Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Runner's View of the Elliptical

I haven't really told the story of my running over the last couple of years, and that's because there's no running story to tell. The story is of an achilles tendon on my right heel that over the course of 6 years and 15,000 or so miles of running and racing [and generally feeling FREE] through achilles tendonitis/tendinosis/bursitis/haglunds deformity (it felt alright after it warmed up, for the most part!), the achilles decided really that enough was enough. I couldn't run without limping, and when I ran, I got these sharp pains that felt like the tendon was tearing, one strand at a time. Which, turns out, it was.

I got an MRI. The Dx was rupture/necrosis/general death of achilles tendon over about 1.5 inches or so. Kind of like the achilles tendon equivalent of a frayed rope.

I had surgery. They cut out the necrotic inch-and-a-half and then took my flexor hallus longus (which apparently is not all that useful,  or at least much less useful than an achilles tendon, though now I can't flex my big toe) and somehow used it to rebuild an achilles tendon on my right side. This was last June.

The first three months, I was in a cast, then a boot and spent a lot of time on the couch. I watched the Sopranos from Episode 1 all the way through. Spoiler: therapy doesn't do the trick with mobsters, or maybe with anyone.

After three months or so, my wound finally healed up enough and everything was strong enough to start limping around in shoes. Now, finally, after another 3 months and a startling amount of rehab, I can hammer out an hour on the elliptical, which I do more or less daily. This brings me to my point: the elliptical.

It turns out that there are a number of people who are elliptical users. Instead of running or cycling or hiking, their exercise of choice is the elliptical. I must have known this subconsciously because otherwise why would there be so many elliptical machines in the gym? But now that I am one of the daily elliptical users, this fact has slowly worked itself into my mind through experience. As you are a runner, you also may not know this fact, or like me, find it difficult to accept.

I ruminate on this fact while I am on the elliptical. Why are these people here with me? There are definitely benefits to the elliptical, and all of the benefits of the elliptical boil down to one thing. The elliptical is predictable. It does the same thing, every day.  You show up, the elliptical is there, you get on it, set it up, plug in the earphones, turn the channel to what you want to see, grasp the handles, place feet on the foot-thingies and it's like you enter a soft tunnel of exercise that is there waiting for you every day. Nothing is too jarring. Nothing really hurts. The heartrate rises, but not too high. The muscles work, but they don't get sore. The joints bend and flex, but they don't pound. It's sustainable, predictable, always there -- really like nothing else in the world.

It's got to be really freaking healthy. No one ever necrotized their achilles on an elliptical, that's for sure. That's because the elliptical was designed for the body, which is very strange and soul-sucking if you think about it (and especially if you think about it on the elliptical.) It's actually the inverse of activity -- to be active is to move your body over and through terrain. We use our body to play in, with, through, and against our environment. The body is a partner with the environment, and really it only comes into its own through a type of oppositional relationship with the environment. This is why, for example, runners love hills.

Meb, undermining my thesis on the ElliptiGO.
The elliptical is very strange because being built for the body, it undoes the whole notion of the body actually doing something. It takes an object, namely flesh and arms and legs and pulsing heart, and straps it to a machine that imitates movement. Yes, the blood still flows. Yes, the muscles contract and expand. Yes, the heart rate can be monitored and seen to rise to 120, 130, 140, etc., but despite all of that, what happens? Nothing.

The elliptical is exercise purified, or health purified. It's exercise for its own sake. Seems to me, though, that unlike something like Beauty or The Grand Canyon or an April Butterfly, exercise doesn't really justify itself. The elliptical is like the bodily form of narcissism -- it's like a weird body-mirror through which the body relates only to itself, and gets caught up in its own gaze.

I mean, certainly it is better than sitting on the couch. I am so happy that I can do it, and every now and then, I can even conjure up a faded image of how it felt to be running when I was fit. There is part of it though that feels too much like the rest of this strange modern life, where humans have finally figured out how to turn the environment into a thing that exists for them, rather than something they live in and through. Running was one way I escaped that.

