Monday, August 31, 2009


"The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In." --HST

We philosophers and runners (pardon the inference if you do not count yourself as one or the other) tread a thin line. We both seek a sort of pure experience. In running--most particularly in racing--the experience is one of the run consuming you. It is an intense and highly private experience, something like what Hunter S. Thompson describes as pursuing the edge: the place of total commitment, say two miles into a 5k or 20 miles into a marathon, in which a choice is forced upon the runner. The choice, broadly, is this. To drive on quite madly, face grimacing into the raging inferno, with courage. Or to jump back into the game that we are accustomed to play, that one where we are sane and in control and having the sort of experience of gently moving safety that modern life calls fun. "I could have approached the edge," we tell ourselves, "but there was the fact of my training lately and the heat not to mention the ugly rotten fear of Putting It All On The Line."

The same goes for philosophy. What we are up to, we philosophers, is the articulation of what Bergson called "elan vital." There are many tricks to this trade. We have at our disposal a vast compendium of concepts, a wide range of historical figures, and schools upon schools of thought. But whatever concepts we choose to employ, whatever philosophical camp we choose to align ourselves with, this is a matter of little importance. What is important is that the philosophy be borne out of a pure experience. Listen to Bergson:

A great impulse carries beings and things along. We feel ourselves uplifted, carried away, borne along by it. We are more fully alive and this increase of life brings with it the conviction that grave philosophical enigmas can be resolved or even perhaps that they need not be raised, since they arise from a frozen vision of the real and are only the translation, in terms of thought, of a certain artificial weakening of our vitality. In fact, the more we accustom ourselves to think and to perceive all things sub specie durationis, the more we plunge into real duration.

James says elsewhere something to the effect that our philosophy expresses our dumb sense of the world. The urgent direction of our vitality. It is only rarely that this gets articulated: language is not the sharpest of tools. When we read philosophy, then, what we are seeing articulated are the vague and plural outlines of specific vitalities. Philosophies are monuments to these passing visions, ruins of old civilizations that buzzed in their times but now lie dead on abandoned hills. They are signs of a life that affirms its overabundance, that says: I can solve unanswerable problems. Thus philosophy must be read. It is only in this context, the context of a life bravely attempting an answer in the face of its own clear absurdity, that the ridiculousness of philosophy becomes sublime.

This is, of course, a happy fact. It means that philosophy in its purest form, like all living things, can never be completed. It is not in the answering of puzzles, in the response to classic questions, or in rational analysis of cultural problems that philosophy finds what is peculiar to itself. Philosophy in its pure form, when it is done well, is like a race fully run. It is a full plunge of the intellect into waters that threaten to drown it, a thrashing about, the finding of the edge, a wild cry: "yes, here I am, a voice, fighting to make some sense, still alive."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Good Workout

I met up with Ted this morning in Centennial Park. He Garmined out a half mile path on the more or less level grass in front of the Parthenon. The plan was to hit 8 intervals, taking 90 seconds rest. We had to improvise the first one as a huge flock of geese decided to camp out in the path, so it got cut a little short, 1:53. The next three I felt great and finished feeling strong at 2:30. The last four I had to work a little in the middle section (there was a little rise at somewhere between 300 and 450 meters), but I was cruising: 2:24, 2:25, 2:26.

A good workout. Four miles of running at an average of sub 5 minute pace. It's been ten years since I did something like that. Thanks, Ted.

Classes start tomorrow!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pushing the Envelope

One of my favorite passages from William James speaks to the double nature of habit. He writes,

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. ... You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the 'shop,' in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

I am past the age of thirty, and I can vouch for what James here writes. The gross outlines of my character have been largely set; it is too late to begin again. This is a sad fact. I wonder often about the beginnings that were lost, the other people I might have been. But on the other hand, to have these outlines set is to have a starting point and a direction. It is to be someone, to have a project. Life offers no choice; we must trade a multitude of small beginnings for one large one. We begin as a scattering of seeds and end, if all goes well, as a tree, firmly rooted.

We have a habit of telling this story nostalgically, as if wild and luxurious possibility were the primary characteristic of youth. Adult life, by contrast, plays the part of all-too-determined, rigid and cold actuality. But we should be careful not to have the wrong conception of roots, or of the sort of growth that a tree undertakes. Perhaps an example from my running can help to tease apart the more subtle form of possibility that is characteristic of adulthood.

Running is one of my deepest habits, one set over the course of more than a decade. It is a habit that is deeply interwoven with the other strands of my life: friendship, work, love, health--the forms that these essential aspects of living take for me are inextricably bound up with the habit of running. Running is a deep root for me. Perhaps other aspects of my life are more important, but these aspects depend, perhaps strangely, on this simple and ordinary bodily habit.

This past year, more than ever, as I worked through the end of my Ph.D., I have relied on running. It gave structure and a sense of progress to a process that was frighteningly open-ended and full of new challenges. This reliance was reflected in the new attitude I took towards training. I became much more conservative and consistent, an every day runner for the first time in my life. I hardly ever pushed my workouts. I ran easy most days. I worked cautiously and carefully to strengthen and deepen this sustaining root. Consequently, I had the longest stretch of uninterrupted training of my life.

