Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Roadtrip Part I



Prior to moving from Denver to Berkeley last August, I downloaded an audio version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to listen to as I drove across the western half of the country. I could barely hear my car stereo due to the enormous drag my overloaded Civic created as it strained down I-80. In Wyoming, a vicious crosswind, whipping dust across the freeway, was so strong that for five hours I was reduced to listening only to the steady roar of the air turbulence.

Despite the breezy distractions, I was able to listen to Kerouac’s trips across the country and his misadventures in San Francisco and Denver. I thought it was neat that the two major cities Kerouac and company seemed drawn to were the start and end points of my own little trip. But for me, the drive was not very interesting… a straight shot west once I’d driven up to Wyoming. After passing through Cheyenne and those dusty fields, I entered Utah with only brief glimpses of it’s alien landscapes in the distance. Then it was Nevada, a state so desolate that it was using its entire package of economic stimulus money to improve I-80 and slow my drive through the necessary construction. Passing through Reno traffic appeared from nowhere and the ride became more difficult, hundreds of cars barreling down the turns of the highway rushing home from weekend trips to Tahoe. Then I was passing through Sacramento and reached the Bay.

It was an uneventful trip.

Flash forward a year and sometime in May I was being distracted from a research paper by the internet and I noticed that the United States Association of Track and Field was holding a new 15K trail championship up in Spokane, Washington. It was a great excuse to go explore some of the northwest for a few days. So at the end of July, Caitlin and I finagled several days away from work and headed off early on a Thursday morning.

There is a perennial fog that presses down on the city and most of the San Francisco bay. It keeps the area cool and seasonless and the morning that we left was no different. This was partly the reason why I needed a break from Berkeley. There really isn’t a summer here: the mornings are nearly always damp and dank, burning off into a bit of sunshine before again succumbing to the Pacific moisture.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s much nicer then the Carolina summers that made running such a humid ordeal, but it would be nice to wake up to sunshine and some heat once in a while. The meteorological stasis is depressing. In the fall, the leaves don’t change color. They simply die and fall off the trees with all the suddenness of a suicide. So, I smiled a little as we drove east out of the dank Bay morning into the central valley and the first sunshine I’d seen before noon in a long time.

The stretch of Interstate 5 that extends from Sacramento to Redding will always struggle to make it onto postcards. Unlike the coast, it has real weather and experiences the heat and humidity that geologic contingency has seen fit to exempt the Bay from. It is a farming area, the freeway lined with olive trees, which border the road like crooked forks with jagged, black prongs stabbing at the sky. After a couple hours of driving, one gets quite sick of the endless fields punctuated by the occasional Indian casino or trailer park. There are the distant mountains both east and west that would be pretty if they were thirty miles closer, but they aren’t and the straight road stretches northward besides the burnt, dry grass. I see now why California still deserves the moniker of the ‘Golden State’. With little exception the land is dried out for most of the year, giving the grass a desiccated yellow and brown hue. It sounds a bit morbid, but it is pretty in it’s own way. Rolling hills of chaparral can catch the sunlight and glow like the side of a lampshade.

Once past Redding, we weaved around the formidable Mt. Shasta. Then we were in Oregon! I have a small love affair with the state. It is open, forested and sparsely inhabited with a balanced mix of conservative people in the hinterlands and some of the most progressive cities on the country. It’s also green. Pines line the highways through most of the state and on the road one dodges logging trucks hauling trees to make notebook or toilet paper. Perhaps it is romanticism but the state seems to hold onto a frontier allure which other western states have lost. For example, Colorado occasionally poses itself as the rugged archetype of the West, but it usually comes packaged as tacky tourist traps like Colorado Springs or trips of nostalgia like the National Western stock show. Furthermore, anyone who has ever ordered a latte or met someone from Seattle will never confuse Washington with the west and it’s just hard to see Napa wineries or San Francisco gluten-free bakeries as rough-and-tumble.

