Monday, June 29, 2009

Dispatch from Paraguay #4: What We Did Last Week, with a digression on bilingualism and Guarani

This week started off with a cold south wind and rain, our first days without bright sunny skies since we arrived in Paraguay. Asunción is not well suited for rain. Without storm water drains the streets fill with water, and the endless rush of buses tears through the puddles, soaking the sidewalk—and whatever unlucky soul happens to be making his way down the street.

On Monday we ventured out anyways for a San Juan celebration in Shopping Mariscal Lopez, one of the big malls in Paraguay. Since the evening was rainy and cold, the celebration was moved inside to the parking garage, which filled the air of the garage and eventually the entire mall with thick smoke from the cooking food. The garage was packed with people, and I was reminded once again of the different ways in which we experience space. The Paraguayans were pressed together in a dense, smoky, noisy garage—as happy as they could be. For my sensibilities, it was a bit too much humanity. So we didn’t linger too long and ended up going to a little pastry shop inside the mall for merienda: café con leche with alfajores.

Tuesday was another rainy day. It started off with Guarani classes and a trip to Sajonia to run and swim. I’ve been enjoying the Guarani, though it’s really just the briefest of introductions. It’s a difficult language, full of particles and prefixes, and as I mentioned earlier, it has 12 vowel sounds, seven more than English, so it’s difficult to pronounce. However, the Paraguayan Spanish is heavily influenced by Guarani, so it doesn’t sound as foreign to me as it might otherwise. Let’s see if I can write a sentence: Pe yvyoty che sype guara (the sentence needs an accent over the “y” in “sype”, and tildas over the “g” and second “a” in guara): That flower (Pe yvyoty) is for my mother (che sype guara). As you can see, it’s a different sort of language, but having picked up the rhythm and pronunciation a bit (even if it’s still hard for me to reproduce) I can occasionally pick out words when I hear it spoken. Guarani is spoken everywhere in Paraguay, but it is usually mixed with Spanish. The mixture is called Jopará. Even if there is no Guarani actually spoken, the Paraguayan Spanish still carries with it the rhythm and vocalization of Guarani. For example, in Guarani, you never have two consonants side by side or a consonant at the end of a word: consonants are always paired with a vowel. So the Paraguayans often swallow, mute, or don’t even pronounce solitary consonants at all when speaking Spanish, particularly the “s.”

This phenomenon of bilingualism is interesting. Guarani is used among friends and family. Paraguayans say it is much more expressive and precise than Spanish, especially when it comes to communicating feelings or talking about objects at hand. Spanish is most common in Asuncion, as a language of schooling and of business—and also as a marker of a certain level of education. But Paraguayans complain of its abstractness and dryness. In his reflections on Paraguay written at the beginning of the 20th century, El dolor paraguayo, the Spaniard Rafael Barrett comments that this bilingualism is the norm, not the exception in human history.

He writes:
“La historia nos revela que lo bilingüe no es una excepción, sino lo ordinario. Suele haber un idioma vulgar, matizado, irregular, propio a las expansiones sentimentales del pueblo, y otro razonado, depurado, artificial, propio a las manifestaciones diplomáticas, científicas y literarias. Dos lenguas, emparentadas o no; una plebeya, otra sabia, una particular, otra extensa; una desordenada y libre, otra ordenada y retórica. Casi no hubo siglo ni país en que esta no se verificara.”

“History shows us that the bilingual is not the exception, but the rule. Customarily there exists one language that is vulgar, bright and irregular, appropriate for the habits of the people, and another language that is rational, purified, artificial, appropriate for diplomacy, science, and literature. Two language, related or not; one plebian, the other scientific, one particular, the other universal; one disordered and free, then other ordered and rhetorical. There has hardly been a century or country in which this has not been not the case.”

In a dominantly monolingual culture like we have in the United States, it is still the case that there are (at least) two languages, a high language and a lower language. Perhaps in the South and among the Black population this is most true. But these two languages, being related, carry the same name, English. (Not to mention the recent mass arrival of Latinos, which presents an actual and perhaps more vital bilingualism.) But here in Paraguay, where the contrast between these two languages is amplified by the fact that one is indigenous, and the other comes from colonization, the division between these two different modes of culture and all the attendant relations (private, public, class, family, ethnicity, friendship, native, foreigner) that these modes evoke are much more conscious, evident, and felt.

