I love the term “curse-bless.” I think I first read it in a Dylan Thomas poem. And there’s no better way to describe being from Philadelphia than as a curse-blessing. I call it “The Rocky Syndrome.”
Philly is a great town to learn the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: “All life is suffering.” Sandwiched between our nation’s capital and the inimitable New York City, Philadelphia must struggle to define itself. A struggle that often manifests in the town’s well-publicized “addy-tood.” And I’ve spent my life struggling to reconcile myself to it.
Part historical treasure, part post-industrial collection of neighborhoods and failed factories; travel where I will I find two names associated with the place: Ben Franklin and Rocky Balboa. But everyone mentions Rocky first.
And I can’t blame them. Rocky is a truly great film that transcends culture and language to touch people on a gut level of existence. And while the language-crossing may be down to Rocky’s own struggle with English, who can’t help but feel like and for Rocky?
The film itself is a series of body-blows, and it all comes down to one man’s ability to take those blows and remain standing at the end. He loses the fight, but earns his own respect. Two hours of pain and struggle for one moment of glory and release. Like life. A lot like life in Philadelphia.
Rocky, like every “filu’fian,” is obsessed with being a “bum.” In case you don’t listen to sport radio, that’s what Philly fans call their teams or players whenever they stop living up to their potential. When they lose heart they become a bum.
No one likes a bum. No one wants to be a bum. Rocky shows us how not to be a bum. And there’s no better place to learn that most difficult of lessons than in Philly. And yet it’s so easy to slip into.
Philly’s a tough, gritty, depressing town. For all the advertisement, unless you’re in medicine or pharmaceuticals, it’s a great place to become a bum or, if you’re ambitious, get out of. And even if you do, it’ll haunt you, well, Rocky will.
You can learn to enunciate, you can even do well for yourself — go back in the ring against your personal Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang — but deep down inside you wonder if you haven’t lost heart. . . if you have, indeed, still wound up a bum.
Like the curse-blessing he is, Rocky himself shows us the way out. Think of Rocky’s training compared to Apollo Creed’s. Rocky gets up, puts on his Chuck Taylor’s and old grey sweats and drinks raw eggs before he goes out to run the Art Museum steps. It’s about doing what you can with what you have at hand, not the spiff accessories of success.
It’s also about loving Adrian. About taking the girl in the glasses out ice-skating after hours. About telling her that she’s beautiful until she believes it. It’s when she loves you even though you may lose.
Nobody is guaranteed some big win in life. But if we can have the heart to take the punches, to fall and get back up and to be standing when that final bell rings, we don’t have to be bums. As much as it pains me, here’s one Philadelphia intellectual whose glad to claim Rocky. And now I’m going to go beat up a side of beef…