Teasing similarities out of Swann and Suzanne: the insomniac book reviewer

Swann: A Mystery by Carol Shields and Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

The two books I’ve just finished reading, Carol Shields’ 1987 novel Swann: A Mystery and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne (published in 2015 in French as La femme qui fuit), could scarcely be more different.

Suzanne

Barbeau-Lavalette’s book was a sensation and a bestseller in Quebec. However, it only caught English Canada’s attention when the translation by Rhonda Mullins became a finalist in the 2019 Canada Reads contest. Suzanne is Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s novelistic telling of her grandmother’s life. Suzanne Meloche was an artist and activist during the early stages of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Her husband (and the father of her two children), Marcel Barbeau, was also an artist. The couple was part of a rebellious artists’ group called Les Automatistes.

The author scarcely knew the grandmother who had abandoned her mother when she was a small child, a grandmother who continued to shun closeness with both daughter and granddaughter right to the end of her life. Barbeau-Lavalette needed to write this story as a novel because exploring Suzanne’s inner life and her decisions could only be done through a sympathetic imaginative process.

Suzanne has been praised for its beautiful writing. It is easy to read and has an entrancing quality. The text is presented in short fragments mixed with Suzanne’s poetry. The author has said that she used this style to mimic the way Suzanne was impossible to pin down. In life she was always fleeing; she never stayed in one place very long.

In my opinion, Suzanne deserved to be the first book voted off in the 2019 Canada Reads competition; it was not “the one book to move you” that would be appreciated and understood by all Canadians. It is very much a niche work of art. Ironically, though, its greater significance became more obvious to me after reading Swann.

Carol Shields (1935–2003) was one of Canada’s best-loved novelists and short story writers, and her books won everything from the Pulitzer Prize (she was American-born) and the Governor General’s Award. Though Swann is one of her lesser-known novels, I enjoyed reading every page of it. The book displays Shields’ ability to create rich in-depth characters, and her astute (and often heartwarming) understanding of marriage and other relationships.

Swann

In many of her books, Shields engages readers by experimenting boldly with structure, and Swann is a good example of this. The story is told from the point of view of four main characters, in four separate sections, and there is a final fifth section written as a film script. In this novel Shields develops a mystery story about an uneducated woman named Mary Swann who lives on a poor farm in Ontario. Somehow, this deprived woman has managed to write many extraordinary poems, which she delivers to a Kingston publisher, Fredric Cerutti. This sophisticated European man is astonished and delighted by the quality of Swann’s poetry. However, the very day after receiving the poems, he discovers that the reclusive poet was brutally murdered by her husband only hours after he saw her.

One night soon after I started reading Swann, I had one of my terrible nights of insomnia.

The insomniac wants nothing more than sleep, oblivion, the escape from the prison of their own mind. Yet as I lay there I remembered something I had just read in Swann. Sarah Maloney, a scholar studying Mary Swann’s poetry, muses (after a reference to meditation), “I’ve never been able to see the point of emptying one’s mind of thought. Our thoughts are all we have. I love my thoughts, even when they take me up and down sour-smelling byways where I’d rather not venture” (p. 20).*

“Our thoughts are all we have . . .” I tried to be grateful for my relentless insomniac thoughts. And suddenly my mind started down a fruitful path. I was thinking about Suzanne Meloche and Mary Swann, two characters from such different books, and I suddenly realized what these characters shared. Skip the next section if you want to know the answer right away.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a life-long problem of mine. It’s a problem rooted in the fear of insomnia itself that started during my second year of university. I had a three-day period of difficult chemistry and biology exams and could not sleep during the entire time.

Insomnia is a problem unlike most others: it can’t be cured by willpower or hard work; it can even ferociously resist positive thinking when the dark wormy thoughts of the night try to induce panic.

It demands surrender and acceptance. It becomes an exercise in tricking the mind into thinking it doesn’t care whether it sleeps or not, no matter how exhausted both mind and body have become.

I’ve become expert at resisting that panic and remaining physically calm even though I feel the anti-sleep anxiety buzzing in my brain, forcing me to endure the hateful combination of extreme exhaustion coupled with extreme mental arousal . . . for hour after crawling hour.

I do try to counter the “dark wormy thoughts” with positive thoughts as best as I can. One technique is to remind myself of all the things in my life I am grateful for, huge things like my health, my continued enjoyment of running and cycling, and the people I am close to.

I often think about the comfort of my bed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have insomnia in a setting where physical interference actively prevented sleep.

I imagine being Mary Swann or Suzanne Meloche

In my wakefulness, I started thinking about what it would be like to have insomnia in the environments that the main characters in Suzanne and Swann endure. Both live in run-down buildings without indoor plumbing. Nights in Quebec and Ontario would be bitterly cold in winter and often sweltering in summer.

The novels portray women who have good reasons to be insomniacs. They are living in dire poverty, unable to even provide properly for their children. Mary Swann is trapped in a marriage with a violent, abusive, ignorant man.

I was suddenly struck by the ways these women are similar even though Suzanne is bright, articulate, and well-educated, and Mary is uneducated and virtually unknown even to her closest neighbours. The main thing is that both are artists living in times and circumstances that gave women few choices. In fact, it’s almost miraculous (especially in Mary’s case) that they can produce art at all.

Both “pay the price” for being artists. Both are trapped by poverty, biology (children being the almost inevitable result of marriage), and the subordinate role of women. Mary can’t escape and dies a violent death at age fifty.

Suzanne, in contrast, makes the bold and socially unacceptable choice to abandon her children and husband and live as an artist. But the consequences (for both Suzanne herself and for her children) are severe: Suzanne ends up isolated, lonely, and mentally ill; her son never recovers from the abuse he endured at the hands of his adoptive family and becomes a permanent resident at a mental institution; her daughter manages to become a successful filmmaker (Manon Barbeau) and has a daughter herself (Anaïs), but she never loses her feelings of being rejected.

All in all, Suzanne is a very sad story and it seems to me that Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette wrote it in an attempt to solve the mystery of her grandmother’s actions; how could Suzanne Meloche continue to reject her daughter and granddaughter’s presence in her life after the initial abandonment? At the heart of the mystery is the artistic impulse, and Barbeau-Lavalette tries to explain and justify the actions caused by complete devotion to the artistic calling. In this she is at least somewhat successful.

Perhaps Barbeau-Lavalette could have broadened her readers’ understanding by writing more about the context of Suzanne Meloche’s story. The Catholic Church was all-powerful in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. Almost all French-Canadian women were trapped by their religion’s prohibition of birth control; biology was destiny, and women often had twenty or more children, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and lack of higher education.

* Shields, Carol. Swann: A Mystery. Toronto: Stoddart. 1987.

 

 

 

 

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A few notes of jazz

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The Rainbow Tunnel (Don Mills)

Two days ago I was in transit from Toronto back to Vancouver. I had been staying with my father for a few days after he had heart valve replacement surgery (TAVI).

It was a day to make me sorry I was leaving, a perfect Indian summer day of rare warmth for Toronto in mid-September.

I took full advantage of it. By 8:00 a.m., while it was still cool, I was on the decrepit gravel track at the high school across the street from my dad’s building. At this time of year, the track is fairly smooth and it’s softer on my arthritic knee than the paved residential streets nearby. I glanced at my Garmin frequently as I ran to “keep on track” figuratively and make sure I made a good effort for my 5K! I made one quick “turnaround” after six laps to change directions, gradually increasing the pace and galloping to a satisfying finish after 12.5 laps. Then I eased into a slow 1K warmdown on the leafy surrounding paths and streets.