All of this is to say that the elliptical people will remain strangers to me. I am all for predictability, but give me the predictable routine of the runner -- the routine that gets me out the door, in the wind, to feel habitually the sting of rain, the jarring of asphalt, the wild whirl of the sky, the horizon that draws the eye outward, so that we feel small and simultaneously real and in the world, and the world also feels a bit like it is inside of us.

Maybe this spring, pending the slow return of life to my heel. In the meantime, the rest of you have to carry the torch of the body's utility, perhaps this weekend on a quiet run as snow falls, and you leave traces that fill in behind you while everyone else stays inside, their warmth not quite of their own making.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On Trying to Be a Person: some thoughts after reading Knausgaard

A few quick notes after reading the first two volumes of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. 

Why it works: even though My Struggle is personal and autobiographical, it is not confessional. It's personal narrative without guilt or its close brother: aspiration. The other reason it works is that the writing is full of detail, description, not just of inner life, but also of objects and ideas and landscapes. Knausgaard gives us a full picture of experience. His writing is neither subjective nor objective; or maybe better put, Knausgaard's writing makes that distinction irrelevant. While the content of the book is personal: family life, adolescence, work, play, etc., these things are also universal to human experience. 

More than that, Knausgaard's resurrection of the person is also a crushing criticism of the way in which 21st century life has destroyed the personal as a source of meaning. It's done this in two ways: 1) through the culture of sameness, in which we learn to obsessively narrate our lives through cultural memes and tropes, e.g. Facebook. It's not that our lives are really the same, it's that we are limited in our expression of life, even (especially?) as we express it to ourselves. 2) Through liberalism and socialist thinking, which encourages us all to understand ourselves and what it means to be alive in terms of an affectively impoverished and overly analytical set of concepts like class, race, etc. None of these concepts give us a handle on feeling or family or death or work--the personal universals that make up life in its immediate forms. So we end up lacking much sense of immediacy,* empty and out of touch with ourselves, uselessly trying to fill the void with filtered selfies (hollow subjectivity) an equally hollow politics (hollow objectivity).

*followers of the blog will recognize that the main argument linking all of these posts together is that running is valuable and we are drawn to it because it tunes us in to the immediacies of experience [while running, too, is also subject to all the various mediations that alienate us from immediacy (joy, pain, meaning, love) -- social media, $$, shallow, status driven goals and practices, etc.]*

Reading 1000 pages of Knausgaard has led me to this thought: contemporary life only gives us two primary ways of relating to ourselves: through guilt or through self improvement. Neither of these are actual self relation; they both reject the self. Guilt makes this rejection negatively through resentment and self loathing, self improvement positively, through the actions of self-sacrifice. They both substitute relation with an ideal for relation with the actuality of the self -- hence mediation and the lack of immediacy. 

Knausgaard's prose reminds us that we can be with ourselves--our memories, our present--without the impulse to hate ourselves or improve ourselves. In this way, he is a Nietzschean or a stoic. The authorial voice in My Struggle does not struggle to improve or to analyze or to understand the self, but to be a person, to practice selfhood. 

We sort of follow Knausgaard through his life as he learns and re-learns how to be a person. While you'd think that 6 volumes of words about one's life would be narcissistic, it turns out to be quite the opposite. The text bites the bullet we must all bite; which is that we all have a duty to practice self-hood, to become a person. Knausgaard sort of sets himself out into the world, attempting and failing at this task again and again, and thereby succeeding I think, more than most.

By inviting us into the struggle, Knausgaard does the opposite of what social media does: he figures his personhood intimately and honestly and factually. His self is not written as a cultivated object, but almost painted, as an artist would render an object in a natural and social world. Knausgaard teaches us something that we already know, but too often forget: practicing selfhood and self care is the only genuine way to be with the world and with others. 

Nietzsche's concept for this was amor fati, love of who one is, his highest ethical principle. Narcissus neither knew himself, much less practiced himself; his self relation was empty, a mere image--what these days we call a status, a meme, a selfie. 

Who would have thought that what 21st century life needed was more self-examination, not less!
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