Friday, March 14, 2014

The Running Bum as Sad and Admirable

There is a thread on the letsrun.com message board right now about whether running bums are sad or admirable. I find the thread sort of fascinating because you can't really separate out the sadness from the nobility of it. Most arguments against building your life around running in your 20s make an instrumental argument about that part of life. If you decide to become a running bum, the argument goes, you are sacrificing your future potentialities. You will wake up some day in your mid- to late- 30s with sore achilles tendons and nothing to fall back on except 15 years spent working stocking shoes in a running store. Many posters find this sad, and it might actually be.

But it's exactly this thought that is the nobility of the running bum lifestyle: the thought that life is not fundamentally instrumental in nature, that the present ought not be sacrificed to an unknown future. The running bum forsakes imagined possibilities of midlife success for all sorts of real immediacies: the feeling of strength in the well-trained body; the simple and ascetic discipline of the running life; the brotherly clan of training partners; the sensations that others will never have a chance to know: the body working at a level that others could literally never imagine: clipping off 5 minute mile after 5 minute mile, effortlessly, flying.

We wake again and again to ourselves in the middle of life somehow, bound to a contract of habit that we don't remember signing. This is the case for everyone. The running bum's contract is different than most. He seems barely to have a grip on life, a grip that is certain to fade as his body fades, as the miles rack up, as the tendons degenerate, as the muscles lose their elasticity, and the crows feet spread out from eyes too used to staring out at horizons to find their focus beneath the florescence of office lights. His plans only involve circles, outs and backs, open roads, open sky and lost dogs in the dead of night.

The running bum intuits what the rest of us also know: life is short and it will fade for us all. In the end all instrumentalities of life, all the best-made plans, lead us all into the ground. His choice is noble, as it honors the present. He throws himself deeply into it without regard for futures beyond his experience.

This point comes for all of us, not just for running bums: the moment when we cease to trade the present for hopes only dimly imagined and decide to throw ourselves into the life that has chosen us. The moment feels something like this: we wake up one morning and find ourselves trapped by the choices we've made and by the path that fate bore us down. Life forces us to choose to be who we have become -- the recklessness and singularity of this choice is our only chance at freedom.

The running bum makes this choice to become who he is early in life, long before most people even realize that life (or, to speak honestly, death) will force this choice. It is strange to see someone choose a life so young, when they are still in formation, when most of us believe that we still have many lives to live beyond the one that will inexorably happen to us.

The lives of others are always sad and always admirable. Singularity is like that. We are sad for the losses that others must endure. We wish that they had made better choices. We mourn for the futures they could not live and hope to make better choices than they did. But at the same time we also admire the lives of others because they chose differently. They took paths we did not dare to take, made choices when we lacked courage. They became who they are, and the otherness of that choice beckons us out of the narrowness of our own perspectives.

The lives of others always reflect the singularity of our own life: the fact that this life is mine alone, and I have chosen it. I chose it sometimes sadly and blindly, sometimes nobly and deliberately, and sometimes without knowing which was which until much, much later, and sometimes without knowing at all.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Parenting and Running Have in Common: or why joy is more essential than happiness

In the fascinating and perceptive All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior takes a look at the cultural expectations surrounding parenthood, adulthood, and childhood. The book is fashioned out of a lovely mix of psychology, philosophy, sociology and real-world reporting, and while the drama of parenting is her ostensible subject, she uses this drama to explore even more fundamental questions. The book is not a manual for parenting; it's a book about the way we frame our lives and the narratives that support the answers we give to the hows and whys that face us down as parents and even as human beings.

The most interesting claim that she makes in the book is that the pursuit of happiness at the center of contemporary culture, enshrined in the Constitution, and a central guiding concept in parenting--we want our kids, more than anything, to be happy--is deeply problematic and a threat to other, more important, more achievable, and more satisfying human goals.

She explains that one of the first lessons of parenthood is that happiness is superficial, vague, and ill-defined. Study after study shows that becoming a parent does not lead to happiness. The people she interviews in the book make this case in all sorts of poignant ways. It's also clear that trying to make their children happy leads parents more often than not into paradoxes and difficulties and failures. Anyone who has tried to make someone else happy understands what a frustrating experience that can be. In fact, when we take happiness as a goal for ourselves, we end up making our selves miserable, more often than not.

