Ludwig van Beethoven
It’s not often that I see a movie on subject matter that I think I know something about. But A Late Quartet in some respects touches very close to home.
The story is about a famous string quartet struggling to stay together after its cellist, played by Christopher Walken, announces he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s and will not be able to play much longer — in fact is already barely play at the level of consummate perfection required of a world class chamber musician. In that world there is utterly no faking it.
The very idea of small ensembles in music has been one of my very biggest driving interests in life since youth — not just string quartets, and not just classical chamber groups in general. I’ve long believed that in small ensemble playing the end result can be far greater than the sum of its parts, and that the best groups are those who stay with it a very long time to the point that the players become like family to one another, virtually living together — disfunctionally perhaps, but family nonetheless. When I think of great groups I think not only of the Juilliard, Amadeus, Takacs, and Emerson string quartets, but also of the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and yes (some will shudder), even the Rolling Stones. By coincidence I happen to be reading Philip Norman’s biography about Mick Jagger right now, and previously read Keith Richards’s autobiography wherein I have come to appreciate that although the Stones are a different category of musicians from the others I’ve mentioned, in terms of their commitment to music making, they fit right in.
With any great ensemble, it’s not about who has the best assemblage of solo concert artists (though most great classical chamber musicians can knock off a concerto any day of the week), but above all about the chemistry between precisely the right people. Change even one person, and the whole sound becomes different. For instance, rock and roll drumnmers abound, and half or more of them are as good as or better than Ringo Starr. But the Beatles would not have been at all the same without Ringo, even at the beginning, and even though he was clearly the fourth man. But what a fourth man he was! In the world of classical chamber music it’s not hard to find a musician who can walk onto the stage and sightread all the written notes right, or who has played everything in the standard repertoire many times before, but the end result is never the same thing when a substitute is required. It takes months to work a single new musician into a tight group — and the quartet in A Late Quartet is acutely aware of that reality. My own frustrated efforts to create a long-lasting ensemble back in the late sixties, thwarted largely by non-stop personnel changes, taught me that lesson on a personal level.
The story line of A Late Quartet is built around the group’s preparation for a concert on which they will play Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 131, one of the composer’s latest works, which the group’s cellist hopes will be his farewell performance. (With consequences that explain what happens at the end.)
Each one of Beethoven’s late quartets is among the greatest examples of music ever written. There are six of them, known by their opus numbers in the range 127 to 135, and of these not a few musicians regard Opus 131 as their personal favorite, including me. While I was an undergraduate music student, I went on a Beethoven quartet kick (which followed my Beethoven piano sonata kick), during which almost all I did for a week or so was play recordings of all the quartets with the scores in front of me. And when I got to Opus 131, which somehow at that point I had never yet heard (there’s a first time for everything), it was a revelation, moving me to exude a tiresome stream of superlatives about it that my friends surely tired of hearing. It took me a while to get down off of that particular cloud. (Today I still rank Opus 131 as my third all-time favorite piece of music, with the Bach Chaconne at the top, followed by the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata.)
But the story of A Late Quartet is not just about the music. It’s about the people who make it, and about how the disturbance of inevitably losing their senior member was the butterfly effect-like tremor that presaged a tsunami of difficulties and misbehavior to follow — some of which events are frankly cheaply melodramatic, even stupid, reducing the merit of this film from being a great film to merely a very good film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in by far the best acting performance as the brilliant but oppressed second violinist, married to the violist. (They have a beautiful violinist daughter who also figures importantly into the plot.) He confesses that he sees his role in the ensemble as having being that of an accompanist to the younger first violinist for twenty-five years. He’s as dead wrong as if John Lennon had told George Harrison that he was going to take over the lead guitar role — which never happened. (I’m reminded of one day when Mick Jagger was fooling around on a guitar, Keith Richards said to him, “There are two guitarists in this band, and you’re not one of them.”)
There are conflicts between particularly the younger three members of the quartet that have little to do with the music itself (and which are extremely important to the plot — no spoilers here), but from which Walken remains quietly insulated as he begins to adjust to a new life with Parkinson’s.
What Hoffman’s character goes through, as self-centered as it all is for a period, seems very real to me; and it affects the ensemble and therefore the music.
Christopher Walken, who would seem to be an unlikely actor to choose to play the role of an aging, wise, and mature classical musician, handles his part well, but despite a great deal of coaching, handles the cello awkwardly, and is not convincing with an instrument in his hands.
Making an actor who is not a musician look like a musician (or an athlete who is not an athlete) is always a difficult trick to pull off in moviemaking. There is no group of musical instruments harder for a non-playing actor to fake on stage by going through the motions in front of a camera while someone else plays on the soundtrack than the instruments of a string quartet. Almost anyone can be made to look like a competent pianist. The actor can hide behind the instrument and just emote, if necessary, so you never even see their hands. And a woodwind or brass player just has to put the thing to his mouth and wiggle his fingers. But a string instrument involves the player much more completely. Of these, the violin and viola are almost impossible to get right. It takes a couple of years for a beginning player who is taking lessons and practicing daily just to learn to hold a violin or viola properly and not look like a dork. There’s absolutely nothing easy about it, as a player must twist his arm and shoulder into an unnatural position so as to bring his hands into a position so that his fingers strike the stings vertically — and somehow also play vibrato. I don’t know how they do it, and I’ve tried myself. And then there is the bow to deal with, which must be held and drawn exactly a certain way. It’s as hard as juggling even to fake it.
A cello is, in my opinion, somewhat easier, mostly because of an approximately ninety-degree shift in left-arm position to one that is absolutely natural. I’ve messed around myself just a little bit on violins, violas, and even many years ago on my brother’s cello. (The sum total of my string playing experience amounts to hours, not years.) I think if I wanted to try and fool someone on camera, I’d go for the cello part first because I’ve played guitar and electric bass, so can handle the appearance of left-hand dexterity, and would have to concentrate mainly on the bow.
That said, I think that all three of the other actors who were quartet members look more natural than Walken, who appears to be in pain (maybe he was supposed to because of the Parkinson’s, which is allegedly not painful), and more than stereotypically frowny-faced and serious, in harmony with Hollywood’s conception of the typical classical musicians as being nothing but stuffed shirts all the time, never having a moment of “fun,” especially when performing.
The other nit I have with this film is that the name of the ensemble is The Fugue (always spoken with reverence so you’ll know it’s supposed to be a great group, one that fills concert halls). It’s a silly name for a classical quartet, given that the fugue is primarily a baroque musical form, whereas the string quartet, both as an ensemble combination and a musical form, is something that emerged in the early classical era — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all wrote many — remained strong throughout the romantic era, and is still a respected combination today, written for by many composers. And yes, plenty of post-baroque composers have written fugues, even in string quatets. In fact Beethoven’s Opus 131 starts with a slow fugue, one factor among many that makes this work utterly unique in the repertoire. But starting in the classical era, fugues are the exception rather than the rule. So why call your string quartet ensemble The Fugue?
But regarding the group’s discussion about music — comments about string crossings, fingerings, matching vibrato speeds, arguments about hairpins (how many non-musicians will know they’re talking about crescendos and diminuendos, not bobby pins?), personal markings on the music, the problem of keeping the instruments in tune for the non-stop duration of the seven-movement Opus 131, and all the rest — a declamatory Yes! Those are exactly the sort of things real musicians talk about and work on when preparing for a performance. All that makes the movie more real. And in this case, verisimilitude is good, and a welcome relief from the usual Hollywood dreck thrown at audiences as representing the world of classical music. (For the very worst of that in comparison, see the dreadful film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Check that — don’t bother.)
In the end, all the conflicts — musical, mechanical, and personal — revolve around the question of whether being able to play the music is important enough that those four fragile, vulnerable, and imperfect human beings who comprise The Fugue are able to resolve their differences in a way that will allow there to be a quartet that will continue. The answer is supplied with great dignity, but not until the movie’s final scene.
Annie Leibovitz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Tonight we went to the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University to see the magnificent new exhibit of Annie Leibovitz photos.
The evening was highlighted by a conversation before a near capacity crowd (nearly 2500) in Mershon auditoriumwith Annie Leibovitz herself and none other than Rolling Stone founder and editor Jann S. Wenner, Annie’s former boss. To top things off, today happens to be the forty-fifth anniversary of the very first edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Wenner hired Annie as a photographer early in the magazine’s history. Until then it had been mainly a print publication.
The evening was not about just the show. Annie Leibovitz is the latest of fifteen recipients of the Wexner Prize awarded to living artists of monumental stature. Previous recipients have included John Cage, Merce Cunningham (whose dance company we saw at the same auditorium not long after he died), Martin Scorsese, Robert Rauschenberg, and Spike Lee, to name only those most familiar to me. Suzy noticed that remarkably, Annie Leibovitz is the first woman to make the roster.
Some non-central Ohioans (and a lot of other people) may not know that the Wexner of the arts center and of the prize is Leslie Wexner, founder and chairman of Limited Brands (parent of Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, et al.), one of Ohio’s billionaires, and a commendably generous alumnus and donor to The Ohio State University, who regularly squeezes out gifts $100 million at a time. Well I say good for him. Business in fancy ladies’ underpants must be good.
The exhibit has three components. The primary part is Leibovitz’s Master Set, the 159 images from her last forty years of work that she herself picked out and assembled as being her best and most representative work.
And they are astounding. You have seen many of them, as much of Leibovitz’s work has become a part of national and world culture, seen and admired by millions.
The most famous of them all is the one she took of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, John naked (discreetly), the two of them kissing on the floor in their apartment, taken on December 8, 1980, the day that turned out to be by incredible coincidence, the last day of his life. Coming face to face with that photo blown up to museum size was like encountering the Mona Lisa in person. (Actually I’ve never seen the Mona Lisa in person, but I have seen famous paintings by Degas, Renoir, and Rembrandt at touching distance.)
They put that photo on the cover of Rolling Stone immediately, with only the magazine’s title banner and no other print matter whatever. It’s been called the best magazine cover of the last fifty years. I haven’t seen all magazine covers in fifty years, but I wouldn’t argue the point. Could there possibly be a more poignantly revealing portrait of a man everyone in the world wanted to know all they could about, revealing his feelings so intimately on the very last day of his life? Annie Leibovitz can take credit for taking the picture, but that it exists at all is a miracle.
In addition to some great rock and roll photos, especially of the Rolling Stones, there are images of numerous celebrities. There is the famous Demi Moore pregnant-and-almost-busting-wide-open picture that was on the cover of Vanity Fair, was second only to the Lennons’ picture in popularity. Also one of Meryl Streep in heavy almost clown-like make-up stretching parts of her face, symbolic of her great versitility. And there is one of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon that defies description, likely a reprise of their roles in Some Like It Hot. All I can do is give you the link and say get a load of this. (I’d never seen it, and it stopped me in my tracks. I’m still laughing.)
And there were also the picture of the helicopter carrying Richard Nixon from the White House after his resignation (what a historical assignment for a photojournalist to have!), astounding matching portraits of Bill and Hilary Clinton (Hilary’s is one of the great photos in the exhibit in my opinion) and also of Barack and Michelle Obama, and also one of Queen Elizabeth II taken not long after her Jubilee celebration. Annie said that Buckingham Palace called her to come over and photograph the Queen, that she was able to request what she should wear, and at the end of twenty-five minutes she actually had the nerve to ask her if she’d remove her crown — and she did — and got the best picture of all.
The second part of the exhibit is a collection called Pilgrimage, a personal project where none of the pictures are of people, but are of items associated with well-known people who have interested and inspired Annie Leibovitz: Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln, Martha Graham, Annie Oakley, Lewis and Clark, Elvis Presley, and others.
Finally, in the lobby is a collection of smaller prints of people who have been former Wexner Prize recipients or who have performed or had showings at the Wex, just a few of the thousands of people Annie Leibovitz has photographed on assignment.
As for the hour and forty-five minute conversation between Annie Leibovitz and Jann Wenner — it was valuable mainly for the sake of being able to say we saw these two illustrious people sitting in front of us in person. Surprisingly, neither one is a particularly fluent speaker, both speak with way too many regressions and ummms and likes and you knows. Although they presented a slide show, they skipped around a lot and didn’t appear to have much of an agenda planned. There were, however, some interesting anecdotes. I’m sure everyone was interested in knowing about the last John Lennon photo session, and about photographing the Queen.
After that story, Jann Wenner declared, “See who you have before you!” which provoked a standing ovation, as the two of them waved farewell.
The Longest Race
Runner and writer Ed Ayres has written a new book about ultrarunning and the things ultrarunners think about: The Longest Race, lengthily subtitled A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance. I had the pleasure of reading an advance (not quite final, but printed and bound) copy from the author, sent to me at his behest by his publisher, The Experiment.The Longest Race is scheduled to be released on October 9, 2012.
Ed Ayres has been around ultrarunning since long before a good many readers of this article were born. He began running cross-country in high school in 1956, and hasn’t stopped running since. Among his running achievements are third place in the first New York Marathon, first in the JFK 50-mile race in 1977, and a number of US national age group championships at ultramarathon distances. In addition, he was the founding editor and publisher of Running Times magazine, now published by Rodale Press. The man knows running.
Far from being one-dimensional, Ed also worked for many years as the editorial director at the Worldwatch Institute, a research organization that develops solutions to the most difficult of world problems in climate, energy, food, agriculture, environment, and society.
The Longest Race is presented ostensibly as a book-length race report. In November 2001, at age 60, Ayres returned to the JFK 50-mile race to see if he could break the race’s 60–69 age group record. That he did so in 7:55, knocking over twenty minutes off the previous best, is not exactly a spoiler, because Ayres’s story of how he set a record is only an incidental point of discussion.
The book’s structure is built along salient geographical features of the JFK race, points where the terrain changes, and therefore also the runner’s mindset and technique. Wound into the journey are ideas about pacing, shoes, breathing, form, running alone, strategy (especially as an older runner), persistence hunting, nutrition and fueling, battling fatigue, competition, and runners’ indomitable urge to finish, along with—and perhaps more importantly—forays into non-running topics having to do with some of the Big Questions humankind should be asking itself in these critical times we live in. The connections to running are not merely metaphorical, but logically explained and elucidated.
The book concludes with an appendix, a soup to nuts how-to for aspiring ultrarunners, covering training, form, gear (running can be one of the cheapest sports for participants), nutrition, and a few words about trail running, which ties in well with one of Ayers’s deeper themes: mankind’s need to be in closer touch with the planet we live on.
Ayres’s writing is engaging and thought-provoking, expressing the voice of deep experience.
By coincidence, I read the book just a few days before I ran the North Coast 12-Hour Endurance Run in Cleveland, the first ultramarathon I’ve run since the 24-hour event at the same race a year ago. The book offered useful refresher points on pacing, breathing, and eating, things I already know about; but being reminded, I was able to put them to immediate conscious use in the race, resulting in a better performance for me during the first six hours than I’ve experienced in life—until a major storm came along and almost blew us all away.
Runners who like to be inspired by good writing about running will not be disappointed if they read The Longest Race.
Photo by Jen Goellnitz
At age 69, my running these days consists mostly of alternating short bursts of slow running with short walks. If I’m rested and have my feet to the fire, I can run six miles or so continuously, but I rarely try. Despite this, my endurance is still good.
Personal circumstances led me to decide to sign up for the new 12-hour option at the NorthCoast Endurance Run in Cleveland this year (September 22, 2012), even though I did the 24-hour the first three years of the race’s existence.
In the course of month in and month out training, I usually manage to get something just below 200 miles per month, with two or three months in a year over 200. In August I recorded 228 miles—not a bad month for someone rapidly becoming an old coot, given that I’m still working close to full time.
When it came time to bear down on what training I’d planned for the NorthCoast race, I decided that time on my feet, which is what I’m good at, would be the thing I’d emphasize. I planned 7-hour, 8-hour, and 9-hour loop runs three weeks apart, with the last on September 1, exactly three weeks before the race.
The place I go these days to do this sort of training is a bike path in a fairly isolated park called Sycamore Field in Columbus. The loop measures 0.78 miles on Google Maps (click the link to see it), and surrounds a large, open field big enough for several soccer fields, with lots of room to spare. It’s flat enough that it’s hard to decide if one direction is better than the other, although I always run clockwise, the direction NorthCoast is run. During a weekday afternoon, the typical density of foot and bicycle traffic there is to encounter one or two other people in three or four laps. In other words, it’s close to abandoned, even though it’s very well maintained, has two large parking lots, and a dog run that does get used just 100 yards to the north, and always has a regularly serviced porta-potty from spring until sometime in November. Two weeks ago I arrived on a Saturday morning to find they were using the field for a high school cross-country meet, allowing me to enjoy watching hundreds of fit, high-achieving teenagers run their hearts out as I circled the path while doing a final 10-miler in preparation for the race.
In each of my three fixed-time workouts, I was 100 percent successful in not stopping for anything whatever the entire time except for one potty stop per workout, and to grab water off the chair I’d set up. I was tired after each one, but I’m certain I couldn’t have lasted nine hours the day of the first one, so I must have made progress. And I do believe the effort paid off at the race.
Before the Race
Edgewater Park, on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland, where NorthCoast is run, is a drive of about about 150 miles, two hours and forty minutes one way from my home in Columbus, Ohio. This year I drove in on race morning, leaving a little after 5:00 a.m., arriving at precisely 7:40 a.m.
My gear plan was simple. For a 12-hour I could have survived entirely on what I wore on my back and not bothered with a personal aid station at all. But I learned there might be weather problems, so I packed some extra gear in a gym bag, including a four-pack of Red Bulls, which I hate, but buy and drink only when I’m doing a long run, sometimes drinking a can that’s been sitting in the hot sun for a couple of hours. I drink it for the jolt, not for refreshment.
All this stuff I set up on a folding camp chair. Total setup time: less than a minute after picking my spot, after which I checked out the nearest porta-potty (for the first time they had two near the start and finish area), taking care of some very important pre-race business in there, and then took off to find old acquaintances and make new ones, always one of my favorite rituals of any ultra.
Once a race starts I’m almost always a loner because (a) almost everybody goes faster than me anyhow; (b) I just do better when I concentrate on trying to work out my own salvation, though this race would prove to be an exception.
Along with all the rest, I had the pleasure of meeting John Hnat, the new race director, whom I’d talked to previously only in e-mail and on Facebook, and was impressed by what an upbeat and good-humored guy he is—qualities he would need about six hours later.
For a number of ingeniously thought-out reasons that added up to what seemed like a good idea to me, they moved the start back around the bend this year, about a tenth of a mile. That extra distance was added to everyone’s totals at the end.
The weather at the start was cool but comfy, super for running, and there were partly cloudy skies. Sometimes the sun peeked out, and it got almost warm. After a few laps I took off my red jacket and tossed it on my chair, leaving me wearing only shorts, a short-sleeve running shirt (last year’s race shirt) and a super-lightweight long-sleeve running shirt over it. Well—and a hat and shoes and big, fancy underpants, of course.
One woman, Hannah Critchfield, ran barefoot, and was running well—not a leader, but steady all the way. I never saw her walking. She stuck it out, and finished the 24-hour race with 79.3 miles, a fine performance. I remember a barefoot runner winning Tucson Marathon two or three years in a row, though I didn’t get to see him because I was on the other end of the race, of course. Most of Tucson Marathon is run on the rocky shoulder of a highway. Don’t try that yourself, folks. I don’t know how anyone does that. Just gimme shoes!
Historically, I’ve had some of my best outings in 12-hour races. Most of the eight or so that I’ve run have been very low-key semi-official but accurately timed and measured and well-supported races, including one all-nighter at Nardini Manor in Arizona (former home of Across the Years) one summer where there were only three of us at the starting line, though numerous others joined in later. And we were also the last three out there, all of us running until the end. I was the slowest of the three, but I got the “bronze”—I had the third most mileage of all participants by about twelve miles.
My goal at North Coast this time was modest: 40 miles, but a bit of a challenge, because I haven’t gone that long in a while, and I’m not running like I used to. Yet it was sufficiently doable that I thought if I didn’t make it, it would be a big disappointment. My secondary goal was to avoid stopping for anything other than a potty stop and to grab water or food.
So we were off at 9:00 a.m. The first thing I noticed was the timing system rocked, seemingly state of the art. Having been involved with races of this type on the creative end myself for quite a number of years, I know that timing is the single most difficult problem to get right, and just about the most important, along with providing a good course to run on. At the spring edition of NorthCoast last May, which was the USATF national 24-hour championship, there were horrendous problems with the timing. It basically didn’t work. Although they eventually got it mostly straightened out, a consequence of the misstep was that a runner ran what was potentially a new US women’s record for 24 hours, but her performance was unable to be validated and ratified. Such a happening, particularly at a national championship, is a crying shame, especially for the runner affected. After all, record performances don’t grow on trees.
The bottom line is that sort of thing simply mustn’t happen. It can, but every reasonable effort must be made to assure that it won’t. Prior to this race, John Hnat sent e-mail to participants explaining the new system that they would be using. Most important in any fixed-time timing system is not the glitzy (but thoroughly enjoyable) external features: multiple highly visible computer displays showing everyone where they’re at and the like, which are now becoming de rigueur at the best races. Far more important is the backup method used to assure that the end results will be correct in the event of failure, which can and does happen if there is a total power or main computer failure. I don’t remember the details of what John related, but it was sufficient to give me the warm-n-fuzzy necessary to be confident things would go well—as indeed they did, even though later happenings would prove to put the system to the test.
And for the first six hours I had one of the best runs I’ve had in years. Not only did I become certain that I would make my goal; I also anticipated exceeding it by perhaps as much as five miles if I could just hold steady, and given how well and under control I felt, I had every reason to believe I would.
Something that helped me greatly was a new book about ultrarunning I’d been reading for a couple of days prior to the race. The book is by Ed Ayers (a runner and ultrarunner for 55 years and founder of Running Times, for those who don’t know him). Ed’s new book, not yet published (it’s due out in October 2012), is titled The Longest Run. As a fellow editor, the author had his publisher send me a pre-publication “uncorrected” copy for review. I’ll be writing a summary of it on my blog and will have a word or two to share on the lists very soon. (I finished reading it this morning.)
In the course of reading The Longest Run, I made a few notes for what I’d have to say later, and in the process picked up some pointers and was also able to review some fundamentals. Review is good. As a lifelong student of many subjects and a sometime teacher and writer, I’ve learned that it’s often good to go back to page one on any subject and review the basics, in the spirit of what the apostle Paul wrote about understanding Christianity:
If anyone thinks he has acquired knowledge of something, he does not yet know [it] just as he ought to know [it].—1 Corinthians 8:2
In a sense, review is like a musician running down scales and arpeggios. It’s not that he doesn’t know them; it’s that he could know them a little better, and these fundamental exercises will help him play real music better because he’ll be less preoccupied by technical obstacles.
And so it was at Edgewater Park on Saturday that rather than allowing my mind to spin off dissociatively into thinking about whatever came to mind, instead I concentrated on thinking associatively about what I was doing, paying closer attention than I have for a long time, because after all—this was it—I was in a race, trying to do my best, and I don’t know how many more of these things I’ll be able to do.
My attention-paying actually began the night before with the pre-race meal I ate. Carboloading on pasta, which I learned about when I first took up racing, may still be popular in some quarters, but I believe it’s waning in popularity, as experienced runners now realize that for a lot of reasons, pigging out before a race isn’t such a good idea. I limited my pre-race dinner to a medium size baked potato with bleu cheese and a veggie burger on top of it. (No, I’m not a vegetarian, but don’t eat meat daily.)
The second matter for attention was eating during the race. Another popular myth is that a runner needs to eat several times his usual rate of calorie consumption during a race, chowing down food every couple of miles. Experienced and efficient runners will tell you this is not true. Rather than set some sort of arbitrary pattern, the best policy is to listen to one’s own body. Most runners should be able to survive at least a 50 km race on little or nothing more than they would eat normally during that time span. Past a few hours, of course, runners will need to eat a combination of standard nutrients, including some fats.
Every 24-hour race I’ve been at the last few years I’ve been amused at the setups some runners who come with crews have. I’ve seen tents that look like outposts of GNC health food stores, with racks of shelves filled with powders and gels that come in large, plastic bottles and cans, and with names that end in -yte and -ox. I have to wonder if the runners they support would do better if they ate actual food.
The food offered at most races is mostly unappetizing to me. I can’t imagine trying to eat a quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that has been sitting out exposed to the air and drying up for hours, and has been visited by who knows how many flies, nor will I take a chance any longer on food that is grabbed out of a dish that many other sweaty people who have been stopping at porta-potties have grubbed around in before.
I’m prone to eating cookies and candy and pretzels when I really shouldn’t, but not so much during races, when they might be just what I need. Sometimes I can handle M&Ms. About two hours into the race I indulged in a single Oreo cookie. I was still chewing and gagging on it when I came around on the next lap. And yes, I was keeping up rather well with my hydration, drinking mostly water every lap or two, with Succeed! capsules every couple of hours, which was enough given the temperature. I wasn’t dehydrated. Sometime later I snagged another Oreo. Same problem. It was the last thing I took from the aid station. The race didn’t lose any money feeding me.
When it’s available at races, I prefer food that’s mushy and smooth: yogurt and pumpkin pie (especially the filling) spring to mind; also cooked foods: hot oatmeal, soups, and pasta are favorites, but last year the grease in the otherwise delicious pizza just killed my stomach. Gels do work if you can handle the usually horrible flavor. I do happen to actually like the PowerGels with extra sodium, but haven’t had any in a while. And soup has to be hot enough to be palatable. Often it’s barely lukewarm.
Even though I basically hate Red Bull—evil-tasting stuff—and would never drink it except during an endurance event, I’ve gotten used to it. It’s easy for me to wolf a half can or can at a time if I just swallow without savoring; and it does pack a wallop. I brought a four-pack of my own, consumed two cans of it a half can at a time at predetermined times, and had plans for the other two later on, if things had turned out a little differently.