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A tributary of the Don River near my dad’s apartment

For once, my schedule matched up with Dad’s so we ate breakfast together. I had shed my sweaty running clothes and was now dressed for cycling. By 10:00 a.m. I was ready for my second workout. It was already much warmer.

Since I was already tired from running, my plan was simply to ride for enjoyment. I avoided the main streets. After a few minutes I was riding through one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods on a famous street called “The Bridle Path.” The road was empty as I sped past the huge mansions with their estate-like grounds. Soon I was at the “secret” entrance to the top field at Sunnybrook Park. Here I stopped briefly to shed the t-shirt I had put on over a light singlet; the sun felt wonderful on my bare shoulders.

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A different season at the Sunnybrook field . . . After running in the rain with Steve Pimentel late last October.

Since I hadn’t had a chance to run at Sunnybrook on this trip, I decided to follow the woodchip trail around the perimeter of the field where I usually run.

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The Sunnybrook woodchip trail, late October.

That was where I ran my second cross-country race ever, in the fall of 1975! The park has not changed very much.

I took the paved road downhill past the stables, far exceeding the speed limit on the park road. After that my ride was an easy cruise through Wilket Creek, up to the entrance of Edwards Gardens, and on to the straight bike path that runs parallel to Leslie Street. The day was so perfect I felt as though I were in a dream . . . an idyll of benevolent sunshine and deep blue skies. I was enclosed in a magic tunnel with trees on either sides, most still green-leafed but some already showing the colourful hues of fall. Riding on the flat bike path was effortless as I glided smoothly past walkers, joggers, runners, and women with strollers.

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Edwards Gardens: “Keep it Beautiful”

***

It was even hotter that afternoon as I struggled through Yorkdale subway station with all my luggage, trying to find the GO terminal where I would catch a bus to the airport. My wheeled suitcase was easier to handle as long as I could roll it, and I was also carrying a computer case, a purse, and a shopping bag filled with my carry-on items.

I had already struggled down several flights of stairs, lifting my heavy suitcase with difficulty, when I came to set of stairs going up. Now I could definitely feel the effect of my hard 5K track run earlier that day. Not only were my leg muscles tired, but my knee was suffering under the weight of the suitcase. I had to take the steps slowly, one at a time, stepping up with all the weight on my “good” left leg. Crowds of people, mostly students, surged past me in this busy area.

A young girl who was listening to her phone wordlessly grabbed the handle of my suitcase as I struggled. I held on too as together we lugged the suitcase to the top of the stairs. I thanked her effusively—she said nothing, apparently engaged in her phone conversation, and she strode on as I pulled out the handle of the suitcase and continued on my way.

I was now in the transparent tunnel above the ground that linked the subway station with the mall. Over the sounds of the flowing crowd I suddenly heard the haunting, sweet notes of lazy jazz! An older black man was playing a saxophone, his case open on the ground before him. His music was perfect for the summer day.

I stopped, put down all my bags, took out my change purse, and tossed some heavy coins into the case. The music continued; then as I reassembled all my belongings, the musician stopped playing, smiled at me, and said something unintelligible.

I moved slowly on, thinking about the kindness of strangers and an unbeatable summer day.

The next day it was foggy and cool in Vancouver and I was happy to be home, immersed in the moist smells of fall.

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Sixty! Running, struggling, & striving

Completing another decade of my life is sobering!

It seems natural to look back on the past ten years and take a reckoning.

At fifty I went through a dramatic midlife crisis where too many changes happened at once (but perhaps that is always the way). I tore my ACL, effectively putting an end to my competitive running career. My marriage was over, I was in a new relationship, and my son left Canada to go to university in Japan. I went back to school, completing a two-year professional writing course at Douglas College, and embarked upon a career as a freelance editor.

A decade later I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I’m still running!—despite being told by my surgeon eight years ago that I could no longer run. I’ve done some fascinating editing projects during these years. And Keith continues to be my Rock.

Yet when I recall the first six months of 2019 and turning 60, the predominant words that come to mind are not positive ones. Over and over, I’ve been confronted with two feelings: tiredness and humility. How dare I write this in an age of relentless positivity, when we are assured that “sixty is the new fifty,” and “age is only a number”?

Yes, I hesitated about expressing some of the negative realities of aging. There is the physical deterioration. Also, there is the fear that it’s too late to change, to learn new things, and to accomplish lifelong goals. Sometimes this fear becomes so overwhelming it turns into panic!

It doesn’t help that my old arch-enemy, insomnia, too often strips me of my energy, optimism, and productive time.

How can I accept aging gracefully?

Although I think it’s crucial to acknowledge the difficulties of aging, that doesn’t mean my message here is one of despair. I believe that aging gracefully means having a total harmony between body, mind, and spirit. It is inevitable that everything will get worse physically, but this can be accepted with the cooperation of the mind and spirit. There needs to be a balance between accepting limitations and being willing to fight for what is possible!

I acknowledge the ways I haven’t yet found the elusive “total harmony” I seek, what I’ve called bodily and spiritual integrity in other posts. I’m not satisfied with what I’ve achieved so far as a writer and editor. In fact, for several months, I’ve been “blocked” in a difficult book project. This is probably contributing heavily to my mental anxiety and confusion.

Yet I agree with the cliché that every day is a new beginning. At any age, one can welcome learning, new experiences, and life’s unpredictability. For me, being open to the new, plus being thankful every day for what I already have, are the keys to filling myself with joy and energy.

It’s crucial to keep setting goals. This year I have found two new ways to challenge myself: I’ve found a new training partner (Laurie), and I’ve joined my local Toastmasters club.

Laurie and my fellow Toastmasters have inspired me and given me new energy and hope. At the same time, I’ve become more humble as I recognize the tremendous talent in others. I am comparing myself to people who set the bar very high—but that is the way to improve!

My running now

It’s a good thing Laurie reached out to me two months ago after returning from a three-year sailing trip. I had become somewhat discouraged about my running. In the past year or two, although I’m training as hard as I ever have since my second knee surgery in 2011, I’ve slowed down significantly.

Every year I race the Longest Day 5K at UBC. In 2018 I ran as hard as I possibly could, yet still ran an unexpectedly slow time of 21:02. This was only three years after running 19:19 in the same race! I wanted to do the race again this year, but with a change of attitude. For the first time ever, I gave myself permission to participate in a race without pushing myself all-out. I simply wasn’t motivated to endure that much pain for a mediocre result. Instead, I was racing to give myself a moderate challenge. More importantly, I was racing simply because I could. I wanted to feel the camaraderie and excitement of racing. It brought back the memories of all those intense emotions I experienced over decades of racing.

It turned out that I ran the first 3K feeling relatively relaxed, as planned. After that the old competitive spirit kicked in and I pushed hard in the last 2K to run 21:48.

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Finishing the 2019 Longest Day 5K. Photo by Keith Dunn.

This year, much more than last year, I’ve grown into an acceptance of where I am at physically. I run mainly for enjoyment now. I’ve realized that the key to acceptance is being grateful for what my body allows me to do—whatever the pace.

I’m grateful because in the past year, the health implications of aging have been stark. Two friends of mine have been treated for cancer. Both of them are younger than me. Other friends and acquaintances are suffering from various ailments and injuries, some of them life-threatening. Keith is battling with some serious health issues that worry me a lot.

I had a health scare of my own recently. It turned out to be nothing serious, but it showed me that all other troubles pale in the face of a health crisis.

Running with Laurie

I’ve been running with Laurie once a week for about two months now. Sometimes we’re joined by Laurie’s friend Lisa, another elite masters runner.

Laurie is a lifelong runner. Although she likes short sprints the best, she’s trained and competed at every distance right up to the half marathon. She has also coached all these distances as a certified Level 3 coach in both sprints & hurdles and distance running.