But Oregon is different. There may still be legions of boys like me adjusting themselves in their skinny 511 Levi jeans in Portland, but get into the woods and it’s desolate. We stopped at a state park somewhere south of Bend and ran up an exposed trail and got a bit cooked in the dry heat. In a few minutes we were totally alone and climbing a ridge towards some ancient caldera. It’s always a bit exhilarating to distance oneself from other people by foot, to be really alone with several miles separating you from civilization’s outlying tendrils. Maybe it’s an underlying reason elite distance runners are abandoning their altitude abodes to settle around the Nike headquarters. Even amidst corporate sponsorship, one can be a bit more grizzled in Oregon.

The state is volcanic and the next morning, running along a river in Bend, Cait and I followed a lava flow with a friend’s German shepherd in tow. Sharp, broken fragments of black rock line the trails and sunshine, unmitigated by fog, singes the skin. Mosquitoes swarm over you when you pause to ensure you’re on the right path or let the dog gulp some river water… And then we were back on the road leaving the irrigated parts of Oregon in our wake before we ran into the Columbia River Gorge.
The river is an impressive, visual debunking of creationist theory. The scoured banks rise high above the water, funneling the air and creating a natural wind tunnel for anyone lucky enough to be traveling by sail. Dams bisect the river and create monstrous, frothing cataracts at points where the Columbia is allowed to pass through. There’s an incredible amount of energy floating across the surface of this land. Windmills with arms like airplane wings cut through the air and dot the horizon like a field of malignant flowers; a forest of pallid white steel, waiting to wreak havoc on flocks of migratory birds. Then we climbed out of the gorge and were again in farmland.

I’ve always been impressed with the ways American farmers water their fields. It’s indicative of everything our country does well. Massive fields are traversed by huge wheeled contraptions which slowly roll across the rows of crops. Several steel cross bars connect the wheels and hosing runs along the length of the machine, sprinkling water onto the earth. It’s as if a giant was playing with an Erector Set and gave up on an attempt to create a multi-wheeled go-cart. These are commonplace across the country’s interior, but I’d never seen one until I drove to Denver a couple years ago. It is an unelegant, but simple and smart way of approaching the problem of watering hundreds of acres of plants. 


It reminds me that this is a country originally peopled by Type-A personalities. Only someone with moxy and a bit of kookiness would risk his slight farming profits to invest in some cockeyed watering contraption. Extended to a broader scale, one gets to thinking that every wave of immigrants from the puritanical English to the Irish to the Chinese to the Latino consisted of the go-getters of their communities. You would have to be. I certainly have never contemplated leaving my family, friends and familiar neighborhood to seek a better life in Switzerland or New Zealand. Even the people chained and shipped across the Middle Passage had to be made of the sternest stuff to get through such a hellish lifelong experience. Every one of us thinks we can improve our lot, create a neat little life for ourselves. But at the same time very few of us believe we are entitled to such a thing. For the most part, our liberalism extends only to wanting to give as many people as we can the opportunity to create those neat little lives. Political debates never wrangle over the validity of equal of opportunity, but how it should be done and when community assistance towards that end becomes an undeserved handout.

And maybe that’s why I chuckle at the Spanish idea of siesta. And shudder when I hear a Greek protestor on the radio argue that a job is a natural right, not a privilege. And maybe it’s why the East Bay’s more relaxed pseudo-European/Eastern/balanced strain of lifestyle seems invasive and a bit toxic. For better or worse, this country has never been made up of balanced people. We work too much, think too much, train too much… take drugs to help us stay awake, think better, deal with the unnaturalness of a cerebral lifestyle… we’re anxious, increasingly infertile and struggle with our weight. But as a naturalized citizen once reminded me when I was criticizing the US for whatever reason, this is also the center of creative thought, entrepreneurial ideas and political innovation. We fucking invented the internet. Balanced people do not do such things, do not go to such lengths. Go us!