Therefore, as far as I can remember, my total race caloric consumption consisted of those two cookies and those two cans of Red Bull. But it’s important to note that I never sensed the need of anything more. I was planning on eating something more substantial a little later. (Do you sense the premonition yet that something didn’t go as planned?)
Another thing I gave attention to during the race was my breathing. Mysteriously, I find that sometimes when I feel short-winded and am suffering, the main reason for that is that I’m simply forgetting to breathe! You might wonder how that’s possible. Isn’t it sort of an automatic and not-optional kind of thing to gasp for air when you need it? Apparently not. At least for me, it’s just a matter of focus, an element of associative thinking, paying attention to what I’m doing. If I’m not feeling right, there’s often a reason for it that can be addressed to make things better.
An important benefit of paying attention to breathing is that it provides a rhythmic backdrop for running. The fuel in our bodies has to be burned for it to be of use. that process begins with oxygen intake, a.k.a. breathing. Not enough oxygen results in slowing down and poor performance, not to mention incredible discomfort. Breathing rhythmically (according to a step count), being sure not only to inhale deeply and diaphragmatically, without forcing it, and also exhaling sufficiently to get rid of the CO2 and make room for more oxygen, is what makes it all happen. Sometimes just being conscious that there’s a problem and fixing it immediately can lead to dramatic relief in just a couple of steps.
Another thing I worked on was my form. I’ll never be on the cover of a running magazine, at least not because of the way I look when I run. (You can stop staggering around the room in shocked disbelief now.) And I have a back that’s never been flexible and that for the last several years has been increasingly affected by arthritis. I’m fine when I’m up and active and exercising, whether running, working in the yard, or just generally moving about, which is probably the best thing I can do for it; but the problem is there and will never go away. And sometimes I can barely get out of bed in the morning. So I tend to slouch when I run.
And I also frequently drag my right foot, seen in the wear patterns on my shoes, which tend to develop silver dollar size holes below my right toes long before the rest of the shoe wears out. Still, I’m not real fussy about shoes, having gone apostate from the shoe religion a long time ago. And while I don’t buy cheap shoes, I do tend to wear them until they are in shreds, and have been known to get 1200 miles out of a pair. As long as shoes provide something between my foot and the surface I’m running on, and as long as they don’t rub me in such a way as to cause blisters (usually not a problem for me once I learned how to prevent them), then issues of cushioning and all the rest don’t matter much to me.
But my body type is such that for me to run like a runner ought to, I have to concentrate, and when I don’t, I immediately fall back into a slouch. So it’s hips forward, permanently curved back as straight as I can get it, look farther than three feet ahead (I often run into people and things—including fences and bushes—because my head is down and I just don’t see them), and swing my arms. Fortunately, my feet don’t splay outward. My stride is about as straight-ahead as can be. Like most runners, I’m a heel striker and have no intention of trying to change that. But nothing I’ve ever been able to do has been able to prevent me from going chuff, chuff, chuff, dragging that right foot.
Again, it’s just a matter of concentration, and on Saturday, as I saw the laps adding up, and being unusually motivated on that day, I was able to focus on it more consistently than usual. Life was good.
One way to run disassociatively is to run with someone else. I’m mostly a loner out there, even in races, not because I’m antisocial, but because most people are running faster than me, and I like to be able to control what I do rather than being driven to one side or the other of what is comfortable for me, going either too fast or too slow—by someone else’s pace. But at NorthCoast on Saturday, I did spend several laps running in the company of Steve Tursi, who was gracious enough to allow me to slow him down a bit while I blathered on and did a brain dump about every little thing I’d been thinking about that day before he finally got tired of me and went off and we parted ways again. And when I was done I found that I was still right about on pace.
Regarding my goal to keep moving the whole race—for most of the first six hours I managed to do that and had no inclination to break for anything. But while talking to Steve I noticed I was starting to develop a hot spot, a harbinger of oncoming blisters. I wore Injinji toe socks with Bag Balm for lubrication—a yucky mess to get on, and painful, too, if you are like me and have trouble bending over in the morning. You have to get those things on just right. Finally, I stopped at my chair, sat down, pulled off my right shoe (a process complicated by gaiters), tugged at the sock, got everything back in place, and took off again. Down time: less than five minutes. I realized immediately I’d made it worse. Hoo boy. I’ve had problems in the past thinking I had a shoe or sock rubbing wrong, only to find that the irritation was coming from an actual blister that had formed. I stopped at a picnic table fifty yards down the path and redid the whole process, forcing myself to be careful. Down time: again less than five minutes. This time I was successful. Whatever was rubbing funny wasn’t any more, never came back, and I had no problem with that or any other area of my feet during or after the race.
So yeah, I did make a stop, but certain minor exceptions are normal and obligatory. My intent was to avoid stopping to rest, upon which I would just stiffen up and would be both unwilling and unable to continue, at least not very well.
If you were at Edgewater Park in Cleveland on September 22, 2012, or followed discussions about the race afterward, then you know what happened to everyone there.
Word had circulated before the race of some heavy rain moving into the area. Being spitting distance from Lake Erie, by about 2:00 p.m., we could see thick black clouds roiling our way, and felt an increase in winds. When it finally hit, it was no ordinary shower or even a downpour, but a mean and hostile squall with some stinging hail thrown in to add injury to insult.
I’ve been caught in substantial downpours twice before at fixed-time races. The first time, at FANS in 2004, was fun. It had been a warm June day, and the evening rain was refreshing. The second was my last time at Across the Years in 2010. I was there for the 72-hour race, but on the verge of getting sick on the first day when a hard rain that began a couple of hours into the race continued to come harder and colder until very late at night. On that occasion I had to quit the race after only seven and a half hours to avoid almost certain personal disaster. (Like pneumonia and death—which would have been a Really Bad Thing—and which happened to someone else at that race once.) It was not how I wanted to end my streak at Across the Years (begun in 1999).
On Saturday I came around to my chair and calculated that I didn’t have time for another whole lap before the rain came, so put on my supposedly waterproof coat (turns out it’s not really) and also a beanie I wear in winter, with my regular running hat stretched over it.
By the time I got around again, there were winds that some people were estimating at 60 miles per hour driving heavy rain and nasty hail into anyone dumb … errr … brave enough to stay out there. At the time I was amused to see five guys suddenly show up with surfboards and wet suits and go enthusiastically plowing out into the lake for an afternoon of fun. Navy Seals out for recreation? The waves were not exactly Hawaii or California type, but I suppose good enough to be effective. God bless ‘em. I could never do it.
This all happened just about six hours into the race, so approximately 3:00 p.m. I imagine the details will show in my splits.
Meanwhile, John Hnat was busy having fun with his bullhorn, recommending that runners take shelter, saying that the heavy rain would continue at least another 45 minutes, but that the race clock would continue to run, and anyone staying out on the course would do so at their own risk. A surprising number of hearty souls did.
I’m no fool. The wind stopped me in my tracks as I came around the final curve to the timing area and ramada, and the hail struck me in the face hard enough to bite. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. Before long the temperature dropped to about 50, which is not extreme, or even uncomfortable if you’re running and conditions are dry, but if you’re soaked from head to foot, it’s a different matter. I headed into the ramada to enjoy chatting and laughing with other sissies who had come in.
After hanging out for quite a while, the rain was still coming down hard, but the violence had let up a bit. I headed back out to check things out and log at least one more lap, but the break and the wet cold had done their business. I was stiff and could only lumber around at about a 20-minute-per-mile pace, not fast enough to be fun or worth continuing to push it.
Meanwhile, the wind had rampaged through the park. Almost everything that had been put up was blown down. Volunteers were doing their best to cover the computer equipment, which as far as I saw continued to run just fine the whole time without missing a beat. Other volunteers were struggling hopelessly with the aid station—as if anyone was going to be stopping off for dried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or something in those conditions. They did an admirable job of keeping things going. One volunteer poked his head out the end when runners were coming by and offered to help anyone who needed anything, so at least it was functional, if not exactly five-star restaurant service for the time being.
Out in the tent village on the west side of the course, where almost everyone was set up, it looked like a war zone. All the pseudo-GNC outlets together with almost every shelter I saw had been blown over, and I later heard from some that some tents and other gear had been destroyed completely. Most of the crew people who were helping out the runners who were still out there had apparently fled to vehicles and other places of safety if not comfort, since I didn’t see many people standing around to hand anyone their water bottles filled with miraculously restorative food supplements. (Under the circumstances, a person could have gotten enough to drink by leaning his head back and opening his mouth.)
When I returned from that lap looking like a drowned rat that had washed up on shore, I knew I was done for the day. A lot of people stayed and toughed it out. I later learned that they all endured several more periods of intense rain during the night and that the temperature bottomed out in the mid forties.
So I told Dan Horvath I was bailing out. I detached and gave him my ankle chip, and he ran off to get me something. When he returned he was carrying the biggest “finishers” medal I now have in my collection, which looks surprisingly like a Harley-Davidson logo. “I get a medal for this?” I asked in bemused puzzlement, reflecting on the fact that I’d gone only half of a 12-hour race and was still feeling plenty strong and energetic, if a bit bound up. Oh yeah, there are no DNFs in fixed-time racing. I knew that. Dan got a serious look on his face, shook my hand, and gave me the standard congratulatory speech as if it were like the real awards ceremony, and people were gathered around and applauding my effort. We both had a good laugh about it.
I’ll take it. It’s going in my bling box. Oh yeah, my final distance was about 27.07 miles. And I believe that I was on pace to get close to 45 miles if the conditions had held. I would have been ecstatic with that number.
Of course, it’s one thing to say wanna-woulda-coulda-shoulda-mighta, but I didn’t actually run the second six hours, and most of the Bad Stuff that happens to ultrarunners happens in the later hours, so who knows what might have happened?
So was I upset about my race? Not at all. Yes, I wish it had been nice enough weather to allow me to pursue my original goal as planned. But it wasn’t, and it was absolutely nobody’s fault. Meanwhile, I’d had what was for me an excellent 6-hour run, which I will consider a training run, since I’ll be running the Columbus half-marathon on October 21.
My next feat would be to get out of there. As I stood looking for a break to dash out and retrieve my gear, I had an encounter with an old man who I naturally assumed was there in some capacity in connection with the race, because everyone was, and besides, why else would anyone be out in that exact place in that weather on that day? But he told me he was Romanian, age 68 (didn’t look a day over 85), not a runner, but was at one time a fighter (he had very few teeth) and a weight-lifter. Unbelievably, he was standing in the middle of that soaking wet bedlam, having come there expecting to find someone to play chess with. He said he comes there every Saturday afternoon, that he used to be a highly ranked player, but now he plays only five-minute chess, presumably with a little money to sweeten the deal. I guess it didn’t occur to him that he wasn’t in the best place to find a partner on that day. When I told him I play chess, he thought I might want to sit down for a game. Ummm … no thanks, not this time.
Finally, after a stop in the medical tent to let Andy Lovy’s medical students bump me around a little, which felt wonderful, I decided to just head out to my chair and take the consequences. It was only about 150 feet down the path. But it was still raining very heavily at the time. Fortunately, I had no packing to do, having even already zipped all the gym bag pockets up before the storm hit. So I picked up my bag and chair and took the shortest path to my car, dropping two or three things in the parking lot, which was painful to bend over and pick up. I threw it in the trunk, grabbed the hooded sweatshirt out of the back seat and a towel, climbed in, and did the best I could to make myself comfortable before taking off.
Then I called my wife to let her know I wasn’t going to be rolling in at 1:30 a.m. after all. She reported that it was sunny in Columbus. She’d gone to a picnic!
Noted author Case Hope Long was executed by lethal injection this morning for a crime neither he nor anyone else could remember. Beforehand, he announced that his last words would be, “These are my last words.”
Considered a master of the arcane form of recursive historical writing, Long’s last and possibly greatest work was a novel titled … Sweat, considered unfinished by the few critics and scholars who have seen it because it is less than a single printed page in length—or about nine tweets, depending on your customarily preferred frame of literary reference.
The book is about a man assigned to write his own death notice for publication while waiting to be led off for execution, a task he was very much up to and anxious to complete, but was unable to get very far on because the first seven of the fifties era typewriters on the work table he was to work at were in such poor condition that they were inoperable, and when he finally found one that would suffice, the paper prison officials gave him to type on was already printed on both sides, so he had to go and ask for more with at least one blank side. When he got back he had barely three minutes to work on the project.
Oh crap, they’re here already.
Image via Wikipedia
Though I don’t maintain an ironclad bullet list of rules about who I follow in my social networks, certain annoyances move me to uncircle, unfriend, or unfollow persons posthaste. (All three italicized words are social networking neologisms.)
Give me full sentences in some reasonable semblance of English. Persons who write habitually in the abbreviated language used in telephone texting will be cut from my network. If Roger Ebert can write full Twitter updates in 160 characters, so can you — if you care whether I read what you have to say. And you are under no obligation to care whether I read your posts, but I’m sure there are others who feel similarly.
I make exceptions to the abbreviated language rule in an interactive chat, when speed of semi-synchronous communication is essential. I type fast, but even so, I often use abbreviations, ignore upper case, punctuation, and don’t bother to fix typos if it’s obvious what I meant, when in a direct tete-a-tete, where the object is to get as close to the speed of speech as possible. But in such cases, if it’s important enough and available on both ends, video chat is sometimes the better medium.
Persons who insist on using vulgar or obscene speech or profanity do not remain in my networks. I don’t think foul language is funny, and I don’t think it’s colorful. There’s no need for it, particularly when communicating thoughts in front of the whole world. I may give a person one break. The second time they’re gone.
Users whose typical posts or comments consists primarily of LOL, OMG, ROTFL, LMAO, ROTFLMAO, WTF, and that ilk of stupidity strike me instantly as morons. They seem to be just wanting to be seen, like the cretins who walk behind reporters being interviewed on TV and wave or perform shenanigans in front of the camera.
If all you get from a post is a good laugh, then press +1 or Like or re-Tweet it, and if you want to re-share it fine — I like something funny as much as anyone else — but do so without comment. “For as the sound of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of the stupid one.” — Ecclesiastes 7:6
People who post links to really bad music don’t last long in my circles. I’m a lifetime musician and have precious little time to listen to good music without having to listen to bad music, too.
What’s with this fad for posting pictures of cats? Yes, I like cats and think they can be ridiculously cute, too, but c’mon, man! One a year or so should cover it, right?
These days I check in with Facebook about once a day, and have almost entirely lost my need for Twitter. I’ve moved almost all my social networking activity to Google+, which is far better for a host of reasons beyond the scope of conversation, and well-known to those who have done likewise.
On Google+ I often add large numbers of unknown plusers to a circle, especially by means of recommendations or shared circles. But I keep a watchful eye out for violators, and kick people out frequently.
Let’s keep the high quality rolling on Google+.
Image via Wikipedia
Now and then I notice the way naive people make fun of more enlightened individuals who press elevator buttons repeatedly in an effort to make them arrive sooner. I’ve been known to beat on the call buttons of a few recalcitrant elevators myself. This actually works.
What these quipsters don’t know or have never thought about is that it’s a provable fact that the more times you press an elevator button, the sooner it will come! Why? Well, it always arrives nearest the last time you pressed it, doesn’t it? Can you deny that? Huh?
Therefore it must work, right? So there.
This applies equally well to pedestrian crossing traffic signals. Therefore I will continue to press both elevator and traffic control buttons as often as I continue to get comfort from doing so.
Cover of Chronicles, Volume 1
Contrary to implications from the title, and also to the customary method of presenting biography, Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume 1
is not a traditional “Born on a mountaintop in …” chronologically-told tale. We learn bits of the back story throughout the book, enough to be satisfied that Dylan, famous for his penchant for privacy, has not withheld anything important. Is it any business of we the curious to expect more? In any case, the sort of trivia that obsessive star-stalkers seek is not hard to uncover from other sources; some of it is even true. (Apparently, but what do I know?)
I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan since early times. I used to hear him regularly in the early sixties on The Midnight Special, a Saturday night radio program dedicated to American roots music, broadcast on Chicago’s great FM radio station WFMT. The show has been running continuously since 1953, though I haven’t heard it myself since college days. I don’t know how often they continued to play Dylan after he became a breakaway star. For all I know, they still do. For all he has done in his life, he remains first and foremost a folksinger.
Chronicles: Volume 1 opens and closes around Dylan’s signing first a publishing deal with Leeds Music, which he soon got out of (he was technically underage when he signed it without the co-signature of a parent or guardian), then a recording deal with Columbia Records, having been acquired by John Hammond, one of the greatest talent discoverers in music history — all before Dylan had begun to write much at all. In comparison, imagine being the record company that signed the Beatles before John and Paul had written Please Please Me — which actually happened.
To be invited to record with Columbia on the basis of Dylan’s prior experience was a happening equivalent in order of magnitude to an aspiring classical pianist being asked to present his world premiere performance as a concerto soloist with the New York Philharmonic. In those days (late 1961) you couldn’t get a better deal, although Columbia also had a reputation that if your first record didn’t sell well, they would bury you and your career would be over.
A few years later, my band was also invited to cut a demo for Columbia. They didn’t take us on. It was probably not a good match for either of us at the time. My band never went much of anywhere, and today nobody has heard of it. Obviously, it went better for Dylan.
Following the signings in October 1961, we are shifted back in time to February of that year, when nascent but already experienced folk singer Bob Zimmerman, not yet Dylan, arrived in New York City. We learn of his successful efforts to find venues in the West Village basket houses and clubs, another experience we shared with Dylan, ours about seven years later. Dylan’s repertoire was already substantial, but for a while he would do nothing but Woody Guthrie songs. He seems to be a sponge for memorizing words. He hadn’t yet begun writing songs of his own. And we are told of the friends he’d acquired who were happy to let him stay on their living room couches for weeks at a time.
Dylan had a feeling he was going places, but even he could not possibly have anticipated what actually happened.
It should come as no surprise that Dylan, revered even more for his poetic lyrics than for the music that accompanies them (although I like the music and lyrics equally myself), is capable of writing engaging passages of prose, interrupted occasionally by quirkily casual colloquialisms, such as “Me and Clayton went [somewhere],” which a friend postulates is just “Dylan going from Proust mode, say, to Woodie Guthrie mode, just because he is able to do so. Think Mark Twain.” Surely Bob Dylan knows how to use pronouns properly, so I’ll grant credence to my friend’s theory. There are nonetheless a few minor passages in the book that could have used closer attention by a copyeditor. But that’s a subject I’m prejudiced about.
There are some extraordinary passages in which Dylan describes his influences. He’s always been surrounded by music and books. Although he was determined to pursue folk music, he liked and absorbed everything: classical music, modern jazz, even a great deal of pop music, including commercial performers like Rick Nelson and the Kingston Trio. He’s always been more focused on the songs, particularly their stories and words, than the artifice used to put them across.
Dylan relates an experience where he woke up in the apartment of friends he was staying with, and explored their vast library, everything from the Greek, Latin, and old English classics to modern times, also history, art, and philosophy. Dylan devoured such things during his hours alone. Although Dylan was apparently a mediocre student back in Hibbing, Minnesota, it’s apparent he had by this time acquired a substantial storehouse of knowledge about many subjects. He made special effort to memorize longer and longer passages of difficult poetry, mostly because he liked it, but also for practice. Dylan thereby demonstrated something I’ve long believed, that being a good student and getting an education does not mean getting top grades in school, but actually learning something.
His tale is suffused with enough back references that it’s not necessary for him to devote a whole chapter, section, or other discrete part to his being born, his family, growing up, school, friends, and the like. He doesn’t try to hide any of it as though he disowned his past, which he manifestly has never done. But most of these details are not important to telling the story that people who are interested in Bob Dylan the self-invented character need to hear about.
Another segment, similar to the bookshelf exploration sequence, is his telling of going regularly to the New York Public Library and reading newspapers from 1855–65 on microfilm in order to absorb the flavor of their language, and to become more familiar firsthand with what the real stories and issues were in those days, which included far more than just states’ rights and slavery. The nation was a powder keg at the time, and the conflict that came was unstoppable, a cancer that the nation had to battle to get rid of. Those times generated a lot of good music that few people today have ever heard.
Dylan seems to have been conscious from an early age of what he wanted to do in life: to be a folk singer, and to make a mark in the world that way. Fame and wealth were not objectives; in fact, he anticipated working in relative obscurity while recording for some minor folk music label, rather than becoming a mainstream artist. He never expected to become as big as his idol Woodie Guthrie.
Suddenly readers are shifted forward in time ten years. Imagine an autobiography by John Lennon, in which he skips covering most of what happened to him between ages twenty and thirty. It’s kind of an important period in his life, don’tcha think?
Still, the stories Dylan tells of events that are highlights from his own perspective, particularly of recording sessions for certain key albums, are remarkably cogent and informative.
Finally, readers are time-shifted once again back to the signing of his record deal, to his discovery on the very same day of blues man Robert Johnson by means of an unreleased acetate John Hammond gave him, as Columbia had bought all Johnson’s recordings and intended to release them, and to a scene of Dylan, who had worked hard recently to manufacture himself, feeling a sense of destiny, that something big was about to happen — as indeed it did.
Will there be a Chronicles: Volume 2? I certainly hope so.
To quote a famous old Alka-Seltzer commercial, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” That was a long song.
If you are searching for an intelligent review of the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, look elsewhere. The book has been out for a few years. Plenty of literati of all sorts, including hyper-, semi-, and il-, the type who like to read their own writing, have attempted to scribe meaningful words about it. Some of it may even be good reading. I’ll never know, and I’ll avoid getting into that fray myself.
Ulysses seems to be telling a story about some poor cuckold named Leopold Bloom, and another sad sack named Steven Dedalus, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you what it is. Reading the book is like overhearing a private conversation, or maybe a guy talking in his sleep.
Whatever it is the book was about, the language was certainly impressive, even if I didn’t get the drift — as drift it indeed did. The language contains non-stop puns and references, tons of which I even got, much to my surprise. Hey, I’m no dummy. I’ve read stuff. I can’t help but be impressed by the virtuosity, if need for intelligibility is discounted as a necessary value.
What the book tells me about James Joyce himself — supposedly a lot, as we’re told the character of Steven Dedalus is autobiographical — is that he’s arrogant, and that of the top one hundred people in the arts I would love to have been able to meet, he wouldn’t have made the list. I sincerely doubt he could have been a friend of mine.
Another bucket list item checked off.
I would pass here many times
At the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run in September of last year, Newton Baker placed first in our mutual age group. I logged the second greatest amount of mileage in that age group, but wasn’t a registered USATF runner, so didn’t qualify to receive a medal for my achievement.
Newton proceeded to rib me: “You should’a joined USATF. If you’da been a member then you’da not only had a good race, you’da had a medal!” In that moment I resolved to return again in 2011, do my best, and secure a medal for myself.
Which I did. But how well did I do? Depends on how you tell the story. Spin is everything.
Last weekend my hope and realistic expectation was to finish with mileage in the mid-seventies. My actual finishing distance of 61.48 miles was exactly a half mile more than my personal 24-hour worst, set two years ago, and 3.93 miles less than last year. (For perspective, compare that to my personal best of 83.716 miles, set in 2001.) That made my overall finishing position (counting both genders) 125th out of 186 who logged distance, so 61 runners finished behind me. Of those not one was my age or older. In other words: many younger runners ran further than I did; a few older runners ran further than I did; but none of the runners I outperformed are older than me.
Got that? Does it mean much? Not a thing.
As I hoped, I earned my coveted medal for being second in the 65–69 age group in a national championship, the first medal other than a generic finisher’s medal I’ve ever gotten in a race. Woo, woo! Taken at face value it sounds impressive, right? Of course, Newton Baker won it again. He could beat me hopping on one leg. (Come to think of it, he’s got a nasty pin in one ankle that makes it difficult for him to run.) There was only one other runner in our age group but he didn’t register with USATF, or he would have walked off with the third place medal. But I did beat him, too.
At my age about all a person has to do to medal is show up. Knowing that, I trained a whole year to be able to do just that. I should have made a sign that said, “Don’t meddle with the man with the mettle to medal.”
The experience was rewarding as always.
These affairs invariably follow a similar progression.
First there’s the meet-greet phase, reunions with everyone you’ve known from previous races or from the Internet, while making new friends. Good vibes are always in abundant supply before a race.
In the close-knit world of ultrarunning I get to hug a lot of vibrantly healthy women. Hugged Debbie. Hugged Julie. Hugged Debra. Hugged Lisa. Hugged Shannon. Hugged some women I have no idea who they were, but who apparently know me. I don’t mind. And my wife is a real good sport.
Dinner the night before was a doubly-special occasion, as it happened to be Suzy and my thirty-third wedding anniversary. Spending it with me at a race (not the first time, probably not the last) is further proof that she’s a good sport. Suzy enjoyed a Glenlivet with dinner. Single malt scotch whiskey may be my favorite taste in the whole world, and I haven’t had any in at least a year, but I remained alcohol-deprived because of the race the next morning. The evening before a race is no occasion for crapulous behavior. The food was good, the noise level of conversation, centered entirely on running, was animated and loud for a group of mostly sober people.
We arrived at the numinous running shrine at Edgewater Park by 7:25 a.m. on Saturday, September 17, to find hordes of runners and crews bustling about, already setting up, the tent village largely formed. I still managed to carve out a good spot for myself at my preferred location, exactly the same as the previous two years.
In recent years I’ve learned to execute these affairs mostly without any crew support at all. Suzy helped me set up my table, then scurried off to help with with registration. She left early to return to (race director Dan and) Debbie Horvath’s house in order to help with preparing breakfast for the next morning. I never saw her during the middle twenty-two hours of the race.