At any rate… Back to recounting the week’s activities. Tuesday evening, we went to the opening of an international art show at La Manzana de la Rivera, a neat space right downtown in view of the presidential palace. The show featured work from Argentinean, Uruguayan, and of course Paraguayan artists. The art and photography was of a variety of styles and included three pieces from the mother of our niece and nephew here. The most interesting piece for several reasons was a woman, nude from the waist up, who had been body-painted and was dancing a piece intended to show the suffering of the environment and the clash between nature and technology in a dress covered in trash.

The rest of the week was pretty relaxed. Lulu prepared for the weekend asado (barbeque) she was planning with her high school friends, and we continued with our ordinary activities, running, riding the buses around town on errands, etc. The days were full of activity, but nothing of great interest. We did go twice to the Bolsi, a delicious restaurant downtown for merienda, once for coffee and alfajores and the next time for their famous media luna—super rico!

On Saturday, the big event was the asado that Lulu prepared for her high school group of friends. I got up early and ran at the park before everything got too crazy. Lulu stayed and prepared for the asado. When I got back from my run the house was buzzing with activity: mops and brooms were flying, tables and chairs moving around. About 15 of her high school friends came over. Fortunately, it was a beautiful afternoon, in the 70’s and sunny. We hired an asadero, who brought rice salad, potato salad, tossed salad, chipa guazu, sopa paraguaya, and prepared chorizo picante, mandioca, morcilla, along with pork, chicken, and huge hunks of sirloin steak. Oh baby. Her friends trickled in through the afternoon, arriving around 12:30 and staying until around 6. We finished the evening with mugs of mate cocido—a delicious way of drinking mate that is common in the wintertime in Paraguay.
After the asado, we cleaned up quickly and headed downtown to Manzana de la Rivera for a free concert featuring the Paraguayan harp. It was a really neat show, which presented 400 years of history of the harp in Paraguay, broken down by century. The harpists were really amazing; and the harp is such a cool instrument. I thought it would be neat to try to integrate the harp with a bluegrass band… The concert finished up around 11pm, and we took a taxi home, ready for bed.

Sunday morning I cooked pancakes for the family, including Raul, Carolina, Ines, and Diana. Afterwards, I went for a quick run—it’s actually hot out! Ate a good lunch (leftovers from the asado) and then two of Lulu’s friends, Giovanni and Martin picked me up to take me to a championship match between two Paraguayan football teams: Cerro Porteño and Libertad. Lulu’s friends were big fans of Cerro (as is about half of Paraguay; the other half is dominated by an equally popular club, Olympia), so I of course became an instant fan of Cerro.

Since this was an important game, the stadium was totally packed. When we arrived, there were people dressed in the blue and red of Cerro everywhere. Martin fought (literally) at the ticket window for three tickets to “Platea”—the cheap seats, not because they are far from the action, but because you have to look into the sun. After literally 15 minutes of shoving and sacrificing his body, Martin popped out of the mad crowd grinning with three tickets.

After that, we got in a line that stretched around the block, but moved fairly quickly. We got into the stadium about 10 minutes before the game started. We were too late to actually find seats, but there was a wide area on turf level for standing-room, and we positioned ourselves there. The view, I thought, was great. The players were right in front of us, and though sometimes it was hard to get a feel for the flow of the game, we had a player’s perspective on the game. Unfortunately, Cerro got crushed by Libertad, 3-0, the last Libertad goal coming on a spectacular upside-down bicycle kick right in front of where we stood. The crowd was fairly wild, but not as bad as it could have been—alcohol is not permitted on the premises. After the game, some particularly unruly fans tried to rush the field, taunting and throwing coke bottles and fireworks at the riot police, complete with shield, helmets, and rubber bullets that are the routine form of security at the game. Giovanni and Martin told me it was much crazier when Cerro won. I believe them.