So among other things, we water fields well. This is still a place ripe for growth and people still want to come here so their kids can go to Cal or UNC or Brown and think up the next iPod or effective cancer treatment. And as we drove into Washington, past those half-built irrigation go-carts and dodged the American Recovery Act highway construction, I thought for the first time in a long while that maybe things will be ok after all.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review

It has been without a doubt the most interesting, frustrating, exhilarating, heart-breaking, exhausting, different and painfully beautiful year of my life. After a fall of rabid mental health issues that led to a strange oscillation between depression and active interest in the world, my life took an unexpected volte face in December just as I was finally becoming myself again. It took another three or four months before I did not feel like the living embodiment of a Pink Floyd lyric. I got through it of course, eventually becoming grateful that I went through some rather nightmarish months. The pain eventually wore down, stung less. Time I suppose does heal all wounds… or at least scars them up a fair amount. This comes across as a bit overly dramatic. Things weren’t that bad, mainly some bad luck, terrible reactions to a few prescription drugs and the end of a lengthy relationship. But, it was the first time that life has leaned over the table and smacked me across the face, knocking me out of my chair and spilling beer all over my shirt. It just took me some time to figure out what had happened and how to get back on my feet.

So now, like I said, I’m grateful. In all likelihood this is not the last crisis I’ll have to get through. People will change interests and leave my life, fights will happen, friends and family will pass on and I know there is a Chevy Cavalier somewhere out there on the roads with my name on it. These things happen, so it’s good that my quarter life crisis hit when I had an incredible system of relationships to support me and even walk me through things. I am a rugged individualist, am convinced that the most interesting things in this world are the products of single minds, but it takes a bit of existential upheaval to realize how dependent we are on others for help. My family was a godsend this fall. No way I’d be writing this without them. My girlfriend of the time was a saint. I probably would have dropped out of grad school had it not been for her and parting ways does not make me less grateful for all she got me through. New friends and old friends stepped up and I had a number of conversations that might have seemed mundane, but really helped me feel better about life, school and everything. I learned the value of therapy and that it is not a weakness to ask for help.

No way I would have figured this out by more success, happy times and the status quo. Sometimes, to quote the late Kurt Vonnegut, ‘the excrement has to hit the air conditioning.’ I’ve always liked that line in Once a Runner about how improvement in the sport is not this steady ascent to new heights of performance, rather it is cyclical with trough periods and upswings. Find a runner who sets a personal best every time she races and you’ve pointed out the next big drug bust. In a similar way, one does not grow in life like the stock market of the 1920s. There are ups and downs… and both make us better.

Of course, this is pretty hackneyed stuff and it’s is very easy to say these things from my position. I really don’t have problems… and you probably don’t either. If you’re reading this, you’re probably upper or middle class, you’ve gone or are going to a fine four year institution of higher learning, you are probably brilliant or creative or entrepreneurial, you have money or your parents have money and thus you will eventually have money too. You probably don’t wake up in the morning wondering whether you should take the bus to work or buy lunch. And it’s pretty likely you’ve never worked at a fast food restaurant and if you did, you probably did not have to.[1]

Maybe crises of the sort I went through this fall are yet another luxury of the landed class. How many people wake up in a cold sweat because of their work in a doctoral program? In all likelihood, not many. So, I guess we have to remind ourselves that even our low points are probably not as bad as we think they are at the time. We may have been laid off or divorced or injured, but we don’t have to carry our drinking water two miles from the nearest clean river. And once we heal and move on, we will be better for it, will have a perspective we lacked before and experience to better shape our decisions.

Again, hackneyed stuff. Ah, well… whatever. See you on the trails.



[1] Emphasis on ‘probably.’ If you have done these things, you’re a stronger person than I.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Some things I’ve learned in a quarter century.

Some things I’ve learned in a quarter century.

On a very good blog, someone posted a few of her thoughts on life. I found it absolutely charming and brilliant. So here are some of mine.

Get a job washing dishes.

Try to speak the native language wherever you are even if you only know a few words. Simple manners.

Go see Rent.

Work with people who are more talented then you. It will push you further.

The best conversations with your father will occur on a bike ride.

Get astoundingly drunk at least once a year.

Say, ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ to people who are older than you. Even if they are serving you food or shining your shoes.

Don’t vote along a party ticket.

Don’t judge people for eating fast food. What person on minimum wage can afford locally produced, fair-trade, fresh market organic avocados?

Take dancing lessons.

Be poor at least once.

Lose with grace. Because you will lose a lot.

Check your iron levels.

Don’t forget your toothbrush.

Thank your high school teachers. They deserve it.