Senior explains that contemporary culture misunderstands the nature of happiness when we take it as a goal. She allies herself with the Ancient Greeks, who saw happiness as an effect of a well-lived life, as a consequence of flourishing, rather than as an end to be pursued (Aristotle said famously that we could not know whether a man was happy until after his death.) She notes that the most powerful thing that children give us is a sense of this Greek ideal: a well lived life, formed out of duty and purpose. This duty and purpose structures the experience of living in a way that satisfaction is possible, not in an absolute sense, but in a series of concrete senses. Further, parenting gives us structured life in a way that connects us with other people, our children, our partner, our schools, other parents, community. So, the satisfactions that we get from fulfilling our duties as parents are shared satisfactions.

Senior sees parenting as one of the only human activities in the 21st century that allows us to combat a contemporary narrative that says that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness, painted as an internal and psychologically complete state. On the contrary, it paints a picture of life as a matter of family and communal flourishing and downplays the idea that life is about the maximizing of a solipsistic view of individual happiness. It refigures the purpose of life in terms of external attachments and duties, which can be actually measured and achieved in concert with others.

Runners ought to understand Senior's argument intuitively. She helps us articulate why an activity which from the outside (and even from the inside) involves a great deal of suffering, discipline, and is fundamentally painful and tiring (yes, running and parenting have a lot in common) is something that runners continue to do and even identify with. Runners and parents have a lot in common -- those who do not engage in these activities find them fundamentally annoying, don't get what the big deal is, and see parents/runners as masochistic and self-sacrificing.

Runners and parents also do a poor job of explaining why it is that they identify with these activities. We too often pride ourselves on our pain tolerance or paint what we do as self-sacrificing or more noble than other activities. This is why others find us annoying.

Running, parenting -- these things don't make us happier or more virtuous in themselves. They are not a direct path to self-improvement. But, they are activities that frame human activity in terms of duty and allow us to share those duties, with ourselves, with our peers, with our families. I think this is why we do not say that we do running or that we do parenting. Instead, we are runners; we are parents.

We are these things because they provide the duties and framework that allows us to see ourselves as connected, as attached, as beings with purposes and goals and the means to attain those goals or to fail at them. These rich activities (playing music, being married, deep friendship, working a career, being a neighbor) give us the very threads out of which we weave the patterns of our lives. In comparison to this quilt of real and shared responsibilities, happiness is a pale shadow, a mere consequence, a fleeting state.

Senior reminds us that what we want out of life is something more akin to joy than happiness. Joy erupts and fades; it is a feeling of flow, a sense that the structures of the universe -- or at least of our local environment -- are in line with our own being, a sense that we are magnified and larger than ourselves, connected in dynamic ways with experience, with others. Senior quotes GE Vaillant, saying that "Joy is grief turned inside out." Joy is the presence of what we grieve for when it is absent.

If happiness is too pale, inward, and controlled to be a life goal, joy is too vivid, outward, and wild. But articulating the value of life in terms of the one over the other says a lot about the types of experiences we frame for ourselves. The pursuit of happiness frames life as an inward mission towards a state of final internal satisfaction. Happiness is something we pursue and possess. The pursuit of joy frames life as a series of risks taken on behalf of hard-won, often lost, and mutual goals. Joy is never a possession: it's a celebration.

The runner, the parent, the human is never fully satisfied, but often experiences satisfaction. When we celebrate that satisfaction, for ourselves, with others, jubilantly -- when we grieve the loss of hard-fought battles -- we hardly notice ourselves, but for that very reason we are very much alive.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Defense of Academia

In 2004 I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher in a boarding school to go to graduate school in philosophy. My reasons for doing this were varied -- a mixture of naive idealism [maybe the study of philosophy will give me some insight into life] and real fatigue from the work of teaching young people [reading books and writing papers sounded pretty awesome at the end of yet another 15 hour day devoted to young folks.] My reasons had little to do with career. I was realistic about the instrumental value of a philosophy PhD. I hoped it would be a great way to spend a few years and left thoughts of Future Ramifications for Career to the gods.