After the game I walked to a local empanada shack to meet Ricardo Villalba, a Paraguayan philosopher, for some philosophy talk and a beer or two. Ricardo is a great guy, and I had the good fortune to attend two of his classes last week at the national university. He specializes in medieval philosophy—particularly Duns Scotus—and received his doctorate in Argentina. Here’s a tidbit: if I were a philosophy lecturer in Paraguay instead of at Vanderbilt, I would earn approximately $200 a month. Ricardo makes a little more than three times that—because he works at three different universities. Our conversation ranged from talk of the material conditions of philosophy to Aristotle and the present and future of Paraguayan thought. Most interestingly, to me, Ricardo repudiates the recent trend towards explicitly political philosophy in favor of medieval metaphysics, which he sees as a much more liberatory practice than adding more talk of politics to a culture saturated by politics. And it’s hard to argue the point. It was a great connection to make, and I’m excited about continuing our conversations.

This “dispatch” I fear is long, much too long, so congratulations for making it to this point. There is so much still left unsaid. But so it goes. Next week we head to the interior to visit the cities of Villarrica and Colonia Independencia… Onwards! And, only two weeks left!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dispatch from Paraguay #3: A Run in the Park

There are two places I run in Paraguay. One is a small loop, maybe 1500 meters, that winds through the Sajonia sports club. The route is okay, but it has so many twists, turns, and tight spaces that you can never really get rolling. It's good enough for easy days, but it's not really running.

The other place I run, my favorite place in Paraguay, is a park, Parque Carlos Antonio Lopez, that lies about a 5 minute jog from Lulu's house in Paraguay. There are two loops there. The long one is a fairly technical trail loop of about 1000m that skirts the very perimeter of the park. The short loop is a shaded paved asphalt path, a narrow road really, that makes a loop of exactly 662 meters. The loop is rolling up and down, except for one short (maybe 80 meters in length) but steep (probably 8-10% grade) hill. It's on this short loop that I do my moderate and harder workouts and tempo runs.

(Click on "Map" and change to "Satelite" for a better view.)

Yesterday I decided to do a tempo run, so I ran to the park and warmed up for 30 minutes on the outside loop, taking it easy. I decided I would do a 40 minute tempo, just going by feel, running comfortably hard. The loop is almost perfect for tempo running because the steep but short hill keeps you from getting going too fast, and of course the rest of the loop is easy running; a net downhill. It was a beautiful day, maybe 65 degrees and bright blue skies.

So I started off, and hit the first loop in 2:33, the second in 2:30, and then just settled in there, clipping off 2:30 loops, trying not to push the uphill, concentrating on running light and tall on the flats and down the hills. After I'd done about 4 loops, school must have let out because a group of teenage boys and girls were hanging out at the park, chatting, climbing trees, flirting, and smoking cigarettes. They were clustered around the road, and as I passed them a few times, they began to take notice of the guy with the blonde hair, short shorts, and skinny legs cruising along.

"¿Cuantas vueltas?" yelled out a particularly bright-eyed kid. How many laps?

"No sé," I told him and shrugged. I hadn't been counting, but I did some quick math as I cruised around the loop.

As I swung by the next time, I glanced at him, "Once," I told him. Eleven. "Cinco más." Five more.

The crowd of jovenes let out a little murmur. Of course by this time, I'd begun picking it up a bit. I had my own little cheering section. I swung around again, and headed down towards the little group. The same kid yelled out, "¿Puedo ir contigo?" Can I come with you?


So, he jumped down from the tree he was sitting in and cruised across to catch me. He was wearing jeans and indoor soccer shoes, probably around 15 years old. We ran side by side, him spitting out questions.

"¿Vos sos Paraguayo?"

"No." I said and asked him if he played soccer.

"¿Futból? No. ¡Rugby! ¿Sos futbólista?"

"No," I told him. "Soy corredor." I'm a runner.

"Ah. ¿Y, competis?"

"Claro." You bet.

We hit a little rise, about 400 meters into the loop, and he fell off. His compañeros cheered when they saw me coming around. I think my split on that loop was a little fast. "Tres más," I told them. Three more. "¡Fuerza!! ¡Dale!!" they yelled out.