Be suspicious of mobs with slogans.

Tip.

You are the most important person in your life.

Fight for your beliefs. But realize they are only your beliefs.

Read to your children.

Read to your self.

Read poetry.

Read anything and everything.

Therapy can help… a lot.

Why half-ass something?

Sleep in a small car for a night or two.

There is nothing important on television.

Smart people don’t know all the answers. Smart people ask good questions.

Never walk past suffering… and we all have.

Date someone from the country’s interior. Even if things don’t work out, you’ll be better for it.

There is such a thing as a good death.

Sailing upwind with a fierce breeze is the most fun you will ever have.

Support American soldiers. They are risking their lives, not making policy.

Besides alcohol, drugs are highly overrated.

Hold the door for people.

No one promised you universal justice.

Eat at Waffle House at 2am.

Nothing is beyond criticism.

Move. Don’t stay still. Hop, run, skip. Climb a wall, jump in a pool, ride a bike, hike up a mountain. Get off your computer. Life is outside, not on the Internet and especially not on this blog.

Love your mother.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Definitions


For me, running is what Foucault called la grande recherch√© nietzscheene, the great Nietzschean quest. It is my personal, intrinsic endeavor at self-improvement. It is a task that is entirely self-interested and entirely my own. It’s something I’ve been working at for well over a decade. And it’s a habit that for the life of me I just can’t quit.
I’d perhaps like to. I could switch to recreational racquetball, smoke an occasional cigarette, go out more, dance more, drink more, take up what a good friend of mine calls ‘the exquisite art of lawn maintenance’. But, I just can’t. In spite of myself, I can’t give it up… though my dreams have been clipped down to realistic size (unless a savage pandemic of swine flu occurs, there are no world championships in my future). Furthermore the romanticism of it has dried up a fair amount and I’ve really stopped caring about running as a team endeavor.
But it’s not just inertia that keeps me out there. It’s that basic quest that seemed alluring in the first place: to be faster than I was last year or last month or last week. To touch (or pretend to touch) the metaphysical as you crest that last goddamn hill or make the beautiful left turn onto the homestretch. If there is anything transcendent in this slimy, dirty world then the desire to make oneself better than one currently is must count.
But this is interesting because I chafe at the thought of defining myself as ‘a runner.’ I cringe just writing it. I cringe when people call themselves by it. This is partly because running is nothing particularly special. It is what we were meant to do. I buy whole-heartedly into the anthropological argument that human beings evolved through running. It’s why we have big brains, reasoning skills and the ability to complete immense feats of physical and mental endurance.[1] We are supposed to do this. Everyone is. But that means that calling yourself a ‘runner’ is akin to calling yourself a ‘breather’ or a ‘heart-beater.
‘Oh yes, I do it all the time. I’m a Breather. In fact, I breathed over 30,000 times yesterday… How much did you do?’
This is what I think every time I pick up a running magazine or see a running advertisement. They are just sort of stating the obvious…

Also for better or worse, the activity has been exported into a mass market. It’s become a means of consumptive identity like everything else. You’re a runner. Buy some shoes and go find yourself… but come back for a shirt and socks. Then buy some gels, shorts, Cliff bars, sports drinks and water bottles before you spend $150 to run 26 miles. Go buy a copy of Runners World, Running Times, Trail Running and Born to Run. Have you tried barefoot running? Chi Running? Gallowalking? Pose Method? Check out this other book for sale.
Sure, you’re a runner, but so is everyone else that goes for a jog… or spends two hundred dollars. You’re ‘a runner’ because someone wants you to buy something.

So why define yourself by it? I wear Levi skinny 511 jeans most days of the week… in fact, I spend more time in jeans then in running shorts. Does this make me a Levi Jeans Wearer?

Furthermore, running’s revolutionary fringe, what gives the sport an avante garde status, is fast dying out too. The James Dean ethos of Bowerman, Sheehan and Lydiard is long dead. The track and roads have been the realm of multi-national banking firms and credit cards for decades. Now the tentacles of capitalism are extending onto the trails and finding a nice niche in ultrarunning, a sport that prides itself on its aesthetic freedom.


