Sunday, August 30, 2015

Running Dreams

My suspicion is that most runners do not dream -- or at least do not remember their dreams. As a runner, my sleep had the quality of ink; absolutely black and immediate. It could be that runners simply do not need to dream, as in waking-life they are able to inhabit an intermediate phase of consciousness, skimming underneath their minds as they roll down the road. Or perhaps the narcotic fatigue of training drags runners into sleep so deeply that by the time they re-emerge they've left their dreams unconsciously behind.

Lately, without exercise, I have been dreaming more, and I often dream quite vividly that I am running. Some hours later, I have to point my consciousness to the fact of my injured ankle and construct a counter-factual argument: I cannot run, and so therefore the run that I am remembering must have been a dream and did not happen.  That's how vivid they are.

Upon recall these dreams are are very bodily. The run comes back as vibrations and sounds. The images are peripheral, as when in the flow of running, experience becomes a type of tunnel that opens out from the mind. The eyes are less important than the hips, the shock, the balance.

The other day in my dream I was running up a mountain, and what I remember most was the downthrust of my elbows, my toes curling to grip the dusty trail, and the arch of my neck as my eyes searched up for the horizon. The sun was nowhere to be seen; the landscape was trimmed down to an intimate horizon in which everything was felt and included, as if the lavender on the side of the trail was not seen but felt. This is perhaps a hallmark of dreaming. The boundaries between mind and world, between sense and reality, are muddied, as the world itself is only thought and through that inversion thought itself is worlded.

I remember that inversion in the flow of the run. To be reminded that we are each centers of our own universes, each capable of expanding and dissipating, or contracting to a point of intensity. Cosmology states that the universe began in a tightly wound point of tremendous density, and it has been exploding outwards for eons. Our image of the universe is specks of lonely stars in gallons of black paint.

The inward universe does not mirror nature. We need both expansion and intimacy, distance and depth, beginning and endings, waking and sleep. The multiverse of experience is a billion drifting centers of a billion vague horizons, blinking open and awake and then at the end of the day contracting back and asleep.  Later we wake and remember that it was all a dream, and that it all happened inside our minds, but that it was still somehow quite real, as real as it gets.

The possibility that reality is a dream has always been seen as solipsistic -- as a way of arguing that the only thing that is real is individual consciousness. But dreams and runs do not eliminate the world. They interiorize the external. They collapse the barrier between self and world, not so that the one becomes the other, but so that they both mingle and refresh and inter-connect. We dream and run and remember, not escaping reality, but following paths back into it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Depressives

Disclaimer: this post is not about running -- it's been over a year since I've run! But it was motivated by a perfect evening for running, as the Tennessee summer somewhat incredibly loosened its grip, letting the crisp of fall in through the cracks in the clear sky.

* * *

It's come to me slowly and over time that almost all of my literary/philosophical heroes have been depressives. The three philosophers I've spent the most time with -- James, Emerson, and Nietzsche -- all struggled with and at moments succumbed to depression. There's a way in which their depression is a key to their writing, particularly Nietzsche's writing. Much of his work on human motivation -- the will to power -- could be seen as motivated by the depressive's question: how can I will myself to will?

James' philosophy as well so often rotates around questions of what makes experience flow and run. Depression is like a large and stagnant body of water, and we see James through the sort of effort of his prose make the water run. "The Will to Believe" is the text of a depressive trying to develop habits of mind that keep the water flowing. Belief for James is not about truth, but about continuing to survive and pursue an active life: this is the depressive's challenge.