Despite working full time as a physiotherapist, Laurie finds time to run every day. She loves training with the Greyhounds club, which is well known for its many dedicated and talented masters sprinters.

Running with Laurie, I’ve realized how wonderful it is to train with someone who has a strong competitive drive. Laurie shares her energy and high spirits with me. It reminds me of past years when my Phoenix Running Club teammates used to give me that.

Because of Laurie’s work, we run together at 5:30 p.m. I always feel sluggish at that time; I can barely warm up. Yet once Laurie and I are sprinting together I’m amazed at what I can do! Our last workout was short but intense. After a good warmup, we did 6 all-out sprints, covering half of the Mundy Lake loop each time. We walked the other half slowly to recover. All I had to do was follow Laurie. It was exhilarating! She was so fast I couldn’t pass her until the end of the last one. We achieved our goal of going sub-1:00 on all of them—only possible because we were pushing each other.

Toastmasters

I joined Toastmasters not because my work requires me to be an excellent public speaker, but rather to meet new people of diverse ages and occupations.

From the very first meeting I attended as a guest, I was bowled over by the welcoming nature of the Rocky Point Toastmasters club and the talents of their speakers. I didn’t expect the meeting to be so entertaining. This club includes many people who are clever, sophisticated humorists. Lacking this talent as a stand-up comedian myself, I particularly appreciate it in others.

The Toastmasters environment is supportive and generous. Evaluating fellow members’ speeches is done with sensitivity, with the goal of helping people improve their speaking and presentation skills.

As I’ve continued to attend the meetings regularly over the past five months, I’ve felt a paradoxical range of emotions. Foremost is humility. I am in awe of others’ outstanding speeches, their ability to engage with ease in one-on-one conversations, and their willingness to help others.

I’ve realized how far I need to go to become a better speaker. My manner in front of the group doesn’t feel natural. I struggle to keep within the time limits. I need to eliminate filler words (caused by nervousness) and hand-wringing. Also, although I’ve become better at networking and interacting with people in general, I still have lots of room for improvement in my social skills.

Listening to members’ speeches, or having good one-to-one conversations, I experience the intellectual stimulation and emotional connection that I seek. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the psychology of people. I’m always observing and analyzing my fellow Toastmasters; how they behave and speak in front of the group, with each other, and with me personally.

Yet the paradox is that I sometimes come away from meetings feeling inadequate and discouraged. Although I am one of the “mature” members I feel I am far behind others my age (or younger) in the club. How much can I catch up, how much can I improve? Is it too late?

Sometimes, too, I ask myself whether Toastmasters is just another distraction from my main goal, which is advancing my editing career. My new role as my club’s secretary means I am devoting a lot of time to Toastmasters (using editing skills, of course!).

I must remind myself that doing something new and challenging always provokes moments of doubt. Overall, I know being part of Rocky Point Toastmasters is a good decision. My involvement in running is minimal now, and in Toastmasters I have found my new supportive “tribe” of positive people who are focused on achievement, sharing, and having fun.

spokane

This was the last track race I ran, in 2008 (before tearing my ACL). It was the 1500m at the USATF Masters Championships in Spokane. Photo by Warren McCulloch.

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The euphoria of evening races: from fleet to faltering

The euphoria of evening races: from the fleet to the faltering

Pacific Distance Carnival: June 13, 2019

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The drummers (led by Nori Akagi) at the Pacific Distance Carnival added drama and energy to the races. Their drumming was a feat of endurance too! Photo by Keith Dunn.

Last Thursday I celebrated my birthday by going to watch some of the races held at the newly-minted Pacific Distance Carnival at Swanguard Stadium.

Keith and I didn’t want to rush our indulgent dinner, so we missed the first races on the program, the 1500s. We arrived while the second of four heats of the 5,000m race was in progress.

The feature event of this inaugural meet was the Canadian Championship 10,000m races for men and women, and we knew that stellar fields were in the lineup. However, the “Chase the Pace” 5,000m races were a tremendous idea! (Shout-out to sponsors Saucony, Mile2Marathon Vancouver, and BC Athletics.) These races allowed everyone from casual to sub-elite runners to compete against other athletes of any age and either gender. Anyone hoping to run between 15 minutes and 26 minutes for 5K could enter, and were grouped in heats based on their predicted times.

I was amazed by how smoothly this idea worked, considering there were about 30 runners on the track in each heat. Everyone seemed to find fellow competitors to work with.

I was especially impressed by many of the runners in the third and fourth (fastest) heats. Both of these heats were rabbited by top Canadian distance runner Rob Watson to suit the pace requirements of the best runners in these fields. Some of the notable finishers were Craig McMillan (15:14.91), Briana Hungerford (17:02.52), and Olympian Carey Nelson, now 56 (17:42.74). There were many good female athletes in these races and I marvelled at their smooth, economical running styles, remembering when I too could run like that.

I’m sure many PBs (personal bests) were set in these races. The conditions for distance running were perfect. It was a golden evening that became increasingly cool as the sun got closer to the horizon. Swanguard Stadium is a magical setting within Central Park in Burnaby, with high evergreens and mountains in the background to the north.

It was about 9:15 when the men’s championship 10,000m got underway. The sun had set and I was too cold to stay at the rail any longer. I huddled in a blanket up in the stands, watching the spectacle of the 10,000m race unfold.

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The pack is still together near the start of the men’s Canadian Championship 10,000m. Photo by Keith Dunn.

It is a long journey, those 25 laps, and I remembered it well. To an uneducated spectator, It is a long journey, those 25 laps, and I remembered it well. To an uneducated spectator, it might look boring as the pack circles the track one time after another, gradually spreading out and then breaking into separate packs and lonely individuals. But the initiated know that this event is gruelling, both physically and psychologically. The competitors must be ready for the increasing punishment the deceptively easy-looking pace puts on them, and they must be ready for the tactics taken by any competitor who decides to break the steady tempo.

Four competitors separated themselves from the rest fairly early in this race. But the decisive move came from Ben Flanagan with five and a half laps still remaining in the race. Flanagan, who had been running relaxed behind the leaders up to that point, moved into the lead and increased the pace so dramatically that his four-man pack instantly broke up. Only Lucas Bruchet remained close—but there was a significant gap between him and Flanagan. As the laps wound down towards the finish, Bruchet kept trying to maintain contact, but Flanagan didn’t flag—he only seemed to be increasing his pace lap by lap, reaching victory in 28:37.49 to Bruchet’s 28:49.29. Rory Linkletter was third in 28:55.38.

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Ben Flanagan’s move to the front was decisive and confident. Photo by Keith Dunn.

Keith and I didn’t stay for the women’s 10,000m championship, much as I would have like to have seen it. * It was too late and I had a race of my own the following day: the Longest Day 5K race put on by the Vancouver Thunderbirds club at UBC.

* Full results of the Pacific Distance Carnival are here.

Longest Day 5K

Last year’s (2018) Longest Day 5K was deeply disappointing for me. Despite my knee’s limiting my running to twice a week, I had trained as hard as I could for weeks before the race, doing challenging speedwork with faster runners than myself. I was secretly hoping to break 20 minutes; I was confident that I would at least be under 20:30.

During the race I ran my guts out from start to finish—yet I ran 21:01. I had no excuses or explanations for running so slowly. Only three years before, at age 56, my time in the same race had been 19:19. Last year, I noticed my legs were very weak on the short steeper uphill sections in the second and third kilometres. My body had betrayed me! After that, I felt no desire to race again; it was too demoralizing to achieve such a slow time after giving it all I had in both training and the race itself.