Some of the newer folks fret obsessively about gear and clothing and gels and performance products, but I’m betting all that fuss does little to help them. All a person really needs to do is to train well, show up on time, put down maybe a chair and a gym bag — to hold the gym bag off the ground, because after all you come there to run, not sit in a chair — and keep exercising gumption until the race is over. The rest usually takes care of itself, and if you need help it’s not hard to find some.
My system entails the use of a folding camp table; a white hard plastic box about the size of a shoebox filled mostly with chemical substances — Succeed, ibuprofen, Pepcid A/C, ginger, sunscreen, lip balm, caffeine, and potassium; a gym bag with extra clothing; a single water bottle; and a camp chair, just in case.
If I’d had a crew urging me to eat or drink this or that when I didn’t want to eat or drink this or that, or to run faster when I couldn’t, I probably would have decked them. I’m always doing the best I can, even when that’s not very good. In fact, especially then. In an ultra, if you’re comfortable, you probably aren’t running hard enough.
The first four hours of the race I ran most of the time, except for the short segments on the 0.90075-mile loop where the path rises slightly. Unless you are a runner who expects to be able to run the entire 24 hours, running up even gentle inclines is a needless waste of energy.
The day was beautiful and cool, and the long-familiar racetime ambiance served happily to divert my attention away from the many cares that have preoccupied my thoughts day and night of late, allowing me to concentrate only on running, enjoying the experience at the beginning, knowing that discomfort and suffering were advancing like a cavalry charge and would soon envelop me. From hours eight until twelve I still ran as much as I could, but increasingly less.
I was the last person to finish a lap before the twelve-hour halfway split, at which time I had gone 41.43 miles. This compares with 45.04 last year, which I regarded as exceptional at the time; I expected to get less this year.
Even though by this time I was already reduced to walking most of the time, my plan of action for getting well into the 70-mile range was to stay out on the road longer. Both the previous two years I had terrible troubles fighting sleep. Furthermore, I learned to my dismay that for me caffeine tablets either serve as a miracle drug, or they upset my stomach so badly I get dry heaves. Not fun.
My new strategy for staying awake depended on heavy doses of Red Bull, one can per hour during the late night hours, a technique I learned from Jan Ryerse in 2003, when he won the Across the Years 72-hour race, and I was second male finisher. Jan didn’t sleep the entire race, nor for several hours before and after it.
There was only one minor caveat to that plan. I’ve drunk only one can of Red Bull in my life and I hated it. But I know it’s effective, so I’d just chugalug the contents like medicine and get on with business. Ultramarathons are not occasions for gourmet dining. How bad could it be? Red Bull may be unadulterated poison, but some people actually drink the stuff because they like it.
When I ran my proposal by sagacious Dr. Lisa Bliss before the race, she wondered if I’d ever actually tried it. Well, no. In addition to the caffeine, Red Bull has large amounts of sugar to deal with. It could lead to a crash. The caution may have affected me psychologically.
Clever plans are often subject to the vicissitudes of reality, and there was indeed a flaw in my method. I ate and drank copiously while topping off my electrolytes with Succeed regularly the first twelve hours, just as a wise ultrarunner ought to do, and was feeling fine — until I ate that second slice of pizza not long before the halfway point. That’s when mild nausea set in, along with the indomitable realization that it was bedtime. My habit of late is to turn in somewhere between nine and ten p.m., since it’s not unusual for me to get up around four a.m., sometimes even earlier. My normal day, one in which I’d worked very hard physically, was coming to a close, but I had a much tougher one still ahead of me.
I tried to remind myself it was still at least an hour too early to start on the Red Bull, but the arguments I presented were moot because I just wanted to crash like an airplane running on fumes. The grass by the side of the path was looking mighty tempting. In the end I never touched the stuff, as I was unable to convince myself that pouring bad-tasting sugar-and-caffeine-laced jet fuel into my already protesting stomach would be a good idea.
Also, the temperature was dropping and there was a bit of wind whipping up off the lake. The low temperature at night was about 50 degrees, not bitter, but uncomfortable for a greatly slowed runner wearing soggy, stinking clothing. My gloves (wet with night moisture), a jacket, and a sweatshirt were barely adequate. Some runners ran with far less, and Jonathan Savage, on his way to over 146 miles, ran without a shirt the entire night.
I took advantage of the fact that Suzy left our car at the park for me and crawled into the back seat, where I fell sound asleep in a few seconds, intending to sleep just long enough to knock out the grogginess — maybe ten or fifteen minutes. When I woke up I misread my watch and was flummoxed into thinking — mistakenly — that I had slept well over five hours, thereby obliterating any possibility of having a good race. What I really saw was the time elapsed since the last time I pressed the lap split button on my timer, which I didn’t automatically do each lap, and hadn’t done for hours.
Furthermore, when I got back on the track, my head still in a fog, I didn’t realize that the race clock, which evidently doesn’t count any higher than 12:00:00, had been reset at the midpoint (9:00 p.m.) to count backwards to zero — and I never heard any announcement about that. It took me at least three laps to realize that, then to calculate the time of day, from which I estimated I was only down for an hour or so. Don’t ask why it never occurred to me to simply switch my watch to the time mode to get the time of day. An hour was still longer than I intended, but much better than over five. It also meant that I had a long time to go before the end of the race.
Alas, all good intentions to the contrary, I continued to fight drowsiness until dawn. As usual, when the first signs of light appeared, by which time I’m usually halfway through a pot of coffee and busy with projects, my energy returned, and I managed to keep on shuffling along among the other survivors until the end.
8:00 a.m. Sunday
At 8:00 a.m. Suzy appeared on the path with a camera to record my sorry condition for posterity, then disappeared into the ramada to help with breakfast.
At the end, there are always runners who quit after the last whole lap they can get in, but as always, I grabbed a stick with my number on it and pressed on to log as many additional 100-yard segments as possible before the siren sounded and everyone still on the track suddenly stopped in their tracks and dropped their sticks, which must be fun to see standing in the middle.
Last crossing, partial lap to go
And so another successful North Coast 24-Hour USATF National Championship Endurance Run came to an end. Runners out on the course staggered across open fields back to the start area to get some delicious breakfast (for those who could stomach it), pack up, and listen as race director Dan Horvath read off the names (but in a break with tradition, not the mileages, which were still not official) of the top ten open performers in each gender (there’s money for the top three), then announced the age group winners. Mercifully, Dan finished up the awards in record time. Afterward, it didn’t take long for most runners and crew to vamoose, while clean-up crews stayed behind.
Since 1999 I’ve spent 34 24-hour days of my life circling tracks, not counting any of the 2010 Across the Years 72-hour race, which illness exacerbated by foul weather forced me to bail out of after seven and a half hours. Fixed-time running is my favorite format because it suits my personal skill set, training methods, and personality well. Whether I will be running any more such races remains to be seen. All good things come to an end, and no one does just one thing his whole life. I have no current plans for another race, but I’ve learned not to burn any bridges behind me.
North Coast is an excellent race, entirely deserving of recognition as the US national championship. It’s customary after successful events to hear cascades of bathetic plaudits from satisfied customers, along with the inevitable slew of affirmations that declare: “I’m definitely coming back to this one next year!” as runners always assume that there will be a next year. Whether there will be a North Coast race in 2012, I have heard from good authority, is a question that has by no means been determined. But if there is, it will be a good race.
As of July 25, 2011, I have migrated over 130 articles from my Neologistics blog, where since August 2005 I have posted many unsorted articles, including items unrelated to editing, writing, or literature. The articles copied from the old site have all been labeled with the category LEGACY.
It has been a longstanding shortcoming of Google’s otherwise excellent blog service that authors cannot order the display in any way except chronologically, with the newest material on top. In contrast, WordPress allows assigning any number of categories to any post, allowing visitors variety in sifting and sorting.
In addition, it also makes sense to me not to have to support two blogs at once. This morning I posted my last article to the old site, announcing my intention to use this one exclusively from now on.
The job of migration is done. Each older article’s publication date has been revised to show the date of its original publication on the other site.
Readers may find some of these articles enjoyable. I invite you to explore and by all means provide feedback if you would like.
Image via Wikipedia
If it weren’t so annoying I’d laugh at the words written on my Honda gasoline-powered powersprayer’s engine. It says:
One is led to conjecture they display this expression to convey a sense of contrast with the sort of gas-engine-powered tools that often require a combination of Olympic athleticism and incantations to foreign gods to spur them into an operational state.
However, my “easy start” powersprayer sometimes takes up to twenty vigorous tugs on the cord, pumping the choke, releasing pressure from the sprayer wand, and invocations of divine assistance to accomplish the task, bringing cascades of sweat to my fit body, and requiring me to take breaks to catch my breath every several yanks.
Frankly, that process does not fulfill my idea of “easy start.” In fact, it’s my idea of “extremely difficult to start,” and therefore seems to be a rather strange choice of phrase to feature in one inch letters on the engine. It might as well also say ELECTRIC POWERED, which is also a lie.
My Honda automobile — that’s what I think of when I see the words “easy start.” I barely have to blink or breathe and it starts right up, and quietly. It’s never failed me, even in winter. But nowhere on the displayed text anywhere in my car can I find the words “easy start.” You’d think that if Honda wants to display the words “easy start” at all, they’d choose to write them on a device that is actually easy to start rather than one that is almost impossible to start. Don’tcha think?
Last month my much needed cheapo Black & Decker GrassHog string trimmer broke, and I couldn’t fix it. I decided to invest in a tool that might actually work — a Stihl trimmer. But which model to buy? I perused the Stihl website product listings, then went to a local dealer and offered my throat to a young salesman. These gizmos are not cheap, and I don’t have money to spare right now. It came down to a choice between one model and another similar model that features a cleaner-burning engine and an “easy start” engine. Hmmm. The less featureful model was already more than I wanted to spend, so I opted for that one.
The salesguy took the device to the back room service center behind nearby closed doors to start it up for the first time for me and verify the instrument actually works. I stood there for several minutes listening to the trimmer’s gasps and chuffs, accompanied by an assortment of grunts and oaths being uttered by the team of two strapping lads working on it. Brand new machine. Wouldn’t start in five minutes of physically exhausting effort.
I stuck my head in through the doors and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to buy this thing.” The two guys appeared to be bewildered and disappointed, but what could they do? I left, but this left me trimmerless. I considered just buying another one of the kind that broke and using it until that one broke, too. (That one is electric, and at least starts, but has the disadvantage of having to drag around a 30-pound 75-foot cord wherever I’m working.)
About two weeks later a minor windfall came my way. While I was in North Carolina, where my in-laws live, I visited the Stihl dealer there, where my father-in-law bought his. After talking to another knowledgeable young salesman, I selected the FS 56 model, the same basic unit as at the other dealer, but this one with the cleaner-burning engine and the so-called “easy start” system.
This time I followed the salesman outside, where he poured in a bit of gasoline, and prepared to test it. One easy pull. Ka-chuff. Nothing. A second easy pull. Brrrrrrr. Started right up. Runs quietly. That’s more like it.
We walked out the door with that trimmer. Getting it in the Honda Accord was more of a problem than I had anticipated, particularly inasmuch as I had to pack in a lot of stuff around it for our six-hour drive home the next day.
But guess what? The Stihl doesn’t display the words EASY START prominently anywhere on the tool.
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Image via Wikipedia
I had a dream last night about Queen Elizabeth II. Lovely woman, that one.
She came to our locality for a visit, accompanied only by a male attendant, whom I presumed to be a personal secretary.
She spoke at a function I was at, of undefined purpose.
I walked a few steps behind her as she and her attendant headed off to a bus stop. A bicyclist whizzed by coming from the opposite direction, coming carelessly close. The Queen’s hat flew off. Apparently she didn’t even notice. I picked it up, and ran the few steps to catch up to her, handed her her hat, and introduced myself. She thanked me.
We met shortly afterward at a social gathering at my house to pay respects to the Queen. People sat around drinking coctails and eating hors d’oeuvres. Elizabeth briefly leaned back, inadvertently flashing me a view much further up her dress than would have been considered appropriate for any lady, let alone a queen. I looked away in respect.
A young friend arrived, didn’t know who it was that was sitting not far away, and when told, not knowing the right way to behave, fell on the floor obsequiously and in tears, his face pressed to the carpet.
Later, Elizabeth and her secretary made it to the bus, but I hadn’t had a chance to talk to her because I’d been busy tending to the needs of my guests. (I was alone and had no wife to help me.) I hopped on a bicycle and got in the path of the bus, forcing it to stop and open its doors. A swarm of secret service types suddenly appeared to protect the Queen. I apologized and explained that I simply wanted to thank her for coming to my home, that it was an honor and a pleasure to have her, and to wish her a good return trip home. My explanation was graciously received by all. I waved bye-bye to the Queen and she returned the gesture.
It was one of the longest multi-part extended dreams that I can remember.
Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Recently I read a news story that referred to Osama Bin Laden as the “former leader of al-Qaeda”. Former? Ha! Perhaps so in the same way that Hitler is a former Nazi, or Ted Bundy a former serial murderer, if we may refer to them at all in the present tense. But somehow in such cases it seems that “former” is not quite le mot juste. Why are people afraid to use the word dead regarding these guys?
Bin Laden is indisputably no longer in a position to head up al-Qaeda as long as he remains in a deceased state. Presumably, having been given an honorable funeral to prevent ticking off any more terrorists, he has gone wherever good terrorists go when they die, and has been busy fooling around with the army of virgins promised to him by his spiritual advisers, who I’m sure checked their holy books at least twice to be sure they could rightly offer that reward. This strikes me as a terrible waste of virgins. I’ll bet he’s real sorry now about all the mean things he did, too. Former my foot.
Wouldn’t it be funny if that teaching turned out to be true, but when he got there the virgins all turned out to be thirteen-year-old boys? A little detail his holy men forgot to mention. Maybe the God of terrorists has a sense of humor; his worshipers certainly don’t.
What can I say? Religion often makes people stupid. But that’s a topic for another post someday, and I’ve digressed.
Some designations remain for life, even though the designee goes on to other things; and some do not.
In 2011 it would be inappropriate to call the Boston Celtics the National Basketball Association champions, even though they have won that championship seventeen times. At this writing the Dallas Mavericks hold that title. That a team has to compete for it and win it in successive years, and with different team members, is an indication that the honor, while memorable for a lifetime, is not permanently current. There is only one NBA championship team at any given time. Therefore, the Boston Celtics are presently former NBA champs. They have been seventeen times, and could very well be such many more times in the future.
A use I’ve often heard for “former” is in reference to various Beatles, who as a band have earned a unique station in the world of popular music. Paul McCartney is often called a former Beatle, and true enough, I’ve never heard Paul himself dispute the term. However, even though John, Paul, George, and Ringo no longer work together and never will, the ghost of the band’s business is still going strong. New Beatles-branded product is periodically released to the world, and continues to sell very well. In this no one has a greater hand of overseership than Paul McCartney himself. No item is labeled as being from the Beatles unless Paul says it can be, undoubtedly with Ringo’s agreement.
If a Beatle still exists it would be Paul, and if Paul is a Beatle, then the same reasoning would include Ringo, but the case for Paul is much stronger. In both my mind and my heart Paul and Ringo are Beatles, and will never be former Beatles as long as they live. John and George are not former Beatles. Sadly, they’re merely dead Beatles, but by the terms I’ve just described remained actual Beatles as long as they lived, regardless of the band’s inactivity.
In the United States we use “former” in cases where someone definitely changes course and does not return to it. We write of former presidents, because these men (and someday women) step down, and another person takes their place, though I’ll admit that their status is muddied somewhat in that ex-presidents by accepted convention continue to brandish the honorific Mr. President for the rest of their lives. In comparison, we do not do the same for former US senators. When their terms of office expire and they are replaced, as long as they are living, they are former senators. When Harry S. Truman was elected vice president, he became a former senator.
Therefore, I would urge authors and copyeditors alike to agree to save “former” for cases where someone still living definitely changes course and completely relinquishes all evidence of still holding claim to the title formerly bestowed on him.
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In the venerable British tradition of estate naming, we call our house Haddon Hall. We named it that because we live on Haddon Road in Columbus, Ohio, also in tribute to a beautiful English medieval castle by that name. We would love to put up a sign that says that HADDON HALL — perhaps carved on a big rock or stone tablet, or engraved on a brass plate.
Our Haddon Hall is home to us, but we also identify ourselves as its residents by means of the brass knocker on our front door. It says, in mixed case and a classy serif font, Newton, because that’s our name. We see no need to add anything more. The meaning is clear.
Signage is written in an extreme form of headline style, the type of writing used in titles of newspaper articles, where the objective is to say exactly what is needed using as few words and letters as possible.
Sometimes context fills in meaning that culturally literate readers are expected to supply for themselves. For instance, if you drive anywhere in the United States and see a thirty-inch wide octagonal sign with white letters in Helvetica Narrow Bold font, and a white border on a red background that says STOP, you know what it means. “The law requires you to bring your vehicle to a full stop right here.” But heaven help us all if we had to read all that on a sign. The simple imperative without punctuation is sufficient to communicate the desired conduct.
Returning to houses, think about the variations of style we observe on signs naming their residents. I first became conscious of this thirty-three years ago by means of a painted ceramic plaque above the door at the home of some friends named Olson. They are both now deceased, so I’ll honor their memory by using them as an example, while also poking fun at them posthumously, because their sign was wrong.
The simplest and most logical identifier would have been just the family name: Olson. Because Olson is commonly recognized as a name, no further explanation is needed to explain that’s the name of the people who live there. It could also have said Eggs, because they raised chickens and sold the eggs. Few people would have mistaken a sign with that word as someone’s name, particularly inasmuch as you had to drive right by the chicken yard to get to the house.
The Olsons, with the definite article and plural family name would have been acceptable, even though it says more than is needed. It suggests the sentence, “The Olsons live here,” or “The Olson family lives here.”
Olsons in the plural is marginally acceptable, but with some names may be ambiguous. Is it really plural, or is the final s part of their name? I found numerous examples among the commonest surnames where both the spelling with and without the “s” are common: Meyer and Meyers; Owens and Owen; Richard and Richards; Wood and Woods, and so forth. Specifying the definite article along with the correct plural form removes all doubt.
The Olson’s Bzzt! Wrong! (What was on my friends’ door.) Any form using an apostrophe forms the possessive, in this case, possession by one single Olson. The implied sentence is “This is the home belonging to the Olson,” meaning the one and only Olson in the whole wide world; and seems to present a question fragment: “The (one and only) Olson’s . . . what?” But there are many Olsons, and in this and most other cases there was more than one Olson to be found living behind these walls.
The Olsons’ is the plural possessive, and like the previous example, seems to ask a question, but in this case suggests the meaning is “The Olsons’ house.” There’s nothing grossly incorrect with this, but it looks wrong. Why slant the identification toward the structure, when the purpose of the sign is likely to identify the residents, not house itself?
I’m all for using the simplest form possible in such signage.
 You may not know the font, but you’ll notice if it’s something else. In fact, sometimes we see stop signs on private property (in malls) that are not provided by official sources, and that sometimes look slightly different. I remember coasting through one of those once, whereupon Suzy admonished me that I missed the sign. I told her, “Show me a real stop sign and I’ll show you a real stop.”
While I was an engineer at Motorola, I began editing the written work of others on a regular basis, and in doing so, discovered my ability to tear into someone else’s writing and make it better without making the author feel bad. What I did wasn’t a customary or assigned part of my job, so was never called anything as formally precise as copyediting. Instead, people called it get Lynn to look it over, meaning that I was expected to perform special favors for colleagues whenever asked.
The cycle would begin when someone in my department or a nearby cubicle dweller produced a report or proposal or some software documentation. The stuckee would wander by my office with a printed copy of first draft quality material and ask, “Hey Lynn, I’ve just finished writing this here massive tome that’s due this afternoon. Would you mind looking it over? Y’know, just to make sure I didn’t make no typos or nothing.” Apparently most people assumed I had nothing else to do, that the results of their labors were close to flawless, and that I could check over a seventy-five-page report in ten or fifteen minutes, maybe while eating lunch (which I never did, but that’s another story). I was always glad to help out because I enjoyed the work, and somehow I always managed to work it in with the other things I was doing.
As the process repeated itself, and those requesting my help saw their work returned with twenty or more edits per page, they discovered that I was actually pretty good at this looking things over business. That’s when some of them started showing up with their teenagers’s junior college term papers. I didn’t mind, especially if the students were trying their hardest to produce good work.
Rather than being insulted when I transformed their work from gobbledygook to something intelligible, authors were usually appreciative (or I wouldn’t have done it!), relieved that they hadn’t tried to submit their stuff without having another pair of eyes “look it over,” examining it critically.
That’s how doing other people favors came to be a part of my job that was never covered in performance reviews, but led to a new career in later years.
Cover of Washington: A Life
Cover of A. Lincoln: A Biography
Most reading for the purpose of taking in information is remedial — don’tcha think? After all, if you already know a subject, why read about it again?
By the time a man gets to be my age, the scope of his sense of cultural literacy should encompass the essential facts regarding the lives and places in history of figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, information that falls into the Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! quiz question category “Things you should have learned in school if you’d been paying attention.”
So why do they publish new biographies of Washington and Lincoln, guys we all learned about in grade school, that are written for and sold mostly to adults? Is it because we never heard of them? Or because we need to know more?
For several years my personal reading has slanted heavily toward a great deal of material about United States history, cruising along in a sequence that has been informed by my provoked curiosity. In the process I’ve filled in gaps — chasms, really — in my knowledge base, coming to understand important events and personages from this nation’s history that I should have absorbed long ago, but — well, I didn’t, so what can I say? But now I’m not so much of an ignoramus as I was formerly.
Happily convenient to my reading program has been the availability of two recent one-volume biographies, one each about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which I read one after the other. Somehow, in my nearly sixty-eight years of life I had missed studying much about either one. It’s true that I was forced to read a biography of George Washington in eighth grade and write a book report on it, but all I remembered from the experience was that Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree and confess it to his father when confronted — but was nonetheless exemplary as an honest man of integrity; and he didn’t throw a silver dollar across the Potomac, which would have been a waste of money — but he once demonstrated arm strength that suggests he likely would have been able to nail a runner at home plate from the center field fence in Huston’s Minute Maid Park with one throw. All of which is more than I knew about Abraham Lincoln.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow is more than merely informative. As a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize (shortly after I finished reading it), it’s been recognized by highfalutin types inclined to give awards for that sort of thing as being an outstanding piece of historical writing. I would be ill-equipped to disagree.
The reputation of George Washington the man needs no more approbation from me than it has already received from history. (Whoever that is.) Let us make allowance for his being a leading rebel against the established order of his time; a slaveowner; a presider over hangings; and the hands-on leader of masses of men engaged in wholesale slaughter, whose personal engagement and ferocity makes John Rambo look like a girlie man. If we acknowledge these realities as acceptable behavior for the time and circumstances under which Washington lived, then added to all the other things he accomplished it would be hard to deny that Washington was one of the most notable and highly accomplished men in world history.
My experience reading Chernow’s account of Washington’s life acquired the properties of a daily lesson. Each morning when I arose, my thoughts soon became fixed on sitting down to devour the next installment. And I didn’t hurry through it, but picked at it in swallows of ten to twenty pages per sitting. When I finished I felt I had been truly enlightened about an important person to whom I had formerly paid little attention. I’m glad I bought a copy of this book for myself rather than checking it out of the library, because I’m sure I’ll never remember it all.
There are just as many biographies of Abraham Lincoln, some of them massive, some very old, and many highly specialized. (Books on Lincoln’s early formative years, books focusing on Lincoln’s two years as a US Congressman, books on his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, and so forth.) For more than a year I searched for a relatively recent one-volume general biography targeted at intelligent adult lay readers (not historians), and had concluded there isn’t one, when one day, during the time I was reading Chernow’s book on Washington, I was in Bexley Library and just happened to stumble across A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr. on a display stand. It took less than ten seconds of thumbing through it to conclude it was exactly what I had been looking for.
The writing of A. Lincoln, while fascinating, never boring, and certainly accurate, seems less inspired than Chernow’s account of Washington. Perhaps if I had not read them one after the other I would be more lavish with my praise for it, since I can’t really cite any of its faults.
Well, maybe one. Mr. White opted to end the book quite abruptly, barely two pages following the death of Lincoln by assassination. We must assume that doing so was the result of a conscious decision on the part of White, no doubt based on the proposition that as a story of the life of Lincoln there was no need to tell more of the tale after he died.
However, typical of most biographies, White dwells in some detail on what is known about Lincoln’s parents and other ancestors in order to set the stage for establishing his life as a self-made, hard-working, poor country boy. This information is welcome, but I imagine that even as famous an event as Lincoln’s assassination is, and having just completed a whole book about Lincoln so as to become attached to the man, most readers will have questions they would have liked to see addressed from the author’s viewpoint, such as: a summary of what became of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators, still sufficiently interesting that there’s a current movie about it; and with the Civil War freshly over, and freshly inaugurated for a second term as president, what role may Abraham Lincoln have been able to play in giving direction to the coming Reconstruction period? Surely his input would have been more productive than the controversial machinations of Andrew Johnson, who barely escaped being thrown out of office on his keister.
Inquiring minds want to know.
At 436 feet, Minute Maid Park is currently the longest yard in the major leagues.
Cover via Amazon
Cover via Amazon
In January 2011 I read Life by Keith Richards. In April I followed that with Eric Clapton’s earlier book: Clapton: The Autobiography. It was inevitable that readers who read both will see comparisons between these two icons of rock and roll. I doubt I’m the first to do so.
I’ve never been one of Eric Clapton’s ardent fans. I’ll admit to liking his album Unplugged very much, and to playing some Cream covers when I played in bars many years ago. The main reason I consumed his biography was because I stumbled across it shortly after reading Richards’s.