And round I went. Grinning and cruising. It was a good tempo run.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dispatch from Paraguay #2: The Lido, Tobati, and the Fiesta de San Juan

Since the last update focused on generalities, I’ll try to be more concrete this time, stick to the facts.

Our normal daily routine is more or less as follows. We wake about 8 or so. In the morning with Lulu’s mother Mirella we eat a typical Paraguayan breakfast, café con leche with either alfajores, which are a kind of unleavened pastry made with dulce de leche, or ham and cheese sandwiches with fresh bread from the local bakery. Twice a week we have Guarani classes that last for two hours. After class, or after breakfast if we don’t have class, we pack our swim gear and I put on my running clothes and we walk the mile and a half or so down to the local sports club, Sajonia, where Lulu and I are members. Lulu swims and I run for an hour or so, and then I usually jump in the pool afterwards. So far the weather has been great—the bright and clear blue skies that are Paraguay’s signature—and the last few days the chill has left the air and we’ve had temperatures in the high 70’s. After exercising we walk back home and prepare lunch. After lunch there is time to go downtown, to read and write, to meet up with friends, to go to the dentist or the supermarket. Lulu also twice a week has her dance lessons. The rest of the day is punctuated by two meals, the merienda and the dinner. It gets dark around 5:30, when we eat the merienda, which is usually similar to breakfast. Dinner is usually served around 10pm. Conversation around the table lasts until around 11:30, and we’re in bed by 12.

The end of this week has been particularly eventful. Friday was the first warm day, and we took advantage of it by going downtown to do some shopping. Lulu wanted to get some jeans, and I bought some t-shirts and pajamas. But the highlight was meeting Mirella at the Lido Bar, which is perhaps the most famous restaurant in Paraguay, for lunch. The Lido is in the main square and it serves a variety of traditional Paraguayan food: milanesa, empanadas, mbeju, lomitos, accompanied by a variety of freshly blended fruit juices, a variety that changes according to what’s in season. But the main specialty of the Lido, especially in winter time, is its caldo de pescado, fish soup, and that’s what we ordered, along with orange juices. The fish soup is made from surubi, which comes from the local Rio Paraguay. It’s brimming with the delicate meat. Lulu and I were especially hungry from traipsing around all morning, and the fish soup was just plain righteous.

On Saturday morning we met new friends, Sasha and Silvia, at the bus station for a trip out of Asuncion to the small town of Tobati, located about 2 hours outside of town by bus. Sasha and Silvia are friends of one of Lulu’s high school friends, María del Carmen, Maka. Sasha is a philosopher, and Silvia a psychologist, and both of them teach at the National University. On the bus ride out, Sasha and I sat together, ate chipa and dulce de batata, and talked about the connections between the philosophies of William James and Ortega y Gasset, the political history of Paraguay, Obama and the Paraguayan president Lugo, popular representations of the United States in Paraguay, and how globalization is—and is not—providing opportunities for progress in Paraguay. Sasha is a passionate and driven advocate of philosophy and education. When I asked him how he maintains hope that he can make things better in Paraguay, he said simply: “I don’t lose faith.”

Tobati was a welcome break from the constant noise, rush, and bustle of Asuncion. We got off the bus in the main square. As Lulu’s mother says: todos los pueblitos en Paraguay son iguales, all the small towns in Paraguay are the same. In the center of the town lie the church and the plaza. Tobati’s church is large, made out of adobe and brick, and painted white and yellow. The plaza is clean and open, and the streets buzzed with motorcycles, some with drivers as young as 13 years old, others carrying multiple people and various objects (including a desk). A motorcycle is much more useful than a car in rural Paraguay because the dirt roads are often too poorly maintained for four-wheeled traffic. We strolled lazily around the city, admiring the colonial architecture. We bought some oranges and tangerines from a local vendor and chatted with him about the town. It was interesting to note that he and I had about the same level of Spanish fluency; it’s clear that he was more accustomed to speak in Guarani, even though he had recently moved to Tobati from Ñemby, a suburb of Asuncion. After that we walked a mile or so out of town to the Villa Artesenal, the artist’s village that is sponsored by an association for Paraguayan art. They provide a place to educate local artisans on how to market their crafts, to preserve them and make them economically viable. The art ranged from beautiful wooden tables, one featuring a hand-carved chess set based on the War of the Chaco, to clay pottery, to handmade clothes, the traditional ñanduti and aho poi, bracelets, and masks. After a lunch in the plaza of chicken empanadas from the local supermarket, we caught a bus back to Asuncion.