Ten years have passed since that decision, and I am happy to report that it was a good one. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times  caused me to reflect a little on my nine year stint in academia as a graduate student, as a professor (though never tenured), as a writer and thinker, and as an educator. In the article, Kristof brings forward a common complaint these days that academia is insular and increasingly irrelevant. I mention this problem as reason for starting this blog, and I think it's worth noting that the insularity of academia is something that academics worry about much more than the general public.

Academics -- being driven people with high standards for themselves -- want to have it both ways. They want to be part of an intellectual elite, but they also want to be relevant to all. This is a tension that is written into the university life, and it's something that everyone in academia has to struggle with and make their peace with. Some are more comfortable with the elite end of things; others with the educational and "public service" aspect of intellectual work. My suspicion is that this tension is a productive one -- less a problem to be solved once and for all, and more an animating and productive sort of tension.

Individually, academics may struggle with these questions, but their temperaments eventually resolve it for them one way or another. Those who are educators at heart drift to the educational side. They end up writing more blogs, more editorials, engaging in more activism and land at smaller institutions where undergraduate education is central to the academic mission. Those who are intellectuals at heart end up at the big universities and spend most of their energy and time writing for top journals whose audience is a small group of elites. Then, there are a few rare souls who have the temperament, time, and talent to bridge the gap between these two sorts of academics and also the gulf between academia and a larger public world that likes to refer to itself as "the real world." These are the few that get to have it both ways -- probably at large personal cost.

Having left academia and returned to at least a real world if not the real world (my present job as academic dean of a high school asks me to communicate with all sorts of people with all sorts of educational backgrounds), I feel like I have something real to say about the gulf between academia and this "real world."

First: I find the work that I did while in my PhD program and then later as a professional philosopher to be extremely useful outside of academia. The qualities that make a good academic are useful in all kinds of contexts -- to trust in reasons, to listen to argument, to make distinctions, to disagree civilly, to write carefully. I lean on these capacities every day.

Second, I want to say that the work I did over the nine years I spent in a university philosophy department felt to me like it was fundamentally real and valuable in itself. While I decided not to spend my whole life as a professional philosopher, I was hugely enriched by spending a good chunk of my life doing this sort of work in a time when I was still growing as a young adult. I also allow myself to believe that I made a small contribution during those nine years to something I really believe in.

Yes, this experience was narrow and at times felt distant from certain realities. But, the ivory tower epithet has always struck me as a bit odd because it seems to me that the specialized careers we all lead in contemporary life subject us all fairly equally to a certain isolation and narrowness of perspective. Academics hope to speak out of their isolation towards public values -- thereby exposing themselves to the ivory tower critique -- but to my mind the attempt is virtuous, even if it so often fails. In a society of specialization we all ought to feel some anxiety about the reality of our worlds.

Finally, I just want to say that the pace and place of academic life, with its large blocks of time, its architecture that encourages interaction, the intensity of its push to think hard and well, and its care and concern for young people did not arise accidentally. It is the result of hard work and generous support of people from within and outside its walls. It's not a perfect world, but our world -- this real and fractured and hardly aware world --is more perfect because academia exists: fundamentally flawed, fragile, and necessary.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Promoting Belief in a Clean Sport: a look at the results of the letsrun clean/dirty poll

Recently letsrun.com carried out an interesting experiment. The polled their readers as to their perceptions of who in the sport was "clean" and who was "dirty." You can read the results of their poll here as well as an interesting explanation of why they decided to do this polling. Their explanation makes good sense to me: they state clearly that the results of the poll do not tell us whether someone used PEDs; they only tell us about a specific community's beliefs about who is clean and who is dirty.

What can we do with this information? Quite a bit, it turns out. We can look at the relationships between class, race, nationality, and beliefs about performance-enhancing drugs. We see that as a community we do have some degree of bias in these areas, but we also see that while these biases affect individuals; on the aggregate the beliefs of the community as a whole is not fundamentally skewed by any of these factors. Letsrun.com notes that the most important bias affecting the data is "familiarity bias." Those athletes we are most familiar with are the athletes we are least likely to hold in suspicion.