Although I had a rock band myself in the late sixties and greatly admire the creativity and musicianship of both the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, I’m no longer sufficiently obsessed by rock and roll that I follow the lives of performers — with the notable exception of the Beatles. Therefore, my purpose here is to compare what I know about these two men on the basis of what they told me themselves in the pages of their books. If you want to read reviews of the books you can try the New York Times articles Stray Cat Blues by Liz Phair, about the Richards biography, and for Clapton’s book, Slowhand by Stephen King — yes that Stephen King, who is allegedly a capable amateur rock and roll guitarist himself. I’ll disclaim any inaccuracies herein that are attributable to lies, exaggerations, or misrepresentations by the authors. Are there any? In all probability, yes.
Keith Richards’s tale is downright entertaining. Life is indisputably a page-turner, a thoroughly fun read, if you wear hip boots and don’t drag your feet through the vulgar parts. He made me laugh out loud often. James Fox is credited as co-author, but throughout it is the voice of Keith Richards that we hear, including his edgy sense of humor.
Eric Clapton’s prose, presumably fussed over by skilled but anonymous editors, delivers straightforward, “brutally” honest, and unmodulating narrative, with far less digression and color than Keith Richards injects in his own account. Honesty is always a good thing. Brutality never is, and sometimes the blows come hard and fast.
We suffer hearing about it anyhow, because Clapton relates the firsthand account of someone talented, popular, rich, and famous, someone whose life provides vicarious fulfillment of fantasies for not a few readers; but some of the details regarding Clapton’s difficulties with heroin and then alcohol become a little tiresome, even if these must be told in order to render a complete story.
To begin with the obvious: Both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are Englishmen from the same era. Richards was born on December 18, 1943, Clapton on March 30, 1945. Both were from lower-middle-class families in an overtly class-conscious nation. Neither cared much about school. Richards had legitimate parents, but an unusual relationship with them. Clapton was illegitimate, and until he was nine believed that his grandparents were his parents, his uncle was his older brother, and his mother was his aunt. Eric Clapton is an unusually good-looking chick magnet, though recent pictures suggest he’s acquired a bit of a gut; today Keith Richards is outright scary to behold, but I think he likes the impression his ugliness makes.
As very young fellows both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton discovered and became enchanted by Chicago blues music. This was not a common interest among English boys. And of course, both became obsessively interested in playing the guitar in an attempt to learn to play this music themselves. Richards would sometimes even sleep with his guitar, cuddling it like a woman. But despite their similar roots, the two men became radically different guitarists.
Both Richards and Clapton have been deeply dedicated to quality music-making their whole careers; but their methods have found expression in different ways.
Richards has shown tenacity in his determination to keep his band together, with as few personnel changes as possible, and notwithstanding a history of feuds with Mick Jagger. For this I sincerely commend him, because of my own longstanding belief that the best music is made not by star soloists in front of a mediocre band of hirelings, but by small ensembles of performers who grow while working together for many years.
The longevity of the Rolling Stones is legendary. They formed a few years after John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met, have continued working together for forty years since the Beatles broke up, and the party is by no means over. No one will be surprised if they make yet another album and go out on tour again, when all of the core players are now old men pushing seventy years of age.
While the role of Mick Jagger in this must not be underestimated, Jagger was almost the one to put an end to it. I’m convinced that it has been Richards, more than any other member, who has been the most passionate about the Rolling Stones’ music, and the primary driving force in keeping the band together, continuing to create, record, and tour. Still, it’s clear that if either Jagger or Richards were to bail out, the Rolling Stones would be over.
In their earliest years the Rolling Stones were deeply interested in Chicago blues. For years their repertoire consisted almost entirely of covers of songs from that genre. But when they began recording, Richards and Jagger started writing songs together — after being locked in a room and forced to do it the first time. Their collaboration has been more productive in quantity than that of Lennon and McCartney, and the quality has not been too shabby either.
They developed their own distinctive style of rock and roll built upon an inimitable lead singer; raucous backup vocal harmonies laid over a bedrock of simple, physically imposing riffs, and what Richards calls “guitar weaving;” the rock solid drumming of Charlie Watts; and the better than adequate bass playing of Bill Wyman (until he retired a few years ago). It’s been good stuff for listeners who like that kind of thing.
In contrast, Clapton has proclaimed himself to be an idealistic purist about his music-making, and left several bands in succession at the peak of their popularity (much of the acclaim attributable to him) when the musical environment didn’t suit him, particularly whenever it seemed to veer away from pure blues and into commercial and overtly money-making pop and rock pursuits. Heaven knows he’s made a jillion dollars despite this finickiness, and has been in demand as a guitarist, singer, and composer, both as leader and as a featured sideman, his entire career.
Keith Richards does on occasion appear in contexts outside the Rolling Stones, but he does so rarely and seems not to fit in easily anywhere outside the domain he has created for his own unique talents. Clapton can do it because frankly he is a more skilled guitarist and general musician than Richards in that he can sit in with a group of similarly experienced musicians and play a million songs with little or no rehearsal. If he had not become a star, he would still be making an excellent living as a studio musician.
Keith Richards is not a flashy guitar hero type of virtuoso that Clapton has allowed himself to be, and never has been. To his credit, this has been at least in part according to his personal choice, as he is more concerned with the sound of his guitar: the rawness, the uniqueness of the riffs he invents, the texture, and especially the voicings of chords that are made possible by his playing on five-string instruments using an open G tuning (G–D–G–B–D) that give songs such as the popular rock anthem Start Me Up a sound that is often imitated but never duplicated except by players who take the trouble to learn how to play in open G tuning.
The reason I know about this is because Richards devotes quite a bit of space in his book to discussing musical techniques, and in doing so, also reveals much about his own dedication to the music he makes. But Clapton, other than expressing his like or dislike for certain songs, styles, and bands, and sometimes for special instruments, rarely discusses in his book the music he has played at even a simple technical level.
Both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton have led lives of pitiful self-indulgence, free from much sense of obligation to follow common standards of accountability for what they do. Both were heroin addicts who took years to get off the junk. Thereafter, Clapton had a nightmarish time with alcohol, and almost killed himself with drinking, but has been sober for years. In 1997 he founded the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a facility for the treatment of addictive disorders, including drugs and alcohol.
Richards has nurtured his outlaw image. When he suffered a severe head injury that resulted in brain surgery, he received good wishes from Tony Blair, who told him, “You’ve always been one of my heroes,” to which Richards quipped, “England’s in the hands of somebody who I’m a hero of? It’s frightening.”
How is it that we as a society have come to condone and even endorse aberrant behavior of people just because they are rich and famous in the world of popular music? (The same could be asked of sports and movie personalities.) It seems automatic that a part of the compensation package for success in those pursuits is a license to live irresponsibly, because stars can do it and get away with it. No one other than a series of wronged spouses is likely to hold them accountable; their popularity will barely diminish, and even increase. They’ll still be famous, usually rich, and successful in their chosen careers.
Today, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton are by their own accounts happy family men rapidly approaching geezerhood. Clapton even married a much younger woman named Melia from here in Columbus, Ohio, has four daughters, and owns a home in nearby Dublin, though I understand he still spends more time at Hurtwood Edge, his home in Surrey, which he has owned since shortly after Cream disbanded.
Interestingly, Keith Richards has become a dedicated reader, with a beautiful library in his home in Connecticut. He even claims to read the Bible regularly. I don’t think Eric Clapton reads much more than the average person. (Which these days is not much.)
Although their pace has slowed, both Keith Richards and Eric Clapton continue to make music. I myself am a bit older than both of them. When we were all in our youth, rock and roll and popular music was exclusively the domain of young stars, their even younger fans, and a few older and more experienced but relatively anonymous professional backup musicians. All that has changed, as now former presidents of the United States and future monarchs of England, themselves in the same age bracket as the most venerable stars, enthusiastically attend the performances of the likes of Richards and Clapton. It will no doubt be interesting to see what sorts of things these guys produce in their dotage.
On Saturday night we had the pleasure of attending a concert by the Fry Street String Quartet at the Southern Theater in downtown Columbus, which we had not yet visited in our three-plus years of living in Ohio.
The Southern Theater, built originally in 1896, has a distinguished history of presenting theater productions featuring world-renowned performers. After closing for many years, it was refurbished, and reopened in 1998, now with 995 seats, a good size for the presentation of chamber music. It retains its late nineteenth century decor and character.
When we entered the theater’s auditorium we were surprised and delighted to encounter something I’ve never heard — an accomplished all-female string quartet of high-schoolers playing Debussy’s string quartet (quite a difficult piece to negotiate, with its constant ebb and flow) as people entered and found their seats. Part of Fry Street Quartet‘s trip to Ohio was devoted to meeting with and teaching young students. It seemed like an excellent opportunity for these young players to get some exposure of a type they would be unlikely to get otherwise, and I’m sure they were glad to do it, despite the many people in the audience who continued to socialize while they played. I called them the warm-up band.
The audience was about eighty-five percent people of retirement age. Okay — I’ll admit I’m a gray-hair myself, but I’ve been going to these things since I was old enough to sit still and behave, surely no older than four, and I never thought of myself as unusual for being at concerts as a kid. Some of the remaining audience members appeared to be music students, in training to entertain the next generation of gray-hairs.
I did not see even one black person at the concert, but saw one at the reception later.
Both of these observations bother me because they are constants, characteristic of the state of classical music in the twenty-first century; I have opinions about the whys and wherefores, but must save them for another post.
The Fry Street Quartet’s program was a heavyweight: Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 3, actually the first quartet Beethoven ever wrote; Bartok’s first string quartet; and Schubert’s best-known quartet, titled Death and the Maiden. They topped it off with a cleverly staged encore, a virtuosic rendition of the country fiddler’s tune Orange Blossom Special, performed with style and pizzazz, a treat which some people too anxious to get out the door missed.
Being disinclined to write descriptive reviews of musical performances (heaven save us from the ignorance and idiocy of the typical newspaper critic, particularly the dolt who wrote the Columbus Dispatch review of this concert), I’ll say only that the whole program was played with enormous enthusiasm and that the ensemble is tight as a Swiss watch, with a sound that’s warm, balanced, and transparent.
What more dare I say? They got all the notes right, and in tune to boot, no mean feat! They’ve won a bunch of prestigious awards and have played in numerous foreign countries. Isaac Stern loved and promoted them shortly before he died, and sponsored their Carnegie Hall debut that received rave reviews. I’ve been listening to string quartets my whole life, and have known all of the works they played at this concert, including the Bartok rarity, since childhood. They sparkle.
And while I’m at it — they’re all really good-looking, too. It helps with the presentation. I’d rather see attractive musicians than ugly ones, wouldn’t you? ‘Nuff said.
I must single out first violinist Will Fedkenheuer; he’s a force of nature. In addition to being a standout player, he’s animated, and is an articulate and humorous spokesman who even speaks loud enough to be heard in an auditorium without a microphone. He presented a fascinating analysis of the thematic material from the Bartok quartet before they played it, supplemented by his comical narration of the Orange Blossom Special.
Until I was well into adulthood it was almost unheard of for classical musicians to address an audience. Today it’s done frequently, almost routinely. Unfortunately, sometimes the chat is mumbled and badly prepared, and seems to be an obligation forced upon the performer who would rather just play. Also unfortunate is that sometimes the words are offered as a form of apologia prior to the performance of a contemporary work most people in today’s ultraconservative audiences will otherwise automatically hate before they have even heard it.
It’s likely that audiences today are less familiar with the music, so need a little coaching. They seem to enjoy it, so far be it from me to think I’m above that sort of thing.
One On One
For us, by far the most interesting aspect of this concert experience came from the one-off connection I have had with the Fry Street Quartet. I’ve been following their career since about 2001.
Co-founding violinist Rebecca McFaul is the niece of Tom McFaul, my musical partner from our mad rock and roll days of so many years ago, and still a good friend. Tom produced the Fry Street Quartet’s first CD, and also composed a five-movement quartet for them to play, which has now had several performances, including a live rendition on the air at WFMT studios in Chicago. Tom has kept me apprised of all the Fry Street Quartet news as it’s happened, which I’ve followed with enthusiasm, because they really are quite good.
I’ve communicated in e-mail with Rebecca on occasion, and she is in my Facebook friends list, but until Saturday I had never met any of the group in person.
A significant problem the ensemble has had to overcome has been adjusting to two personnel changes. This is no trivial matter for a chamber music group.
Artistic musical ensembles aren’t merely players who get together to play some concerts. Well, sometimes they are, but even so-called supergroups often fall short of what an ensemble that has played together for many years is able to accomplish.
The factor that above all makes a group click, the source of the magic, is the chemistry between individual players. And because no two people are the same, no two musical groups are the same, even if they play the same instruments and perform the same music. This principle holds true whether the organization being considered is the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, Simon and Garfunkle, or a string quartet. Replace one person and you’ve got an entirely different entity, whatever name you attach to it.
Several years ago, Fry Street Quartet’s original first violinist decided to move on. This is the most difficult position to fill. That they found Will Fedkenheuer, a whole echelon better than the player he replaced, is little short of miraculous. But it does take a great deal of time and accompanying anguish concerning the probabilities of a group’s survival in the interim to find just the right person and fully integrate that one.
More recently, the quartet’s co-founding violist also left. The new violist, Bradley Ottesen, has now been with the group about fifteen months — still the new boy by the standards of classical music ensembles. Happily, he too is a superb player with a golden sound. It’s the nature of the viola’s timbre that many instruments sound tubby, resulting sometimes in a quality that can uglify a group’s sound. Not so in this case.
After the concert we rushed backstage to finally be able to meet everyone. They kindly invited us to a reception at the home of some people who live in Hilliard, on the upscale west bank of the Scioto river. There I was able to connect with individual players better, especially Rebecca. And I was also able to enjoy some quality face time with Bradley Ottesen, finding myself able to negotiate a bit of viola talk, primed by my family experience, in that that my father was himself a prominent and respected professional violist.
Our move to Ohio a few years ago has resulted in an enforced dearth of cultural experiences of the type we enjoyed constantly when we lived in Arizona. Saturday’s concert by the Fry Street Quartet was immensely enjoyable in itself, because it was so darn good, and served at the same time as a tonic to refresh our dominant gloom.
Image via Wikipedia
Once I used the phrase soft pedal in e-mail to an erudite friend, in a form like this: “I intend to soft pedal my idea so as not to stir up controversy and resistance.” The friend corrected me, claiming that the preferred phrase is soft peddle.
A bit of Google research indicates that although my version is far more common, my friend’s usage is conceivable.
As a pianist I know that the left pedal of three on a piano is most often called the soft pedal. Its function on a grand piano is to move the whole action slightly to the side so that the hammers that normally strike three strings strike only two, and those that strike two only one. On an upright it moves the whole set of hammers closer to the strings. The result is similar, a softening of the sound that is different from merely playing with a lighter touch. The traditional instruction found in music to use the soft pedal is una corda (Italian for one string), and to release it is tre corde (three strings). (In practice, neither is often very encountered.)
Therefore, to metaphorically soft pedal an idea or a request, would be to offer it unassertively.
The verb to peddle means to sell. To soft peddle an idea, an instruction, or a physical object would certainly be understood to mean promoting its acceptance without attempting to hard sell it as by direct confrontation amounting to a commercial, preferring instead to employ suggestion, gentle persuasion, or incidental reference.
Whether soft pedal or soft peddle, although the mental imagery triggered is slightly different, the intended meaning would be close to the same for either one and therefore either expression would work, depending on the intended metaphor.
Cover of Right Ho, Jeeves
Among P.G. Wodehouse’s most popular novels is the 1934 work Right Ho, Jeeves!, featuring recurring luminaries, the young English gentleman Bertie Wooster and his ingenious and far-cleverer-than-his-boss valet Reginald Jeeves (whose first name is not given in this novel). One measure of this book’s popularity may be seen from the page of quotations devoted to Wodehouse on Wikiquote, where fully four to five screenfuls are from Right Ho, Jeeves! alone — more by orders of magnitude than is given any other Wodehouse work.
Lovers of P.G. Wodehouse need not be told that he was one of the most prolific of writers, nor that he was one of the very best writers of English ever to try his hand at it, right up there with Oscar Wilde and — dare I suggest? — Dickens and Shakespeare. If not, then surely in the very next echelon.
Wodehouse’s magnificent prose and dialog sparkles with non-stop hilarity of a type that were a reader to dare to consume it while sitting in an airport terminal he might find himself unable to constrain himself from laughing so long and loud that he soon embarrasses himself. Been there, done that myself.
The beauty of the language lies often in its combining elements of erudition with outright silliness. To be savored above all are the extraordinary conversations between Bertie and Jeeves. It seems no author is able to construct more ways to say a simple Yes or No than Wodehouse.
I have read the opinion P.G. Wodehouse never wrote a bad sentence in his life. While this may be hyperbole, I have yet to find one myself.
Wodehouse is often complimented by reviewers for the masterful way in which he constructed and resolved the thorniest complications of plot. Because Wodehouse wrote comedic works exclusively, some of his stories reflect the insanity of opera buffa, presenting scenarios wherein the most implausible of circumstances develop, stretching the bounds of credibility. In the end everything always resolves both logically and happily for all parties involved.
Bertie Wooster is far from a dimwit. Nor are his actions ever deliberately malevolent. Nonetheless, in the act of trying to be magnanimously helpful, he manages to bollix up pretty much any situation he puts his hand to, with the resolution invariably coming at the end from the hand of Jeeves.
The essential plot of Right Ho, Jeeves! revolves around Bertie trying to help two young couples resolve their ping-pong marriage engagements long enough to stick, so that the right persons are ultimately matched and by story’s end presumably on the way to marriage. Bertie even accidentally gets himself engaged to one of the young women in the process.
A side story in the plot involves a certain Gussie Fink-Nottle, normally timid and a virgin to alcohol, getting roped into the uncomfortable task of passing out awards at a grammar school, inadvertently having consumed a snootful of gin before arriving. As reviewer Stephen Fry describes it:
The masterly episode where Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school is frequently included in collections of great comic literature and has often been described as the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language.
Right Ho, Jeeves — just read it. You won’t regret the time expended.
Cover of Paris / London: Testament
Music reviews are typically descriptive, but because words never adequately describe music, I rarely review music recordings. Nonetheless, for Keith Jarrett’s 2008 album Paris / London: Testament I’ve made this exception.
But first some background …
People who know me are aware that I have long regarded Keith Jarrett to be my favorite musician of any genre currently walking around on planet Earth. I’ve heard most of his recorded output since the time he worked with Charles Lloyd in the late sixties. It’s not my habit to make a big deal of this in front of others, but I own thirty-eight of Keith Jarrett’s albums on CD, and another twenty on vinyl. That count is in titles; half or more are multi-disk combinations. Among these are work from almost every genre he has worked in, including small group and trio jazz, classical composition, and many of his excellent classical music recordings.
It’s not difficult to argue that the form of expression in which Keith Jarrett has made his lasting mark is in solo piano improvisation, in studio albums, and moreso in live concerts, where he subjects himself to walking on a musical high-wire without a net, creating everything new the moment he sits down at the piano. Could even Bach or Mozart improvise as well in their own days and in their own ways? Perhaps they could, but even if so, as an improviser Keith Jarrett surely belongs in the same echelon.
Today we enjoy the luxury of being able to record Jarrett’s improvisations, after which we can listen to them as often as we wish. Personally, I listen to a vast range of music, but never tire of hearing Keith Jarrett’s solo recordings.
In 1994 I wrote a longish biographical sketch of Keith Jarrett for my nascent website. It contained little personal research, and consisted largely of a combination of points I had picked up from personal experience, plus what I had learned from Ian Carr’s 1992 biography of Jarrett (now greatly out of date). For two or three years this article attracted enough readers that it was a rare week when I did not receive a half dozen e-mail comments and questions about the subject matter.
Because of that biography, for about three years I had the pleasure of carrying on a regular correspondence with Keith Jarrett’s mother, Irma Jarrett. She wrote to me herself, first to compliment me on the article (aw, shucks!), saying it was “mostly correct,” except for a few details regarding Keith’s early life, and to express her relief that the tone of what I had written was not “over the top,” in the manner that some sycophantically worshipful admirers have been inclined to pen about Jarrett, and to whom he is viewed as a godlike hero. Irma (who invited me to address her by her first name) also promised to correct some misstatements and fill in some missing details, but in the time we corresponded she never got around to doing that, and I did not feel it was appropriate to press her on the matter.
Delighted to hear from her, I assured her at the time that I would never abuse the fact that I’d made her acquaintance to probe her for information that was none of my business, nor would I share publicly anything she told me in confidence, a promise that I stuck to. As any good mother would, she refused to say that she thinks any more highly of her most famous son than she does of any of his less well-known younger brothers; she is very proud of each one, and would write enthusiastically about each one.
One day I was delighted to receive from Irma Jarrett a self-printed book of poems she had written. It remained visible in my home office for the rest of the years I lived in Phoenix.
Eventually our discourse tapered and I lost track of Irma Jarrett. I have not heard from her since October 2003, nor attempted to contact her since then, and do not know if she is even still living. If so, she would be in her mid-eighties by now.
I’ve included the previous information as background in order to impress upon readers that my acquaintance with Keith Jarrett’s music is more than a passing fancy, and is something that has played a meaningful role during most of my adult life. Despite this, I have never yet been able to hear Keith Jarrett perform live. Thank goodness we have his recordings to revel in.
Jarrett began his solo career in 1971 with the landmark solo studio album on ECM Facing you, still one of my favorite albums of recorded music of all time, in the same league with the best Beatles work.
In 1973 Keith Jarrett began performing and recording solo concerts. the first one to be released was the Bremen/Lausane set — a three-disk collection that astounded critics and listeners alike. Since then there have been many more, with a break in the 1990s during which Jarrett stopped performing entirely while he battled chronic fatigue syndrome, which Jarrett claimed may have been brought on in part by the extreme stress of playing solo concerts.
Happily, Jarrett has been back to playing a more reasonable schedule of concerts for well over a decade, most with his so-called Standards Trio, now nearly thirty years in existence, along with the occasional solo concert, and continues to grow as a musician and a pianist.
When Keith Jarrett first began playing solo concerts, his approach was to play two forty-five-minute sets, each one an uninterrupted excursion, allowing himself to noodle around wherever his muse led him. Any given segment could cover a great deal of musical ground: foot-stomping gospel, be-bop, lyrical ballads, one-chord vamps, quiet meditations, and wild atonality (never in Jarrett’s case mere hand-flailing), including picking and beating around inside the piano. He would conclude each concert with a short encore or two, often of a standard song. One of my favorites is his rendition of Over the Rainbow from his 1995 concert at La Scala in Milan, Italy. I learned a written transcription of this myself, which I play with the care of a Chopin Nocturne.
In recent years Jarrett has begun to rethink his approach to solo playing. Now he will let the music stop when it seems appropriate, accept applause, and then start with something new, as if he were performing a series of compositions (or tunes in jazz parlance).
In 2008, Keith Jarrett released a three-CD set of concert recordings under the title Paris / London: Testament, which showcases him in new levels of musical maturity and pianistic ability.
Jarrett provided a poignantly personal set of liner notes for these recordings. What he writes therein is unquestionably touching. But I wonder if it is fair to read them in advance, thereby letting knowledge of his emotional state at the time influence our impressions? Might it be better to let the music speak for itself first? I’ll say no more about that part of the package so that you as a listener, forewarned, can make your own decision about whether to read the liner notes before or after listening to the music — or to skip them entirely. But the notes do shed some interesting light on the experience.
And now, at last, it’s about time to discuss some bits of the music itself.
The first thing I notice is how extraordinarily rich the recording of the piano is. Historically, recording a piano, particularly solo, is one of the most difficult feats for sound engineers to accomplish. But Jarrett has teamed up with Manfred Eicher and ECM’s engineers since 1971; in fact, as their primary recording artist, Jarrett has put ECM on the map. Eicher has given Jarrett the freedom to grow as an artist, doing virtually whatever he wants, usually to their mutual benefit. It has been a happy partnership, as in forty years ECM has learned how to record piano, and Jarrett in particular.
I can’t detect whether Jarrett uses the same piano in Paris and London, but Jarrett is fanatically fussy about instruments, and given his status and artistic success, it would not surprise me if he is able to move a preferred piano around from place to place. To my ears, the recorded sound in the two concert halls is the same, and it is as good a recording of piano sound as I have ever heard.
For this discussion I’ll assume that Jarrett played the same instrument in both concerts. And I know pianos well enough to recognize that it’s a real beauty. It sounds magnificent, thanks in part to its spectacularly bright, and clear tuning.
No small part of the sound is Jarrett’s ability to play with all the technique and finesse of the fine classical musician he is, which means not merely his ability to play cascades of notes correctly, but also the depth and shading of the sounds, his dynamic and pedaling control, and ability to balance chords, while playing almost continuously in counterpoint, keeping the individual lines clear.
In the liner notes notes Jarrett makes it known that he was seeking to take his solo playing to a higher level, reaching for something new. The results suggest that this means he is now aiming well beyond the mere ability to play and improvise continuously, into the realm of producing what amount to complete compositions on the spot, with the structure of introductions, melodies with chord changes, bridge sections, verses, variations, and endings that make up a cogent whole.
The twenty segments that make up the two concerts vary in length from 3:56 to 13:48. They have no titles. Why would they? Created in the moment, they are what they are, therefore without preconceived verbal associations, so they are identified only by the concert location and sequence number.
The only parts I will comment on specifically are the last two pieces in London (the second concert), which contrast greatly and make a fitting conclusion to the set.
The next-to-last (Part XI: Royal Festival Hall, London) is a highly chromatic but not at all atonal free-form excursion in continuously winding melody accompanied by startlingly original coloristic harmonies. And I particularly delight over the delicious little four-chord flourish that ends it, starting at 7:21.
