Monday, June 27, 2011

A long and self-indulgent post that has very little to do with running and which raises more questions than gives answers, sorry about that.

I've been working my way at intervals through David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. The book, like much of his writing, is a meditation on the ways in which we keep ourselves from encountering reality, our selves, and each other. DFW's writing is simultaneously penetrating and distancing. He shows us directly the pathos of reflective thought--how it is always reflective, never direct--always skimming over its object. His work sits squarely in the genre of postmodern meta writing because he takes the constant indirection of experience as his direct object of inquiry. But unlike other postmodern authors in which indirection becomes something like a game having stakes only for the art-world, for DFW indirection is a concrete strategy for his characters; it is a learned habit, one that protects them from experience, sheltering them in a state of interiority that is somehow both fecund and infertile.

Click, and it will get bigger.

To read DFW is to realize simultaneously the infinite possibility of thought and the infinite distraction of thought. It's to reflect on the tremendous intellectual achievement of something like the tax code--which of course no single mind could comprehend in all of its complexity and nuance--while simultaneously recognizing that precisely because it is an achievement beyond the comprehension of any mind, its value is incalculable at best and downright stupefying at worse. The book suggests that language itself is like the tax-code: a jumble of meanings through which a few experts can weave more or less intelligent paths, but which in the end adds up to so much sound and fury as a whole, just as likely to signify nothing at all as it is to add meaning to life.

The life of DFW is horrifying. The guy had a tremendous mind. He was intelligent beyond measure. That intelligence was not a total waste; he left us books that will stand the test of time. But he could not use that intelligence to find wisdom. He ended up miserable, depressed, and he killed himself.

It seems to me that his life is representative of the problem of culture in America today. The connection between intelligence and wisdom is tangential at best. Our minds are growing, but their growth is erratic, becoming bureaucratic monstrosities like the tax-code. Who can make the connections between Afghanistan, global warming, rising unemployment, gas prices, radical Islam, immigration, unions, Hugo Chavez, the budget crisis, education reform, obesity....? What mind could process such a set of problems? And yet, we all encounter them, almost daily, as if we have a responsibility to deal with them adequately. Not to mention all of the ordinary problems of daily living like going to work and paying the bills and cooking dinner and cleaning up every now and then. Am I the only one that finds this situation demoralizing?

Reflection doesn't always solve problems.

My sense is that the only intelligent or wise way of dealing with these problems is through the strategy of indirection. As individuals, we can't deal with them, so we have to learn how to distract ourselves from them, or at least from most of them, so that we can tackle the tiny part of maybe one of these problems that we are prepared for. So, we learn not to deal with reality. We put all these screens in place: small screens, big screens, all of these screens that allow us not to deal with reality by substituting high definition for reality. They serve their dream function: just as vivid as reality but fortunately Not Real. The sun being quite too bright to stare at, we climb back down into Plato's cave, thank you very much.

So here we come finally to the grand meta-problem. Reality is one of those things that you can't live with but can't live without. We have to learn to distract ourselves from the problems of life as a mode of protection. But we also cannot bear to live lives of total distraction: that's depression itself. How can we find the right balance between distraction and engagement? How can a mind trained in distraction and self-deception as a mode of the preservation of sanity not destroy itself through those very same operations? How can reflection both protect us from reality through the production of fantasy but also occasionally direct us to reality in order to deal with the problems that face us?

It strikes me that this is a balance that each person has to find for themselves. It also strikes me that such a balance is incredibly difficult and would be very rare to hit without some sort of explicit effort (which I'm not sure how many of us are putting forth). My sense is that we first world middle class whitish Americans tend to err on the side of fantasy and protection from reality. Our politics is a fantasy: Paul Revere? The Gold Standard? Flat Taxes? Global Peace? Hope? Change? When we aren't discussing these fantasies, it's onto the NFL or the latest iPad or how many miles per week did you run or something of that sort.

Yes, running too is deeply involved in fantasy; I love it most because its form of fantasy draws so deeply on reality while remaining fantasy. It's not a daydream; it's a bodily fantasy, with actual feeling, pain, suffering, elation, problems, breakthroughs, effort, determination. All the stuff of life in High Definition.