The most surprising aspect of the data to me was the percentage of voters who thought that athletes were clean. Except for known dopers (say, the East German athletes of the '80s or the Chinese women of the mid-90s), relatively small percentages of fans thought that world record holders were dirty. Take a runner like Daniel Komen, who in 1996 at the height of the EPO era, ran perhaps the most incredible distance performance ever seen. Only 39% of voters believe that Daniel Komen used performance enhancing drugs -- yet you can see underneath the youtube video that the comments are dominated by discussion of PEDs.

This data is surprising because I thought that as a community we were more cynical than the numbers show. To explain this, perhaps we can draw an analogy between beliefs around PED use and beliefs in high schools and middle schools about the use of recreational drug and alcohol. Studies have shown that high school students use drugs and alcohol at rates far beneath what those same students believe is happening in their school. In other words, high schoolers have far healthier attitudes towards the use of drugs and alcohol than they believe they have. One of the most successful drug and alcohol non-profits, Freedom from Chemical Dependency capitalizes on this difference, noting that if actual attitudes towards drug and alcohol replace mythologies about use, then peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol could be drastically diminished. They call this approach the "social norms" approach, and it's worth reading about.

Likewise, it is possible that as a community, track and field fans are more likely to believe that "everyone dopes"-- just as high schoolers believe "everyone drinks"-- but that as individuals, we are much more likely to be nuanced and evidence-based in our analysis. In fact, I think that the letsrun.com polls show just this: that track and field fans do not generally hold the view that to reach the top levels of the sport, it is necessary to dope. As individuals, in the privacy of our homes, we believe the sport is healthier than we do when we participate in public discussion.

What does this mean for the actual use of PEDs? I think that letsrun.com has done a service for us through this poll because they have shown athletes that if they do things the right way, a vast majority of fans will believe that they are running their times clean. They have also showed fans that if we choose not to be cynical, we are not alone in that choice -- and that in reality, despite appearances to the contrary, the dominant social norm in the community of track and field fans is not to believe that every amazing performance is the result of cheating. The numbers show that while there will always be people who question every performance, there are many more who are willing to believe.

In short, I find the data encouraging, and I hope that it motivates fans and athletes to continue to believe that incredible performance without PED use is possible, that a clean sport is possible, and that if we adopt an attitude of cynicism and disbelief, we are in the minority. The data shows that hope for a clean sport is not only possible, but a majority opinion. While this hope does not mean that we will have -- or do have -- a clean sport, I do not think it is meaningless. It ought to reinforce belief in our better selves and reduce our cynicism. An adjustment of our social norms can allow us to re-animate work on behalf of a clean sport and remind us that we are not alone in the fight.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tracing a Path I'd Traced Before, Once Again This Morning

This morning I followed an old trace: it dipped down, dipped around, ducked under, squirming along an icebox creek, bursting out onto a high ridge into the sunshine and leading me out to the edge of a cliff where I saw Little Falling Water Creek plummet down off the dihedrals, the open vista just extending out eastward, on and on, reminding me that I had forgotten how clear the winter sky can sometimes be on a cold morning.

This was a part of my daily run
back in the day
It was the trail back behind the house I grew up in, and I ran it so many times that I knew every little dip, knew just exactly how to skip from rock to rock without breaking stride and how to carry my momentum up and down across the rollers so that it felt like flying.

In fact, 20 years have passed since I started running that trail, and almost 30 have passed since my brother and I discovered it. I ran it most often in the summers in high school and home from college. So of course as I ran all sorts of memories came flooding back, the old rhythms drawing back old experiences that had gone forgotten for years and then came bursting back up.

The memories were of course of old runs and old training partners, which then connected back to old experiences: the summer I spent with my friend Sam clearing land, the July nights in my early 20s when time seemed endless and actions had almost no consequence, the young girls, the music. But also the memories were physical: my muscles themselves remembered a more flexible time, a time when pain hardly meant anything, when my body and my intentions were hard to separate. I remember the feeling of almost absolute strength: I would just look at the top of the hill and my body would follow my eyes.

