Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The path ahead of you vs. the world around you

In the downtown condo where I used to live, I didn’t have much in the way of a view. At best I might be able to watch the pigeons hanging out on the top of the News-Gazette building, though in fact they always seemed to be watching me, and somewhat disdainfully at that, especially when I tried to do strength training exercises. Yeah, OK, so I nearly dropped the barbell on my teeth trying to bench press, big deal. Let’s see you try to do better, squab.

In the subdivision on the edge of town where I live now, the view out my home office window isn’t that much more awe-inspiring, but at least there’s more than pigeons out there. This morning, for example, when I pulled up the blinds, I saw a Cooper’s hawk on the lawn with what appeared to be very fresh breakfast before him. Something brown and furry, a cotton-tailed rabbit perhaps, lay there looking inert and (I can only guess) tasty. Hawks are not unusual around these parts, but it was still amazing to see one right there in front of me, as they are stunning birds, certainly a lot more impressive than those stupid feathered rats on the newspaper building. I watched the hawk hopping around his meal-to-be before finally moving in, grasping it in his talons, and ripping off the fur to get to the meat.

I’m probably about average when it comes to squeamishness, though that’s a little misleading. I do not particularly like very violent movies, but I’m fascinated by surgery and haven’t flinched when viewing medical procedures. While I certainly don’t enjoy dealing with innards of beasts and fowls, I like to cook, and I like knowing that what I cook is actually food—which sometimes means dealing with innards. My apologies to anyone this offends, but the truth is sometimes you really do have to reach into a slimy cavity and pull out a handful of guts to understand just where your food comes from and what happens to it before you eat it. All of that said, I have to admit there was a point in my little impromptu Animal Planet moment when I had to look away. The hawk was starting with the animal’s head, you see, and at some point the fur had come off and…yeah, you get the idea. Let’s just say zombies would be envious.

Looking away doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean I don’t know what happened, only that I don’t want to be reminded of it. And saying that makes me wonder about all the other things I’ve been looking away from lately.

There’s a lot of bad news going around, it seems. Several friends have been dealing with very sick parents, while others have had to deal with the loss of parents. One couple, married decades, has split, while another, just engaged, called the whole thing off. And these are just people in my own little circle; this doesn’t even cover the conflict and strife and turmoil of the entire rest of the world. There is so much going on out there, and so much that needs to be done about it, and what do I do? Oh, I go for a run. Sometimes, I write about my run. Woah. Somebody alert the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

I like to think running is about focusing on the path ahead. But is it just another instance of looking away?

I often tell people that I’m “not very political,” which is another way of saying I’m a lazy selfish chickenshit. I have views, sometimes strong ones, but I hesitate to get involved or take stands on these views. I try to justify this inaction by saying that I want to keep an open mind, to listen before I speak up, to understand all sides before I decide, and while all of that’s true, it’s only part of the story. The rest of the story is about how tired and depressed the world makes me feel so very much of the time. Because it isn’t fun being tired and depressed, instead of writing about issues, controversy, conflict and strife and turmoil, I write about running. Even when it makes you tired and depressed, it’s still just running.

Right now, at just about the midpoint of my training for a BQ marathon, I’m struggling. I feel like I’m not making progress the way I used to; I’m not hitting my paces during intervals, long runs are slogs, and I’m worried about twinges that could become injuries that could derail the entire BQ enterprise. And yet, it’s still just running. The only person who suffers is me, and I’ll live.

Then again, it is just running. Who am I kidding? For all that runners like to gush about the gloriousness of what we do, most of us, if we’re being honest, can admit that we do it first and foremost for ourselves. Sure, lots of races benefit charities, but you don’t have to take up running to help charitable organizations; you mostly just have to take up a pen and checkbook. We who arrange our lives around training and racing, what exactly do we think we’re doing? What, beyond immediate satisfaction, does any of this accomplish? There are a lot of answers I could give, but maybe that’s just more of me looking away, focusing on something I enjoy so I don’t have to look at anything that gives me pain.

I cannot therefore insist that writing about running serves a purpose as divine as the ones motivating my writing acquaintances who bravely and boldly tackle the big, difficult issues. I admire these people tremendously. I have not been able to emulate them. I guess all I have to say is this: maybe I’ve been looking away, but I haven’t had my eyes closed. As a runner I’ve seen some astounding acts of kindness and generosity. Just last weekend a number of my running friends ran a race not to pursue their own glory but to help pace newer runners. This did not bring about world peace. It did, however, mean that the pacers would end up with a slower finishing time than they would have gotten if they’d been running on their own. They knew this. They didn’t care. They wanted to help someone else.

Oh, it’s a tiny, tiny thing, I know. It’s easy to be kind when you have so little at stake. It’s easy to help when you stand in a position of privilege. It’s easy to look at something you love and see the goodness in it. As hard as running can be, it’s sometimes really easy. I would like to think doing this hard-but-easy thing means maybe I can do other, really hard things, I can face the hard things in life, deal with them, take action and not look away. I don't know if this is true. Truth is not always so easy to see, even when you aren't looking away.