But don't we want the stuff of life in actual real life, not just as a way of dealing with it?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Half-Steppers, etc.

I dedicate this blog post to all running buddies, near and far.

Training partners are a special commodity. I've run with hundreds of people in my life. People faster than I am. People slower than I am. People who don't even consider themselves runners. With strangers too. I'm a runner, and so it's just natural that I end up running with other folks.

But out of those hundreds of people there are a handful that I would call running buddies. You runners out there know just how hard it is to find that guy or girl that you just click with. There are so many things that can go wrong, that it's the rarest of things to actually find someone to train with who suits your temperament. Most runners fall into at least one of the following categories, making them more or less unsuitable for that special "running buddy" designation.

[F-bomb alert for sensitive readers.]

1. Half steppers. You know who you are. Or probably, you don't, or you would knock that shit off. There is a special zone, exactly half a step in front of the next runner, that has the magical property of inciting the runner who is a little behind to speed up. If you run half a step in front of me, unconsciously I will pick up the pace so we can run side by side and chat or what have you. But you will, then, unconsciously, match my acceleration so you are exactly half a step in front. Close enough to be running with me, but far enough in front to be ahead. Next thing we know our easy run has dropped to 5:45 pace and we're knocking babies out of strollers and grandmas off their walkers and hurdling dogs on leashes all because you can't freaking stand NOT to be in front. So, yeah, you half-steppers out there. Ever wonder why you're always running alone?

2. Let's talk about me. The conversational equivalent of the half-stepper is the runner that is cognitively unable to talk or think about anything during the run except his or her own running. Runners naturally love to talk about running, and people naturally like to talk about themselves. So, it's understandable from a certain point of view. And even interesting up to a point. But you might be bordering on the unbearable if you mention your placement in the last race more than three times in a single run. If you find yourself giving a blow-by-blow account of yesterday's easy 8 miler following on the heels of a 15 minute spiel on your race preparation, then maybe it's time to ask me how my running's going. Or, Jesus forbid, talk about something that doesn't have anything to do with running. Or anything to do with you. That would be nice. Every now and then.

3. Overly Ingratiating. I'm faster than you. I get it. But yes, I'm still running with you. Why? Because tomorrow I'm running hard. Because I actually like running slow every now and then. Because running with someone else is better than running by myself. So, yes, you are running fast enough. Quit thanking me for slowing down. I'd actually enjoy the easier day and your company if you could just relax and run with me for a little while. 'Prec.

p.s. Maybe you would get a little faster if you'd quit asking me for training advice and just fucking run!

4. Gizmo Dude. Do you have to beep every mile? Do we have to adjust the pace every time you look down at your wrist? Seriously, dude. Get a grip.

5. Alpha Dog. The half-stepper is like a one-year-old golden retriever who has been cooped up in a house all day. His fault is obliviousness. It can even be kinda endearing in the way a dog can be when it jumps all over you and scratches you with its pawnails. However, when Alpha Dog pushes the pace, there is nothing oblivious about it. It's psychological warfare. You know this because last week Alpha Dog was happy to run in the back of the pack, as he'd just had a good race. With nothing to prove, he was even lollygagging a bit back there just to prove that he had nothing to prove. But last weekend Alpha Dog had a bad race. So on today's easy 10 miler he will be looking to re-establish his perceived lack of dominance.

While runs with the half-stepper usually end up progressive, you know Alpha Dog is gonna do his Alpha thing from the gun. Wait! There was no gun, it's a fucking training run. But right off the bat we're clicking 6:30s and everyone on the run is filled with a rising sense of dread. (Except for Alpha Dog, who is filled with joy at the fact that everyone else is feeling dread.) Where do we go from here? 6 flats? 5:30s?

The only way to deal with the Alpha Dog is either a) just let him drop you or b) beat the Alpha Dog at his own game. Of course, I invariably opt for b) because it's at these moments that the psychologically weak Alpha Dog is psychologically weakest. You want 6:30s? I'll give you 6:15s! Want to hammer the hills? Me too! This is fun in a sick way! Fuck you!