The ride back was longer—the bus stopped literally every 5 minutes or so to pick up a random Paraguayan who had emerged from wherever it was he came from to catch a ride into Asuncion. But we made it home around 5:30, just before dark and went for a quick run in the park to shake out our cramped legs. The day was only halfway done. Since we hadn’t eaten much that day, we ate an early dinner that Mirella prepared for us, a delicious pasta with tomato sauce, and got ready to meet a group of Lulu’s high school friends in Sajonia for the annual Fiesta de San Juan.

The Fiesta de San Juan is really neat. It showcases traditional Paraguayan food and dance. We met up with Maka and José, Labi and her son, Giovanni, Renzo, and the infamous Gisselle, and wandered among the various festivities. They had horses out on the beach parading around, a fire for coal-walking, an effigy of Judas Iscariot that would later be lit on fire and exploded with fireworks, a group of professional dancers in typical dress, and lots and lots of typical food and beer. The best performance of the night was the bottle-dance, a peculiarly Paraguayan dance in which the women shuffle and weave around the floor balancing wine bottles on their heads. It is a competitive dance. Most of the girls topped out around six or seven bottles. But two girls kept on stacking bottles on their heads. They had to bring a ladder to pile them on—eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen wine bottles stacked end to end on the top of the head of a dancing girl. The girl that won ended up breaking her record, balancing sixteen wine bottles on her head, outside on a windy day!
We stayed out fairly late, chatting, drinking beer, and catching up with Lulu’s old classmates. At around 1:30 in the morning, we piled into a couple of cars, all of us including Lulu’s nephew, niece and a friend of theirs who were also out enjoying the night and went home. We arrived home ready for bed but happy from the full day.

This morning, Sunday, we got up in time to eat breakfast and drive 45 minutes or so out to the cemetery where Lulu’s father is buried for the 10am mass. It is father’s day here in Paraguay, just as it is back home in the States. The mass was given by a Brazilian priest, and a young man read a nice poem about his father. When the mass finished we went to the grave of José Adolfo Cuellar, Lulu’s father, to pay our respects. The cemetery is really nicely maintained, with beautiful trees and flowers scattered over the premises. There were lots of folks who had come to visit their fathers. Many families brought chairs and sat around in the fields, drinking tereré and, I assume, talking about family and loved ones among other things.

Afterwards, we went to Raul’s parent’s house to eat paella. Raul is the boyfriend of Lulu’s sister Carolina. Raul’s father was in the Paraguayan military, and their family is really into sports, particularly tennis. Raul’s niece, Montse, is the best youth tennis player in Paraguay and has a world junior ranking. There we spent a typical Sunday afternoon, eating and talking. Raul’s father was especially eager to teach us Guarani. I learned the words for “monkey” and for “lazy.” And he tried several times to teach me a sentence that means something like: he’s a smart fellow. But it literally translates: “he is a monkey that can dance pirouettes on a wall without falling off.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember the Guarani exactly.

We left the house of Raul’s parents around 3pm, came home and went to sleep for an hour and a half. The siesta! We woke up and here I sit, writing away, satiated by a recent merienda of mbeju and cocido, two typical foods that Lulu to my great delight has just learned to cook!