This year I was only running because the race was a day after my 60th birthday. I wanted to mark this milestone, because I am still a runner! But I was influenced by my result from last year, and my expectations were different. This year, for the first time ever, I entered a race but gave myself permission not to run all-out. I was running because I could; I was running to express my gratitude; I wanted to enjoy this now-rare experience of participating in a race.

Running your best 5K requires a hard effort right from the start. A fast 5K is a highly anaerobic and painful event. You need to pace it carefully to avoid slowing down dramatically in the last kilometre, but there is little time for relaxation. Lactic acid eventually poisons your leg muscles and spreads throughout your entire body; the trick is to find the pace that allows this to happen gradually, so that you can make it to the finish. If you’ve got a fantastic kick left at the end of a 5K, you probably haven’t run a fast enough overall pace to achieve your best possible time.

In this year’s edition of the race, I ran at a cautious, relatively enjoyable pace for the first 3K. I did what I had given myself permission to do. For the first time ever, I saw a kid who looked about five years old in front of me! I lost a lot of time on the long downhill in the first kilometre.

By 3K I started using the runners around me (including several women, young girls, and an older man coaching his younger protégé) to help myself run faster. The old competitive spirit kicked in and I ended up running the final kilometre as fast as I could to finish in 21:48. Even though this was much slower than last year, because of my expectations I was happy with it. I had told everyone I was aiming for 22:00. It had been my easiest 5K ever. And now I would reap the benefits; my slower pace (especially on that first downhill) meant I didn’t experience any of the muscle pain I usually felt after a race on pavement. Even my knee felt OK—I was sure I wouldn’t need to take a week or two off running as I normally do after racing.

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Finishing the 2019 Longest Day 5K. Photo by Keith Dunn.

After chatting briefly with some other competitors near the finish line I proceeded to the food tent. No lineup! Another benefit of running slowly was the absence of post-race nausea.

With my heaping plate of food I headed to the stands of Thunderbird Stadium, where I had agreed to meet Keith after he was done taking photos near the finish.

The stadium was completely empty except for one other competitor, who had also chosen to sit here with his food. This is always my favourite place and moment of the Longest Day 5K: this time in the quiet stadium, away from the crowds and the blaring loudspeakers and upbeat music. Yes, maybe I am unsociable, but I love this peaceful time of being on my own, reflecting on the race and savouring my post-race euphoria.

I was warm enough, sitting in the sunlit stands, but I could feel the air cooling against my still-sweat-drenched clothing. The empty artificial turf field at the bottom of the stands beckoned me. It would be better to do my warmdown jog before eating. I put my plate in a shady, out-of-the-way place in the stands and ran down to the field.

Bare feet

What a joy it is to run slowly after a race! I remember other years when I was either too nauseated or too sore to even complete a lap or two of the field after racing. One year the race caused a hip injury so severe I had to miss an entire summer of running! So for me, these warmdown laps were a prayer, every footfall another word in the mantra of gratefulness.

As I jogged I saw a fellow competitor running easily towards me in bare feet. We smiled at each other. When I got to the start of my lap, I took my shoes and socks off and started jogging again. What bliss! Foot bliss! The turf was cool and gently prickly. My feet were engulfed in sensation. I noticed how perfectly they worked as I ran. I noticed all their little springs and muscles.

This was another cause for gratefulness and wonder! For about ten of my best running years, my feet almost always gave me pain. I had terrible bursitis in both heels; one eventually required surgery. I couldn’t run without using prescription anti-inflammatories to keep the pain under control. I also suffered from repeated bouts of Achilles tendonitis. Sometimes it was so bad that I couldn’t wear spike shoes at even the most important track races.

And now here I was, my tiny feet pain-free at age 60! And running barefoot made me feel like a kid again, though I knew it was but a brief illusion.

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With Keith and my Phoenix teammates after the race.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Losing it

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Photo of a coyote in Point Reyes National Seashore Park (near San Francisco) by James Dennis. Used by permission.

Last week was one of those weeks when all of my technology seemed to be letting me down.

  • My computer.
  • My Garmin watch.
  • My camera.
  • My vacuum cleaner.
  • My mind? . . .

I didn’t actually lose these things. All of us were just suffering from various degrees of breakdown.

It was a sunny afternoon when I left my computer with the Best Buy Geek Squad. As I walked back to my car with my empty computer briefcase I felt a sense of doom. Would I ever see my computer again?

For a freelance writer and editor, a personal computer is an essential appendage. It’s painful when it’s amputated. Now I was struggling with a borrowed computer, a Mac. We were trying to get acquainted with each other, with the help of my passwords file, but there were multiple complications.

Our already rocky relationship declined precipitously when Mac’s mouse batteries failed. At least they were rechargeable batteries. Yet after several hours of recharging, the batteries still didn’t work.

Oh well, I thought. No work today. At least I had an editors’ meeting downtown in the evening.

***

The Skytrain wasn’t crowded and I became engrossed in an old-fashioned print book on the first stage of my journey. I only realized the train had stopped at the Broadway/Commercial transfer station in the nick of time, and rushed off to transfer to the other line.

I had just nabbed a seat on the next train when I realized another vital appendage had gone missing—my phone! I was instantly horror-stricken. My phone was supposed to be in my right-hand coat pocket—where I “always” put it. I searched my bag and my purse but knew it was futile—for now I remembered putting my phone on the empty seat beside me on the first train. Even worse, my phone was unlocked!

Flooded with adrenaline, I got off the train at the next stop and immediately went to a Skytrain security guy. I blurted out my story, knowing he must have heard it many times before. He said he hadn’t received any calls about a phone being found. He told me about the Skytrain Lost and Found at Stadium Station, where my phone “might” turn up in a day or two if someone was kind enough to turn it in.

However, he would now send out a call.

[Drumroll] At that very moment, a Skytrain guy at Brentwood Station had just been handed a phone! It might be mine! . . . or not.

***

When I got off the train at Brentwood, I immediately saw two security guys staring at me in a meaningful way. I walked quickly towards them, and told them I had lost my phone. “Tell me about your phone,” said one of them, a huge, burly guy. I blurted out the brand, and my favourite contacts. In a matter of seconds I was reunited with my phone! Impulsively (and uncharacteristically), I hugged this bear-like security guy, my instant saviour.

It was too late for me to make my meeting downtown so I headed back home. Since my computer mouse still wasn’t working, I went to the library with a flashdrive and worked until closing time.

It was dark as I walked home the back way by the railway tracks, the nearby streetlights casting the faintest light amongst the spooky shadows. Suddenly, I saw a big coyote on the tracks, very close to me. We both froze and stared at each other. Assessing. No threat. The coyote gracefully resumed its easy lope along the tracks.

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Another coyote photo by James Dennis. Taken in Point Reyes National Seashore Park.

A wave of emotion welled up in me. I felt a quiet and perfect satisfaction with that moment.

***

So much hinges on a tiny act, done or not done. Leaving my phone on the train could have ended badly. Instead, I got some good work done and saw a coyote.

In the parallel universe that I had planned, I would have been at an editors’ meeting learning about editing speculative fiction. Undoubtedly I missed some fascinating information and conversation—but that universe is forever gone for me.

How do we end up at a particular place out of all possible Universes? Is it luck? Is it Grace? All I knew was that after a day of breakdown and frustration, I felt a vast sense of peace.

 

 

 

 

 

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Riding, writing, and the ‘rithmetic of making big bucks: why I’ll never get rich

 

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Belcarra

I’ve been thinking about financial matters more than usual in the past few months, ever since my landlords boosted my rent exorbitantly. I love my Port Moody apartment—both the view and the lifestyle it gives me—and I made the choice to stay here.

This choice, as well as some other influences, has made me question my values. Two major influences in my life recently have been reading Stephen Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People (in January) and joining my local Toastmasters club (in February).