To finish things off (Part XII: Royal Festival Hall, London), Jarrett returns to a type of music he has played before, but that I haven’t heard from him for a long while. He begins with an achingly beautiful tune, not complicated either melodically or harmonically, and develops this into an artfully restrained but full-bodied gospel-style romp. It was a perfect way to end the concert, and doubtless must have brought the crowd in London to their feet. Who could possibly dislike such music?
Persons who know little or nothing about Keith Jarrett are often urged to start by listening to his 1975 mega-hit, The Köln Concert, the best-selling jazz album of all time. It was recorded under great duress on a grossly substandard piano. This performance is famous for driving ostinatos and transcendentally pyrotechnical right hand passage work. I’m sure that many fans of Jarrett come to concerts hoping to hear more like that.
But Keith Jarrett left that kind of playing behind many years ago. As his ultra-simple albums The Melody at Night, With You (1998) and the recent Jasmine (2010), with bassist Charlie Hayden indicate, Jarrett is utterly unafraid to create albums consisting of simple and familiar songs, with simple chords in quiet and untechnical versions, and releasing them to the world, because to Keith Jarrett the depth of expression always takes precedence over technical artifice.
Keith Jarrett is twenty-two months younger than me, and has been a part of my life since I was a young adult. He is playing as well as he ever has. It is my fond hope that he continues to make music of the highest quality for many years to come.
Image via Wikipedia
When we speak of taking some substance, in the sense of ingesting it, the verb take carries connotations of need, of measured and countable doses designed to satisfy a perceived deficiency.
Most people would not think of taking medicine unless they needed it to combat some physical malady. Each morning, when I make coffee, I always take my blood pressure medicine. The drug is prescribed by my doctor, who claims I need it to maintain health. I dutifully pop the pill into my mouth, wash it down with juice or water, certainly don’t chew and savor it, and think no more about its effects until the next morning.
Some speakers and writers also refer to taking an alcoholic drink. They sometimes apply the term to the consumption of any amount of alcohol at all and for any purpose, as measured doses — such as in a shot glass or a swig from the bottle — likewise as though the drinker performs this act in order to accomplish some effect, presumably the well-known consequences of downing alcohol quickly.
Thus we sometimes hear, particularly from persons who view alcohol with mistrust, queries along the lines of this model: “How many drinks a day do you take?” How do you answer such a question truthfully and without appearing to be a drunkard?
The question suggests necessity, rather than the healthier viewpoint that alcoholic drinks are merely another type of food, albeit one that warrants more than the ordinary amount of care in measuring and controlling.
When was the last time you took a carrot? How many ounces of sugar do I take each day? I dunno. I don’t spoon granulated sugar out into a cup and then consume it directly, washing it down with water. Normally one would not say, “I took some orange juice and scrambled eggs for breakfast” unless it was in order to focus attention on the need, as when a person famished and weakened with hunger and thirst or recovering from grave illness would take desperately needed nourishment.
The book I’m currently reading about George Washington says that on the night he crossed the Delaware, Washington took food on horseback, meaning that he stopped and ate it, not that he was carrying it with him.
This is an entirely appropriate use of the term. He didn’t stop to have a relaxing repast with his officers. His troops were literally starving to death, they were all on the move, they had the battle of all battles just ahead of them, and Washington needed whatever it was that he ate as fuel. He didn’t even climb down from his horse. He thereafter performed acts of leadership and bravery nearly unequaled by any man before or since.
The book says that afterward Washington’s soldiers took rum lifted off the enemy. Their action could be understood in two senses. Washington had ordered the rum poured on the ground because they had much left to do, and he didn’t want his troops to be drunk. But they managed to get their hands on some anyhow. In the state they were in doubtless the rum provided them some nutritional and energy benefits, not to mention bolstering their determination.
When we eat meals, whether formal, sit-down occasions with family or friends, or just grabbing something while passing through the kitchen without thinking much about it, we don’t often regard doing so in terms of taking nourishment. Perhaps there would be less obesity if people were more conscientious about eating and drinking only when feeling the need, but clearly there is also a measure of pleasure, joy, and even aesthetic satisfaction in partaking of food, which our Creator intended for us to experience. Enjoyment of alcoholic drinks is often a normal part of eating meals; and sometimes alcohol is drunk by itself or with lighter food on social occasions. Unless we happen to be starving or otherwise in sore straits, that’s normally how we view eating, even knowing we must do so periodically in order to sustain life.
In contrast, alcoholics — persons who have developed a dependency on alcohol — take drinks in the sense of fulfilling an urgent need, because they find they are unable to function without it. This behavior is universally understood to be a Bad Thing for many reasons. Therefore, to say that someone takes a drink is to suggest that the drinker has little choice in the matter — an implication that might prove to be both untrue and unappreciated by the one so described.
Understood in this way, the answer to the question of how many drinks a day I take is None! The last time I drank alcohol because I thought I needed it was the day of my best friend’s wedding in September 1964. The affari was a big bash with all the attendant social functions and formalities. I duly executed my duties as best man throughout the day until the newly married couple drove off from the house of the bride’s parents on the way to their honeymoon, whereupon I retired to the bar in the basement, and greatly enjoyed three gin and tonics in fairly rapid succession. Mission accomplished. A while later I drove home feeling stone cold sober.
 Never mind that my blood pressure would likely be lower if I didn’t drink the coffee.
 … wine that makes the heart of mortal man rejoice … — Psalm 104:15
With a man there is nothing better than that he should eat and indeed drink and cause his soul to see good because of his hard work. This too I have seen, even I, that this is from the hand of the true God. — Ecclesiastes 2:24
Note: This post is a duplicate of the article by the same title on my Neologistics Blog, but here is where I originally intended to put it. I decided that rather than moving it, I would just allow the duplication to exist.
Image via WikipediaOne dismal February morning in 1962, near the beginning of the second semester of my freshman year at University of Illinois, I arrived late for my early morning English class, interrupting proceedings while I climbed over students in the crowded classroom in making my way to my seat.
“Tedious journey, Mr. Newton?” asked the instructor, whose voice quivered with sarcasm like Paul Lynde’s.
“Not nearly so much as the destination, Mr. Prahlhans,” I replied, as I struggled to remove my wet overcoat.
At the university they offered new students two paths of study in basic academic subjects. I chose what was undoubtedly for me the wrong one, called DGS (for Division of General Studies) English. I adjudged the course to be trivial and the teacher to be loathsome. Always more concerned about expending time doing what I thought was interesting to myself than about superfluous abstractions like grades, I limped by, cut most of the time, and in the end managed to squeak out a D, despite having sufficient command of my native language to meet the university’s low standards.
The consequence for anyone getting a D or failing grade in their freshman English class, whether DGS or traditional Rhetoric, was being forced to take a class called Remedial English — a disgraceful subject to have to stand in registration lines to sign up for, and while I accept that I’d earned that humiliation for myself by my own actions, still I grumbled about it, and blamed the inferior course and teacher I’d had the previous year.
To make matters worse, no credit was given for Remedial English, attendance was mandatory (cutting twice for any reason whatsoever meant automatic failure), and no person would be permitted to graduate without having earned at least a C (I think) in that course. A person could repeat it as many times as necessary to accomplish that end. I was in academic debtor’s prison.
One relief was that there was no homework. We simply had to be present every session and listen, and we were required to write a series of six increasingly complicated essays in class, which the teacher then critiqued, graded, and returned.
For the very first exercise we had a choice of writing either about some issue of student politics on campus, about which I knew absolutely nothing, or about something having to do with Lyndon Johnson, who was then Vice President, and I cared equally little about him. Being angry about the choices, in addition to having to be there in the first place, knowing that the best I could do was make something up, and so was bound to fail, I submitted an altogether stupid @#$! off-topic rant about having to write this stupid @#$! paper on this stupid @#$! topic about which I knew nothing, and having to take this stupid @#$! class. I didn’t include the expletives, but was thinking them.
To my surprise, the teacher graded my paper thoughtfully and intelligently, as if it were just another badly written assignment from a clueless student (which it was). He included some written advice on how I could cope with the rest of the semester’s work.
I no longer remember the name of the graduate student instructor, but for his calm handling of my tirade he deserves highest marks, perhaps even a meritorious service medal, when he could have reprimanded me, and might have griped equally from his own side of the divide about having to teach such a class to mostly morons and losers unqualified to do university level work who all needed to go get jobs pumping gas and stop spending their parents’ money by being in college.
He never knew that his thoughtful comments probed a Good Attitude button in my head and triggered a permanent change in my life. Shortly thereafter my whole stance became transformed. I began to listen attentively to his carefully prepared and enthusiastically presented lectures, which constituted in toto a formal review of English, from basic grammar through advanced composition, over the course of a semester. As I listened and learned, the quality of my own writing escalated asymptotically.
As a result, despite the no-credit shameful status of Remedial English, I have always looked back on taking this course as a highlight of my undergraduate experience, and in some respects a turning point in my life, because it imposed a need for me to come directly and intelligently to grips with the techniques of writing, today one of my deepest everyday concerns. What I learned then has served me well all my adult lifetime. And it’s worth noting, too, that for the rest of my academic career I never got anything but A’s on term papers.
 Note on the image I used here. By coincidence, the classroom in which this episode took place was located in the building entered through the door under the outstretched arm of the figure in the statue.
 I have since learned a great deal about Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose greatest importance came after the period of this story, and find him to be a fascinating character in US history.
Image by Getty Images via @daylife
When I lived outside the tiny coastal town of Searsport, Maine, I had a nasty tooth problem and had to hightail it to a dentist. I knew of one in Belfast named — I’m not making this up — Dr. Blood, and his assistant was named Savage. Blood and Savage. Hmmm. I don’t think so. I wanted to be cautious. After all, I was living in Stephen King country.
I decided to take my chances instead with a practice I’d seen on the edge of town in Searsport. The office was barely a mile from my house. I no longer remember that guy’s name, but at least I’m fairly certain it wasn’t Dr. Axemurderer.
This man’s office was in his home. His wife worked as his assistant. Presumably she was qualified, but I didn’t ask to see a diploma. The dentist recognized me from when I stopped at his door two months before to deliver a special invitation to come to our Kingdom Hall.
They were a chatty couple. But have you ever tried to carry on a meaningful conversation with a dentist while he’s working on you?
The doctor took one look and decided to yank out the offending fang. My mouth already full of cotton, I began to tense up as he made preparations to rip a piece of my body off of me. Assuming I might be in a mood to talk about spiritual matters, he asked me: If Jesus Christ was really who he claimed to be, why did he let people do all those terrible things to him?
“Mmmmpfhm mmmph mphmmphph mmmmpfhm” was my reply. But he wouldn’t buy that explanation.
Soon my mouth was thoroughly numbed and stuffed with cotton. As the dentist anchored his body weight, readying himself to perform the heinous deed, the dentist’s wife-assistant asked me, “So tell me — what part of the Chicago North Shore are you from?”
“Mmmmpfhm?” was my nonplussed reply.
I’ve always though my speech is as free of any regional accent as can be. Someone told me once that I speak Walter Cronkitese. Besides, I hadn’t said very much, but evidently some utterance gave away my roots. (I was obviously in a frame of mind to give away roots on that day.)
When I was finally able to speak clearly again, I admitted that I grew up in Wilmette, which is what I say when I tell people where I’m “from,” but of course I wanted to know how Mrs. Wife-Assistant knew this.
The woman had two advantages I was unaware of. First, she had a master’s degree in some category of linguistic practice, and considered herself an expert on American dialects. In addition, she got that degree from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, the city that lies between Wilmette and Chicago on the North Shore, so lived there herself for some period of time. In fact, I lived in south Wilmette, within walking distance of the Northwestern campus, where my father also taught for a number of years.
So I guess the lesson is that just about everyone picks up little regionally-based speech idiosyncrasies. But Mrs. Wife-Assistant never told me what it was that I said that exposed me.
Long ago I considered running the Mickelson Trail Marathon. It sounded like a good race to me, and besides, I hadn’t run a regular marathon in years; but running it would have required me to travel from Arizona to South Dakota.
When I proposed the idea to Suzy, her initial reaction was: “It seems like a lot of trouble and expense just so you can run only four or five hours.” Because I knew exactly what she meant, I just started to laugh, then so did she, as she quickly caught on to the double meaning of what she’d said.
Doubtless some non-running spouses are of the opinion that spending time and money traveling to races constitutes a questionable use of resources that could be better used in another way, which in some cases may be true. Not Suzy. What she meant was that it’s not worth the cost for me to travel to any race that will take me less than 24 hours to finish, preferably a whole lot longer, so I get more miles and hours per dollar for the experience. And that way she gets more shopping and sightseeing time. She’s an economist.
The result of that discussion was that I scrubbed my plans to run the Mickelson Trail Marathon, and instead ran the Leanhorse 100-mile trail race a few years later, which is also run on the Mickelson Trail, albeit on a different part of it. Despite my almost-made-it DNF, I got to mile 96 in 28 hours before falling down in the bushes twice in twenty yards. Therefore, I definitely got almost my money’s worth out of that trip. Suzy loved it, too, because she spent the race afternoon getting a massage in town.
Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
What do authors Stephen King and David Foster Wallace have in common? As authors, other than having been successful, very little. Their work emanates from about as far from opposite sides of the universe as can be.
Their commonality from the perspective of this neologistician is that they are two writers about whom I know far more personally than I do of their written works.
David Foster Wallace I wrote about in the flippant pseudo-blog article Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I created as filler to initialize this blog. As that piece points out, the book of the post’s title is about Wallace, not by him, and in that regard it is enlightening. To date I still have not actually read anything Wallace wrote, though doing so is high on my gotta-do-RSN list.
Neither have I ever read a single word of any novel or short story by Stephen King, although I have seen at least two movies made from his work — The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile — and greatly liked them both.
One reason I’ve never read any King is that for the most part his subject matter does not appeal to me. I have zero interest in horror stories, never have, and never will, other than a couple of well-crafted tales spun by Alfred Hitchcock that can be dispensed with in two hours viewing time. Fantasy, mystery, and science fiction generally leave me cold as well, though I’ve read isolated examples of all that I have found enjoyable. Horror, though, I find particularly objectionable for its blood and violence, so have avoided it. Call me a moralist if you will, but I don’t see anything entertaining in reading about psychotics dismembering other human beings and the like, even though I know there are people in this world who actually do such things.
However, this morning I finished reading Stephen King’s non-fiction book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which King discusses, in a surprisingly informal tone, his life history and his substantial experience with writing, presenting just a few useful tips on getting it right for those who would follow in his path.
The first part of the book, titled C.V. (curriculum vitae), he devotes to a series of short vignettes, some less than a page, at first seemingly irrelevant tales from his early life experiences, ending with when he sold his first breakthrough novel, Carrie, written while he and his wife were still Maine-poor, living in a double-wide travel trailer. (I’ve lived there myself and know how that is.) In ways the sequence reminds me of James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in that it tells in increasingly adult-like fashion of the events that shape the subject from sponge-absorbent child to productive artist.
Having exhausted the subject to the degree King cares to discuss it, he then tells the story of his near-fatal accident on June 19, 1999, when he was hit by a van while out for a walk. Telling this is a sort of self-referential feat of a type I admire, in that King was in process of writing On Writing when the accident happened.
In describing the drunken assailant Bryan Smith with commendable restraint, King tells of Smith’s cretinous decision to leave the scene of the accident while waiting for emergency assistance to arrive in order to buy candy from the corner store for himself and his rottweiler. King adds, “It occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It’s almost funny.”
Correction. It is funny.
I’ll leave the details of King’s insightful views on writing as an exercise for the reader to discover. You can get the book from most any library or buy it on Amazon. At 288 pages it’s not long, and is an easy read. If you’re not willing to go to the trouble, suffice it to say that you are breaking King’s first principle, and are liable never to become a writer yourself. But that’s okay. Maybe you don’t want to become a writer.
To this little blurb I add one more postscript about David Foster Wallace that I didn’t include in my previous article about him. Wallace goes by his three-part name in writing, but is called only by his first name. For him this is certainly no problem, as no one is likely to assume he prefers to be called Foster. I also go by my three-part name in writing, and have since I was a child, but in my case, there are those who mistakenly assume I prefer to be called David or — curse those who are so presumptuous as to assume the uninvited familiarity — Dave.
I write about Wallace in the present tense, even though he is now dead, because a published writer has managed to accomplish a form of immortality, and will always live as long as his work remains.
And that’s about the only thing I have in common with David Foster Wallace, except that I also lived in central Illinois. But I don’t even play tennis.
At any given time I have between one and seven books in my Recent Reading stack marked as current. These are books that I really am reading at present.
At this writing there are six on the stack:
- Washington: A Life (Ron Chernow)
- The Elements of Typographic Style (Robert Bringhurst)
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- Life (Keith Richards)
- Marathon & Beyond – Volume 15 Issue 1
- Jazz: A History of America’s Music (Goeffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns)
In addition to those, I negotiate daily reading of the Bible, and related study materials, which I don’t count because such reading been an ongoing lifetime habit of mine for the past forty years, like showering and brushing my teeth.
Usually I save concentrated, uninterrupted readthroughs for lighter works, such as John Grisham’s The Confession, which I finished in four sittings two weeks ago, while putting other projects on hold. In that case, one reason for the hurry was because it’s a currently popular book, I had a non-renewable two-week checkout limit on my Bexley Library copy, and Suzy wanted to read it, too — and did.
When the list grows to more than two items I think of myself as reading pieces of books in installments. When it’s backed up to more more than three, I almost never get to more than three on any given day.
For heavy-duty tomes of non-fiction (Washington), technical books (The Elements of Typographic Style), or reference books (The AP Stylebook), I view each time I pick them up as lessons, as though I were studying them in school.
Books I own I annotate. For those I get from the library I often collect notes in a series of commonplace notebooks, though doing so slows down my reading.
I’m not exactly slow, but I’m not an unusually fast reader either, but make no apologies for it, since I’m not competing with anyone else; and I adjust pace according to need. At times I can tear through fifty pages in an hour, but at others, in deeply technical material, an hour’s labor can move me no more than six pages ahead.
Just as Indian musicians view some ragas as appropriate only on certain occasions or times of day, I categorize my reading. When I sit down with my first cup of coffee for the day (generally between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m.) is not the time to read a legal thriller or about the insane lifestyles of the Rolling Stones. I wake up quickly and tend to reach my mental peak for the day early, so find early morning is the best time to tackle spiritual, technical, reference, and historical works, often fueling me with thoughts for what I need to accomplish in the day ahead. The evening, when my work for the day is done, is the time for work that is more purely entertaining. If I fall asleep while reading, it doesn’t matter.
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Cover via Amazon
As a sometime composer and writer, I have always been fascinated by listening to creative people of all types discuss their work, especially how they go about doing it. Therefore, when I recently bumped up against the title The Creative Habit, a 2001 book by master choreographer Twyla Tharp, I checked it out from the library to have some airplane reading on a trip to Arizona.
Ms. Tharp’s intention is to present a how-to book, replete with exercises, because she believes that (contrary to popular romantic notions about artistic inspiration) creativity is largely a matter of cultivating and practicing good work habits that allow creativity to sprout. This belief sounds like Thomas Edison’s famous saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
She writes first about the value of a regular daily routine, which for her begins with stepping into a cab early each morning to head to the gym for a workout. This is followed by blocks of time devoted to various categories of activity, such that by the end of day, all the most important tasks — workout, business, dancing, correspondence, and personal reading — have all been covered, whereupon she can retire, satisfied and ready to rest up and begin a new cycle the next day.
Forty years ago a close friend told me he had discovered that the more he repeated things — referring to the normal cycles of daily activities — the more good things happened in his life. His statement has stuck with me ever since, and I have learned it to be true.
Tharp says that before you can think outside a box, you have to have a box. To organize her projects, she uses literal, inexpensive file boxes from Office Depot to store all manner of physical materials she accumulates in the process of researching for and creating a new dance.
My boxes take the form of notebooks — many of them — paper notebooks that I carry around with me, and an array of computer-based notebooks any of which I may call up in a keystroke to prepend dated and labeled items of any length at the top. I’m presently composing this review using one of them, in which I have over 17,000 lines of text fragments that may someday see light of day in a blog article or other form of publication.
Where Ideas Come From
One of my most creative times of the day is that brief period in bed when I know I will be falling asleep momentarily, but am sufficiently conscious to enjoy the free associations running wild in my mind. Many is the time I’ve thought about getting out of bed to write down ideas that seemed worth preserving at the time, but I’ve never actually done it.
Ms. Tharp reports that Thomas Edison, famous for eschewing sleep, would sit in a chair when sleepy, palms up, with a ball bearing in each hand. When one ball bearing fell to the floor, it would wake him, and he would immediately write down what he was thinking in that idea-rich neverland between sleep and wakefulness.
Tharp tells us: “Like an athlete in training, the more you read, the more mentally fit you feel.” Rather than merely reading for pleasure, she devours the material, studying it, annotating the margins, and researching related topics.
Me too. That’s how one thing leads to another and ultimately to good ideas. I certainly read a great deal of lighter material for pure pleasure — popular fiction, cartoon books, even occasional children’s books — but whenever I read I hope to obtain something beneficial from the experience, even if it’s intangible and hard to identify. I almost never read just to pass the time.
Ms. Tharp places a premium on the value of developing skills of every kind to the ultimate degree possible, illustrating: “A successful entrepreneur can do everything and anything — stock the warehouse, negotiate with vendors, develop a product, design an ad campaign, close a deal, placate an unhappy customer — as well as, if not better than, anyone working for him.” She quotes golfer Gary Player as having said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get,” and applies the principle to skills beyond what are most essential for her art form. As a choreographer and dancer, of course she devotes great energy to dancing itself, especially to improvisation. But she also works to understand music, literature, theater, costume design, business, and a host of other disciplines that enable her to keep a company of full-time dancers employed.
On being in a groove, Tharp commits a minor error of musical fact, saying: “When I think of a groove, I imagine Bach bounding out of bed to compose his preludes and fugues, knowing that he had twenty-four keys to work with. ‘Let’s see,’ he must have thought, ‘today I’ll tackle G-sharp major and A-flat minor.’”
Speaking with my musical editor’s hat on: the pitches we call G-sharp and A-flat are enharmonically equivalent in the equal tempered tuning system that Bach explored in Das Wohltemperierte Clavier that she alludes to; simply put, to play either one you press the same key, the middle of any of those sets of three adjacent black keys on a piano keyboard.
The key of A-flat minor is plausible but unlikely, because it would require seven flats in the key signature, so that every one of the seven scale pitches is flatted. That’s a lot of flats, so Bach instead wrote the minor prelude and fugue on that pitch in G-sharp minor, which has five sharps — still a lot to remember, and not often encountered, but a bit easier to read.
But G-sharp major exists only theoretically, in that the key signature would have not merely seven, but eight sharps in it, meaning that the F would be a double sharp, raised two half tones. It’s possible to go on adding as many sharps and flats as desired, but there is no point to it, because once every scale pitch has been flatted or sharped, there is an enharmonic equivalent that is simpler and a whole lot easier to read, and is why Bach stopped with twenty-four of each — the twelve major and minor keys on each of the twelve degrees in the equal tempered system that has been the standard tuning in Western music for centuries. In this case, Bach wrote the prelude and fugue not in G-sharp major, but in A-flat major, with its key signature of only four flats.
If Ms. Tharp had proposed Bach might have thought, “Today I’ll tackle A-flat major and G-sharp minor,” there would have been no problem. For this minor booboo we can easily forgive her, a proven genius at her art, and knowledgeable about many subjects including music, but not necessarily expert in music theory.
Thank you, Twyla Tharp, for providing these tools by means of which I may keep my own creative skills percolating.
base of operations
At 9:00 a.m. on December 29, 2010, I began to run the 72-hour race at Across the Years. By 5:30 p.m., after completing only 81 laps (40.5 km, 25.166 miles), I was packed up and on my way to my friends’ house, to be their unexpected house guest for the next four days, where I would occasionally watch the progress of the race from the laptop on the kitchen counter, when it was available. The bad weather on Wednesday merely accelerated illness that had been coming on over the course of three days, and drove me to follow what was clearly the conservative course of wisdom.
After eleven consecutive races at Across the Years, being involved most of those years with helping to present the event, this was not how I wanted nor the way I expected to conclude my experience there. I regretted not being there at the end to say proper good-byes to so many people I have come to regard as friends.
Scrolling Back in Time
The year 2008 had been one of the toughest years of my life, as I lived the first eight months alone in an apartment, trying to master a new and challenging job, while my wife remained in Phoenix, working and trying to sell our house. Being consumed by these overbearing distractions, I nearly stopped running entirely, and suffered physical consequences. My personal worst performance of 134 miles at the 2008 race, all but the last half lap walked, betrayed the reality that I had lost my focus as a multiday runner.
After the 2008 race I made it known to my race organizer associates that the just-finished race would be my last, that I would not return in 2009 to run, nor would I be available to assist with the website and other responsibilities. I made the decision the previous June, but saved telling about it until after the race.
Unexpectedly (to me, as I was no longer included in the planning), the race took a hiatus in 2009, the first and only one since 1983. If there had been a race, I would not have been there, but because there wasn’t, I managed to take a year off without breaking my attendance streak. Meanwhile, changes in my personal circumstances enabled me to work a little more on my running. By the end of 2009 I was ready to begin regular training once again.
In Spring 2010, an announcement appeared on the Across the Years website saying there would be a race in 2010. This was good news, but I had no intention of either running or helping out myself.
However, I’ll always feel a sense of personal attachment to Across the Years. Above all, I created a relational database that records all race and runner data back to the very beginning; that history permeates the website, particularly in the biographies and statistics sections. If that were to become lost or mangled, much of the race’s legacy would be gone, and along with it, much of what I was able to contribute the last several years.