So, there it is, three full days from our trip here. As you can see, we are happy and busy. Love to all and happy Father’s Day, especially to my Dad, Poppy, and the great Grandoogle!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dispatch from Paraguay: La Calle, La Casa

It’s Monday evening, almost 8pm here in Asuncion. From the room here I can hear the yells of the futbolistas playing soccer in the nearby Star Club. This is one of the first qualities of Paraguay: you are always within ear-shot of someone, of something: a diesel motor, kids running on the street, music. You can hear la gente. Yesterday morning, Sunday, we walked the 10 blocks to the supermarket. On the way, we probably glimpsed, dodged, heard, watched, or otherwise encountered more than one hundred people. That’s not counting the cars, buses, and dogs that swarm and scatter as well. Once in the supermarket, it was even more crowded. Everything and everyone is pressed in close. Space is smaller, almost non-existent. Instead of space, in Asuncion, there is la gente, the people. That quality that we Norteamericanos savor and hold sacred: our difference, our space, our individuality is wiped away in an instant. You find yourself not as one of many, but just among the many: like a drop of water in a frothing river, such is the individual in Asuncion.

At least this is the way it is in public. But a counter to the anonymity of la gente exists in Paraguay. It is la casa. In the U.S., there is little distinction made between the house and the street. There are few fences, and driveways lead right out into the street. In suburban Tennessee, we have these freshly mown and rolling lawns that draw the public eye right up to the house. Our houses show themselves off, invite the guest in, and send the message that the private lives of the people inside the house are just an extension of the public space without. There is the presumption that what happens in the house is open to neighborly view. The home shows us off. It puts on a face for us: our houses are only the people we want to be; they are rarely who we are. For us, the house is a public space—and why not? The real sanctum of privacy for us is individual: our private space is psychic space, what goes on inside our head. The home is where the individual is housed. It is not really private for an American: it makes a show of privacy; it privacy made public.

The houses are different in Paraguay. Walk down a street in Asuncion and what strikes you immediately is that there are no houses—only fences. The windows are barred and shuttered. The street is literally a series of private walls: a border that marks off and separates out the public life in the street—that anonymous and swirling river of la gente—from private life in la casa. As we guard the thoughts in our heads, protecting our individuality with a smile, or with silence, or with the barbed wire and broken glass of small talk, the Paraguayan guards what is most precious and defining with actual bricks and mortar, with locks and alarms, dogs and heavy steel gates. Behind each of those barriers lies the sacred counterweight to the suffocating mass outside. Inside the home, you find the Paraguayan equivalent of our individuality: the family.

Indeed, to step inside a Paraguayan house as a member of the family is like making your way behind the secrets and smiles that guard an individual’s consciousness to the pure subjective life. In la casa, everything is out and everything is open. The space inside la casa is a swirl of chatter, of concern, of laughter, tears, spontaneous gritos of joy and pain, punctuated by the steady rhythm of complaints. And there is history, too. Grandmothers live with granddaughters. Uncles and cousins and a wild, sprawling network of loosely related people come and go. They gather around the table, eating together. Their clothes hang on the line outside, futbol uniforms drying next to the long and loose underwear of abuela. So, you have it all there, the entirety of life on display in the little microcosm of the home, experience advising youth in new times, sisters and brothers fighting for attention, playing games, wives scolding husbands, maids folding laundry and speaking among themselves in their whirring Guarani. This splash of life I can only describe to you in one way: it is as rich and colorful and complex, as tumultuous and unfinished, as those precious thoughts in your head.

The only thing you will not find in this wild whirl of la casa is our most precious individualism, created by its intricate spiderweb of thoughts, some disclosed, some preciously guarded. The last barrier in Paraguay is the one that separates the house from the street. Entre casa, inside the home, the crushing and numbing and swelling anonymity of the street, is mirrored and counterweighted by a life of total disclosure. Outside, in la calle, one says nothing. Inside, in la casa one says everything.

Indeed, Paraguay is a society that works almost entirely without the most central aspect of social life in the United States, without the very tool with which we carve the worried lines of our public and private selves. Imagine this: Paraguay is a society without secrets. And this means that Paraguay is a society in which the distinction between public and private has very little to do with the individual. One could even go so far as to say that in Paraguay, there are only two subjects of social life, la gente and la familia, each with their equal and opposite spaces, la calle and la casa. The individual is a machine that carries out these two radically different and mutually sustaining orders of life. Outside, in la calle, the individual is a drop of water in an ocean of faceless faces. Inside, in la casa, the individual is an alphabet, an open book, a conduit of pure communication.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Brad Hudson and William James: a pragmatic approach to running

I thought I'd switch gears and give a little book review. I just picked up Brad Hudson's: Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon: How to Be Your Own Best Coach which had been recommended to me by a bunch of folks. It's the hot read for sure for the competitive running scene.