We don't often think of Emerson as a depressive; the stock Emerson is the Emerson of "Self-reliance," an essay often (mis-) read as having the view that the individual could through force of will somehow wrest hold of his destiny and live according to it. The deeper argument that Emerson urges throughout his work is that the self must find deeper and more substantive sources of energy: the divine, genius, the universal. The Emersonian self is always losing itself in larger flows. The essay that unlocks this message is "Experience," in which Emerson fails to find the flows of experience, in which he lays out the fundamental nature of reality as melancholic:
"...we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again."
In The Noonday Demon (a book which anyone who is interested in depression should read), Andrew Solomon argues that depression has been with us, manifesting itself in various cultural forms and under various understandings, but persisting as a quality of the human animal. These days, of course, depression is understood medically as a type of disease along the lines of alcoholism or perhaps diabetes. There are people who have a propensity towards depression that can be activated by their environment or their biology (and also deactivated through medical and talking therapies.) Solomon's take is that depression is a type of chronic illness and should be treated as such -- through ongoing and constant treatment. Depression is a flaw in the wheel of character, and it can be lived with, but only through steady work.

When we read philosophy as young people, we often do so in order to lend authority to our own relatively new impressions of the world. When I read these depressives as a young man -- James, Emerson, Nietzsche -- I recognized their problems and my reaction was to say: aha! -- some truth, and carried them close to my heart as encouragement that the shade in which I saw the world might have some merit.

As we get older and more settled in our views, we need the affirmation of philosophy less. We see the philosophers that we clung to so urgently in our adolescence as thinkers as deeply flawed and even embarrassing. This happened to me most specifically with Nietzsche, who I find I can hardly read any more, and when I do so now, it's mostly to extract something banal and ordinary like: the guy was a depressive, rather than a nugget of indecipherable prose that reflected back to me something undecipherable as well.

But just in this way the philosophers return to us, less as sooth-sayers and more as representative types. The depressives, I can say at least, resonated with me in a time in my life when I needed them. They were friends, fellow travelers, strange men from the beginning of the 20th century who seemed to be speaking in an untimely present to me. As a young man, the concept of depression was totally foreign to me, but I understood these problems all too well: The Nietzschean question: "what is the source of human will?"  The Jamesian question: "How does intellectual rumination touch reality?" The Emersonian question: "How can the individual tap into the spark of divination?"

My use for philosophy had little to do with truth and much to do with companionship and friendship around a certain set of questions. Or, perhaps better put, the truth I found in the depressives was in their struggle, which seemed to take place alongside mine. It's impossible to imagine my young adulthood without these ideas and thinkers; that's how deeply they affected me.

In the larger culture wars, battles rage on about the value of the humanities, the purpose of philosophy, literature, and other less practical pursuits. For my part, it's sad to think that someone like me might not have had the chance to encounter those traveling companions who shepherded me into adulthood. Who else could it have been? The transition certainly would have been made, but less richly, less articulately, and with fewer memories and understanding of myself.

So, I'm grateful for my youthful courage to study philosophy and for the teachers and professors and friends and family who encouraged me to go digging into books to see what strange riches I might find.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On the Smallness of Running

"As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top."  --William James, in a letter to a friend

The smallness of running:

  • the strike of the foot
  • the curve of the path
  • the agonizing second
  • the race remembered
  • the step out of bed
  • the moment of decision
  • the blinding whirl
  • the forward lean
  • the breeze in an ear
  • the flight of the mind
  • the common pace
  • the daily run
  • the irritable tendon
  • the lace untied
  • the rising strength
  • the return to weakness
  • and so on, so long as we run

The way to write about a practice like running, which has no larger meaning, is to focus in on the smaller meanings. It's easy to think that when we philosophize we ought to say something grand and large, as if the truth of life must somehow be bigger than life. We are always wanting life to live up to its reputation, perhaps not realizing that this desire diminishes life. 

Following James, I've found more insight going small -- into the overlaps and the lifted edges of life. It's there that the mind can actually grab hold of reality. We want our minds to be like trawling nets that capture everything at once, but the truth is that minds are more like scalpels and tweezers, better at slicing and mending and grasping the small than capturing the large. We think with a pincer-grip.

It's for these reasons that I drone on about running as an antidote to wisdom ill-conceived. Running brings us back to the small. It locates the mind inside a body, inside a brain, inside a skull. It localizes the attention, steadies the scalpel. When we run, we find ourselves to be contained within ourselves, smaller and therefore more capable, and ultimately more wise for the smallness.