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

After reading 7 Habits, I was on fire! I analyzed my core values. I understood the importance of creating a personal mission statement that would express my purpose in life. I faced up to the necessity of being proactive; of taking the steps required to achieve goals in line with my mission statement. I fully agreed with the idea that time must be managed carefully, with planning and discipline, in order to make “first things come first.”

I adhered to my goals and schedule for about two weeks, and then it all fell apart.

Why?

Like most people, I could give all kinds of reasons. One is that the most crucial steps of achieving goals are usually the hardest: we procrastinate because of fear, uncertainty, or even other worthy goals that make demands on our time.

Then there is simply the lack of discipline. The pleasure principle. Wanting to have fun.

I haven’t given up on Covey’s ideas, though. His book has permanently changed my awareness of my core values and my understanding of what it takes to be successful and happy—however I define those words for myself. I will not lie to myself about why I haven’t achieved my goals yet.

Toastmasters

A friend invited me to attend a Toastmasters meeting in February. I was quite nervous, but it wasn’t too bad—I was immediately struck by how welcoming this group was. Someone asked me if I wanted to take part in the “Table Topics” section of the meeting. During Table Topics, a  few people are called up to the front (one at a time) by the Table Topics Master. Each person must respond to a surprise question with a short impromptu speech.

I agreed to take part, and in my wildly disorganized speech I succeeded in going over the time limit of two minutes. Once I was 15 seconds over, I was “clapped off.” Apparently this was the first time a guest had ever been clapped off—a more common problem for guests is a complete freeze-up as they face the audience.

I did receive several positive comments about my speech, though, and I was hooked on Toastmasters! I soon joined the club.

Public speaking is not critical in my professional life as an editor, but I joined Toastmasters because I was impressed by the amazing talents and generosity of this club. The group includes many seasoned speakers who have competed in Toastmasters speech contests at a high level. Also, there are several people who are great at humorous talks.

I have much to learn from this group. I will not only become better at public speaking, but also better at communication in general. It’s a real privilege to get to know everyone in this group. They are already high achievers, but they are all striving to improve, and to help others improve. As a freelancer who spends much of my time working alone at home, I have come to look forward to Monday night meetings as times of entertainment, inspiration, and support.

Selling Speeches

Great speakers can inspire, educate, and entertain, but I was reminded last week that they can also use their persuasive powers for commercial purposes. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but I listened to a webinar last week that disturbed me. It was a free webinar directed at small business owners by a woman named Karen McGregor. She tells a typical rags-to-riches story about how speaking engagements are the best way to sell a product or service. The service she is selling is her “method” for this, her training programs.

I listened to the whole 75-minute webinar even though it rang alarm bells in my head from the start. Karen did share many tips and tricks for constructing a speech that would encourage listeners to buy something. However, I wasn’t at all impressed with her as a speaker or as a person. Maybe it was because the only passion she was sharing was her desire to get rich. She made frequent casual, smug references to how well she had succeeded in this.

Sure enough, the final 15 minutes of the webinar consisted of Karen’s attempt to get me to register for a $1,997 live training program; there were numerous “freebies” added for webinar participants, and even more bonuses if we registered and paid within the next 30 minutes!

Karen’s webinar left me troubled for a while. Should I be trying to build more financial stability for myself? Am I too lazy or too cowardly to follow her method? For sure, I can’t be easily parted from $1,997!

There are principles involved here. The way a person chooses to “commercialize” their talents and experience is not simply a practical financial decision; it also must be in line with one’s ethics and personal goals.

For example, I’ve been writing in this blog for over seven years, but I never intended to make money from it. In fact, my blog breaks all the rules about how to have a successful, money-generating blog. I don’t care, because my reasons for writing here aren’t compatible with the kind of writing I would do if my primary goal was to make money.

Why do I write?

There are clues in my blog’s tagline: Reading, Running, and Relationships.

That tagline captures some of the topics that most stimulate me, and I want to write about them in a deep, exploratory way, not in short, quickly-scanned articles that can be easily digested by a mass audience. Why do I write?

  • to express and share my love of running and working out.
  • to explore the psychology of running.
  • to explain what I find wonderful in books or in Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Company program on CBC Radio.
  • to analyze relationships with people who are or have been close to me.

My writing often serves a therapeutic purpose. It helps me clarify my thoughts and understand myself. Some of my articles (for example, the ones about my mother and about George, my coach) are written out of love, gratitude, and the recognition of how strongly one person can influence another’s life. Of course, I am selective in what I write—I need to protect my own and others’ privacy.

Sometimes the comments I get in response to a blog article make all the work seem worthwhile. People compliment me on my writing, or show me that they’ve been able to connect with my words.

In any case, writers are compelled to write, and knowing that I have a small (but faithful) audience motivates me to write better. With my blog, I’ve created a permanent record (at least as permanent as computer files and The Cloud can be) of things I consider worth writing about: people, runs, books, or simply the musings of a moment.

***

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A small boy and dog at peaceful Belcarra.

The morning after listening to that disturbing webinar, I rode to Belcarra. It’s only about 11K from my apartment, but it’s a ride I hadn’t tackled for a while because it includes several giant hills. However, the scenery is nice and much of the ride is on nearly-deserted roads.

This time I took a small detour so I could reach a good viewpoint. I left my bike at the base of a hill where there was a clearing for hydro lines, and climbed to the top. Wow, I was high!

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Near the Burrard Thermal Plant.

My burning quads got a break, and after that I had a few kilometres of descent. As I flew along that quiet road cutting through the forest, I knew that this lifestyle I have, the places I love and move through every day, are more valuable to me than being rich.

I arrived at Belcarra just as the sun broke and banished the clouds of the morning.

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Spring at Belcarra!

 

 

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How Big is Big?

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Expanding my world in 1966 and 2019

One thing I’ve realized as I’ve grown older is that I have yet to grow up. When I was a kid, 20 years old was a huge, far-off age. Twenty meant being grown up. Of course, I was completely wrong.

Another thing I didn’t understand when I was a kid is that Learning ≠ School. Learning means different things at different periods of our lives.

Grade One was the most exciting time of my intellectual life because it was then that I learned to read. I quickly became a voracious reader, and that has never changed.

I was in Grade One from 1965–1966, so it was probably in 1966 that I read a book called How Big is Big? This book was my introduction to the concept of infinity. How big is big? Big could expand from my house, to my city, to my country, to the whole Earth. Then I learned that our Earth is revolving around our Sun, and our Sun is but one star in a Milky Way galaxy made up of an unimaginable number of stars. In turn, the Milky Way is just one galaxy amongst a huge number of galaxies in something called the Universe. All of this stretched my mind and it’s still no more comprehensible now that I have some mathematical understanding of numbers like these:

  • There are 1024 stars in the universe.
  • There are two trillion galaxies in the universe.

But How Big is Big also taught me that infinity goes in another direction. If I started with my own body, I could go inwards and see that my body was made up of organs, tissues, cells, molecules, and ultimately atoms, which in turn could be taken apart even further so that an atom’s nucleus could be compared to a tiny sun with planet-like things called electrons and protons revolving around it!

Now, in 2019, I can learn from Googling that even tiny entities can be expressed with some very large numbers, like these:

  • There are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body.
  • The human genome (our genetic material, DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid], composed of chemicals called nucleotides strung together in a unique order for each one of us) contains 3 billion pairs of these nucleotides.
  • There are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain.

In the early 1980s, as a university student at the peak of my physical and intellectual powers, I was discovering all the details about DNA and the new field of recombinant DNA technology—a kind of technology that is now changing our lives in myriad ways and leading people to question the morality of the God-like power this technology can give humans to modify foods, animals, and even create “designer babies.” Now, I’ve forgotten 99% of what I learned in university.