This recent training has given my running a whole new aspect. I'm strong as an ox. I can run ten miles with as little thought as I can make the bed. My running has become, strangely, as dependable as I am on it. I've built what we used to call "man-strength." Lydiard called it achieving "a nearly tireless state." It's the sort of strength that blends the human and the natural, like John Henry swinging his hammer, like the muddy Mississippi, it just rolls on.

And what this means is that my running is full of the richest sort of possibility. Not the sort of possibility that we think of when we think of youth. The scattering of dandelion seeds in the wind. This is heavy, ponderous, possibility. The kind that can float heavy grain barges without a thought. Or the sort of possibility that a tree has, once its tap root has found the water table.

I'm looking at this sort of tree outside my window right now. It is teeming with life. It's a whole world for the insects that live there. A resting place for birds, a romping ground for squirrels. It's cool underneath, and its wild and lush tangle of branches reach up, out, and down. A tree deeply rooted is not a static thing. Its possibility is the adult kind, complex, rich, and sustaining. Its habits have been set, so that when it does grow, that growth has the power to make a difference.

"The character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." That's okay. A hard edge is good for cutting. It's time to push the envelope.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lords of the Sidewalk

I run with a guy that calls himself The Thunder.

Yesterday was a typical run. We started out easy. For a guy who calls himself The Thunder, T. T. is actually pretty chilled out about his running. He likes to keep the pace easy and conversational. When you run with T. T., it's never a hammerfest. And that's alright because T. T. knows how to keep things interesting.

Our easy run departed from its usual course. Normally we do an easy 12 out Belmont, back into town, and around Vandy. This time we just lapped Vandy. The run started off as it usually does. Runners know that there is a strange side-effect of distance running. Something about the ease of the motion, the increased heart rate, perhaps a surfeit (or maybe it's a lack) of oxygen to the brain breaks down the barrier between brain and mouth. Runners are gabbers. We gab on about just about anything like drunks around a table. So, we headed off at Thunder easy pace, gabbing on about who knows what and just about everything. Laughing, joking, even talking about serious stuff like how fast we ought to run the first mile of our next race.

T. T. is a great guy. Easy-going, funny, self-deprecating. But there's one other thing you should know about T. T. He is Lord of the Sidewalk.

You see, to run in Nashville at rush-hour is to face a gauntlet of frazzled and inattentive drivers, sidewalks packed with (sometimes quite large) pedestrians, the occasional speeding hipster on his multi-colored bicycle, pretty coeds hanging dreamily on the arms of their dates, and dog lovers being dragged around by their goofy pets. T. T. has one tried and true strategy for dealing with this variety of obstacles. He runs straight ahead, unflinchingly. Erect, determined, and relentless, he radiates his Lord of the Sidewalk status for all to see. Would be obstacles avert their eyes and slam on their brakes. Dogs slink away. Hipsters swerve to the side. People get out of the way. T. T. strides right on by. Woe to he or she who would challenge the Lord of the Sidewalk.

Well, yesterday, some idiots did.

They were the lowest of the low. Teenagers piled into a car. Just as runners have to gab as they roll on down the road, there is something in the physiology of teenagers that makes them holler and make faces at runners as we do our thing. They were victims, I suppose, of their chemistry.

The drama unfolded as it always does. As they rolled by with their windows down, they yelled out various funny noises and made strange movements with their hands while scrunching up their faces. The meaning was inscrutable, but the intent was clear: they were mocking us. I played my part in this tired drama, sending them back a one-fingered salute, completing once more (or so I thought) this tiresome ritual.

As every runner knows, one of the great pleasures of hitting busy streets during rush hour is that we get a chance to show off the virtues of our more primitive form of locomotion. While enraged motorists hunker down within their hermetic chunks of steel, herking and jerking their way forward, we glide by fluidly and effortlessly. As the fates would have it, our teenagers were trapped in traffic. They thought they would make one pass and be free of us. But the standard ritual of cat-calls and fingers was about to be extended. There was a lot of traffic. We were gaining on them.

They began, frantically, to roll up their windows.

This was when T. T. made his move. The Lord of the Sidewalk strode straight into the street. Windows were being rolled up faster and faster. I kept a safe, nervous distance and watched. The teenagers were crowded up against each other, their derisive faces now transformed into masks of fear. T. T. took a few strides beside the car and did what runners do countless times over the course of their runs.

He spit.

It was a beautiful loogie. It hung glistening and stretching in the air in orbit for seconds against the sky. The teenagers shrunk below, mouths agape. The loogie came splatting down, square in the center of the windshield of the teenagers' car. The Thunder didn't break stride. He just hopped back over to the sidewalk and we cruised onwards.

Behind us, all kinds of commotion was being raised. Windows were unrolled and epithets hurled. We paid them no mind. But slowly and inexorably, the traffic became slightly less jammed. Cars were passing again. The teenagers caught back up. But the closer they came the quieter they became. They drifted past us, the braver of the few staring out the car. One of them tried to return fire, but the wind caught his feeble spittle and dribbled it down on his own door.

As they passed by, we surged and matched their car with our strides, rolling down the hill, literally flying. High on a goofy sort of feeling. You know, you don't get to be boss of much in this world. But yesterday, running with The Thunder, for a brief moment, I was boss of just about everything.

I was a Lord of the Sidewalk.
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