Like any material, the larger the mind is spread, the thinner it becomes. With the internet and current events and politics and all, it feels as if our minds have been stretched to a sort of transparent film, like the surface of a soap bubble, upon which only impressions can be made. Our attention is repeatedly drawn to affairs much larger than we can comprehend, and our reflections threaten to spin off into other reflections, hardly skimming experience.

In contrast, the pleasures and pains of having a body are always local, immediate, pressing. While our minds can drift above and out of them for a while, in the end these smaller immediacies will have their way, like James' patient soft rootlets rending relentlessly the hardest monuments of man's pride. 

In this is the small wisdom the body teaches: in the slip, in the passing, in the sensed and forgotten, in the glimpsed and the fleeting. In these are something more stable and enduring than the monuments of pride, the Gods and Nations and Arguments and Identities and Truths. We run, we sweat, we move, composing ourselves again, packing ourselves back into the small beings we are, ready to lift camp and to travel. 

Might it be that in the end there is no larger meaning, that in the end life is measured in smaller meanings, themselves eroding away into sensations, overlaps, strains, and intentions? The world, perhaps, does not just orbit a sun but is also made of beetles and coral and blood, itself one of many worlds, teeming off into smaller and smaller multitudes. Can't we cast our lot with smallness? Aren't the multitudes more than enough?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Death, Singularity, and the Memory of Running

"... as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes …  I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow.” 
— Paul Harding, Tinkers

Injury has kept me from running for more than six months, and I finally decided last month to go under the knife, hoping that the surgeon could somehow make elastic again a right achilles tendon that had been chewed by my calcaneus over the course of thousands of miles into a ruptured mass of inchoate flesh. The surgery was a success; he took the flexor hallus longus — a tendon that runs the length of the bottom of the foot to flex the big toe — and somehow used it to reinforce and stabilize the achilles. Just yesterday I began to walk awkwardly without crutches. It will be a few more months until I can run. With luck, I will be able to train a year from now.

So for the last little while running — that faithful antidote to all the ideas in my head — has now become an idea. My relationship with running is no longer immediate. I am a runner, still, but in memory, in dreams.

Here are the things I remember: the acid first early steps of a run, the complaining legs falling like mules into halter, a steady rhythm, steamy breath, the shoulders loosening and legs warming. The second curve of the track, bending patiently around, the bodily humors surging and flowing, pain and pleasure mixing like ginger beer and whiskey. Mischievous thoughts, playing with the pace, baiting training partners into feeling too good, running too fast, until we are flowing and cranking and leaning into the curves.

When something in your life is lost: your father, a favorite shirt, an old habit, or a place, what is remembered is arbitrary: a collection of moments adding up to only so many particulars. So it is with running; away from the rhythm of training, away from the constant ache and hunger, the wooden legs and bird-chest, running comes back to me as scattered bits and impressions, never as the whole. The brain weakly assembles what in immediate experience is so much fuller: the symphony of experience played back by a solitary and sweet violin.

But I believe what Paul Harding is saying in Tinkers, as George ruminates on his father's death, is that in the re-assembling of memory, in the broken particularity, is a kind of connection. As particulars, as belt buckles and lunar dust and railroad spikes, we possess the kind of fractured density that Kant could only call the object =x. Singularity is the word for it in philosophy — as singularities we are not the same, we are absolutely other, as mute to each other as a pillow to a strand of hair, as the diamond to the orange peel, as every object is to every other. We are all made out of this soundlessness.

The logorrheic beings we are, we constantly bridge this soundless singularity through narrative, piecing together the separate nouns that clutter perception with verbs and syntax, holding the whole grammar together in the stories we tell. Narrative weaves together the disparate, fallen apart, and lost objects into a coherence that — done well — recreates the deep and immediate flow of experience.

But narrative itself only holds together in the moment of reading or the even more fragile moment of writing. Narrative, itself, is an experience, and does not last. We read and are captured in the grip, and then lost again. 

With running too: we run, are captured in the grip, and lost again. Like wrens, we flit from branch to branch, the perchings and the flights, lightly touching and grabbing and holding on, then falling into flight. 