Thus it came about that last Spring I made myself available to Jamil and Nick Coury, Across the Years’ capable new race directors, to support the now hoary website for one more edition of the race, while they learned how to put on this race in the grand tradition that had developed around it.
My offer was with utterly no expectation of being able to be there to run myself. Financial and logistical problems aside (both huge issues for me at present), I didn’t think I could get back in sufficient shape to run a 72-hour race.
As 2010 unfolded, my running improved. In late September, circumstances unexpectedly developed whereby I would be able to run the race. I had just run the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run, with encouraging results, was planning on running the Columbus Half Marathon with my daughter in mid-October (which also turned out well), and even had tentative plans to run a 50K in early December. Could I possibly be ready?
My confidence was that being in much better shape presently than I was in 2008, despite two additional years of aging (which is clearly starting to make a difference), I should at the very least be able to do better at the race than I did that year, if for no other reason than because I would be able to run a great deal more of it than I did then.
Therefore, I set my goal to reach at least 150 miles, which would have resulted in a solid mid-pack finish in a strong field, and thinking I could do even better than that if everything fell together right.
Then the complications began to set in.
I worried first about transporting my tent, but learned that space inside the tent this year would be cramped, and that the luxury condo tent I’ve customarily used is too big and would be unwelcome. Wimp that I am, setting up in the yard was unthinkable to me, even though some persons do well with that.
Therefore, I decided to do entirely without a tent, trying for the first time to work with just a cot, a borrowed sleeping bag, a chair, and a few cardboard boxes to keep organized. Other 72-hour runners have managed that way just fine before me. Why couldn’t I?
My biggest fear was learning that the main area of the big tent would not be heated as it customarily had been, although there would be two smaller areas that would be heated toasty warm. In years past I’ve been uncomfortable changing clothes inside my personal tent even with the heat on. I was unsure how I’d manage under these new conditions.
Another goal I set for 2010 was to lose the 25 pounds I’d gained since moving to Ohio, which I almost accomplished by September 3, when I pulled up short with an Achilles injury while on a training run. Although it gave me no trouble at North Coast 24-hour two weeks later, or at Columbus Half Marathon in mid-October, this caused me to cut back on my training for the rest of the year, and as a consequence, I gained back six or seven pounds. I stabilized around 190, but had expected to be in the mid-170s by race day, close to my running weight when I had my best runs at Across the Years.
Ten days before the race, I began to track weather predictions, hoping for unseasonably warm weather. Ha! The earliest indications were that there might be trouble. As race day drew near, the more certain it seemed that there would be some unpleasantness. Two or three days before the race we learned that a cold front was on the way, to be preceded by heavy rain on December 29, the first day of the race. Nighttime temperatures would drop into the mid-twenties. In comparison, Columbus would warm up quite a bit. Overall, the weather would be at least as cold and a lot wetter in Arizona than at home.
These conditions all runners would share. But for me the worst news was yet to come, as two days before leaving, I sensed impending illness creeping up on me. I started popping echinacea and vitamin C, and skipped my last day of running in favor of extra rest. It was no use. Whatever was attacking me would insist on running its course, peaking on Thursday during the race.
I arrived in Phoenix at noon the day before the race and was picked up at the airport by my friend Nathan, who hauled me directly to Nardini Manor.
The afternoon before Across the Years has always seemed like a holiday to me. I love reacquainting myself with the venue, staking out my territory, and especially greeting runners as they arrive, many of whom I’ve now known for quite a few years.
I got my stuff set up around the cot, and sorted my gear into boxes that tucked neatly under the cot for when I wanted to lie down, and sat in a tidy row on top when I wanted access. It looked like it might work out well. Then I went into the Manor house to pick up my race stuff, and finally headed off to my hosts’ house, where I was treated like royalty. (I stayed with people who have been some of our closest friends for over thirty years.)
The next shock came when Nathan informed me that because of work obligations he’d have to drop me off at Nardini Manor at 4:30 a.m., hoping that wouldn’t be an inconvenience. To my surprise, it worked out well. At 6:15 p.m., after a delicious high-carb spaghetti dinner, it was 8:15 p.m. Ohio time. I’d been up since 4:45 a.m., and was already starting to nod out. So I crawled off to bed, pulled the covers around my nose at 6:30, and except for increasingly intense coughing fits during the night, slept well until 2:30 a.m., a total of eight hours in bed.
It’s an hour’s drive from their house to Nardini Manor. I walked into the big tent at 4:16 a.m., to find several people asleep. The temperature was not uncomfortable. I cared for a handful of necessary chores, crawled into the sleeping bag at 4:40, and other than the coughing, rested comfortably for another two hours, finally getting up at 6:50, when I heard other people stirring. In all I got a total of over ten hours of rack time before the race, which I hadn’t expected.
Having no tent available, my first task was to scurry off to the bathroom to smear Bag Balm the temperature of ice and consistency of engine grease and also Vaseline onto body parts only my doctor knows the names of or has even seen.
Next I headed back to the Manor house, because I’d gotten two left gloves in my goodie bag, whereas I have only one left hand, and also a right hand that was lacking a matching glove. Another problem solved.
While packing I discovered that I’m out of Elastikon tape, and couldn’t get any that day. For the first time I’d try to get through a long race with only lubricants.
I’ve owned and used Oakley M Frame Heater sunglasses since 1996; they live almost permanently on my head. I wear them for eye protection even in rain and darkness. They were nowhere to be found. Left them in Ohio. Dang.
Little details such as these may not seem important, but they add up, and in a long race can have a significant impact.
Finally, I set up my personal aid station near where I’ve always based my operations in previous years, and put a chair there (which my bottom never touched) and my Spartan collection of supplies — a smallish covered rectangular box of stuff in bottles such as electrolytes, ibuprofen and caffeine, covered by a transparent plastic bag, plus a single water bottle.
How did I feel? Still coughing frequently, but not enough to stop me from running.
The Race Begins
It was cool and overcast but not uncomfortable at the race start; we were certain that heavy rain was on the way, but everyone was in a rousing good mood.
Technically, every loop course has a net elevation gain and loss of zero feet, but every runner knows that every loop has one direction that is better for running than the other. At Nardini Manor the general consensus is that the “good” direction is counterclockwise, the direction the race starts in.
My method would be to run about two-thirds of every lap until I couldn’t do it any more. In ideal conditions and earlier years, I could get through a whole 24 hours like that, with breaks only to stop at the potty.
At North Coast in September I ran a good first twelve hours, slowed down after that, but didn’t sit down until fourteen and a half hours. I figured I’d be good at Across the Years until close to midnight before having to deal with significant problems.
I did well for the first two-hour segment, until we reversed directions. I had a harder time picking my run and walk spots in the clockwise direction. It seems almost all downhill to me. But I got through it.
By this time, the coughing was starting to bother me. It was hack, hack, hork, hork, spit in the bushes, and repeat, about six times per lap.
And Then the Rain
And then the rain began. It came on gradually, and at first was of little consequence. But it increased in intensity with relentless steadiness. After the first hour I scurried inside to pick up my rain gear that I’d already laid out, and got right back out.
It was fun for a while, and I heard no complaints. At the 2004 race (which became my lifetime PR year) we had an utter deluge on the first day. However, that year was not nearly as cold, and it didn’t last for nearly as long.
The track began to flood and become muddy. Crews appeared with brooms, attempting to push back the puddles. Workers with shovels dug grooves to channel major water flows. Within a couple of hours it seemed pointless to even try, and the crews gave up. The path on the straightaway along the southeast end became a slick mud field. Everyone’s legs were covered with mud halfway up their calves.
Adding to our running enjoyment was the strong wind that carried the ripest stench of mushy wet cow poo from the dairy farm a half mile to the north straight to our nostrils.
Some people seemed unconcerned and determined. For as long as I was there, Liz Bauer ran only in shoes, shorts, a jogbra, and Moeben sleeves, with no head covering. She looked like a desperate, drowning rat, but was running well. And she was far from the only one who seemed to be inadequately protected.
Eventually my rain gear proved to be of little help. It’s plenty waterproof, but I was soaked with sweat from the inside, and with the temperature dropping, was starting to shiver in it.
I suffer from Raynaud’s phenomenon. (I didn’t before I moved to Ohio.) Despite this, the circulation in my hands was okay, and I endured in wet cotton gloves for several hours with no significant discomfort to my hands. After six hours I ran into the tent for the second time to get fresh, dry gloves. Thereafter, even though I kept my gloved hands tucked up inside my raincoat sleeves, these too became wet from the inside out because of the sweat.
By early in the seventh hour my right Achilles tendon began to throb badly. Was it about to explode on me? The coughing and slick mud had already reduced me to walking most of the time. I wasn’t miserable yet, but wondered how much longer I could keep this up.
At this point my memory is unclear, and I don’t have accurate split times to help, but as I recall, I was starting to desire some hot food. I stopped at the aid station to ask about dinner and was told it would arrive in about a half hour. I think I went in the tent for a few minutes just to see what the warm areas were like, but came back out in just a minute or two, and did one more lap. The records say that I crossed at 7:31:57 into the race, with 40.5 km, 25.166 miles. No longer thinking about a twelve- to sixteen-hour initial stretch, I’d wanted to go at least a marathon before taking any kind of break, but I was already deep into the process of shutting down.
I went first into the front warming room, where I tried to dry out my gloves while stooped over in front of the flame-belching heater. Then I went into the other warming room, where there were cots, and where the temperature was blazing hot. I was in serious need of a place to strip naked, towel off, and put on all dry clothes. There wasn’t one. Other people were coping without that, but I wasn’t, and had no solution, so was facing a major logistical dilemma.
I ducked my head outside for a moment. It had grown dark, and was now like Mars out there. As bad as it was inside, outside was much worse, and later the rain became torrential, and was followed by bitter cold far worse than any I’d experienced the entire thirty years I’d lived in Arizona.
I don’t remember exactly at what point I realized that I couldn’t fight this for another sixty-four hours, but as I contemplated the passing of the rain to be followed by cold, I knew in my heart I was done. I called Nathan to see if there was any possibility he could come and bail me out, which I realized would also make me their unexpected house guest for the next four days. He left right away. Once I knew he was on the way, there was no changing my mind, so I yanked off my chip and turned it in to Nick Coury, saying, “I can’t do this,” with little more explanation than that, because he was busy, and because talking about it wouldn’t change anything.
While waiting, one runner commented on the conditions: “There is no competition, only survival.”
I understood. Fixed-time track races are above all running events. The best performances take place under ideal physical conditions: on a flat, broad course that is long enough to keep runners from piling up on each other, in good weather, at a venue that has basic facilities adequate to care for the needs of runners in reasonable comfort. Obviously, foul weather is shared in by all participants, but can serve to introduce a level of extraneous challenge to an event that may be a disadvantage to runners whose experience has been focused on tracks, roads, and asphalt, but who have rarely had to fight the variety of difficulties that often appear in other settings, such as in long and technical trail races. On this night the trail dogs just might have had the advantage.
I arrived at my friends’ house about 6:30, had a bit to eat, was in bed by around 8:30, and slept for eleven hours. The forecast said the conditions would clear up, but at 2:15 a.m. I was awakened by thunder and lightning and the heavy pounding of rain that sounded like a million elves running across the roof. Later I learned that the runners an hour away at Nardini Manor shared in that experience, which drove most of them into the tent for a while. When I got up in the morning the rain had stopped, but it remained very wet, very windy, and terribly cold all day. I spent the next three days sleeping, hanging out, reading, occasionally watching the race, and eating my generous friends’ food.
Because I didn’t properly conclude the race (even though there are no DNFs in fixed-time running), I’m at a loss to bring this story to a decisive end. It was what it was. I’m less disappointed than some persons might suppose I am, especially because I was able to get back one more time than I had thought possible, although I regret not seeing people who arrived after Wednesday night for the Thursday and Friday starts.
And on that note, it does seem that my days at Across the Years have finally come to an end — in the Brett Favre sense of being “done,” of course! Despite the bump at the end, my time with Across the Years has been one of the great experiences of my life.
Placeholder for a review soon to come.
People will say “Such-and-such is not my thing.” People with “a thing” have too few things.
If I had a nickel for every time I said, “Schmork flump verwissenschatz und geheimlichen zonderfloozles,” I’d have one nickel.
When I learned that a high school classmate moved to Israel to live in a caboose after we graduated, I thought that was a pretty weird choice. It was not until years later that I learned it was not a caboose he moved to, but a kibbutz.
It was still a strange choice, mostly because my friend was not Jewish.
I’ve just finished reading a new book (2010) by David Lipsky, the title of this post. It’s about a five-day road trip author David Foster Wallace took in 1995 at the behest of Wallace’s publisher Little, Brown to promote his then new novel Infinite Jest, with Lipsky in tow, on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine. Although the article Lipsky was supposed to write was never published, nor do I know if it was even written, we now have instead this full-length glossed transcription of many hours of taped and notated conversation engaged in while traveling and when Wallace returned home to Bloomington, Illinois, where he was then teaching.
Because the original project was scratched, Lipsky was able to prepare this book in its place, in knowledge of the sad irony that Wallace died in September 2008, eight years after the book tour. Wallace died a suicide, apparently the long-time victim of deep depression.
Infinite Jest was Wallace’s magnum opus, a much lauded and challenging masterpiece of over a thousand pages. Although he wrote numerous other works, and was working on another novel at the time of his death, which was complete enough that his publisher plans to release it, Wallace never completed another entire novel in his lifetime.
The funny thing is, I wouldn’t know from personal experience how good or otherwise Infinite Jest is, because despite now knowing a great deal about the man David Foster Wallace, I have yet to read a single word of anything he wrote except the first page of Infinite Jest, which I decided to save for another month, or perhaps another lifetime. But I will add that the transcription of the road trip Lipsky took with Wallace is insightful and often very funny. Wallace was obviously an unending source of original thought.
The real reason I’m writing this review is because I just created this blog in order to audition WordPress, trying to see if I can make it do what I want and need for future work. If I like it, I may even come back and complete this article, particularly if I get around to reading Infinite Jest in the meantime.
Thank you for reading.
Appended on August 7, 2011: I’ve since read Wallace’s collection of short stories Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which except for occasional patches of brilliance I did not care for, largely because of the subject matter, and I’m currently reading the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, one of the most enjoyable and well-written books I’ve encountered in ages.
Image via Wikipedia
Never read it, like most people, and have no plans to do so. Placeholder in the literature category.
- Who is moby duck (wiki.answers.com)
In answer to some people who stodgily protested certain Americanisms that had crept into the writing of Jefferson’s founding requirements regarding the University of Virginia, he defended himself by asserting that as new discoveries are made, new words must be invented to name them. Continuing along that line, he said:
And give the word neologism to our language, as a root, and it should give us its fellow substantives, neology, neologist, neologisation; its adjectives neologous, neological, neologistical, its verb neologise, and adverb neologically. Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if illformed it is rejected in society, if wellformed, adopted, and after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries. And if, in this process of sound neologisation, our transatlantic brethren shall not choose to accompany us, we may furnish, after the Ionians, a second example of a colonial dialect improving on its primitive. — Thomas Jefferson
- Spellings, including of unhyphenated words, are Jefferson’s.
- I’ve added italics.
- To Jefferson’s list I would zealously add my own neologism: neologistics!
Wise and experienced persons ones solemnly proclaim, fingers a-wagging, that money and material prosperity do not bring happiness.
Duhh! Everyone knows that, but some who preach this less than profound truth seem to opine from the point of view that most people think that if they only had more money and material prosperity they would be happy, or at least happier than they are now, and that because that belief is false, they should even consider seeking to get rid of what they have. Some people use the term simplify to describe this proposed path to greater happiness.
Guess what? A lack of money and material prosperity doesn’t make a person happy either. The greater truth is: happiness and material prosperity are entirely unrelated.
Therefore, all things considered, I’d rather have money than not have it.
Cover via Amazon
We were present at the Columbus Museum of Art on October 7, 2010, for the members only opening of the exhibit “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis.”
If you are unfamiliar with the world of comic book and cartoon art, you may not know who Robert Crumb is, known professionally as R. Crumb. But if you have had any exposure at all to that medium, you will likely know who I’m talking about, because Crumb is among the most admired of all underground comic artists. If you’ve ever seen the one-page comic Keep on Truckin’, which was plastered everywhere starting in 1968, or are familiar with “Fritz the Cat,” then you have seen a miniscule portion of Crumb’s prolific output.
Crumb is not for everybody. Some of his work is vulgar, even frankly pornographic. But above all, Crumb draws well, and his work is usually at least interesting in its meticulous attention to detail, and is at times innovative.
My first conscious exposure to Crumb was by means of the collaborations he did on “American Splendor” with Cleveland comic author Harvey Pekar, who did not draw himself, but simply wrote stories about his own life, and sketched what he wanted with stick figures, leaving the drawing to others. Crumb was still unknown and living in Cleveland in the mid sixties, when they met and struck up a friendship based on mutual tastes in music. Pekar showed Crumb his ideas for cartoons, and Crumb offered to draw some of them for him, which led to success for Pekar — as successful as underground comic artists get — resulting even in the 2003 movie entitled “American Splendor,” with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar.
Meanwhile, Crumb moved on to San Francisco, other work, including such jobs as popular album covers, and eventual fame in the late sixties scene of hippies and bands and all the rest — although Crumb himself was never a hippie, nor was he much like the people he hung out with and who admired him, which included notables such as Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
Sometime in the eighties Crumb and his wife, tired of the United States, moved to an unglamorous dwelling in the south of France, where they remain to this day. He’s still hard at work.
Jump forward from the sixties several decades and most of a career, to the present. One day last year, before I was conscious of the name R. Crumb, I was browsing in the art book store at OSU’s Wexner Center and stumbled upon an astonishing work: “The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb” (That’s the exact full title.) As a student of the Bible for now over forty years, I was eager to see what this was about. Expecting to encounter disrespectful, gross distortions created for laughs, I was surprised to see instead a work in Crumb’s polished and unmodified cartooning style that seemed to be a faithful representation of the scriptural text, and including the text itself, though using a modern translation I am not familiar with. I thumbed through just a few pages before moving on, but the experience was memorable, and I wished I had more time to look at the book.
Which brings me to the primary subject of this article. On October 7, the Columbus Museum of art opened an exhibit of not just a sampling, but of all 207 of the original pages of this book, strung at comfortable reading level in a long, snaking sequence through a series of galleries. The originals are roughly 9×12 inches each (an eyeball guesstimate), and extraordinary to look at.
It was then that I learned that every word of Genesis is written on those pages, including the genealogies, looking much like rogues galleries, and that the artist, who says he believes that Genesis is a work of men rather than the word of God, nonetheless spent five years working on the project, giving the greatest care and respect to the subject matter. It’s the juxtaposition of the sacred text with R. Crumb’s uncompromised and highly distinctive style that make the work special.
Decades ago I lost track of the number of times I’d read through Genesis (and the rest of the Bible, which, in contrast to Mr. Crumb, I do believe is the word of God). It’s fair to say that I know what it says.
I found at this show that it’s possible for someone familiar with the source material to cover the entire exhibit meaningfully, thereby “reading” the whole book of Genesis in about an hour and a half — which is exactly what Suzy and I did — with a short break in the middle to go hear a chorus performing on the grand staircase.
Imagine my amusement when I was jolted to see part of the narrative out of sequence. On one page I saw Rebekah nursing twins, and on the next she was pregnant. These things usually happen in the opposite order. That’s when I discovered that they had hung up two pages in the wrong order: 89, 91, and 90. (The numbers are written in light pencil outside the printing border.)
We finished just in time to hear the last background lecture by the show’s curator, who opened things up at the end for any questions. I asked whether she had been alerted to the incorrect sequence. She replied with considerable surprise that she didn’t know, was grateful to find out about it, and wondered how I knew. I said I knew because I know the Bible, and saw the story was out of sequence, but it was easy enough to verify by looking at the page numbers.
Even though hundreds of people trooped through the showing, few were making it much further than halfway; it was crowded at the front, where an anatomically correct Adam and Eve are seen standing naked, the crowd was desolate by Jacob’s deathbed prophecy, as if to indicate that sampling a few dozen pages was enough for most persons to get the idea. Because it was opening night, and because likely few people were reading in much detail, it’s no surprise that this hadn’t been reported, but if they failed to fix it, I’m sure someone else came along later and set them straight again, so presumably it is fixed by now.
If you live in Columbus, Ohio, be sure to get over to Columbus Museum of Art before January 16, 2011, when the exhibit closes.
Last spring our daughter Cyra-Lea wrote to ask if I’d be willing to pick out and run a half marathon with her this fall. I hadn’t done that sort of running for several years. My last half marathon race was in February, 2004, my last full marathon was in May, 2005, and I haven’t run anything but ultramarathons since then. But how could I say no? Not that I wanted to. I was delighted, and agreed to do it immediately. It would give me an excuse to try to get back to doing some real running.
Cyra-Lea and I have run together in the past. Her longest prior race was ten kilometers — either once or twice; the last time she was seventeen years old. She’s twenty-eight now. Daughters are good!
It wasn’t hard for us to determine that the best choice for a race would be the Nationwide Columbus Marathon and Half Marathon here in town on October 17, 2010 (today), which I had not run myself, but heard only good things about. We visited Cyra-Lea and her husband Eddie over the July 4th weekend, at which time we sat down at the computer and registered, engraving the decision in stone. We also worked out a twelve-week training plan for Cyra-Lea.
Cyra-Lea drove in from Charlestown, Indiana (near Louisville, Kentucky) by herself on Thursday. (Eddie is busy in school, so couldn’t make it.) This gave us the opportunity to visit, drive the course that afternoon; on Friday to go for a walk and then to the expo, avoiding the weekend rush; and to have a relaxing Saturday.
Well — I did three and a half hours of leaf raking, and Cyra-Lea and Suzy spent about seven hours shopping, so it wasn’t physically relaxing, but it wasn’t stressful.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had as much outright fun running a race as I did today. Over the years I’ve grown just a little bit cold toward certain features of mega-races: the large crowds, the high cost (especially when travel is rolled in), the crassly commercial sale of useless, cheesy memorabilia, and the vacuous hype are not my style. On the other hand, I certainly don’t dislike the races themselves, and I advocate any sort of fitness activity that helps people live a healthier life style. But until a few months ago, given my own preference for ultramarathons (always much smaller), I figured my own experience with these races came an end long ago.
Now that I’ve experienced it, I’ll give Columbus Marathon a solid five-star rating in every aspect of it that I witnessed, from the expo to the starting area, availability of parking, number of portajohns, pleasantness of the course (I’m familiar with most of the route that the marathoners run, too), timing, the website, aid stations, music on the course, crowd support, the finish, and food for finishers — all are superb. And all of it is practically in my own back yard.
This morning we were up at 5:00 a.m. sharp. Cyra-Lea was sleeping fitfully in the family room rather than the basement bedroom because as a nurse who works several night shifts a week her fractured sleep patterns are unlike those of most of us.
We had plenty of time to get ourselves out the door, and left by 6:05. It takes less than ten minutes to get downtown. (The start is less than five miles away; I could have walked to and from it, and might have considered if I’d been doing this alone.) The one big question was where I would park. I used to work downtown, and know the area well. We would have to come up Fourth Street, crossing Broad a block east of the race start. Surely it would be open at 6:15. To my relief, it was.
One amusing sight before the race was with some roads closed, the tangle of one-way streets downtown, and some signs up at the ends of some saying STREET CLOSED, watching confused drivers, many from out of town, wander the wrong direction on some of them, fishing around for parking places.
For me it was a no-brainer, as I knew exactly where to go. On Sunday parking meters are free. I used to park on weekends and holidays that I went to the office on a little one-way street called Pearl Alley, just 270 feet from where I used to work (all measurements in this report are according to Google Maps), a quarter mile from the center of Broad and High, the location of our place in the fourth corral, the one for slowpokes. Most parking spaces on the main streets were already taken, but all those in that block on Pearl Alley were still open. So I zipped in and we just sat and chatted in the car for a half hour before heading out to the start, just around the corner and up the street a couple of blocks.
Weather is something that no one can predict before signing up for a race. In mid-October it’s possible to have the most glorious autumn weather imaginable. There is also every possibility for clouds, rain, and high temperatures in the forties. This year the weather could not have been more perfect if I had custom ordered it from a website called Weather-R-Us. It’s has been brightly sunny all day, the temperature while waiting at the start was around 45, but completely comfortable for both of us, and ranged up to about 55 by the end of the race, with a high later in the day of 70.
We found a place to stand in our corral, but shortly after we arrived, Cyra-Lea wanted to visit a portapotty, so I followed, decided it would be stupid not to try it myself as long as I was there, and am glad I did, as it turned out to be a productive decision. After that I was definitely all set, and just wanted to get started.
The beginning is right in front of the Ohio Statehouse, at the corner of Broad and Third Street, a long block up from where we parked. The race began on time (7:30 a.m.), with the starting gun accompanied by fireworks that shot up the side of a bank. I was only a little bit worried when I realized they were shooting up the side of my bank. It was okay, because our deposits are insured.
As is customarily the case in these extravaganzas, we couldn’t budge an inch for several minutes. I don’t know exactly what time it was when we hit the timing mat. I was thinking 7:45, but it was apparently earlier than that. Either that, or we started a little later than I thought.
Music was everywhere on the course, and it was almost all well-played. The band at the start was especially good, as they began the race by playing Born to Run, followed by some song Cyra-Lea identified as being by the Beastie Boys. Throughout the race we were rarely more than a block out of hearing range from a live band, featuring everything from amplified soloists to a military brass band on the west side of the Statehouse on the return.
At this race I had two primary goals. Ideally, I wanted to finish one step behind Cyra-Lea. The second was to run the whole thing without walking. I accomplished the second, but at ten miles got separated from Cyra-Lea and finished before her.
