Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Sickness of Running

A typically morbid being cannot become healthy, much less make itself healthy. For a typically healthy person, conversely, being sick can even become an energetic stimulus for life, for living more. This, in fact, is how that long period of sickness appears to me now: as it were, I discovered life anew, including myself; I tasted all good and even little things, as others cannot easily taste them--I turned my will to health, to life, into a philosophy.
--F. Nietzsche

In this short passage from his philosophical autobiography Ecce Homo, the last book he wrote before succumbing to insanity, Nietzsche gives us the story of how his philosophical vision was born. It is the product of a convalescence, the remainder of a battle for survival against the depression and physical pain that Nietzsche battled his entire adult life. He turned his will to health, to life, into a philosophy. 

Indeed, Nietzsche is often proclaimed as a great philosopher of life, of power, of overcoming. But just as essential to the Nietzschean corpus--or should we say corpse?--is the sickness and death that ultimately prevented him from completing his master work. Sickness and pain created the silences between his productive years and probably forced upon him the aphoristic style for which he is famous. The boundless ideas, short and intense gems, scattered about in disarray, dew on morning grass, are left for future philosophers to develop and use. Nietzsche was too sick to develop them himself. The silences that appear throughout his texts testify not only to the incapacity of language to account for the richness of lived experience, but also to the incapacity of the ailing body and mind to concentrate, to fill in the gaps, to communicate fully.

This sickness and death is a gift to us, his inheritors. The raw and unfinished looseness of his texts is a stimulus to the imagination, his half-formed aphorisms future books bequeathed to students he will never meet. But his sickness has also left Nietzsche weak and vulnerable, open to violent misinterpretation and abuse. 

The Nietzschean quip: "What does not kill us makes us stronger," is used flippantly by amateur athletes. We take it to mean that suffering leads to greatness, something equivalent to "No pain, no gain." We tell it to ourselves after hard workouts or great races: we use it to motivate ourselves to drive into the pain of training. It was also used to motivate Nazi troops. 

But say it again, without thinking of a tanned and muscular body in the youthful prime of life. Say it and think of Nietzsche, a skinny intellectual with no audience, ravaged by intestinal pain, facing the immediate decline of his faculties of concentration, staring out at a world that, for all its intense beauty and possibility, remains indifferent to his suffering. What does not kill us makes us stronger--and how many things make us stronger? And how many things do not?

The uneven dialectic of sickness and health occurred to me today as I ran once more on an achilles that has pained me for almost two years now. We runners say that we run for health, as Nietzsche philosophized for health. And it is true that we do. But this means that we also run out of sickness. We run to stave off mental and physical demons. We run from the specter of the decrepit or obese body. We run from a society intent upon making all acts of pleasure into sellable commodities. We run from the duties and responsibilities imposed upon us. Running is a respite from darker neuroses and emergent insanities. It is a cure for loneliness. And if we cannot escape these large brains that pain us, we can at a minimum control the pain, funnel the sicknesses, channel our weaknesses together so that they become health from a certain perspective.

I imagine myself from the non-runner's perspective.  A lean and leathery body. A face carved with lines of effort. I move down the road, hardly anything at all among the unceasing flow of steel cars, the black asphalt, the buzzing on-and-on of the world. We are the least of human beings. Our muscles are long and wiry, the skin pulled taut over not much more than bone and gristle, we stride forward among a humanity that grows larger every year as we grow smaller, lighter, leaner, sick and frail relics of times long past. The act of running produces nothing at all. We arrive, incessantly, from where we begin. We are sick from this perspective.

But out of that sickness we runners, like Nietzsche, carve a peculiar sort of health. We have the health of endurance, the ability to go on, the strength to not only run for hours, but to enjoy our bodies and the sensations they give us when they are working. We need almost nothing at all to find our happiness: only a few hours, a stretch of road, perhaps a friend, or even better a competitor. We hide in our spindled chests an unusually large and heaving heart--and in our heads a warbled tune, a song, as we move on down the road. Do you know the feeling I know? When your legs have disappeared, and there is only your heart, your lungs, and your eyes skimming disembodied through the air? We are Aristotle's featherless bipeds, we runners. Though we have no wings, we have taught ourselves to fly. 

Like this, running from our sickness, as far as we can, through the pain of injury, the endless repetition of footfalls, and the loneliness of the open road, we run on, drawing on what strength we have, making ourselves healthy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dispatch from Paraguay #5: A Trip to the Interior

Some call Paraguay "An island surrounded by earth." If Asunción is the center of that island, the surrounding ocean is the Paraguayan rural countryside, a wide landscape of red dirt and small towns. The interior.

We got up at 5am last Friday, quickly made coffee, gathered our bags, and climbed into one of the nicer taxis I've seen in Paraguay (a late 80's Toyota Camry) and wound through the empty early morning streets of Asunción to the bus terminal to catch the first direct bus to Villarrica.

I'd been wanting to travel to Villarrica ever since I first came to Paraguay. I'm not sure exactly why. Perhaps it's because of the name of the town, or the fact that there are mountains, or the common saying that everything is backwards in Villarrica. So, we made it happen. The bus showed up on time and we piled in: Lulu, me, and her mother, Mirella.

