell saw the fray, he told his driver, Peggy, to stop the car. He got out, and with his trademark canary-yellow blazer, he approached the group, and when they saw him standing there, he said: "Now listen. It's quite apparent to this trained observer that the young southpaw does not have a jab requisite for the continuation of this fray. Furthermore, his opponent is a man of inferior and diminishing skills. This confrontation is halted posthaste!" Michaels wrote in his book.
It took the teens a moment to realize the man chastising them was the famous Cosell, but the jacket clued them in. Soon, they were joyfully surrounding the man, asking for his autograph, completely forgetting the fight.
When Cosell got back into the car, his driver told him, with shock, that she had never seen such a thing happen. She was worried for his life. But Cosell, with a cigar in his mouth, simply said, "Pegaroo," Michaels writes, "just remember one thing. I know who I am."
I wrote a few weeks ago about feeling like I had found myself again on a river trip. It was a powerful experience — liberating and reviving. But one thing has stayed in my mind circulating with that fish in the bowl.
I am the girl who slept on the desert floor and traveled the world and had spirited political discussions until 1 a.m. in college. But since then, I've also become a mother, a wife and an employee. I've gotten older. I'm more breakable and weary than I used to be. I don't pull all-nighters. There is more on my mind. My DNA has changed. The younger side of me lets my hair slowly turn gray even as the older side wonders if I would look better with a different nose.
It's a dichotomy, or maybe it's just a dimension.
Maybe as life continues on and we take on more roles and have more experiences, we become more dimensional people. We have multiple facets that reflect into the sun, depending on which way we are turned.
We are carefree and careful; we may feel young and look old; we can be fiercely independent yet devoted to family. We may be driven to help all the people around us, while sometimes feeling helpless inside.
Yet, strip away the labels of how we feel today, the titles of what we do and the relationships we have with others, and we are left with a core deep inside. No matter where we go or how the light shines, that is who we are.
I think that was the guy Cosell brought to that fight.
I think it's who my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, was when she went back to school to get her master's degree in 1966. She was 55. She loved to make divinity and cook a roast on the weekends. But she donned her black robes and a green tassel on her mortar board and blazed ahead.
It's also the woman who stopped her son's nose from bleeding and then wrote this column.
And it's the phrase that has been circling my mind like a plea, and a declaration, "I know who I am. I know who I am."