Immediately upon crossing the timing mat, I started my watch. I did click mile splits when I saw the signs, all accompanied by prominent race clocks, but I never looked at my watch until I was done, because it didn’t really matter. The three or four times I paid attention, I estimated my progress by subtracting ten or fifteen minutes from the displayed race time.
I knew this race would be slow. Not an event I had planned on doing myself, for me it marked a comeback from nearly two years of greatly reduced running, though I still did a great deal of walking during that period. And Cyra-Lea, who has inherited my genes, is no speedster either. Therefore, from the beginning I ran slowly, at times more slowly than is generally comfortable for me, in order to keep pace with Cyra-Lea.
Broad, which goes mostly east, but also angles slightly north, is — well — broad, which helped to minimize the problems with crowding in the early stages. We were able to utilize customary strategies so as to get around people: surging through holes, shifting left and right, etc. It wasn’t hard at all despite the number of runners. But maybe that was because most runners were already ahead of us. For the first ten miles Cyra-Lea and I were either side by side or very close together.
The crowd support at this race, encouraged no doubt by the superb weather, was extraordinary. The spectators contributed to the excitement the whole way.
The best sign we saw on the first part of the course said:
RUN BETTER THAN TERELLE PRYOR
The reference is to The Ohio State University Buckeyes football team’s phenom quarterback. Until yesterday the Bucks were rated number one in the country. But last night they were thoroughly trounced by Wisconsin, and were not helped by a handful of poor (in my estimation questionable) runs by Pryor, a versatile athlete who rushes more often than most quarterbacks.
Eventually, we turned north on Parkview, in the swanky part of Bexley, and ran by the governor’s mansion. Governor Ted Strickland was standing on his corner, accompanied by body guards, and cheering. I’d been expecting to see him, so ran close to the curb as we approached — not close enough to high five, as I had hoped, but I did manage to make eye contact and exchange a friendly greeting. It’s likely that many runners, particularly out-of-staters, had no idea who that ordinary-looking man in the brimmed hat and windbreaker was.
Two blocks later we turned south on Drexel, to go 1.36 miles, all downhill, on a wide street with beautiful homes. Suzy was waiting on the corner of Drexel and Main in downtown Bexley, the nearest point on the course to our house (about a mile and a quarter away), a bit past the five-mile point, where we saw her long enough for her to try to snap a picture, but we mostly just waved and cheered and kept moving. We were doing well, and Cyra-Lea was clearly enjoying herself.
Once we got past the shops on Main, the short unattractive segment of the course followed. We turned north on Nelson for less than half a mile, then ran across the south end of Franklin Park.
At the six-mile aid station I was able to pat hands with Cheryl Link, whom I know from Dead Runners Society and Facebook, but had never met in person. Cheryl ran a half marathon herself yesterday, and now, in the spirit of the sport, was out giving generously of her time and effort to help other runners. Volunteer support at this race was extraordinary, for which runners should always be grateful; we couldn’t do it without the volunteers.
The road south of beautiful Franklin Park is narrow, hillier than most places on the course, with a surface that is a bit rough, but after coming up the west side, we were back on Broad doubling back the other way (westerly) a little over a mile, then south and into residential neighborhoods to the southeast of downtown. This took us back to Third Street, a few blocks south of where we started, where we headed south again, over the highway, and then into German Village.
By this time I was leading Cyra-Lea by an average of fifteen to twenty-five yards, and kept looking back over my shoulder, as I slowed, several times to let her catch up, but never stopped running. She took a couple of short walking breaks.
Around mile nine she decided she was pretty much toast, but was determined to keep doing her best. I kept looking back, and even ran backwards up to twenty or thirty yards at a time at least three times, hoping she would push herself to keep as close as possible.
Just after the ten-mile marker I turned to run backwards, searched, and couldn’t find Cyra-Lea. She’d been doing really well, and said she was fine, so I had to make a decision whether to hang back, or press forward. Confident that she would be okay, I picked up the pace with the intent of running as hard as I could, knowing that a negative split was a real possibility given the slowness of the first half. Although I don’t have the exact numbers, I’m sure I was right.
After going around Schiller Park in German Village, we came out to High Street, the main north-south drag through Columbus, another wide street, and a straight shot from the turn for nearly two miles until the turnoff onto Nationwide Boulevard, which encloses a quarter-mile finishing chute in massive chain link fences. I was able to run hard on some downhill segments of High.
The last couple of blocks before that turn is a horribly steep uphill, but once on the straightaway after the turn, it’s a screaming downhill to the end, and I sprinted it in as hard as I could, trying to pass one final big guy, who edged me out. (I have no idea what his start time was.)
The organization after the chute was carried out with the precision of a military operation. In fact, they had soldiers manning some of the food tables.
I stood and waited anxiously for Cyra-Lea, not knowing whether she’d blown up or remained fairly close. In fact, her finishing time was only 5:27 behind mine. I was thrilled when I saw her come through the crowd sooner than I expected, with a finisher’s medal around her neck, upon which she announced, “I did it! I’m a half marathoner.”
There was food in abundance. I took only a bottle of water and a smallish Krispy Kreme. Cyra-Lea grabbed a couple of things to eat later. (I have never eaten or drunk anything during a half marathon ever, so by that time needed water and a shot of sugar.)
We weren’t with anyone, don’t know hardly any runners in Columbus, and were planning on going out for late brunch, so we didn’t hang out to socialize, party, or listen to the band playing in Arch Park. The walk to our car was less than half a mile, and getting out was as easy as could be, since by then everything we had to cross or travel on had opened up, and Sunday morning traffic was light. We got back home by 11:00 a.m., showered, and went out to enjoy a large meal at Bob Evans, a popular and folksy but not fancy Columbus-based family restaurant chain.
The results reporting for Columbus Marathon, supplied externally by a company called MTec Results, is among the best I’ve ever seen. For each runner looked up, a number of statistics are shown in an impressively laid out display, including, in addition to final chip time, also ten kilometer split time, average pace, overall place, gender place, and age group pace, all in three different formats. It also shows how many runners the displayed person passed from ten kilometers to finish in the overall category, and how many passed that runner. From a software point of view, given that with chip timing, runners are running asynchronously, it’s an interestingly tricky problem.
For reference, my half marathon PR is 2:03 and change, run over twelve years ago. When I was running them regularly I typically came in between 2:15 and 2:17. Given that caveat, here’s what the numbers tell me about today’s half marathon. The percentages shown I calculated myself, as I do for every race I run, dividing my place by the total shown.
- 7925 (3224 men, 4701 women) ran the half marathon
- Average finish: 2:10:33 (I think that’s fast for an average!)
- Lynn Newton: 2:43:31 (90.4%)
- I placed 28 out of 37 runners in the M6569 Age Group (75.7%)
- I placed 7165 out of 7925 runners overall (90.4%)
- I placed 3055 out of 3222 Males (94.8%)
- Cyra-Lea Drummond: 2:48:58
- She placed 7366 out of 7925 runners overall (92.9%)
- She placed 4270 out of 4701 Females (90.8%)
- She placed 917 out of 977 runners in the F2529 Age Group (93.4%)
From those numbers, I can see that after I surged ahead of Cyra-Lea after the ten-mile point, I finished 201 runners ahead of her, by a margin of 5:27. I was delighted that the gap was that small, and given that her own goal was to go sub-3:00, she is pleased as well.
This afternoon we are two tired but happy puppies, having accomplished our mission with pleasure and aplomb.
It was not until August 25, 2010, that I decided to run the 2010 North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) in Cleveland, Ohio. Up until the day before, I assumed that I would not be able to participate, and have done no ultramarathon training at all since 2008.
The year 2010 has marked my return to running, following a period of inactivity resulting mostly from fallout following my move from Arizona to Ohio, the aftershocks of which continue to haunt me. During 2008, I ran less then half the mileage that I averaged the ten previous years. By the end of 2008 I decided to stick to long distance walking, declaring myself thenceforth and evermore to be an Urban Walker; no longer would I run ultramarathons, except perhaps races I could walk.
Life changed dramatically for me in 2009. Gradually I began running again on a regular basis, at first in tiny bits, but ending the year with 650 miles more than in 2008. Beginning on January 1, 2010, I successfully negotiated a 100-day running-and-walking streak, through the ice and snow of dead winter, ending with a forty-mile walk on April 10, followed by eight non-consecutive rest days the remainder of April. On May 1, I began streaking once again, aiming to continue until Labor Day, gradually increasing the ratio of running to walking. Along with the benefits of all this has come the loss of over twenty pounds of slob, which has certainly helped my running, not to mention the general state of my health.
In late spring my daughter invited me to run a half marathon with her this fall — her first. How could I refuse? So we signed up to run the Nationwide Better Health Columbus Half Marathon on October 17, four weeks from now.
Therefore, the type of running that I’ve been doing lately has been focused around increasing the distance I can run continuously. It was just a few years ago that I occasionally knocked off training weeks with mileages in the seventies, and performed feats like running ten no-walking half-marathons in ten days. But I can’t do that any more. So far my biggest running day of 2010 has been when I ran 12.3 non-stop miles on a hot day in late August. I stopped there because I ran out of trail, but I couldn’t have gone too much further.
The last several weeks I’ve experienced recurring pain on the top of my left foot. It’s not bad enough to make me lay off, but it hasn’t gone away, either, and it’s been more than a minor annoyance. I probably should do something about it, but I tend to belong to the “ignore it and maybe it’ll go away” school of medical treatment.
Then, on September 2, at two and half miles into a ten kilometer out and back, disaster struck, when a sharp pain shot through my right Achilles tendon, causing me to pull up short with a howl. I knew immediately that I was injured for real, and that it would be impossible to go on. Unfortunately, there was no way to get back to my car except to limp cautiously at a twenty-four minute per mile pace. The next day was the first day I took off exercising since April 30, just a few days short of my Labor Day goal. I began immediately with stretching and icing my heel.
Starting the next day I ventured forth cautiously on a few very slow, short walks. There was little I could do but accept that I would have to endure an enforced fifteen-day taper heading into a 24-hour race that I had decided to run barely a week before.
On September 11, 2010, I experimented with a cautious run-walk strategy, in which I counted steps in cycles of four, starting with sixteen, but never going higher than eighty: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, … 80-2-3-4 (320 steps total), breathing in two steps, breathing out two steps. It worked so well that I was confident I would be all right on race day, so didn’t run another step until the race, but did walk four, three, two, and two miles the week before race day, and took the last two days completely off.
That is — except that NC24 race director Dan Horvath asked if I could show up in Medina, Ohio, the afternoon before the race to help load the truck they’d rented. Sure, I was happy to do that — until I saw the Ryder truck big enough to move an entire warehouse together with the mass of stuff that had to be hauled out of a basement, up a hill, and loaded onto the truck, including over a hundred cases of water, forty-eight pounds each, almost as much Gatorade, and plenty of other stuff with some heft to it, upon which I began to have visions of my race about to fly out the window. Fortunately, about ten people, including Connie Gardner and Nick Coury, who both had exceptional races, also showed up to help.
Contrary to expectations, the hour and a half of non-stop lifting and carrying worked like a miracle drug, as it helped to flush out the poisons of accumulated lethargy, leaving me exhilarated rather than tired.
Between gimpy feet and having almost no time at all to prepare for the race, I did way better than expected. My elevator speech version of the race is this: I had an outstanding first twelve hours, melted down quickly after that, but did better than last year.
On race morning I timed getting ready about as perfectly as possible. I arrived at Edgewater Park at 7:35 a.m., leaving me time to set up at a leisurely pace, then get over to hear the pre-race briefing, leaving almost no time to waste sitting around getting nervous.
My preference the past several fixed-time races I’ve run has been to operate with a minimalist trackside arrangement, consisting of a camp chair, and a small folding table with a gym bag containing a few things that might be required, most of which I didn’t need at all. The table served mostly as a place to set my trusty Ultimate Direction 26-ounce water bottle, the type with a kicker valve.
While I’m happy to have a little assistance when it’s available, I’ve long been accustomed to running these races without support. Maybe I would run them better if I had one of those spacious and festively decorated canopy tents staffed with a large crew of zealous sponsors, friends, and family who don’t mind sitting outside all night while watching me lumber by and grumble at them them every fifteen minutes or so. But somehow I don’t think it would help enough to make the trouble worth it.
This year the race date was bumped a couple of weeks earlier than last year in order to minimize the possibility of disagreeable weather. The temperature reached the upper seventies, probably hotter in late afternoon on this unshaded asphalt bike path. Easterners consider this to be uncomfortable, or at least a bit too warm to perform optimally, but it never was uncomfortable to this thirty-year Arizona desert man. In the evening the temperature never got below the mid-fifties, if that low. Many male runners ran shirtless all through the night, even when thick black clouds loomed up over the lake and threatened a downpour. I put on my rain slicker when rain appeared to be imminent, but we never got more than a couple of drops. Other than that and a brief experiment with a light jacket, which I shed after one lap, I never changed any item of clothing the whole race.
One thing is certain: in any given setting, weather conditions are shared equally by everyone, for better or for worse.
When the race started, I concentrated on the technique of fixed-time run-walk that worked so well for me the week before. And so it was that I shuffled along about three quarters of every 0.9-mile loop, not doing a walk-only loop until 7:20 PM (the time I finished it), then continuing until twelve hours race time, stopping only to grab something to eat or drink from the aid station table and once for a sixty-second portapotty stop.
Some sights and experiences seen along the way:
In mid-afternoon a drum circle formed in the park to the east of the race village. They must have played for three hours. Most runners were happy about their being there.
In mid-evening some pretty people showed up: a good-looking tall man and his beautiful female companion, dressed as if they were on their way to the Oscars. The man smiled from ear to ear, wore a shiny silver buckle the size of a serving tray, and glad handed every runner who passed by, including me. I’m told they were on their way to a wedding and had just stopped by to cheer someone they knew, but they were there for at least an hour. At least one briefly strapped a race number on over dress clothes, but I never saw either one run.
On one lap late at night I talked with a young woman from New York who had been stung by some inconsiderate insect. I heard her howl when it happened. She told me she had reasoned that God was punishing her because she chose to come to the race rather than observe her Day of Atonement.
Both last year and this year the lone street crossing on the course was manned for several hours during the graveyard shift by an arrogant, potbellied cop, who fouled the air with his six-inch cigar and rude language hurled at drivers who had been stopped to wait for runners; in fairness, I never heard him say anything objectionable to any runner or volunteer. But he behaved exactly the same way last year. I hope he doesn’t come back again. We don’t need to listen to some comic book flatfoot abusing our long-suffering family and crew members coming and going during the night.
At twelve hours I had completed forty-five miles. To be more precise, I finished my fiftieth lap of the 0.90075-mile certified loop, giving me 45.0375 miles, when the race clock said 12:00:07. I saw it turn over to 12:00:00 from a few yards out.
Whereas this mark doesn’t constitute an elite performance, its value may be appreciated better by putting it in contextual perspective. The number is comparable to or better than several 12-hour races I ran when I was five to seven years younger, and in my best ultrarunning shape ever. I’ve recorded three 12-hour all-night races of 43.8087, 45.05, and 43.1873 miles. Also, the 12-hour splits that I have from 72-hour races are: 38.836 (2008) 39.150 (2007), 42.253 (2006), 46.292 (2005, the year I hustled to earn my 1000-mile lifetime mileage jacket), and 45.673 miles in 2004, my PR year. Last year at NC24 (2009), when I was barely breathing, I logged around 39 miles by the twelve-hour mark, and finished with a miserable 60.98 miles, walking the whole race, and sleeping about four hours.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off in the second half. I decided I would walk one lap; then I walked another. Then I just kept walking and never ran another step the rest of the race.
During the first twelve hours I did all the right things. I must have drunk at least eight 26-ounce bottles of water, several cups of Vernor’s ginger ale (a life-giving substance if there ever was one), and quantities of Coke and root beer. I took Succeed! electrolyte capsules no less frequently than hourly, and never felt dehydrated. I ate something at least every other lap, even if it was only a couple of cookies. I started to feel full.
From forty-five to fifty miles, my condition deteriorated rapidly, and from fifty to fifty-two miles I went into a tailspin from which I never recovered.
Eating became a problem. I tried to survive entirely on race food. Unfortunately, I don’t do very well with typical race food. Dried peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, pretzels, noodle soup and potatoes that are microwaved, but are room temperature or colder by the time I get them, get old quickly. Searingly hot food is difficult to consume, but it cools off, and needs to be palatable when it’s consumed to be effective.
It must have been just after 9:00 p.m. when they brought out the pizza, which, unlike any of the other food, was piping hot. There were three kinds: plain (meaning cheese and tomato sauce), vegetable, and vegan, but both the latter two had olives. I don’t like olives, and was in no mood to pick them off, so I went with the plain. Real big mistake. It was not long afterward when I began to feel my first pangs of nausea. It was never extreme, just sufficiently unpleasant to make me not want to start running again — or eating either, and to stop on occasion to lean over the edge of the path, just in case my body chose to spontaneously jettison the evil turbulence inside. Fortunately, I had some antacid, which helped the burning, but the nausea persisted until sunup.
During the later hours I observed that few runners were stopping at the aid station. It occurred to me that the best-fed runners are probably the ones who bring crews that serve them all their own favorite special stuff, from Scott Jurekian hummus and fruit smoothies to greasy hamburgers and fries. Different things work for different runners.
After the race we received a generous hot breakfast of egg burrito, rice, and pancakes, but I was able to swallow only about a third of it, and chucked the rest. On the way home in late afternoon I stopped at a McDonald’s and bought a chocolate shake, ordinarily Something Very Bad for you, but I needed something cool and sweet and soothing. It hit the spot.
However, it was not food that was my downfall during the race, but sleepiness — as it was also last year. I’ve reached the stage in life where it’s not unusual for me to take a ten-minute nap in the afternoon not long after a run. There’s little I can do to fight the urge, and no point in trying.
But it’s different when you’re in a race. I’ve gone a full 24 hours and longer several times without needing to sleep, including every 100-mile trail race I’ve ever done when I didn’t DNF before that time.
At last year’s NC24 I felt drugged, and experienced the same thing this year. On Saturday I went fourteen and a half hours without a single break of any kind, but during the thirteenth hour my eyelids began to droop, and soon I was walking at a 22:00 pace, zig-zagging across the path, occasionally walking off the edge, and wanting nothing more than to lie down and curl up in the grass.
I had caffeine tablets in my pocket pill dispenser, and contemplated taking one. Their effect on me is unpredictable. Sometimes they serve as a wonder drug, charging me into a dynamo; and sometimes they do nothing but make me nauseated. In 2009 my reward for taking one was the dry heaves. Since I was already experiencing that unpleasantness, I had no desire to exacerbate it, so I passed on the caffeine. Would it have helped? I’ll never know.
That left only sleep as an alternative. I still don’t know which is tougher in a 24-hour race: struggling to fight off the mounting sleeplessness, which does sometimes pass, or trying to get moving again after sleeping a short period and awaking to find I’ve locked up tight as a drum, nearly need a cane to prop myself upright, and that I walk like Frankenstein’s monster for the first lap.
This year, as last year, I found that a brief nap in my chair was insufficient to knock the urge out of me. Each time I woke up, I re-evaluated my goals for the race. At twelve hours, I was optimistic that I would reach eighty miles. That hope got cut back to seventy-five, then seventy, and finally I acquiesced to the inevitability that at the very least I would do better than last year. By 6:00 a.m. I realized that I wasn’t having a lot of fun any more, and just wanted the race to be over, so I headed to my car, where I could sit and sleep more comfortably than I had in my trackside chair, with no pillow or support. At 7:30, it was light out, and I was finally no longer sleepy, so I headed out to the track and stuck it out to the end, but still moved glacially because of the stiffness that had set in.
There is absolutely no getting around how incredibly hard these races are to do. There is no faking it if one is unprepared and hopes to go the whole twenty-four hours. The lesson may be: the secret to enjoying the experience is to be in good enough shape that the fun part lasts long enough that you never get to the miserable part, which is certain to arrive if you keep at it long enough.
My prediction proved to be accurate. My total came up to 65.514 miles, ninety-eighth place overall out of 147 runners total. At least I wasn’t even close to dead last. (Ninety-eighth out of 147 puts me exactly in the sixty-sixth percentile.) Plus I really am an old guy now — it’s not just something I joke about — so I can use that as an excuse.
Another state I’ve reached is being able to take home age group hardware by just showing up. USATF championships go deep into the age groups. Unfortunately, one must be a USATF member to get it, and I was too cheap to join. If I had, I would have gotten second place in my age group, with one of the nicer looking medals I’ve seen to accompany the honor. There was in fact, one person in my age group who finished after me, but he isn’t in USATF either. The medals may be only so much bling, but I’ve never gotten an age group medal ever, and after all NC24 is a national championship, not just another race.
I could write more about the good runners who performed well, but I won’t, because this is my report, not theirs. The results are on the race website for all to admire. But I was especially happy to see Nick Coury get third place in the men’s division, earning an opportunity to represent the US on the national team in Switzerland next year. I’ve known Nick since he was eighteen, when he and his two brothers first showed up at Across the Years. As of this year, Nick and his older brother Jamil have taken over management of Across the Years as co-race directors, and I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with them this year once again on the race website, which will be my last year of doing so.
And although I don’t know her well personally, I watched Connie Gardner hammer out a superlative race, winning it with over 141 miles, about three miles short of the record held since 1993 by the great Sue Ellen Trapp. Still no record for Connie, but no one doubts that she is one of the strongest runners currently in the game.
As for me: interestingly, my feet, which had me so worried, caused me no trouble at all. I didn’t even get blisters, although I’ll probably lose a couple of toenails. Sometimes my back also gives out. Not so this race. I’m sore all over, but the truth is, I’m just fine, and will be running again in a couple of days.
Most importantly, I’m happier about what I did the first twelve hours of NC24 than I am disappointed about the second twelve hours; it taught me that I can still run at least a little bit if I really want to.
Cover of Pale Fire
Vladimir Nabokov‘s 1963 novel Pale Fire appears on a number of lists purporting to identify the greatest novels of the twentieth century. I wouldn’t dare to attempt a literary analysis of Pale Fire. It’s been a staple of literature classes for over forty years, and countless reviews and scholarly studies have been created for it; also a number of study guides, replete with pseudo-analyses. These are readily found on the Internet.
Recently I wrote an article about the movie Bright Star, about the life of the romantic poet John Keats. Now here I am, writing a reminiscence of a novel titled Pale Fire, about a poem of the same name by a fictional poet John Shade. The title similarity amuses me. Of course, the coincidence has utterly no significance.
For readers unfamiliar with Nabokov’s novel, the basic story goes like this: The main character is a lunatic named Charles Kinbote, who claims to be the deposed and exiled King Charles the Beloved from Zembla, located “far to the north.” He moves in right next to John Shade and his wife Sybil. Shade is a highly respected poet who teaches at a college in Appalachia. Kinbote, a Shakespeare expert, has come there to teach at the same college, and befriends Shade. It becomes clear rather quickly that Shade has only courteously pretended interest in his neighbor, whereas Kinbote is sycophantically obsessed by Shade, who is hard at work on a new lengthy poem, which turns out to be autobiographical, but which Kinbote imagines will be about Zembla and his role there as king. While waiting anxiously for the completed poem, Kinbote makes a pest of himself to the Shades. Sybil Shade refers to Kinbote as “an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macao worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius.” He has not endeared himself to the Shade household.
In the end, on the day Shade completes his poem, another lunatic, a man known as Gradus, appears out of nowhere, and shoots John Shade dead. Kinbote is convinced that the man was a professional but inept assassin whose real target was the escaped King. The police determine he is really an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane who has come to kill a judge who sent him up, but who stupidly kills the wrong man, both in the real part of the story, and in Kinbote’s imagined version of it. Kinbote steals the poem, goes into hiding, and writes the commentary that constitutes the bulk of the book.
I’ve obviously left out a lot, but there is far more to this novel than the story. Most unusual is its structure, which on the surface consists of a Foreword written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, followed by the 999-line poem “Pale Fire” by John Shade, and 250 pages of commentary on the poem, once again by Dr. Charles Kinbote, including an index of about ten pages. Outwardly, the book looks like a scholarly book of literary analysis. However, every word of the Foreword, poem, commentary, and index are fiction written by Vladimir Nabokov, and form a complete and engrossing novel.
Rather than write more about the story, which is obtainable elsewhere, I wish to comment on the copy I had in my possession, which came from the general circulation shelves of the Bexley Library.
After reading every single word on the jacket and in the front-matter before the novel’s text begins (there’s very little), I concluded that I held in my hands an genuine first edition, first impression of one of the great novels in English literature.
- The cover says “Pale Fire/ A New Novel by Vladimir Nabokov/ Author of Lolita“.
- At the top of the inside front cover flap are the words “First Impression”, and flush right at the same height it says PF/ $5.00. (Might PF stand for “prix fixe”?)
- On the copyright page it says “© 1962 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons,” etc. There’s a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, but no ISBN number, as ISBN numbers were first instituted in 1966. And at the bottom of that few lines of text, separated by some blank space, in small caps, are once again the words “FIRST IMPRESSION“.
- The rest, until the back jacket cover is all Nabokov’s work. On the inside back flap is a one-paragraph biography of Nabokov, current to 1962, and on the back cover, only a photo of Nabokov, with no words whatever.
The book is in excellent condition. Of course the library has stuck its own goo on it, such as the cellophane cover over the jacket, and various stickers and stamps. The binding started to come loose from the cover, but it’s been well mended. On about six pages here are the scribblings of a child from a black ball point pen. (Regrettable.)
I’m humbled by the realization of what I’d been permitted to bring home from the library, to treat no differently than if it were a Sunset book on gardening or a collection of Garfield cartoons. (Which, as a respecter of library property, is carefully, regardless of content, but not everyone is so inclined.)