6. Chick-ogler. Yes, one of the great pleasures of being a runner is the scenery. Maybe it's the cannabinoids, but running seems to make me more attentive to the fairer members of the human race. So, thank you for drawing my attention if it happens to be wandering. A little sexual innuendo is a key part of running-humor. Yes, we love to run hard (har-har). But there is a line between goofy locker-room humor and creepy stalker-behavior. Not only did you draw that line. You stepped over it. Again. And again. We're not laughing at your jokes, dude. We're laughing because you're making us nervous. Yeah, I know that running loosens up the filter, but could you tighten it back up a bit? How about them Titans?

*  *  *

If you recognize yourself in one of these categories, don't worry. I'll still run with you, if you want. Plus, every runner who's been a runner has a little of each of these in their psyche. As the great Socrates once said, "Self-knowledge is a bitch."

Oh, and if you readers have anything to add about other annoying runner-habits, I hear there's a comments section below.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Still Running

I'm a sucker for writing on Roger Federer, and this piece by Brian Phillips on the autumn of Federer's career did not disappoint. Phillips' main theme is the epoch of athletic life that has the quality of "still." He notes that Federer is still great, but the "still" marks a kind of twilight quality to his game, which gives his performance an extra resonance.

I've been running and racing now for 20 years, which is hard for me to believe. As much as I wouldn't like to admit it, I've been using the category of "still" to define my own running for the last couple of years. I ask myself: can I still run as fast as I could? Can I still get even faster? Can I still carve out time, effort, and energy for racing at the level that I would like to race?

This weekend, for instance, I was happy with my race despite the fact that I ran 30 seconds slower than last year and a minute slower than 5 years ago. Why was I happy? Well, I ran down a 19 year old kid over the last four miles. This happiness, however, gives me pause. Why was his age important to me at all? A 34 year old should be able to trounce a 19 year old over a 10 mile course, especially with the heat and the hills. Distance running is a kind sport to those of us in our thirties. What you lose in quickness, you gain in endurance and strength. This is what we tell ourselves: we've still got it.

Still running hard, at the Bell Buckle 10 miler last weekend.
What Phillips writes about the "still" moment is true. Most great athletes hit "still" for a brief moment in time, then vanish into memory. Federer has prolonged the moment now for four or five years--though he is not dominating as he did in 2007, he is still great. And it is a sign of how great he was that he has been able to hold onto it for so long.

Of course, I have achieved nothing resembling greatness in my running career, so the pressures of "still" have much less at stake--and the only person those pressures weigh upon are me. The best way to quiet those thoughts is to train hard, get strong, find that bullet-proof mind that gets honed after weeks of workouts. When you are strong, you're strong. The feeling is immediate and it's unnecessary to relate that strength forward or backwards to other times of life to understand it.

In the end, though, there is a difference between now and then. When I was younger and away from training, I just worried whether I was fit or not. Now, lack of fitness comes with an extra question or two: can I get back to where I was? How much longer can I run this fast?

It's somewhat embarrassing to admit to these thoughts, but it's not like I asked that they come to mind. They just did. Maybe it doesn't matter so much so long as they get me out the door, same as the old questions. The first mile of my run feels different than it did when I was 19, that's for sure. Most days, though, the next few miles feel the same as they always did. Which is to say, pretty damn good.


Monday, June 13, 2011

The Loneliness of the Long Distance...

The loneliness of the long distance runner is a metaphor for the loneliness of life as such. Runners or not, we all travel paths that cannot be retraced or fully communicated. The image of the lonely runner speaks to us because it reflects a broader fact of life. Even among friends, spouses, parents, pets, and children, a life is always lived alone, from beginning to end.

William James puts the thought like this in his Principles of Psychology:
It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, not proximity in space, nor similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together when are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute in nature.
What James writes here is true; the breaches between my thought and your thought, those streaming and ethereal flows which we denote as mine and yours, can never be crossed. I can speak with you; I can write to you; I can walk with you; I could kiss you or hold you; but there is a part of you with which I can have no intimacy, no direct knowledge. I can not experience what you experience, not at all.

This picture strikes me as representative of loneliness.
Each triumph requires a step out and away, even if one is in the center of a crowd.
Human beings are essentially lonely. We can cheat that loneliness by amplifying ourselves--by seeking out new experiences and hoping that the volume of experience that we share with other people will allow us to make connections. But experience is not additive: it is always transformative. Adding an experience to a life does not make it larger; it makes it different. We become alone in our multiplicity, too complicated, too diverse--octopuses who may make contact with one tentacle, but reach out with seven more into empty space.