Ok, so now that I’ve offended every one of my friends who run competitively or recreationally or for health or for altered states of consciousness or for whatever, I should add that I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve worked in three running stores… and after this summer it will be four. I’ve sold thousands of pairs of running shoes to as many people... so, I’m part of the system. In fact, I made a living off it. I’ve spent a small fortune on shoes and gear. I have raced competitively for thirteen of my slight twenty-five years and to my estimate probably run enough to circumnavigate the world... twice. Indeed, running gives a fair amount of meaning to the title of this blog.
So what gives? Why slam on the sport and more importantly attack an important part of a lot of people’s lives? You, Sam, are again acting like an intellectual snob, practicing a cavalier, laid-back attitude to your own beliefs. You’re hoping to distance yourself from the masses that aren’t capable of such self-irony and thus put them down by it.
Maybe.
But, listen.
Identity through activity makes little sense if only one person is doing it.
‘What does he do?’
‘He walks on ceilings.’
‘What?’
‘Yes, he’s a ceiling walker.’

There may actually be a ceiling walker out there, but it’s just something he does until a couple other folks join him up there. Then he is a ceiling walker. We need others to create a sense of solidarity. It’s human… but in the process we also have to separate ourselves off from others to find meaning from this solidarity. We need our clans, need to exclude people from them so that our relationships in the clique have meaning. It’s why people with few options join gangs, why thousands of people in North Carolina wear an ugly color of light blue, why people throw bombs at other people. It’s a defense of identity. We are runners… and the rest of you aren’t.
My hyper-criticism is just a reminder. This sense of unique being, the feeling of embodying a lifestyle of distinction is a fiction. I’m no more a runner than the co-ed sprinting for the bus on College Avenue or the child wobbling across a playground. We have our activities and they will define us, but these definitions are ultimately creative endeavors.
So we really aren’t anything. And this gets back to our attempt at transcendence… and it’s why I don’t think the creation of a running market (even though it is more than a bit perverted) should keep us from getting out on our own two legs. I know that I am a personal, visceral, perhaps vengeful experiment of one, but it’s the realization that there are other experiments out there on the roads and track that make the effort worthwhile, that give it meaning. It’s why someone working their butt off to set a personal best of 23 minutes for a 5K is just as important as the skinny fellow who won the race nine minutes ahead of them. It’s why I think age group awards are actually kind of neat… even if there are too many of them. It’s why I think that if more people went jogging on the trails the world would indeed be a better place.

‘Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.’


best,
s





Saturday, April 24, 2010

'... like tears in the rain.'

There are times when memories that have settled down under the silt of new experience suddenly spring up in my mind. A few days ago I was sitting in a library on campus working on a research paper when for no particular reason, I suddenly recalled riding my bike down a particular stretch of road in South Carolina. The memory was vivid. The deep green of the grass, the warm humidity so thick it’s tangible, the smell of pollen in a Carolina springtime. All of it came back to me suddenly, overwhelmingly. If you’ve ever run on Magnolia Road above Boulder, CO then think of the large pastures that run along large sections of the road...except much greener and muggy. The street I am thinking of was near the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, maybe five miles or so from the pass that climbs up Caesar’s Head into North Carolina.

As I loved riding up that climb, I passed this spot a lot. It is a beautiful green clearing that suddenly opens up after riding through the long sections of woods north of Greenville on narrow country roads. As you head north, a small pond is on your left, old barns sit unused in a state of dystrophy and you have to pay attention because the local dogs might be out and come running to nip at your ankles. I could never fully appreciate this place at the time since I grew up among these rolling woods and pastures and took them for granted. Having trained on foot in those hills and similar countryside outside my hometown in North Carolina for over a decade, there was nothing particularly unusual about this place. It was just another small remnant of farmland, a marshy spot the new growth of trees was unable to reclaim after the end of cotton farming last century.

The memory represents moments that have gone by and which I can’t relive or return to. All my friends of the time have moved on. They’re married or finishing up graduate school or starting up companies or still wandering through their twenties. And this is not a bad thing. To try to buck the changes life brings is in my opinion missing the point… something that has been brought home to me in a very sharp way recently.