Pale Fire probably doesn’t get checked out very often. This is the sort of item that an unscrupulous person might claim was “lost” and then resell for far more than the cost of a replacement, which would likely be some later edition, not a collector’s item.
I’m no rare books collector, but for very rough comparison I found a resource on the Internet about determining the value of first edition novels that used Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five as an example. At the time it was written, the numbers looked like this, depending on the condition of the book:
|Fine / Fine:
|Fine / Near Fine:
|Near Fine / Very Good+:
|Very Good+ / Very Good:
|Very Good / Very Good-:
|Good / Good:
It pointed out that the first edition first pressing of Slaughterhouse Five was rather small, so available copies are extremely rare. I can’t say how collectors might value a copy of Pale Fire as compared with a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in the same condition.
I wondered if the library tracks these things, so when I returned it today, I asked a librarian. She said that the Bexley library has no way to take special care of rare books, that the book was probably bought new and has just been on the shelves all this time. Yes, it’s possible that someone could report it missing, pay the replacement cost, and sell it for personal profit.
No, I’m not thinking of doing it myself.
Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia Have you ever noticed how some older people like to tell you their age? It seems I’ve reached that point in life where I’m anxious to tell people my age, sometimes looking for excuses to do so. It’s a pretty sorry state to be in — not being the age I am, but being so anxious to tell others about it, as though there were something special about it.
(Crackly geezer voice.) Let me tell you how ooold I am!
SCENE: Lynn meets a young dude at the track.
Lynn: How ya doin’?
Dude: Not bad. You?
Lynn: Okay. I’m aching, though. Can’t run like I used to, you know.
Dude: I guess I can see why.
Lynn: Yep. Gettin’ too oold I guess.
Dude: Happens to everyone, eh?
Lynn: Yep. Do you have any idea how ooold I am?
Dude: Haven’t a clue.
Dude: Oh, I couldn’t. Got no idea.
Lynn: Go on, just guess.
Dude: How would I know?
Lynn: Just guess!!
Lynn: I’m sixty-seven years old!
Dude: That’s amazing. I never would have guessed.
Lynn: Yep, and I feel it every day.
Dude: I suppose so. Happens to everyone, eh?
Lynn: Believe it or not, I used to be able to run nine-minute miles!
Lynn: Can’t do that any more, of course. Doubt that I ever will.
Dude: I suppose not.
Lynn: Training now just to get back in shape, maybe do another ultra or two.
Lynn: Did I mention how ooold I am?
Dude: I think you may have mentioned it. What was it? Seventy-two?
Lynn: I’m sixty-seven years old!
Dude: That’s amazing. I never would have guessed. Look, I’ve gotta …
Lynn: What did you say you’re training for?
Dude: I didn’t.
Lynn: So what are you training for?
Dude: The Olympic Marathon trials.
Lynn: Cool! Couple of years ahead of schedule, aren’t you?
Dude: But I’ve got a long way to go.
Lynn: What’s your PR?
Lynn: Sounds like you’ll make it.
Dude: Sure hope to. Errr, as I started to say …
Lynn: Want a tip from an old-timer?
Dude: Ummm. Oh sure, why not?
Lynn: Don’t go out too fast. I see all these kids jump off the start early and then die early in the race.
Dude: Got it. I’ll try to remember that. Thanks.
Lynn: Take it from me. I’m sixty-seven years old, y’know, and have seen a thing or two in my day.
Dude: Sixty-seven? That’s amazing. I never would have guessed.
Cover via Amazon
Last night we saw the recently restored version of Franz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece silent film Metropolis, the progenitor of almost every later science fiction action film. The venue was one of my favorite places in Columbus, the Wexner Center for the Arts on The Ohio State University campus, in the theater that holds about 600 people. (It’s the same place we saw What’s Up Doc? a few months ago, with director Peter Bogdanovich present in person.) It was a packed house, and I hear it’s sold out for tonight’s showing as well.
This version of the film, of which I had never seen any part, has twenty-five minutes of additional footage over the 2002 version, previously thought to be definitive. The original was two hours and thirty-three minutes, but was cut down to ninety minutes by the first distributors, who were afraid no one would want to see a movie that long. The film now runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, so not it’s 100% complete, but they’ve recovered just about everything. The new version was first shown on February 12, 2010.
The copy with the missing footage, thought to have vacated the planet, was discovered in Argentina (where it was made) in 2008. Work proceeded immediately on cleaning up the missing pieces and merging them into the 2002 edition. It’s not hard to tell what parts are new, because the the print they worked from had deteriorated badly, and the aspect ratio of the screen is narrower than what later became standard. Some of it is so scratched it’s like looking through a room through a curtain of glass beads. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to get used to this and to accept it for what it is. This has all been converted to digital format for distribution, of course. The visual quality overall is superb.
Metropolis has everything a movie-goer could ask for: a great plot with revolutionary and eschatological themes; good acting, all stylized with exaggerated and melodramatic facial and physical gestures characteristic of silent films of the day; fabulous cinematography; almost non-stop action; enormous and complex sets; a profusion of special effects that are decades ahead of their time technically, including the flooding of a city as big as New York, the transformation of a robot into a woman, burning a “witch” (actually the robot), and depictions of massive machinery; difficult stunts such as people falling off roofs; a non-stop musical score written for the original film, with Wagnerian leitmotifs, and references to everything from “Dies Irae” to “La Marseillaise”; thousands of extras; endless shots of hundreds of people at a time rushing around in panic at top speed, in tightly packed mobs, like a school of fish (not good for extras with claustrophobia); and of course, epic length.
This is highly recommended viewing for any lover of classic film. I understand it’s been circulating in art theaters across the country. I don’t know if it’s available from places like Netflix, but I gather it is not, so watch for it at a venue near you.
Last night we watched Julie & Julia. Yes, we’re behind everyone else. All the movies we watch are borrowed from the library, so we have to wait until they are available. We haven’t rented a movie in nearly three years. The last time it was from Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. Today, as far as I know, neither company even exists any longer.
Julia, as everyone in the world knows by now, is Julia Child as channeled by Meryl Streep, who can do no wrong.
Julie is Julie Powell, which happens to be my mother-in-law’s name. Both the movie Julie and the real life Julie created a blog in which she reported on cooking her way through Julia’s famous book on French cooking, giving herself one year to cook all the recipes. In the movie, at least, she actually did it.
For once I actually liked a movie more than Roger Ebert, whose sometimes overgenerous reviews I always read, even if I read none other. Ebert’s insightful eye did serve to deflate my initial impression, but while he rated the movie with two and a half stars by his system, for reasons he articulates well, and I am impelled to agree with, I nevertheless registered nine stars on IMDB. I don’t go that high very often. And I did it because it was so much fun watching Meryl Streep caricature Julia Child and because I loved watching the two women cook with abandonment and enthusiasm, and maybe because I enjoyed watching a movie about two basically happy marriages where nothing bad happens to spoil the fun. (Well, Julie’s husband gets fed up with her obsession for a day, but that’s easily resolved.)
Perhaps I was just in a mood for a light, popular, romantic tale. I like the movies When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail and thought Julie & Julia has a similar sheen to it. Believe it or not, I did not realize until afterward that Nora Ephron wrote all three. Duh.. I guess you could say she’s an author with a recognizable voice.
I am not a cook, but believe I could be good at it. Yet I don’t want to get into cooking because I have some of the craziest eating habits on the planet, and am best off on a daily basis if I don’t even think about food and stay as far away from it as possible, eating only when absolutely necessary. I can barely eat at all without gaining weight, despite the miles I put in on the road, and if I cooked, I’d give up running and working out so I could do nothing but eat. And that would be Bad. So I’m glad that other people know how to cook and share their skills with people like me. Meanwhile I was content to be a food voyeur.
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Last night we watched the movie Bright Star, about the (short) life of John Keats — or at least about the last part of it.
It’s a good movie. The dialog is captivating, particularly the snippy repartee between Keats’s romantic interest Fanny Brawne and his friend Charles Brown. Fanny and Charles never do learn to get along, consistently despising one another in their mutual possessiveness of Keats.
The costuming is extraordinary. Fanny Brawne was said to be a gifted seamstress who designed and sewed all her own clothes, and at least in the movie, apparently also for her whole family. Some of their attire is edgy and almost bizarre. The movie was nominated for an Oscar and also by at least one other organization for its costuming.
The cinematography, too, is simply astonishing, with a presence bordering on 3-D to the imagery. At the top of Roger Ebert’s review of this film is a picture of Fanny Brawne in a field of blue wildflowers, in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World,” but of an entirely different palette. In the film this scene took my breath away. Ebert makes special note of it in his review, describing it with the words: “There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”
The acting is okay, not Oscar caliber. The main character in this portrayal is Fanny Brawne (Kerry Fox, also the best performer), not Keats; the story focuses on their brief, hopeless, and unfulfilled romantic relationship. Keats had no money or steady income as a starving poet, so was never able to marry Fanny or anyone else. He died in Italy at age 25, apparently of tuberculosis, leaving such a formidable legacy of work, largely unrecognized at the time, that he is remembered today as one of the great Romantic poets. Naturally, a great number of Keats quotes creep into the dialog, in greater proportion as the movie progresses. The closing credits roll over Keats (Ben Whitshaw) reading an ode.
Bright Star, I suppose, will appeal primarily to women. The style of the era being what it is, some of the verbiage, including even the quotes of poetry fragments, may seem a bit syrupy to some persons. Romantic era aesthetics focus on experiences that touch the emotions deeply, in contrast to (and in reaction against) the methodical, refined detachment and intelligence of the Enlightenment that preceded it. Matters of deep emotions would certainly include the type of love between members of the opposite sex that we today also label “romantic.” (I’m not sure if that term was used for it before the Romantic period in art, but the reality has been a part of our common experience since the beginning of human existence.)
I don’t think this movie got a lot of publicity when it came out last year, and it’s not the type of thing that is likely to be found on many people’s summer viewing lists. Nonetheless, it is very much worth seeing by those who aren’t afraid of a film designed to stir the heart.
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Certain tainted words occur repeatedly in journalism about ultrarunning, all of which cause noisy alarms to go off in my head whenever I see them. The four most frequent culprits are:
- test[ing] limits
Rarely have I ever read an article about ultrarunning by a non-ultrarunner that does not use the word crazy to describe the distance or the mindset of the runner.
I’ve never read an article written by someone who doesn’t do it himself that doesn’t describe the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley to the Mount Whitney Portal, or a 100-mile mountain trail race, or for that matter a 24-hour race as grueling. It’s as if grueling were an automatic part of the event label: “Next month I’m going to do a grueling 24-hour race, and the month after that, a grueling 100-mile race.” They’re all grueling, right? I don’t know of a single such race that anyone would consider easy.
The knee-jerk response of many runners, when put on the spot with a question about why they runs ultras, having not prepared an answer beforehand, is, “To test my limits,” or words to that effect. Sometimes it’s, “To see what I’m made of.” And guess what? The answer is always flesh, blood, and bone, just like the rest of us, and in the case of ultrarunners who like to talk about their sport, perhaps also a larger than usual intestinal bag of poo.
I can’t remember when I’ve ever run any distance to test my limits. God help me if I ever reach them. Then what? Congratulate myself and die?
And to persons who customarily view a standard marathon as the “ultimate challenge” (which, when you see several thousand persons young and old of all levels of fitness lined up to start, you realize it’s far from being), any distance longer than that must be extreme. (See my article Half Crazy.)
To me, the word extreme brings to mind the world of X Games, the domain of testoserone-fueled backward-hatted, muscle-shirted, tattooed and pierced, foolhardy risk-takers who live on the edge of life and society (and a few of their female counterparts). I’ve always maintained that ultrarunning in general, as tough as it is to do well, is not an extreme sport in that sense of the word. That category of activity, in my view, must include elements of great danger over which people have little control — like jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping. Also, I don’t care much to watch rock climbers without ropes for the same reason. It’s just stupid to risk one’s life that way.
Which is not to say that there are not certain events in ultrarunning that could be classified as such. The Barkley, which hardly anyone ever finishes, is pretty weird, but at least no one has died doing it yet. So is the Marathon du Sables across the Sahara Desert. Some people think of the Pike’s Peak Marathon as extreme, but I would call that an unusually tough marathon with one big hill, not an extreme event. One day I ran into an old man running down the street wearing a Pike’s Peak Marathon t-shirt. We stopped and talked. He was in his mid-seventies, had run the race eight times, and was planning on continuing to do so as long as he was able. Didn’t strike me as an extremist. He did it because he could and knew how, not to tempt death, which at his age was likely not far away no matter what.
So the next time you hear about some crazy extreme runner finishing a grueling 100-mile race in order to test his limits, don’t believe it.
My Grandma Newton
- had no automobile;
- had no television;
- had no radio;
- had no telephone;
- had an ice box instead of a refrigerator until 1952;
- had no modern record player;
- didn’t own a book except a Bible;
- didn’t think much of music except hymns;
- didn’t approve of my father’s choice of profession;
- didn’t approve of dancing;
- didn’t approve of alcohol;
- didn’t approve of card playing;
- would play Dominoes with me by the hour;
- never left the house, even to go to church, most of her adult life;
- basically had no life at all;
- was probably well-suited for playing Farmville.
It was not until recently that it ever occurred to me that there was anything unusual about her.
Last week I stumbled across a newly published book displayed on a book stand next to a terminal in the Bexley library: Why Boys Fail, by education reporter Richard Whitmire. Intrigued, I snatched it up and read it in two days.
The book’s main thesis is:
The world is becoming more verbal.
Boys are not.
That’s a direct quote, stated twice: once several chapters in, as a conclusion driven to by the evidence presented, and again in summarizing paragraphs.
The problem boils down to one of a lack of basic literacy, which is increasingly lacking in boys. This reality is obvious to me as I read drivel posted to various lists to which I subscribe, and even moreso on Facebook, Twitter and telephone text messages. To paraphrase a friend: Anyone whose thoughts are limited to a 140-character event horizon doesn’t have much to say.
Recently, a young friend sent me email to which I was obliged to respond, “So what’s with the gansta talk?” His reply, with numerous errors edited out here, said: “It’s just the way I type things out on the computer. I guess it comes from too much texting back forth to people who talk like that as well.”
This is not to say that one needs to deliver essays when a short sentence or two will do. But whatever is written should at least be reasonably correct. Occasional typos and blunders in informal writing happen with everyone, and are forgivable, but when every single sentence is laden with several misspellings, along with punctuation and grammatical errors, it suggests something is fundamentally lacking on the part of the communicator; it also suggests that he may not even care. Unfortunately, the ironic tragedy of ignorance is that ignorant people don’t know they are ignorant, so can’t detect the problem so as to fix it.
Whitmire presents abundant data to demonstrate that in the world of formal education (meaning in schools) and in those arenas of life that follow and surround the receiving of such education, there is a rapidly increasing gender gap.
Today 60% of college students are women. With the layoffs that came as a result of the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, the workforce in the United States is now over half female. Whitmire doesn’t make the point directly, but it seems the days when Dad went to work and Mom stayed home with the kids are behind us.
In Montreal 71% of medical students, 63% of law students, 80% of optometry students, 64% of dentistry students, 56% of management students, and 70% of architecture students are women. The situation is similar elsewhere, indicating a shift to a female based economy in professions and services. While this is in some ways wonderful for women, it suggests that something has been happening for a long time with boys coming up through school age. The numbers are indisputable.
Whitmire presents and debunks the commonest knee-jerk explanations, among them:
- It’s those @#$! video games! World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto that keeping boys away from more productive activity.
- Girls mature faster than boys.
- It’s because of the feminist movement; those women are taking over!
- Boys will be boys. They love to play, goof off, and delay growing up.
- If there’s really a problem, it’s happening only among the poor segments of society or among certain ethnic populations.
All baloney as explanations of the waning literacy of young males.
Furthermore, the problem is happening throughout the world. In Australia, also in one or two other countries, authorities have already recognized the problem and have begun to confront it.
The last part of Why Boys Fail is devoted to a number of proposed reactions, which is what I prefer to call them rather than solutions, because none have been tried sufficiently to know they will work.
It’s not my intent here to present the arguments, the evidence, or the proposals. The problem is real. The reasons and solutions are not as obvious. Instead, I’d like to relate my personal experience.
When I was four years old, my mother, the oldest of eight Depression era farm kids, and the only one of her family to be sent to and complete college, obtaining a teaching degree, taught me, the oldest child in the family, how to read from the Dick and Jane series of reading primers. So in those pre-Sesame Street days I became an enthusiastic early reader, already fluently so, and even a hunt-and-peck typist, a fledgling writer, by the time I started kindergarten. My parents also introduced me to the library when I was very young, which I found to be an exciting place. In addition, we were the last family in our area to acquire a television, so that during the summers before we got one, I spent many days reading one book after another.
On page seventeen of the Why Boys Fail I encountered a subheading that caught my eye: “The Wilmette Discovery.”
Glenn “Max” McGee was serving as state superintendent of schools of Illinois when he noticed that interest in reading on the part of his own two sons showed a significant decline when they were in fifth and sixth grades, something he found hard to comprehend. Here I quote:
In 2002 McGee became superintendent of the K-8 Wilmette schools along Chicago’s high-income North Shore, right on the doorstep of Northwestern University. These schools feed into the famed New Trier High School, which rests high on any top ten list of America’s best high schools. McGee sat down to map out a way to accomplish what he describes as making the great schools there even greater. Based on his own family experience, McGee had a hunch: Let’s look at boosting boys’ performance. To the Wilmette educators, this was a radical approach. Who thought the boys had any problems?
So they got to work. It continues, “In Wilmette, … one of the wealthiest and most education-focused school districts in the United States, these inquiries are taken very seriously.” They issued a 107-page report to demonstrate that McGee’s hunch about the boys being in trouble was well founded.
Parents there appeared shocked by the report. Nobody thought this could happen in Wilmette. “We have very high-achieving parents … who serve as strong role models.”
“In Wilmette, nearly everyone eventually goes to college, even the slacker boys.”
Quite true. The reason this interests me is that I went through the Wilmette public schools and New Trier High School myself. New Trier was then and still is today a large and high quality public high school. My graduating class was over 960 people. We were told that 96% of us were headed off to college. No other future was ever discussed or even hinted at for anybody while I was growing up. The few who did not go were largely the troublemakers and the kids in the slow track courses, but I didn’t know many of them.
Our family was not rich; we were barely middle class economically speaking, as my father worked very hard to be the sole breadwinner in the family, making enough money as a classical musician to support a wife and four sons in such a place. The payoff for us boys was an enriched cultural experience that has influenced my viewpoint on education and life in general to this day.
To me education has always been only tangentially related to the formal part of it — attending schools, getting degrees and accreditations, pursuing the so-called American dream of having a family and a house in the suburbs with all the accouterments that go with that style of living. Frankly, when I was in school, I gave almost no thought to those matters, so little that it has caused me difficulties at various times that continue to this very day, as there are many practical subjects, even at my age — past the ordinary age of retirement — about which my understanding is deficient.
Education to me has always been about growing as a person by drinking in knowledge and experience by whatever means I can get it, and synthesizing that in such a way that my perspective on life deepens. And thus, at least for me, it continues to be, as I attempt by whatever means I can to learn more every single day of my life.
Sadly, it appears that this is not going to happen with many young males today.
Persons interested in knowing more about this topic may be
interested in reading Richard Whitmire’s blog.
Cover of Crown of Horns (Bone, Vol. 9)
Cover of Crown of Horns (Bone, Vol. 9) Exactly one year ago today Suzy and I attended the world premiere of a documentary about comic book artist Jeff Smith, who is from Columbus area, and a graduate of The Ohio Statue University. Smith is famous in the world of comic book art as the creator of Bone, an epic graphic novel. The work has been translated into about fifteen languages, has sold over a million copies, and has been given two or three dozen different awards. I wouldn’t have guessed there are that many awards for comic books.
Though I have long loved good cartooning, as one who has had no interest whatever in comic books since my childhood days of Superman, Batman, and the Disney characters—particularly Scrooge McDuck—Smith and his work was utterly unfamiliar to me. When I saw the documentary, for which Jeff Smith was personally present, and the long line of people, including many adults, who were present to meet him and have him autograph their personal copies of Bone, I knew I had to put it on my reading list.
Bone is published in nine volumes, which I obtained recently from the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I spent about a day per volume reading the nine volumes, a total of 1375 pages, adding up the numbered pages, and finished it two or three days ago.
Anyone prejudiced against comic books might think that the term “graphic novel” to be pretentious, but Bone deserves the designation because it tells a continuous and well-crafted story.
The original comics were drawn and published in black and white, and then combined under one cover, which I have seen. Smith thought he was finished, until a friend told him that he really must republish the series with color added.
What I received from the library in three different trips was all nine volumes, but a total of eleven books. One volume they sent me both the color and the black and white versions, and another they sent me two identical color volumes. Two volumes arrived only in black and white. They are all still sitting on my desk behind me, waiting to be returned. Suzy is in the middle of the last volume herself, so I’m waiting for her to finish.
Smith’s friend was right: the added color is brilliantly done, so much so that I can’t imagine the book without it. Nonetheless, Smith had become a superstar in the world of comics well before the series was completed in black and white.
The story is readable by young readers, but includes much detail it to keep adults entertained. The main characters are the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone, the cheerful nice guy; Phoney Bone, who is driven relentlessly by sheer greed that drives him to perpetrate crazy schemes, but remains strangely likeable nonetheless; and Smiley Bone, about whom Fone Bone says, “He doesn’t have a brain,” though he proves to have a heart and many likeable qualities. Smiley Bone is definitely the Ringo of the group, as the trio would be incomplete without him.
The three are white like Casper the Ghost. Fone Bone is generally seen without clothing but carries a knapsack; Phoney Bone wears a t-shirt with a star on the chest; and Smiley Bone wears a vest and usually can materialize a cigar, which is never smoked or even commented on.
The other characters include a human girl named Thorn, drawn to appear drop dead gorgeous but not at all sexually provocative, appearing to be between sixteen and years old. Her grandmother Gran’ma Ben, who squints, wears a white apron, and has a mouth that both smiles and scowls simultaneously. Gran’ma Ben is as vigorous as Yiannis Kouros, runs many miles a day, races cows, proves to be a dynamic leader, and an invincible warrior. Thorn does not know it at the start, but Gran’ma Ben was a queen. Thorn’s parents, a king and queen, were killed in a war while fleeing from their city of Atheia, which makes Thorn a princess, and one who has special as yet undiscovered powers. At the beginning Gran’ma Ben and Thorn are living together in a tiny cabin in the woods.
There is a supporting cast of hilarious characters: a friendly dragon with floppy ears, a bug of unnamed type named Ted, drawn as a tiny green triangle with four little black legs sticking out of it, packs of rabid monsters called rat creatures who try to kill and eat whatever they can find, two in particular who remind me of Laurel and Hardy, love quiche, and are always bickering with one another, an inn and tavern full of humans men, and gigantic mountain lion named Roque Ja—the “r”should be rolled, but the Bone cousins call him Rock Jaw, evil hooded personages, and a host of others. Numerous new people are introduced in later volumes, some only briefly.
Fone Bone, the main character, the nicest guy, who becomes enamoured of Thorn, carries a backpack, with apparently nothing in it except a copy of his favorite book, Moby Dick, about which he can soliloquize at great length, causing everyone to fall into instant slumber. This becomes one of the running jokes for adults. In one episode Fone Bone and Smiley Bone are a hair’s breadth from being devoured by a pack of slavering, screeching rat creatures, when Smiley dives for Fone Bone’s back pack and begins reading: Call me Ishmael! whereupon the pack of rat monsters is rendered catatonic, frozen in sleep out of instantaneous boredom.
Later on Smiley finds a cub rat monster and cares for it, and it becomes friendly. He names it Bartleby, another nod to Herman Melville.
The story line eventually gets quite involved in intricate plot details in the manner of much fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am not generally a fan. I could care less about a tale of the struggle between mythical forces of good and evil. But story this is so well told with sufficient humorous twists that I couldn’t put it down for the humor, in addition to which it is brilliantly drawn.
Some main characters do die during the course of the story, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs.
There is a bit of pseudo Biblical allegory in the plot, though it’s obviously not intended to mimic the Bible too closely. There are great dragons (good guys) and Mim, the greatest dragon (very bad), and a Time of the End (or the End Times). Thorn is a vaguely messianic figure, who gradually learns her role in life, is abused and suffers for a while as she attempts to seek the Crown of Horns, which sounds much like a Crown of Thorns, and particularly so given her name is Thorn; thus when she accomplishes it, it becomes a sort of “Crown of Thorn’s” as it were. Except the crown is not a crown at all, but a stone wall deep under the earth, and it is not to be worn, but touched. Furthermore, Thorn is trapped in a dead bad monster’s jaws with a giant tooth through her thigh and cannot reach it, but she can touch Fone Bone, who can in turn reach the wall, upon which Good Things happen.
But more remains to be wrapped up after that, as there is an apocalyptic ending, where the floppy eared good dragon appears, calls up a horde of thousands of fellow dragons deep out of the earth who rise up, surround the giant bad dragon Mim, and carry it down into a massive pit within the earth that closes behind them, which is the end of this particular war of good versus evil.
Did you get all that? Were you taking notes? I don’t think I gave too much away that matters.
The ending, which takes a couple more chapters to spin out, is of course happy, and surprisingly mild, as the three Bone cousins get on a wagon and head back to Boneville, from which they were driven because of one of Phoney Bone’s crazy misguided plots a year before, as Phoney is foiled in his attempt to pull yet another dishonest stunt even upon their exit.
Bone is entertaining, well crafted, and very much worth reading by young and old alike; but don’t get started unless you’re okay with plowing through 1375 pages of comic book.