You can probably tell by my nostalgic tone that it didn't quite feel that way this morning. My legs were tight; my achilles tendons ached; my breath came hard and the acid in my legs came quick. Instead of skipping across the rocks, I picked my way carefully. Instead of leaning into the hills, I leaned back. Where before I had rolled, today I hesitated. I even walked at the top of the big hill. I remembered what it had felt like so vividly, and knew that I wasn't feeling it today.

I felt a little old.

I began this second running career now almost a decade ago, and I remember explicitly thinking that what I was doing was chasing a ghost of my former self. As we get older, we accumulate more ghosts: all the memories that haunt us, all the bodies that are buried alive in the body we have. We become like a strip of film that's been double-exposed or triple-exposed. We live here and also there, today and yesterday. We are haunted.

We hear all the time that we should live in the present, and it's true, we should. Life is easier when it flows, when we kill the Buddha or the Buddha kills us. The film gets exposed only once, and life stretches out before us clear and in full color. Our bodies do what we ask them to do. The mind ceases its mad swirling and for once flows forward and falls like the water off the dihedrals. The sky turns winter-blue.

As we get older, though, we accumulate more and more memory and life gets cloudy around the edges.  Things appear not just as they are, but always attached to something else. The same happens with our bodies: the workouts we run remind us of the workouts we used to run. Like Wallace Stevens' blackbird, everything happens in thirteen ways.

But here's the thing: I think I was like this even back then, even when I was young. Seeing things that weren't quite there, inventing memories and innuendo. I just wasn't as practiced at it. It's also not true to say that my body just obeyed: there was still the agony of the bad race, the brutal workout, the plain old bad day. Stevens says he does not know which to prefer, the blackbird whistling, or just after.

We do not always have to choose. We find ourselves -- just after -- but also again present, all these jangling and incomplete selves dipping and dodging and hesitating, and every now and then harmonizing. It was a beautiful morning: I ran an old beloved trail, I saw a waterfall that I had seen before, and I found myself once again young, but also older, standing alone on a ledge on the edge of a mountain under an open January sky.

Friday, November 15, 2013

On the Feeling of Wisdom

Okay, check this article out from the Guardian.

The article talks about a short film that is a series of snippets of conversations with runners as they ran through a park in England. The film is only 11 minutes long and worth a watch.

So opines the Guardian article about the film: "These questions (Are you in love? Who do you care about most? What do you want to do with your life?) are hard to ask and are not often answered sincerely. Through their steps, their breaths and their focus, runners can answer them." I find this to be true, or at least it feels like it's true. But if it's so true, where do those answers go when the run finishes? I know a lot of runners, and they frankly seem just as screwed up as the rest of humanity.


Ed Whitlock, wise and fast.
What is this runner's consciousness that brings the feeling of answers? Studies have found that running produces endocannabinoids, of which the phytocannabinoids found in marijuana are a close cousin. So, yes, there is a runner's high. As with all altered states, the truths discovered therein seem somewhat difficult to take with us back to sobriety, and that's because altered states of consciousness can often give us the feeling that what we are saying is true without really bringing us any closer to the truth.  Anyone who has been around anyone in an altered state while sober knows this. 

[I googled "deep conversation while high," and this was the first website that came up. I think it proves my point. Folks with a more philosophical bent may also be interested in this William James essay, which relates the experience of truth that Hegel gives us to getting high on Nitrous Oxide: "The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.": "Something 'fades,' 'escapes;' and the feeling of insight is changed into an intense one of bewilderment, puzzle, confusion, astonishment: I know no more singular sensation than this intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself. It seems, indeed, a causa sui, or 'spirit become its own object.'"]

When I think about my own running, I want to tease apart the feeling of having answers to questions from the actual having of those answers, and at least leave that difference as an open question with respect to what's going on. The difference between the feeling of knowing and actually knowing would be the difference between running as getting high on endorphines and running as a spiritual practice. The one would be an escape, the other a form of insight.

A primary theme of this blog is that running is an avenue to truth, that traipsing down that long lonely road has something to do with pursuing wisdom. Recently a reader wrote me to say, "you seem to be able to put into words what we can only express in those fleeting moments of ceaseless pain and the ever-escaping "runner's high." That's high praise. But I always feel like I am talking around the insights that I get as a runner, gesticulating towards them, never quite grasping them, never quite remembering what it was that I almost understood. If I am so wise, why do I keep screwing shit up?