That's what I miss from running, the catchings, the fallings, the effort to piece it together until it then comes together. The violins drop their piecemeal whining, the soundless objects cease their muteness, and -- the symphony begins, and it strains and flows and lasts the whole while, like life, until it ends.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Running as Art: Tolerance, Temperament, and the Ineffable"

Here is an open access link to the post-prints of "Running as Art: Tolerance, Temperament, and the Ineffable." This essay was first written in response to a call for papers on the topic of the ineffable by the American Philosophies Forum.

I think that readers of this blog will enjoy it! Any institutional use of this work should credit the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

My Dad -- how I knew him

Dad loved the Tennessee River Gorge
When my daughter was born, my Dad would look at her to try to gauge whether she was an Edmonds. He always concluded that she was. Lourdes and I saw it too: from the beginning the first person she looked like was my father. Panambi was a difficult infant. I remember looking down at her when she was just months old, and she stared back up at me with animal wildness in her eyes, twisting and straining in a body that didn't fully respond. That's when she looked like my Dad.

When we would talk about how difficult Panambi was as an infant with my family, everyone would say that Dad was the most difficult infant they had ever seen. I of course didn't see that up close but I saw it in my own daughter. She came into the world restless and straining at its limits, just like my Dad.

When I think about who he is, that's the first thing I think of -- a sort of unsettled, straining, and restless energy that was the quality of his soul. My Dad was a little bit crazy and very much alive.

That restless energy made some people uncomfortable. My Dad was not good in polite company. He headed straight in conversation for the most taboo topics. He could size up a complete stranger in an instant and would center in on what made them uncomfortable and unsettled. This sounds mean and aggressive when I write it, and I think that he came off that way to some people. But what he was doing was inviting people into the way that he lived in the world, which was open and unsettled and vulnerable and chaotic. He wanted to dispense with the guards we put around us and meet on terrain that was more open. He felt most comfortable there.

Although my Dad loved to provoke people he was never calculating -- it was instinctual. He never controlled fully the energy that coursed through him. The closest he came was as a young man, a state champion pole vaulter who also loved to party and dance. He couldn't control the energy but as a young athlete, he could vibrate with its frequencies.

The purity of my Dad's energy is something that those closer to him knew. Once you got past his provocations, a different man emerged. My father was almost totally selfless. Perhaps because he could never build a self around all of that instinct and spirit, he just never demanded much from anyone. He was also deeply sensitive and capable of deep emotion. Though he never said it much, I knew how much he loved me and my brother, along with his mother and his own father and his brother and sister. His life centered on a small circle of people who he would do anything for, without complaint and without judgment.

My Dad died suddenly and it appears he left without suffering, at least in that moment. In the later years of his life, my Dad suffered quite a bit. His body rebelled at the energy of his spirit, tightening and tensing up on itself. Sometimes the energy was too much for him to bear, and his way to deal with it wasn’t always healthy. But he took it all on himself and didn't want to bother anyone with it.

The memory that flashes before me now is of me and him fishing on Santeelah Lake up in the North Carolina mountains. It was sunset, the lake reflecting brown and orange sky. All of a sudden, the smallmouth started biting, and it was total chaos. I was probably 10 years old, and my Dad and I reeled them in, one after another, these tight wriggling fish pulled like electricity out of those clear cold waters. That's when my Dad was at peace, with his son, in nature, with forces as wild and clean and wriggling as that soul-stuff that ran through him.

That night is 25 years gone and now so is my Dad, gone with it, but he was never here to stay anyways. He was unsettled and vibrant and now he is gone.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Eulogy for a Great Coach: Van Townsend

"...if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points." --William James, "The Energies of Men"

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
-- Will Shakespeare

My good friend, training partner, and coach Van Townsend died on Monday, too young, of cancer.

Great coaches are gifted with an ability to unlock what is bound up in others, and of course if they themselves could explain this gift, great coaching could be learned and perhaps we'd have more of them. This gift is as obvious and basic in great coaches as other fundamental character traits. You perceive it immediately, once in their presence, a sort of magnetic effect of personality. Coaches are born, not made.

