Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Talking about the weather is one of the things that human beings are wired to do. Weather has two features that make it great as a conversational piece. First, weather is shared, not personal--we live in it together. Second, the weather is nobody's fault. It's a guilt-free topic of conversation, one of the few left.

In ancient times, almost every event was like the weather. It was seen outside of the frame of human responsibility. The gods controlled almost every aspect of life and we stumbled around here below, buffeted about by their arbitrary actions. While this way of framing the world seems perhaps naive and infantile to the contemporary mind, it was also liberating. People didn't have to choose sides. It wasn't BP's fault or Obama's fault or the Republican's fault or the media's fault. It was just fate, no guilt. The world's events--love, happiness, social harmony, war, death, sickness--were the result of complex and superhuman circumstances beyond our control, beyond judgment. To borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, they were beyond good and evil.

The weather remains beyond good and evil to us, which is why it is so pleasant to discuss and share. So we continue to talk about the weather. But one effect of contemporary life is to actually shelter us from the weather. We spend our time in controlled environments, dry and 72 degrees. Our air is conditioned, our living spaces sterilized. Our encounters with the weather are brief and passing. A steaming walk across the parking lot, for example. A few steps in the morning to pick up the paper. The weatherman talking about the daily high or a cold front moving in. A head-down sprint through the pouring rain to the shelter of our cars. Thunder in the distance. Or the occasional weather-related catastrophe that scrolls across the bottom of our television set, the recent floods in Nashville, Hurricane Katrina.

As runners, we enjoy a more intimate relation with the weather. The everyday runner actually feels the weather. It affects our practice in subtle ways. The weather is interwoven into what running actually is. We take it into account in our races and in our training to be sure, but beyond that our running allows us access to a kind of spontaneity and range of feeling that is rare in contemporary life. We run in sideways snow. We run in driving rain. We run in head-rattling, sock soaking heat. We run beneath high blue skies. We run through dense fog. We become connoisseurs of the weather. We know, for example, that 85 degrees in the evening is much cooler than 85 degrees in the morning. We know that 35 degrees and raining is much colder than zero degrees and snowing.

One thing our running teaches us is how truly remarkable our bodies are at adjusting to our environments. You would think that, given the incredible lengths we go to manage and control the weather, the human body is fragile and easily damaged by extremes. But the body only feels the extremes of weather as unpleasant when it is sedentary. The moving body warms itself in the winter. It ventilates itself in the summer. It sheds water in the rain, produces sweat in the sun. It is a highly intelligent system that can be comfortable in quite tremendous extremes of weather with the most minimal of clothing: a pair of skimpy shorts, sometimes a long sleeved shirt.

One of the consequences of the almost insane control that contemporary life exerts on the environment is that we forget the body's adaptability. Or better said, the body forgets how to adapt; it becomes stupid. Like every other form of intelligence, if the body's intelligence is not exercised, it is lost. That loss is not insignificant. All pleasure in life is the result of intelligent interaction, adaptation, a sort of harmonizing play. The body's adaptation to weather affords one of the purest and simplest forms of pleasure, and one of the tragedies of contemporary life is the elimination of that pleasure.

As my mom used to tell us when we'd roam restlessly around the house on a rainy weekend day: "Some people don't have enough sense to get out in the rain." Running gets me out in the rain; it allows me to live in the weather.
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