The book is full of information, insights, training suggestions, etc. There's little point in giving a review of the whole book. I will say, though, that it is worth buying because it offers what's most important to the self-coached runner: a set of useful concepts. Runners, especially at the beginning of their running careers want a plan. We want to be told what to do. We want an authority to follow. This makes sense because just starting out, the runner lacks experience on which to base their decisions and so is incapable of thinking intelligently about training.

But at a certain stage in training, a runner should begin to take control of her training. And this is where concepts become important, and incidentally where the runner begins to be philosophical: that is, she begins the liberating task of accruing wisdom and self-knowledge. As Deleuze and Guattari write in What Is Philosophy? the task of philosophy is the production of concepts. By attending to how Hudson develops concepts for training we can begin to see where philosophy and an intelligent approach to training--the philosophy of running--intersect, and also where coaches like Brad Hudson might have something to teach to philosophers.

Since the production of concepts lies at the heart of philosophy, philosophers have long argued over what a concept is. For Plato, concepts were more real than objects, as they were glimpses into the ideal essences of things. For modern empiricists like Locke, concepts were less real than objects: they were mental abstractions that often confused or distracted us from the things themselves. For critical philosophers like Kant, Hegel, and Marx concepts worked with objects dialectically, but also critically. Concepts always fail to denote objects, but the failure itself can be intelligently reconstructed through the act of criticism into better representation. At the heart of all of these perspectives on the concept was the problem of the adequacy of mental representation: it is clear that an actual tree must differ from the concept of a tree, as the concept is abstract and the perception sensed. The difference between the cognized tree and the perceived tree is one that haunts, stimulates, and sometimes distracts traditional philosophical thought.

William James and C.S. Peirce undercut this problem of representation at the beginning of the 20th century with the invention of pragmatism. These pragmatists were less concerned with the ontological characteristics of concepts and the obvious difference between acts of mind and objects in the world and more concerned with how concepts might be used to live better. So, for the pragmatist the value of a concept is not associated with its ability (or lack thereof) to represent an object in the world. It is associated with its use-value, its function in intelligent pragmatic reasoning. A concept is good if it works to enable us to be more intelligent: that is, to navigate the problems and possibilities of life better.

Hudson's book is a primer in the pragmatic development of concepts. It's no surprise that his mentor, the Italian coach Renato Canova, was a fan of William James. I found this post on a letsrun thread by Canova:
You are in the Country of the Phylosopher of Pragmatism, James. Try to be more pragmatic : the final goal is not to discuss who was, or is, better between the great coaches of the history, but to know the way for making the athletes faster. For doing this, you have to use ALL YOUR KNOWLEDGE, not limiting yourself to one source only.
Hudson follows his mentor well in the book. He is focused on the title of the book: "run faster," and each concept he develops revolves around this purpose. Unlike Noakes or Daniels, each of whom is an excellent coach in their own right, Hudson is uninterested in making his training concepts "match up" with physiological objects. His problem is not the old problem of representation: matching laws of training with the findings of physiology. He takes a pragmatic approach: pragmatically developing concepts useful for the purpose of faster running. He understands that this goal of training is not to understand physiologic truths. It is not to map training concepts onto physiological functions. It is not to develop a more adequate understanding of the relation between physiological science and training strategies. These are all interesting inquiries in their own right, and some of them may inform the question of how to get faster. But the goal of training is simple: to run faster. This is the perspective that organizes and drives Hudson's approach.

Hudson is a philosopher of fast running. He invents concepts that enable the competitive runner to work intelligently towards the goal of running faster. It is his clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to the task that makes his book exceptional. And in fact, this pragmatic mindset and vision--beyond any particular concept, strategy, or plan--is perhaps the greatest contribution his book makes to the art of training.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...