It was only when I was in my fifties that I started understanding just how much I hadn’t learned in school.

No amount of “book learning” can tell a person the answer to the most important question we must all answer. That question is related to what I think about when I ask, “How big is big?” and “How small is small?” What I am really thinking about when I ask these questions is, “How do I fit in as part of this incomprehensibly vast universe?” Or, in other words, “What is my life’s meaning?”

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One of the supremely gifted people to grapple with this question was Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps. Frankl was able to endure one of the worst hells ever created on Earth by realizing that the one thing his captors could not take away from him was his human ability to choose how he responded to his circumstances. He chose to keep his dignity and his will to live. Frankl is famous for his book Man’s Search for Meaning (which I read decades ago).

I was reminded of Frankl when I recently read Stephen Covey’s classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey quotes Frankl’s conviction: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. . . . Therein he cannot be replaced.”1

7 Habits of Highly Effective People has generated a new burst of learning for me. It’s jump-started a new way for me to think about my life’s path. It’s given me a powerful resolve to make my life even better than it already is—and guidance about how to translate that resolve into action, because reading is only the beginning of learning. I will write more about 7 Habits in my next blog post.

To answer the question “What is my life’s meaning?” involves a third kind of infinity, I could say. In addition to the infinitely large and the infinitely small, there is the infinitely inward—that universe contained within each human being’s brain-consciousness-spirit.

What do I want to hold on to from 1966? I never want to lose my child’s sense of discovery, of awe, of the incomprehensible.

***

1. Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, 2004, 2013.

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Finding my way out of writer’s block with photography: a photo journal

 

 

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Lost Lake at Mundy Park. January 15, 2019.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I haven’t been able to write much in the past year or two.

What is the cause of my writer’s block?

There are all kinds of uncertainty involved. I have nothing new or worthy to say. My writing isn’t good enough. I don’t want to reveal things that are personal. My ideas are so conflicted and confused that I won’t be able to write clearly.

Too many of my ideas are about the physical, mental, and social aspects of getting older—old? People won’t want to read about that!

Lately I have found myself more compelled than ever to take photos. Photos are a way of capturing the moment. It’s easier and quicker to take a photo than to write a story or a description.

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Ice shards at Lost Lake, Mundy Park. January 15, 2019.

Maybe my compulsion to take photos comes from an older person’s realization that time is slipping by too fast. I might do a certain run or bike ride that is hard and think, “This might be the last time I can ever ride up this hill,” or “I never want to run the Buntzen Lake Loop again—it’s so hard on my knee, I suck at running on this rough stuff, I don’t enjoy it!” (Then I was shocked to read a Canadian Running magazine article that rated the Buntzen Lake Loop as an “easy” trail run.)

Photos are my way of capturing a moment that is significant to me. And often, the significance of the moment is simply that it’s beautiful. I’m often pierced by the beauty of a scene. I use the word “pierced” because the sensation can be so intense—it hurts—it’s bittersweet because I know time can’t be stopped. My “click!” with my camera is my futile attempt to capture what I see and feel.

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Sasamat Lake on New Year’s Day, 2019.

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My partner Keith, who is a professional photographer, says I have a “good eye.” As a photographer, that is all I have. I have little interest in becoming a better photographer. I don’t have an expensive camera; I have no technical expertise, either in taking photos or editing them. Keith could teach me these things, but writing and editing are the crafts I strive to perfect, not photography.

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Early Sunday morning at Ioco townsite. January 6, 2019.

Yesterday I read a blog post that reassured me somewhat about my writing. This blog, Hoarded Ordinaries, is one I discovered by accident. I read it often because its author, Lorianne, is a “kindred spirit.” In an entry entitled “Shelved,” she writes that it’s time for her to put the ten journal notebooks piled up in her closet into their correct chronological place on her shelves. Like me, she is driven to write in her journals every day. She says that she teaches (she’s an English professor) because she can’t imagine doing another profession. She also writes in her journals and blogs every day, and has come to realize that getting satisfaction from her writing is sufficient justification for doing it.

Like Lorianne, I don’t tire of doing the same activities or taking almost endless photos of the same places. I love my environment—the mountain/Inlet view from my apartment, all the natural places where I run and cycle regularly, and Vancouver’s seasonal changes. Sure, I would love the adventure of travelling and the chance to take photos of new places. Like any Vancouverite, I could appreciate a hot sunny holiday about now. But since I can’t afford to travel much, it’s good that I am truly content where I am.

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Burrard Inlet. January 11, 2019.

 

Walking, cycling, running—moments of clarity

I love all three of these activities because they are rhythmical, they immerse me in the natural world, and I feel a sense of adventure and freedom whenever I’m doing them.

Yet I often feel torn between my desire to be completely engaged in the action and my paradoxical compulsion to stop and capture the moment. Part of my conflict results from decades of pushing myself all-out in my running workouts. Focus on running fast was always paramount. Stopping for photos was unthinkable. The only permissible stops were those built into the workout, like rest periods during a track workout. And because I was a distance runner, those rest periods were most often short, usually between thirty seconds and two minutes.

Even now, when enjoying my workouts is more important to me than performance (which is laughable anyway), I like to make a good effort when I’m running or cycling. I still refuse to carry anything more than a car key when I’m running. Cycling is where I feel the conflict between pushing hard and stopping for photos the most, especially if I have a limited amount of time for my ride. Stopping for photos means sacrificing the intensity of my workout. And I still consider stopping on a long uphill wimpy—even if I’m using granny gears and barely going faster than walking speed.

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Old Orchard Beach. January 13, 2019.

Increasingly, though, I am making the choice to stop. On a recent ride, when time was short, I stopped to take the photo above. And sure, it’s a pretty photo, but I wasn’t satisfied. The elusive perfect photo, where the early sunlight was especially striking and could not be captured later, would have been taken from a different place where habit had refused to let me stop. I think it was that ride that made me decide:

Yes, I will stop more often. I will at least try to capture what I see. I’m blocked in my writing: maybe I can have a photo journal for now instead, and try to publish at least one photo a day.

Walking is different—then I give myself permission to look at things closely. Even so, I love the rhythmic nature of walking, which can lead to a wonderful, relaxing meditative state that is broken if I stop frequently to take photos.

That meditative state is not only comforting and relaxing, but also leads to clear thinking, where my priorities become obvious. This happened to me yesterday.

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Mundy Park, east parking lot. January 14, 2019, 4:35 p.m.

I was walking in Mundy Park in the hour just before sunset. There were only a few people (and even fewer dogs) in the park. It was so peaceful, and so easy to stride along those beautiful trails.

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Mundy Park, Interlaken Trail. January 14, 2019.

The thought suddenly came to me, decisively, that I don’t want to run in Mundy Park on Saturday mornings anymore. This is not a new thought. For almost twenty years now, Mundy Park has had off-leash hours from dawn until 10:00 a.m. Every year, the number of dogs on the trails has been increasing, but my fellow runners in the Phoenix Running Club have insisted on meeting at 8:30 a.m. as we have for almost thirty years.

Now the situation is so bad that Mundy Park has become a dangerous, conflict-laden obstacle course on weekend mornings. In June I was tripped by a dog and felt flat on my face. I almost lost my front teeth and considered myself lucky to escape with multiple cuts on my mouth, swollen lips, gravel embedded in my gums, and minor scrapes.

So far I have been unable to persuade our group to start training after 10:00 a.m. But now I have reached a decision that makes sense for my own safety, peace, and enjoyment of running. Maybe some of the club members will follow my example; maybe new people will be encouraged to join me. My walk in the park yesterday made it clear that sometimes old routines have to change.