Or, we can simplify, hoping to ease loneliness through the common currency of human nature. This path looks to ignore the culture heaped on top of the organism. So, instead of tasting our food, we simply eat it. We forgo poetry for prose, dancing for exercise, singing for speaking. We hope in this way to come to know ourselves as part of a deep history of human life, attempting to plunge our personal stream of thought into the general and deep waters of nature. This tactic, however, leads not to connection, but to self-annihilation. Loneliness can not be cured by generalities, but through concreteness. I do not want you to love my general self, but my specific self. And it is not you in your generality that is an object of my curiosity and possible love, but you, that concrete you, the you that is owned by you and not public property.

These thoughts on the unrelenting solitude of living came to me last night. I was thinking about this blog, about facebook, about message boards, about this new way of relating to the world. We take ourselves and our thoughts, and we hurl them out into space quite blindly. Then, we wait to see what sort of impact they make. It occurs to me that this behavior is bat-like, blind and sending out signals, hoping to make out a world by calculating the angles of their rebound. Bats are content not to see directly; they make their way forward, living their entire lives through indirection.

I have been studying the philosopher C.S. Peirce's theory of signs. He believed that each experience, the whole teeming world of thought and object, worked as signs--indirectly. One implication of his theory is that we have no ground, no resting place. Our lives bend and refract in response to experience. The challenge of life is not in knowing or understanding, but in continuing, in enduring. As Wittgenstein says, the most fundamental question that recurs is always: "Where to go from here?" Metaphysical questions like "Who am I?" Or "What is the nature of reality?" take their meaning and direction from the experiences that prompted the questions, and the value of the answers we give to them has to be taken in terms of the directions they send us.

If this is the case, then perhaps the remedy to the irreducible isolation of simply being an individual, is not so much in knowing the other or understanding him or her. This would be looking for a place to rest, for certainty among the flux of life. But certainty is not to be had, life flows on, and thus the task of life is not to share experience. Instead, the difficulty is in finding travelling companions--folks who are willing to travel the same stretch of road for a while, even if they can't or even don't want to peer into your soul. After all, loneliness does not seek knowledge; it just wants companionship.

There is a group of folks that I run with. Each of them is a strange bird. We all have different jobs, different talents, different politics, different senses of humor, different modes of intelligence. I cannot say that I know the inner life of these runners. I do not know them much at all. Come to think of it, I don't really want to know them. What I want from them is that they show up, that they join me for an hour or two a week. I want other people to run with me, beside me, not see through me.

This little squad of runners is not really a political unit. But I think it shows us something about politics. Community and companionship do not require many shared values. The requirement is that we move through our lives for brief moments in a common direction. This movement is made possible by the ability to live indifferently to the fact that you will never know what is happening in the mind of another person. We can do things with each other because we leave each other alone: at some point we are willing to say, "That person makes no sense to me," and run on. Though that person will never understand you, not fully, not completely, perhaps they will choose to accompany you.

In the abstract, our differences are final. We are each singular and irreducible to the other. The breach between my mind and yours is absolute. But in life the question is not how to overcome differences, but to live among them. Loneliness and togetherness is not a matter of knowing other people. It is a matter of living with them. The loneliness of the long distance runner is a condition of experience, and in a strange way, it is the embrace of this loneliness, the willingness not to live too close to others, that gives us the sufficiency of space to live together--and also, sometimes, to live on, despite being apart.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Juridical and the Dietetic: Reflections on the Ethos of Running

In Foucault's History of Sexuality, he looks to Greek sexual practices to make a distinction between two forms of ethical discipline. The first thinks of morality and ethics as a matter of interdictions, judgments, and transgressions. This conception of ethics is essentially juridical: a set of laws or rules that organize behavior according to principles that one ought not transgress or that one ought to live in accordance with. To do the good, to live well, is conceived in terms of more or less rigid moral laws that are policed by the appropriate moral authorities: usually a clergy of some sort who has access to the true meaning of a sacred text and uses that text to diagnose pathological or degenerate behaviors. The goal of this sort of ethics is to identify deviations from the good life and to reform those deviations.