Monday, August 11, 2014

Making it up as you go along

I meet a lot of interesting people from around the globe in my job as an ESL instructor. For instance, there’s the electrical engineer from Taiwan who designs light bulbs. You would not believe how interesting light bulbs can be, and yes, I’m completely serious. The prize right now though has to go to the doctoral student from Japan whose area is music—organ music, to be specific. The organ doesn’t come anywhere near any given list of my favorite instruments; it’s probably somewhere just above harpsichord but just below didgeridoo. Yet his research is fairly mind-blowing, at least what I understand of it. His dissertation deals with musical improvisation, you see; used to be many centuries ago every church organist routinely took off on improv flights, riffing like a Baroque John Coltrane minus the heroin (or so I assume, though who knows how wild the church organ crowd was back then). This, my student argues, is because when people were taught to play the organ, their instruction included a closely entwined mix of music theory and performance. Today, however, theory and performance don’t mix at all; theory is the boring thing music students study to pass the test and then instantly forget, and it has almost nothing to do with actually sitting down at an instrument and making music. His dissertation suggests that this is a serious flaw in the teaching of music.

This seemed nothing short of a revelation to me. It’s true we tend to think of improvisation as something that simply springs from the heart. We think you can’t be trained to do that, that formal training is the very antithesis of improv. Perhaps we even subscribe to views promoted by many a popular movie—that formal education stunts our ability to be creative, fresh, and original, that discipline and structure threaten to crush the life out of what makes art and music so meaningful. Carpe harpsichord!

The equivalent in my own field of studies is perhaps linguistics and creative writing. Linguistics is where you study the history of language, its origins, its structures, its blabbetty blah blah yeah whatever I just want to pass this class so I never have to diagram a goddamn sentence ever again. Creative writing, now that’s what it’s all about. We don’t need no stinkin’ rules in creative writing. We write what we want to, man.

Yeah, that’s crap.

I’m a writer, which means I’m creative, or at least I aim to be. I’m also a teacher, which means, at least to me, that I find value in discipline and structure. Those two things are not at odds, believe it or not. The more you know about what’s possible in language, the more you can then launch into what might have formerly seemed impossible. No one is born knowing any language, ever. It has to be acquired, which means that it isn’t really unique for any of us. Of course, from the basic building blocks of language—words, patterns, structures—comes infinite possibility for expression. Give a person nothing to work with, don’t be surprised at the results. Give that person some building blocks, and just see what can happen. Pretty much anything, I would say.

If you think about it, this false dichotomy of structure and improv transcends many aspects of life. After all, despite the fact that a great many of us like to think of ourselves as unique individuals who blaze their own trails, make their own paths, and do a bunch of other stuff that make for great pithy slogans to be posted on facebook, most of what we do is an imitation of what everyone else does. We live in similar dwellings, eat similar food, wear similar clothes, say the same things over and over and over; we sleep, wake, repeat; we make money and spend money; we meet people and lose people; we fall in and out of love.

Gist: We are a lot less original than we’d like to believe.

And yet we are each, of course, complete originals. Nobody is you, or ever will be. Life is improv from start to finish.

Trippy, huh.

Want a connection to running? It seems like an appropriate place in this post to create one, even though running would appear to be one of the least improvisational activities humans do. It requires a limited range of motion, and there isn’t all that much variation involved, certainly not compared to other types of athletic activity. The ultra I ran on Saturday may be one fairly extreme version of a non-improv-ish run. It is called Howl, and the goal is to run as many 3.3-mile loops on a trail through the woods as you can in 8 hours. It sounds hideous, I know, and yet from this basic structure—run around in preset circles for a preset amount of time—comes as pure improvisation as any jazz musician could create. With greater limitations comes a greater push to get through, get around, get by—and get creative. Knowing I’m going to be doing this same loop over and over (a dozen times, as it turned out), I relied upon my speedwork training as a way of controlling my pace even while I improvised a mindset to carry me through. Every loop is different. Every moment is different, because it’s a moment further along the path, further along in time, closer to the goal. The result was that I didn’t just “carry myself through,” but I actually enjoyed those 8 hours immensely. No, really, it was totally fun, I’m not kidding. I know it sounds nuts. It is. That’s the beauty of it.

Structure is not something to rail against. It’s something to learn from, to practice, to work hard at, and then to use as a way to leap into whatever formless space lies ahead, ready to be filled by words or music or bodies in motion.



Monday, August 4, 2014

Taking speed for granite

Whenever I work out on the elliptical, I watch HGTV, mostly  because it’s one of the few networks whose programming doesn’t annoy the crap out of me. That’s changing, though; lately every time someone raves about how a kitchen has granite countertops (or laments that it doesn’t), I want to throw a brick of granite through the screen. “The only reason these people think granite countertops are so great is because everyone else thinks granite countertops are so great!” I’ll shriek. “Have some originality, people! Get off the granite bandwagon!” The BF has heard me rail against granite countertops many times, and while he thinks it’s endearingly absurd that I’ve made this my battle, he’s sensible enough to figure that at least this battle is easily winnable. If we ever come into many thousands of dollars and decide to renovate the kitchen, granite is right out. Problem solved.