For me, the most glorious Paraguayan experience is to ride the bus. The buses in Paraguay are cramped, generally in disrepair, herk and jerk along like a snail hyped up on cocaine, respect no bus stop (the "direct" bus to Villarrica stopped no less than 15 times to pick up and drop off random people from the side of the road), belch copious amounts of stinking diesel fuel, fill so full of people during peak travel times that all the air is displaced by hundreds of pounds of heavy human flesh, crash often, blare annoying music, obey no fixed schedule, follow routes that have no discernable rhyme or reason, run red lights, threaten pedestrians, clog streets, wake sleeping babies and generally toss their passengers--from young children to healthy young men to frail grandmothers--around the compartment like rag dolls. And woe to the passengers who get caught up in a random bus "rally"--where two buses start racing each other, literally flying side by side down a narrow and crowded street "a toda velocidad."

To climb on a bus in Paraguay is to give one's self over to the total relinquishment of control that is a characteristic of Paraguayan life, at least for the 99% who are not involved in the government. For we norteamericanos, we addicts of control, the bus is an antidote to our addiction. To ride the bus is to let go of that sense that experience is something to be mastered; it is to let one's self be mastered, to grasp however briefly among the noise, the fumes, the jostling, the crowd, the calls of vendors, and the steady movement of the street the slightest trace of pure experience.

La famosa linea 31: I've ridden it many times

So, we took one of these buses--a nice one, really--for three hours to Villarrica. We breakfasted on chipa and cocido, watching the rich green vegetation and bright copper dirt of the Paraguay countryside roll by out the window. Our bus left us in the terminal, which was almost as crowded as the buses that streamed in and out of it. We walked the four blocks or so to the Hotel Ybytyruzú (named for the nearby hills) and dropped our bags.

We had plans to eat lunch at the Hotel Tilynski, a small place run by second generation German-Paraguayans on the outside of the nearby Colonia Independencia, a German colony that is nestled in the hills we could see off in the distance. We had hoped to catch a bus, but were badly informed by the hotel that the bus would leave after lunch, so we hired a cab, who drove us the 20 miles or so to the hotel for 70,000 Gs--about 14 dollars. We showed up around noon, and advised the good folk of our presence. The lunch was pretty spectacular. It was two kinds of meat, beef plus a beef stuffed with sausage, accompanied by freshly baked bread, cabbage salad, pasta with a mushroom sauce, and a German-style omelette. All you could eat, and all of it cooked fresh just hours before. Afterwards, they served us cheesecake and mulberry pie and cups of rich strong coffee. We ate outside on the deck, enjoying the breeze and 70 degree sunshine--Paraguayan winter is rough!

Some cows and the hills from the Hotel Tilynski, near Colonia Independencia

We decided afterwards to walk the 5 kilometers or so from the hotel to the town of Colonia Independencia. It was a beautiful walk, perfect weather, and tons of stuff to see and to photograph, from barefoot kids walking home from school to the huge free-roaming brahma bulls, to the cobblestone streets and red-dirt patios of the homes scattered along the way. We stopped on the outskirts of town to admire lemons the size of grapefruits outside one house, and the owner of the house, Aldo came out, showed us around his yard, and loaded us up with 5 different sorts of lemons picked straight from his tree, which Mirella would squeeze into lemonade when we got back to Asunción. We also found out that there is a waterfall about 5 miles outside of town, up in the hills. We didn't have time to make the trek, but hopefully someday we'll be back.

The road to Colonia Independencia.

After touring Colonia Independencia, we caught a bus back to Villarrica, took showers, and headed to the main cathedral to try to catch the 6 o'clock mass. We got there a little late, but found some seats toward the rear. The mass turned out to be pretty different from the ones I've seen in Asunción. Longer, with more time spent praying on your knees: literally 20 minutes or so on hard boards. And also more of the hymns were sung in Guaraní. After the mass, we located a pizza joint on the main square and ate a chilly dinner. A quick hot chocolate back at the hotel sent us to bed with warm bellies.

The next morning, we walked around Villarrica, pondered the endless stream of motorcycles, again usually weighed down with at least two people, but often three or four, and took in the other church--a neat stone structure built by the Franciscans. But the coolest thing was a park, in the middle of the town, where about five Capybara live. The Capybara is the world's largest rodent and it is native to this part of the world. They are super docile and would let us approach and take pictures. Here's a couple for you.

Lulu and Capybara

The traditional Capybara water dance.

Our last week here has since begun--I imagine this will be the last dispatch. The time has literally flown since we've been down here, and our thoughts are now drifting back to that other life we have. School, responsibilities, English, our Nashville friends and family. I've been a little sick the last week and haven't been able to run as much as I'd like. And I've been eating a ton of delicious food. But I'm looking forward to jumping in some 5ks when I get back to the States. It's been a good trip--long enough to get really settled in--and it's sad to think we will be leaving soon. But so it goes: onwards!
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