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Walking east out of Mundy Park. January 14, 2019.

 

 

 

 

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Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman about modern warfare and grief

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Elliot Ackerman is a novelist and an ex-Marine who was an active duty officer for eight years, including five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also spent three years as a journalist in Syria, covering that country’s civil war.

Recently I listened to his interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company, where he talked about his latest novel, Waiting for Eden. Novelists can reach people like me who aren’t always well-informed about current political events, because they present these events at a personal level; that is, they appeal to readers’ desire for characters and their stories. In this way a huge, often faraway event can be made real.

Wachtel’s entire interview with Ackerman was hugely moving, but the part that got me hooked—because it was heartbreaking—was the five-minute reading Ackerman gave from Waiting for Eden.

The passage he read is written from the point of view of a young, inexperienced nurse who is working at a veterans’ hospital. It is Christmas Day, and she is alone on duty on the floor where an injured soldier, sent back from Afghanistan three years earlier, is being tended. This man, Eden—reduced from a 220-pound soldier to a 70-pound multiple amputee—also has terrible burns and can’t speak or hear. None of the doctors expect him to survive.

The nurse is at her desk monitoring Eden’s vital signs. It seems awful to her that he’s lying there, not being allowed to die. She doesn’t plan to go to his room. She doesn’t want to see that being in the bed that she can’t think of as either living or dead.

However, at some point, “knowing she was spending her Christmas with him, and his with her, and that this might be his last Christmas,” she is compelled to go to him. She unplugs the small Christmas tree from her desk (it’s a tree with lights, like the ones Snoopy put on his doghouse) and takes it with her to Eden’s room.

When she first goes in, she looks around him, not at him. But when she opens the blinds, she can see him in a way she hadn’t before. She can see “. . . the white of his linens, the little pink stains where pieces of him had stuck against them . . . the great hollows of his wounds . . . ” The intricate, awful details continue, and Elliot closes the description with this: “His eyes blinked at her, unprotected by lashes, and she could see where they were rheumy without rest and soapy with pain, and how they teared against his pillow, always.”

I felt as though I could scarcely bear what I heard in this five-minute reading, yet Ackerman’s writing was so exquisite I knew I had to read the book.

As a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman had much to say about the reasons why these wars go on and on. He spoke about what he sees as the role of the American military in international wars. Also, he spoke frankly about his personal motivation to participate in a war—and what he’s come to learn about the nature of grief.

Commenting on the seventeen years of  war in Afghanistan, and the even longer Vietnam War, Ackerman said that wars are “shape-shifting entities”—they don’t usually continue for the same reasons they were begun. According to Ackerman, American leaders as far back as Kennedy knew the Vietnam War couldn’t be won, yet they kept it going for both domestic and international political reasons.

Then there is the role of grief in maintaining wars. As a journalist, Ackerman understood the Syrians’ desire for democratic reforms. They believed their cause was undeniably a good one, so their protests had to have a positive outcome. Instead, their country was destroyed. Elliot says, “You have people who have lost so much—they can just never be made whole. And that will keep a war going for a long, long time.”

Return to Eden is largely an examination of the nature of grief. Ackerman talked about the “narrative arc of grief”—that it’s a process we move through, and we eventually get over things. He said it’s just not true. Sometimes we just keep enduring the loss. Waiting. Waiting as Eden does in the hospital, as his wife Mary does in “holding faith” with Eden.

Part of the interview was about Ackerman’s background—he lived with his family in London between the ages of nine and fifteen, and he believes this gave him a “slant” view of what being an American means. Wachtel was subtly questioning whether it is possible to be proud of being an American in today’s political climate. But Ackerman’s response was firmly idealistic.

He still believes there is a “responsibility that comes with being an American. He said, “We’re a nation that all aspires to a collective ideal. We’re all immigrants. We all come here because we opt into this ideal of what it means to be an American.” According to Ackerman, the American ideal is to strive for perfection, to strive for a “more perfect union,” even though the ideal is never realized. He said that when people ask what it’s like to be an American, what they’re really asking is what it’s like to live in a society that’s idea-based as opposed to race-based or ethnically-based.

What kept him motivated when he was still on active duty? Ackerman said that when it comes to specific wars, people like himself are motivated to fight for personal reasons, not ideological ones. “I’m a Marine, it’s my job. I’m taking care of my buddies.”

Yet he has never stopped thinking about the reasons for wars, and the morality of them. He spoke passionately about what he sees as the moral hazard in modern wars. Why are wars so difficult to end? As mentioned above, it’s partly because of the grief and losses that the populations involved have endured. But it’s also because of the “outsiders” who are trying to intervene—including the US. The American military is fighting, but the American people as a whole are not engaged with the wars the US is fighting. These wars are fought solely by volunteers and funded by deficit spending. There is no incentive for the country as a whole to discuss the morality and financial aspects of war.

Ackerman mentioned “a modest proposal” he’s written about: he would like to see an American military where ten percent of the combat units would be draftees. Critically, these draftees would come solely from families in the US who file in the top income tax bracket. Ackerman knows this would never happen; yet his point is that if the wealthy elite segment of the American population had a personal interest in the overseas wars their military fights, politicians would have incentives for ending them.

War has influenced Ackerman’s views of both luck and grief. He commented that many people see their luck as something that is preordained. He sees luck as a totally random thing whose role is underrated. He described being shot at—and missed—and said that made the nature of luck very clear to him.

As for grief, he said it was the birth of his daughter that made him understand the enormity of personal loss. When Wachtel questioned him about why he left the military, he said a major reason was to be with his daughter. But also, he felt it was time to have a new purpose in life, and for him that meant writing novels.

Was it difficult for Ackerman to leave the military? He said, “You have to find another purpose. In life, we all derive our happiness from a sense of purpose.” He went on to say, “In the military there is a very clear and intense sense of purpose. . .  you see this with a lot of athletes, artists who’ve achieved early success—anyone who’s been up to the summit—you have to then reckon with the descent.”

To me, these words were inspiring. They reminded me that we can all be multi-faceted. We can embrace change, find a new purpose, and have the courage to believe we can reinvent ourselves.

 

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What is an “ideal” professional runner?

What is the role of a professional runner?

Becoming a professional runner requires talent, hard training, and good coaching. Running is a simple and democratic sport compared to other sports; you need no special equipment and you can run almost anywhere. Most children are “born to run” and there aren’t a lot of complicated movements and skills to learn.

All this means that only a tiny percentage of all runners make money. A few track stars and great marathoners are wealthy. A second tier of athletes, still only a small percentage of dedicated runners, make a living out of their running for a few years or possibly a decade or more.

I was one of those second-tier runners for the few years in the 1980s when I wasn’t nursing some injury or the other. Although I loved the team aspect of cross-country running (and the camaraderie and success of my high school team is what got me hooked on running in the first place), it was from road racing that I made my money.

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Winning the Cascade Run-Off 15K in 1987, my best year of road racing. Portland, Oregon. 49:05.

I was good at running on the roads. My legs were not strong so I wasn’t at my best on muddy or rough cross-country courses. As for the track—track stadiums create an electric excitement and intimacy between athletes and spectators, but I didn’t like racing the 10,000m event, the one my body was best suited for. Running 25 laps on the track was psychologically gruelling, whereas the kilometres ticked by relatively easily when I ran the same distance on the road.

I raced mainly in the biggest American road races, but only at distances shorter than the half marathon. These races had excellent sponsorship and organization. They usually paid travel expenses for ten or twenty male and female elite athletes, and offered prize money to the top ten finishers. I was lucky—in the 1980s, there were few African women competing. I could almost always finish in the top three at these big races. I was beaten by many of the great runners of that period: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Lynn Jennings, Liz McColgan, Wendy Sly, Anne Audain, and others—but they were never all at the same race.