Everyone claims to disdain bandwagoneers of one sort or another, be they those who claim to love a particular baseball team or a particular musical group or a particular kitchen countertop material. Thing is, sometimes worse than the person who jumps on the bandwagon is the person who insists “I liked it before it had a bandwagon.” I have never liked granite, so I’m safe there, but in other areas, yeah, I’m that person. Jane Austen, for example. I read all six of her novels long before they made 97 movies of them starring Kiera Knightly. (Did women really wear that much eye make-up back then?) It irks me to no end that her books are adored for their love stories first and foremost, when in fact there are so many sharp insights into human nature—much of it bad—that are far more compelling. Take, for example, the part of Pride and Prejudice in which Mr. Bingley talks about how he is a very quick writer—so quick, he adds, that often times the things he writes don’t make much sense. Mr. Darcy calls him on this: this is a humble brag, says Darcy (more or less). People who do things quickly, no matter how sloppily, are really proud of that fact. Bingley was actually boasting about his fast writing skills, only adding the part about not making sense so he wouldn’t seem like a jerk. Yeah, that’s right, Jane Austen nailed the humble brag, centuries before that term even existed.

Indeed, we love speed. We live, as many a freshman composition paper’s opening line has informed us, in a fast-paced modern society. Funny thing about that, though: some things that may seem to be borne out of our desire for speed are really just accommodations to laziness. The drive-thru is almost always slower than parking, getting out, and going in, but my god, who the hell would actually get out of their car for a burger and fries? Still other things simply do not work well if done quickly. Writing, for instance, despite what Bingley might believe. While I would love to be a Joyce Carol “No subject too sensationalistic” Oates or a Stephen “Even my one-word titles will scare the crap out of you” King, I am not a quick or prolific writer. It took me years to get my first book finished, and even now when I do book readings I sometimes have the urge to “edit” what I’m reciting because I realize how I should have done it. Sometimes I actually do edit as I go. If anyone asks why my version is different from theirs, I’ll say, “Oh, you must have gotten yourself a reviewer’s copy. Hold on to that; it’s gonna be worth big bucks someday.”

Running, on the other hand, would seem to be almost entirely about speed. According to physics, you don’t actually burn off significantly more calories running a mile fast as running it slow, but there’s no point in running at all if you aren’t going to move faster than you would walking. Believe it or not, when I run, I want to feel my lungs burning, my heart pounding, my legs muscles straining—at least a little, anyway. And yet, it wasn’t too long ago that I disdained this aspect of running. It seemed absurd to think a trail runner is so much more “in tune” with nature than a road runner—after all, just how much nature can you really see at 9 minutes per mile? Even though I’m now a trail-running junkie, I will admit that if you really want to explore the natural world, hiking—going slowly—is the way to do it, not running. Taking your time, you are less likely to trip over the natural world as well.

Obviously, however, sometimes speed is a necessity—in running and in writing. Earlier in the year, I’d sent a publisher the manuscript for my second novel, noting that this was the first in a trilogy. Then came the waiting game. Three months later, I heard back: they were interested, but they wanted to see synopses of the other two novels as well as the first 50 pages of each. Great! I’d just, uh, have to, um, write all that.

I gave myself the weekend to get the writing done. I already had some of the second novel written, but not much, and I had nearly nothing of the third novel. In short, I ended up churning out about 60 pages in two days, which might not seem like a lot except that it is a lot, at least for me, especially considering I hadn’t touched either novel for most of the year. Fast writing does not tend to be good writing for me, yet I have to admit I felt a certain exhilaration I hadn’t experienced in a long time when I sat down and started going and didn’t stop until several hours—and several chapters—later. I finished my work and sent it off this morning. I am sure it is absolute crap, but it exists, anyway, and that’s probably the main thing my potential publisher wants to see. I’m not just someone who claims to be writing a trilogy—is there anyone on earth who doesn’t claim it?—but someone who actually is doing so, albeit in a sporadic, deadline-forced manner.

And of course my whole goal in running for the rest of this year is speed. I’m trying to qualify for Boston, and while I know a few runners who make such a goal look easy, in my case, in case you had any doubt, this is incredibly tough. Over the weekend I did a 10-mile trail run on Saturday at a relaxed pace and enjoyed it very much. On Sunday I did a 13-mile training run with a race-pace goal and hated quite a lot of it. Oy, but that was painful. There would be no Bingley-like bragging about that one, no sense of exhilaration and accomplishment like there was for my writing activities; there was only working and straining and still coming up just a bit short of the goal. The last mile was ghastly, and that mile represented less than the halfway point for the big show. In short, I’m afraid, very afraid, because as tough as that was, it’s only going to get tougher.

So yeah, sometimes speed is cool and sometimes it sucks. Guess that’s about what it comes down to. Also, if the granite bandwagon comes to town, don’t get on it. Or maybe send it my way while I’m struggling through a long run; I might just be tired enough to get on.