Really the best way to understand great coaching is indirectly through looking at what athletes need. Athletes are people who are driven to pour immense amounts of energy into a single pursuit of excellence . The best athletes must be able to tune out distraction, find poise and relaxation under extreme conditions, tap into wells of motivation and endurance long after the wells of others have run dry. The athlete is the person who knows how to access the strengths and capacities of the human that are, as James puts it, "habitually untaxed."

For this reason athletes are fundamentally solitary beings. They function at their best in small clans, apart from the untaxed habits of ordinary life and in tune with different values and expectations. The athletic life is a counter-cultural life.

A great coach know how to cultivate and maintain this counter-culture. He or she is able through the magnetism of the coaching gift to create a world within a world (and even against the world) that moves according to different laws. Van Townsend was a master at this.

When Van first arrived at my high school, he was strikingly counter-cultural. In a world of mid-90's George Herbert Walker Bush Southern values and prep-school ties, he sported an earring, wore garishly colored running jackets, and dwelled always within a clutter of enormous adidas running shoes (he had size 11 feet.) His shorts were incredibly short, revealing legs hardened by a word that when spoken seemed magical: mileage. It was hard to tell how old he was -- the wrinkles around his eyes, the gaunt cheeks were marks of old age. But his eyes were twinkling and bright and mischievous as if he'd just turned 17. He was into weird British punk rock.

He was immediately different, and that difference itself made us curious -- what sort of world did this guy live in? Where did he come from? And what the heck was he doing here, in Chattanooga?

Turns out that Van had come to Chattanooga to create a running dynasty in a place that didn't even know what running was. Van had trained at the center of the running universe under the legendary Bill Squires. He was a running purist; he believed in running easy, in weekly mileage numbers that made young kids heads whirl: 80, 90, 100. He believed in doubles, in running during lunch, in running in the middle of the night. He urged us to be different, to be weird.

Running, for Van, was not training or doing a sport. It was a way of being, a radical counter-culture for a chosen few. He didn't coach a team or build training plans. He created a world of values and mystery, and invited you in. Those who crossed the threshold would be forever fundamentally changed.

Van's world unlocked runners. How do you take an adolescent boy and convince him to run 80 miles per week? How do you create a band of brothers, willing to pour themselves out, day after day, under the hot sun? How do you take 20 or so young men from a small town in Tennessee and craft a team that is able to compete with the best teams in the nation? These are the things that Van did.

Van's gift was that he urged and fostered intensity. He modeled what it meant to be energetically alive. His life avoided the plain, the ordinary, and the routine and instead focused on the wild, the spontaneous, and the reckless. For Van's runners, training and competing wasn't about glory or even victory, but about intensity of living purposefully and sharing in sacrifice with others.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Van was that it was so easy to be a part of his team. Van was always recruiting--which is to say, he was always reaching out and finding people. As soon as you met Van, he was coaching you, like it or not, peering into what made you tick, and filling that ticker with his enthusiasm which poured out of him in a wild spray of language. His world was for the precious few, but it was an open world. He would train runners from all the schools in the region over the summer, then relentlessly compete against them in the fall, then bring them back together to train in the winter. His world was the runner's world, in which your rival is your greatest friend. He could fuse opposites.

I am sad that Van is dead. Really, it's hard to believe that he could die. But I am not as sad as I thought I would be. For those of us who knew Van, we carry so much of him within us that in a way he had already accomplished a kind of spiritual leaving. Great coaches are there with their athletes, in their moment of greatest struggle, and that's because they've figured out a way into the athlete's heart, so that the athlete doesn't have to be alone in his solitude of striving, in his moment of greatest fatigue and pain.

Yes, -- these are hard words -- Van has died. But more than that, he has become more fully what he always was: a man able to give a part of himself to everyone he met. Now he is only that, a beating pulse in the center of every person he touched, unlocking us, giving us strength and joy and life.

Van Townsend was a great coach. He runs on, in the heart of runners everywhere.
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