Every philosopher in history has noted the relationship between courage and truth. Socrates' great virtue was his parrhesia; his frank speech the direct sign of his wisdom. In running, we reach an less inhibited, more frank, way of being. The pounding and the rhythms, the brisk breeze and the endocannabinoids, sorta shake the truth out of us. This courage running gives us is not the sloppy courage of wine or the brash and belligerent whisky bravado. Our veritas comes in different flavors. The runner's courage is a relaxed and goofy sort of courage, founded less in our own confidence and more in trust of others. It makes us feel sane and connected, strangely vulnerable and also safe.

So maybe it's this: if there's truth or insight in running, it's less in the having of an answer and more in the bold confidence running gives us that someone out there -- a fellow running companion, the spouse back home, the boss, the colleague -- might hear us when we speak whatever answers we have. They might laugh at our jokes or feel our pain. We don't really find the answers out there on the road, but we feel a bit more confident that the half-reaches and guesses out of which we construct these experimental and half-baked lives might be worth sharing with someone else. We remember, in short, that we aren't alone -- or better, that we are alone, but alone along with everyone else.

Is that realization itself an answer or a key to life? No, not really. The pounding-drug-medicine wears off, and back in reality those half-worked out truths once spoken don't always find ears to hear. We return to life's hard questions. We find ourselves alone, alone. So it goes.

Or at least it goes like this until the next escape, when we find ourselves once more out there, running with the runner-geeks, alive and open and exposed, speaking frankly and sometimes even being heard.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Running in the Dark

First, a couple of links for the runner-geeks, then some rumination on night running.

A nice tribute to George Sheehan, the greatest runner/philosopher on the Writer's Almanac. (Nov. 5, 2013)

And, an interesting interview of Anthony Famiglietti (Fam) on Roads, Mills, Laps.

I hope you enjoy those.



The fall time change means one thing for me -- running in the dark. It feels somewhat shameful to admit it, but I am not a morning runner. This is strange because I am generally a morning person. I wake up in a good mood, get to work, do my things. My mind is ready to go, but my body is generally tight and achy. So, unless I am doubling (and it's been a while since then), I run in the evenings.

So, tonight I was out there running at my normal evening hour, and because of the time change, it was dark. For me, it's this way from November through February -- three months of running in the dark. I don't mind this.

When you are running, you become sort of invisible to most people. You are out there on the streets in the most public space, but in a way that makes you a part of the scenery, part of the architecture of the city. We are so familiar that we become somewhat hidden from view and interchangeable with anything else -- just part of someone's commute.

This feeling of invisibility is a part of all running, and night running amplifies it. I have never been one for reflectors or headlamps. I know the reasons for these -- they help the cars see us. But let me ask something: why do we have to be seen? I can't see the people in those cars; why do they need to see me? I would rather not be seen.

Further, there always seems to me to be something hostile about headlights. It's that they are so, well, outwards, so intent on illuminating everything that is outside of them. Riding in a car, we feel invulnerable, and through this invulnerability our senses are muted. Those headlights blind us when we are out on the road; as runners we realize their effect on experience is eliminatory as much as illuminating. In order to produce the effect of control, headlights have to blot out as much of the night as possible.

Running, in general, is a sport of exposure. In running we are exposed -- to weather, to our bodies, to pain, to effort, to our limits, to each other. And at night, we are exposed to the dark. This exposure and vulnerability is one of the most positive things about running. It's what gets our senses up and makes us watch and see and react. The night acts like a stimulant -- my eyes see everything that can be seen; my ears hear more, the footfalls and breathing rhythms come out of the background; I become myself, and I hear myself. I experience myself.

Running in the dark can remind us of all the different shades with which experience is colored. We say that we are "in the dark" because the dark envelopes us. We swim in it, we float through it. It is different than day and light -- quieter, closer, subtler. And, once enveloped, we become more sensitive, more inward, narrowed down to a thin and vulnerable core.

At night, in the dark, we see less, we feel more.
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