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This was the 1983 IAAF 10K Road Championship for Women held in San Diego, CA. In the front you can see (l. to r.) Midde Hamrin (?) of Sweden, me, Wendy Sly and two other British women I don’t recognize, and American Betty Springs, who finished second in the race. I placed 4th. This photo in my scrapbook came from a 1984 Ontario Athletics magazine. Photo: Diane Johnson.

My racing history has given me gratitude and appreciation not only for the financial rewards I got from running, but for the other ways running enriched my life. It’s also made me think about the responsibilities of professional runners.

What are they giving in return for their prize money, their appearance money, and their sponsors’ support?

Why are sponsors willing to support huge road races, glamorous track meets, and individual elite athletes?

Why are people willing to pay to attend European track meets or Olympic Games?

Elite sports (including running) provide people with two things they value highly: entertainment and inspiration.

Sport is entertainment

People pay for a spectacle. Athletic bodies, to many people, are the most aesthetically pleasing. and often the most sexy. The best runners, moving with speed, power, and gracefulness, exemplify the human animal at its physical peak.

Competitive clothing is usually minimal and form-fitting. Such clothing shows off perfect bodies but it is also functional for speed and heat dissipation. Some athletes enjoy enhancing their appearance for competitions. They often give special attention to makeup and jewellery, unusual fingernails, or elaborate hairstyles.

A big part of entertainment in running comes from suspense. There is the thrill of watching an unpredictable competition. It’s not always the best- or fastest-looking runner who wins. Mental toughness plays a large role, and sometimes tactics do too.

Sport provides inspiration

Runners explore the physiological limits of the human body plus the role that the mind plays in extending performance beyond what should be physically possible. The greatest runners evoke amazement, awe, and excitement.

The responsibilities of the professional runner

A professional runner, just like a professional in any field, should earn what they are paid. How does an elite runner do this? Is running fast their only responsibility? No. Fulfilling the role of an entertainer, and, more importantly, being an inspirational role model, entails more than running fast.

My “ideal” professional runner would meet all of the criteria I’ve described below. And such athletes do exist in real life!

This is my “ideal” professional runner:

  1. They give their best effort every time they race.
  2. They show good sportsmanship at all times—winning or losing or somewhere in-between—in their interactions with other athletes, with the media, and with fans.
  3. They follow the rules of their sport (including bans against the use of performance-enhancing drugs).
  4. They are gracious, modest, and helpful in conversations with their fans, who are often other runners.
  5. They show their appreciation for event organizers, volunteers, and sponsors. They make themselves available for all requested media and social events connected with the competition. They try to be as outgoing and friendly as they can at these events (even though runners are often introverts!).
  6. They share their passion for running, the reasons they love their sport, and personal stories. Others will want to know about how they got started in their sport, about coaches and other people who helped them, and about obstacles and injuries they overcame.
  7. They think about how they can give back to their sport, both currently and in the future. The vast network of the sport of athletics, from its grassroots training up to elite level competition, would not exist without volunteers. Coaches, meet directors, marshals, and track officials are usually volunteers. (And what about the parents and spouses who encourage us, cook for us, drive us places, cheer for us at races, comfort us when we have a bad race or are sick, injured, or exhausted? The people who love us for more than our running speed?)

There is one other essential quality that my ideal elite athlete possesses, and that is the ability to put their running in perspective. Sport is just a game, a preparation for the larger game of Life. Being a great runner is not equivalent to being a great person. To become a great runner, it’s necessary to focus with dedication, courage, and hard work on your training, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of neglecting your closest relationships.

Questions elite athletes might ask themselves are:

Who am I outside of running?

Have I kept my sense of humour despite my serious focus on running?

What will I be when I’m no longer a professional runner? Have I acquired a good education that will help me prepare for my next career?

My personal experiences as a professional runner

Role models

As I became a more experienced competitor, I had the privilege of meeting great athletes whom I considered to be fantastic role models. Ingrid Kristiansen was the female runner of my generation that I admired the most. In the 1980s she set multiple world records. In most races she simply ran from the front and pushed herself relentlessly, because no one else was close. She displayed ferocious focus and toughness when racing.

Yet when she wasn’t racing, she was relaxed and friendly. I had the privilege of speaking with Kristiansen a few times before and after races. A couple of times I sat near her on buses going to race sites. I could always see her sense of humour and mischief bubbling up. She seemed supremely confident, yet modest at the same time. I felt that she respected me as a competitor though she was far superior to me.

I had my role models, but I also came to realize that part of my responsibility as an elite athlete was to be a role model for others. I made an impact on people because I didn’t look like someone who could be a good athlete. I was tiny, with skinny, fragile-looking legs. I’m sure many women and girls thought, “If she can do it, maybe I can too!”

I think a big part of a professional runner’s responsibility is to encourage others to run, to have a healthy lifestyle, and to believe that improvement is possible, step by step.

Racing is tough and you must be tough

Part of the responsibility of being a professional is giving your best effort no matter what the circumstances (see point #1 above). When a race director has paid for your flight and hotel room, or you’ve been selected to a national team, you feel the obligation to do well even under the most trying conditions.

Putting it simply, racing is not fun or easy if you’re sick, injured, or sleep-deprived. I’m not saying elite athletes have to race no matter how sick or badly injured they are. Sometimes it is a tough call, whether to race or not. But once committed, you have to give your best even when it’s painful or difficult to focus.

My personal demon was chronic insomnia. High pressure competitive situations and unfamiliar locations exacerbated my insomnia. I’ve raced many times after a night of little or no sleep. I’ve learned that it’s possible to perform well even when I’m sleep-deprived. It takes mental toughness and confidence that the physical training will make a good performance possible.

One of my worst experiences of pre-race insomnia happened in 1983 when I went to Knarvik, Norway, to compete in a special international 10,000m track race. This race was being held because the women’s 10,000m was not yet part of the Athletics World Championships program. (The World Championships were held in Helsinki, Finland in 1983.)

I was in Knarvik for about four days before the race, and slept only a couple of hours each night. By race day, I felt completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. I was frustrated with the insomnia and extremely nervous. Yet I managed to finish fourth in the race, in a time of 32:23 (at the time a Canadian record). It was only my second 10,000m track race ever. I was able to pull this off because of my excellent preparation (including lots of speedwork on the track) and my road-racing experience at that distance.

There were several times when positive thinking and almost miraculous recoveries allowed me to race well when it seemed it would be impossible. In 1987 I sprained an ankle only eight days before I was due to race in the Bolder Boulder 10K in Colorado. My physiotherapist told me it would take the ankle weeks to heal. I phoned the meet director, Benji Durden, and told him I wouldn’t be able to race. He encouraged me to come anyway, since I already had my plane ticket—he said I could help with announcing from the press truck.

I didn’t run at all that week, and when I arrived in Boulder two days before the race I bought a simple ankle brace at a drugstore. On race day, I found that I could jog with minimal pain, so I completed my warmup at an easy pace. Once the race began, adrenaline took over and I was able to run at race pace in spite of my injured ankle. I ended up winning that race! It was an unexpected victory, because Rosa Mota, whose PBs were much faster than mine, suffered from stomach cramps and I passed her about halfway through the race.

Nowadays, with the dominance of online communication and social media, athletes’ obligations to their sponsors have changed somewhat. The controversy about cheating with performance-enhancing drugs is probably even greater than it was in the 1980s. Yet I believe the professional athlete’s basic responsibilities—to give their best, to show good sportsmanship, and to express appreciation for all those who support them—have remained the same.

 

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