I always assumed I would get the hell out of the Carolinas the moment I finished up school. When I was younger, in middle school and being raised by sitcoms, I remember telling people I wanted to live in a penthouse apartment in Seattle… like Kelsey Grammer’s character in Fraiser. It wasn’t the opulent lifestyle that I wanted, I somewhat had that in the large affordable houses of the South that I lived and played in. Rather, it was the exotic nature of that TV Seattle. The boarding school accents, the coffee shop visits where cultured men sat sipping from small mugs and discussing theatre, the rain pouring but always behind a window or just outside the set. The cosmopolitan life where conversation and ideas mixed amidst a milieu of different looking people… who still managed to look exactly the same.

I planned it out as I finished up college. I would go to France for a year or two, learn the language and as I was applying to philosophy programs would meet an exotic Parisian girl who’d be charmed by my rustic red-state background and crooked smile. She’d get into some art program somewhere here and we’d be off to a town far away from the Southeast with its heat and intolerance and sprawling suburbs.

It didn’t quite happen that way, though I have ended up on the west coast… probably for a while. And near a town not dissimilar to Seattle. Yet, I’ve known for some time now that big cities make me feel claustrophobic. While the exchange of ideas is at it’s most intense and I know the wannabe intellectual in me should want to be in that mixed bag of people and voices, I can’t help but feel trapped in urban areas. I find myself looking up a lot, past the ugly apartment buildings trying to find open sky. That quote from Thomas Jefferson about cities being like tumors on the countryside will run through my head and my opinion of humanity will drop as I’m forced to deal with it en masse. You can call me provincial, and that’s fine. I probably am.

But the powerful sense of nostalgia still surprises me when memories like the one of my bike ride jump up at me. I thought I was over that part of the world… actually, I know I am. I have no desire to go back to where I grew up, but life doesn’t want you to forget where you came from. You’ll carry your redneck past or damnyankee parents or sense of mediocrity with you forever. And it will hit you like a freight train and send your mind sprawling… especially when you have a rough draft due the next morning.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Introductions


I like to think of myself as the product of a new, increasingly mobile U.S. society. I was born in Seattle to parents from Connecticut and raised in the hills of North Carolina. I often bring this up whenever someone asks me where I’m from.
‘Where am I from?’
I say, making it a point to pause in contemplation as if this were a strange question that I did not get much.
‘Well… I guess home is in North Carolina.’
If I’m lucky, they will pick up on the emphasis and then ask, ‘What does that mean?'
This gives me an opening to go on my long ramble about how I’m not from anywhere. I’ll tell them the variant regions of the country that were the backdrop to my coming into being and then say definitively that, ‘I’m not from anywhere. I’m the new American child.’ Or some such tripe.
This is a not so subtle way of claiming a sort of superiority over others, I guess. You, you provincials, you might be from Chapel Hill or San Francisco or even New York city, but that’s all you know. Me? I’m from everywhere and nowhere. I’ve no real ties to any real place and that makes me different from you, lets me think differently than you and maybe makes me better than you.
Do I really think this? I’m not sure. But I know that my conscious effort to forsake a regional identity is just that, another way of forming an identity. I’m not from North Carolina. I’m not from anywhere. My fluid heritage sets me apart, makes me distinct in a world of proliferating voices. It even provides an axis of perspective in its nebulousness: I’m from nowhere. Never completely part of any group, I can be the better judge of it. I’m the outsider always looking in, but able to put a foot through the door if I want. It let’s me put on multiple hats: it slows my drawl when I want to be different from Bay area smugness, it adds a sharp ‘a’ when I talk about how much I miss ColoRAHdo, it allows me to smile condescendingly about Concord High’s playoff run this year in football, it lets me say things about ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’ or historical anachronism around my family in Connecticut… it lets me be a real prick when I want to.
And it’s something I need to work on. But this really is me. All of these things are part of me: making homophobic jokes between classes in high school, looking at the snow on the Rockies as I run through Washington Park, wandering alone through Normandy looking for a cheap place to eat so I can afford a hotel room, laughing about an interval workout at a round table in the dining hall, collapsing into a glass of gin after studying in a library for twelve hours.
This really is me.