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,
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