The second form of ethical discipline is less interested in transgression and reform and more interested in managing the body to produce health. Foucault calls this way of thinking about ethics "dietetic" instead of "juridical," and he finds this to be the dominant way of thinking about sexuality for the Greeks. It conceives of the work of ethics as a project of integrating the various aspects of the self into a flourishing whole. The example that Foucault treats is sexuality. A dietetic approach to sexual pleasure would take the problem of sexuality as one of how to integrate this pleasure within the rest of the activities of life. A juridical approach to sexual pleasure would take the problem of sexual ethics to be a question of how to diagnose deviant forms of pleasure and reform them according to a transcendental sexual norm.

Obviously, important philosophical issues are at stake.

Foucault finds resources in the Greek dietetic approach to sexuality for rethinking his own relationship to sexual pleasure, transforming the dominant ethical concepts from deviancy, transgression, and reform to concepts like moderation, integration, and health. This is a powerful reimagining. It demonstrates once more that the value of philosophy is less in determining the truth of a particular point of view and more in the discovery of new (or at least forgotten) concepts for analysis of the activities of life. My love of philosophy does not stem from a desire for truth, or a love for getting things right. The attraction of philosophy--the pleasure it gives me--is the chance it gives for seeing the world from new and original angles. The best philosophy books open a range of new intellectual perceptions. Every concept, every distinction, is a chance to encounter the world again.

I think it is easier for runners to understand the dietetic form of ethics that Foucault describes. While we sometimes rely on the notion of rule, law, and transgression in describing intelligent running and training, we more often thematize running and the pleasures, difficulties, and problems it gives us in terms of how to integrate them into a larger life. Running teaches us to look at our bodies and the pleasures and pains they produce in terms of an ethic of self-care. We learn to read our bodies and to think of our training, our running actions, in terms of how they contribute to our psychological and physical health. The good forms of running are the ones that make us faster or happier. The bad forms are the ones that cause us to suffer needlessly or that get us injured or perhaps distract us from more important activities.

We treat running, in short, as an ethical practice, not as a moral code. We don't usually ask whether it is right or wrong to run in a certain way. We ask how we can keep doing it, how we can get better at it, and how it either helps or stymies our other life projects. We treat running, in short, pragmatically--without the stigma of ethical or moral judgment.

Interestingly, there seems to me to be little relationship between practicing a dietetic ethos as a runner and taking up that sort of pragmatic approach to ethics in the rest of life in all of its political, religious, and familial relations. Runners seem to me, actually, more judgmental than the general population, but perhaps this perception comes from the fact that I interact more intimately and directly with runners than with other sorts of folk.

What if we were able to look at the rest of our moral and ethical lives in this way, in pragmatic terms instead of juridical terms? What if the good of religious practices or sexual practices or business practices were understood in terms of their effects on the quality of life instead of in terms of "moral" concepts like greed, evil, perversion, or abnormality? How are we able to attain this sort of relationship to our action in running, but not in relation to other activities? Is it because running doesn't matter that we treat it with an intelligence that is deft, free, and lighthearted? If so, what are the implications of that for confronting more difficult problems?

Finally, is the dietetic approach really as admirable as it seems? Isn't this an approach that is easier to market, to institutionalize, to "gadgetize." Running blogs (like this one), running logs, Garmins, heart rate monitors, training plans, Weight Watchers, massage therapists, sports medicine, and even barefoot or minimalist footwear play to the dietetic ethos. We are always trying to maximize the experience of running in some way--and there are a million different ways to do it, most of them with marketing plan attached. There is no right or wrong way to run--to each his own. But the flip side of this is the proliferation of a multitude of ways to run, complicating the endeavor and multiplying the gadgets that go along with it.

The dog-fanny pack: an accoutrement for every lifestyle.

Most of us are minimalists and maximalists. Hobbyjoggers and dedicated racers. Purists and techno-geeks. This is the way the capitalist system wants us: consumers of every possible lifestyle, followers of every kind of ethos. Non-judgmental, fluid, practical, experimental and on a quest to maximize everything at once, including our lines of credit.

Makes you want to draw the line somewhere--and judge those who cross it.
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