The “senior” athlete: finding a new equilibrium

In my last post, I wrote about my “accelerating physical decline,” and how difficult it is to come to terms with that.

Also, I raised the question of how my public identity has been tied for so long to my running achievements—so what is left when my physical prowess is gone?

In my more enlightened moments, I’ve realized two things: first, that relying on the approval of others for a validation of my worth is superficial and transient; second, that what running has given me is more than an identity as an elite runner. Running enabled me to see that I have inner strength, not just physical strength!

A person’s spirit need not diminish with their body’s weakening—it can become stronger. I think of incredible survival stories that have come from people who experienced the Holocaust, or recovery stories from people who were (supposedly) on the brink of death with terminal disease. Such people should have perished, but they lived because of their powerful desire to live and the courage they found within themselves.

It’s mysterious, this will to live, and the way it’s stronger in some people than in others. We could say it’s just the instinct put into every living thing. But clearly, it’s also a choice that some people make when they’re in difficult circumstances, or suffering, or—just getting older.

What does that cliché expression “aging gracefully” mean to me? I think people are happy when they have a sense of being whole and balanced in all three parts of themselves—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. For athletes, especially, this sense of integrity can be hard to achieve when injuries interfere with running. I felt this acutely when I first tore my ACL, went through two knee surgeries, and had to accept that regular running and competition were over for me.

I think aging gracefully means the ability to seek and embrace a new equilibrium where one can still maintain the sense of integrity. Physically this can include finding new activities or a new level of activity that our bodies can handle.

I say to myself: I’m a new animal. Can I adapt to a changing body? A changing pace? Maybe even walking instead of running? Can I accept a new equilibrium, at the same time knowing this equilibrium will be frequently recalibrated? Can I still love my body and be thankful for it?

Saying “Yes” to all the questions above requires a positive attitude that includes gratitude and acceptance.

Gratitude

Practising gratitude, I become aware of how rich my life is. Physically, I’m thankful for my overall good health. But part of what I called “the will to live” is noticing how much I love to be alive. Even if I can no longer run, my senses are still fully alive. Every day I enjoy not just the beauty of my home environment, but the things all my senses bring to me—the smells of wet earth and decaying leaves, the calls of birds at Burrard Inlet, the welcome warmth of the winter sun in the afternoon. On rainy days I can go out in a waterproof coat or with an umbrella, and feel part of a wild, powerful Nature so much bigger than I am. I have my cozy apartment to return to, where I can cook delicious comfort food, read a never-ending supply of good books, or listen to whatever music suits my mood.

***

Many former elite runners show their gratitude by giving back to the sport that developed their characters and gave them so many opportunities. They are coaches, officials, running club leaders, or running shop owners. Running is not about themselves any longer—it is about contributing their knowledge and encouragement and passing the torch.

Acceptance

Finding a new equilibrium implies accepting our new age-related limitations, and also knowing we have to continuously adapt to change.

For me, acceptance also has a darker side that many people don’t want to talk about or think about. I mean acknowledging not only the negative aspects of aging, but the inevitable end of it, the brutal fact of our mortality. Albert Camus wrote: “There is no love of life without despair of life.” I also remember Dylan Thomas’s great poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1952), with its repeated line of rebellion: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Camus’ expression “the despair of life” makes me think of two comedic geniuses, actor Robin Williams and writer David Foster Wallace. Both had extraordinary insights about people and how they behave, and this was part of what made them outstandingly funny human beings. They both reached a pinnacle of success in their careers and were loved and admired by countless people. Also, both suffered from clinical depression. I’m not qualified to say how much that disease affected the decision each of them made to commit suicide.

David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996)

I believe that it is natural to feel despair about our mortality, although I am not claiming to have any understanding of what a clinically depressed person goes through. I’m simply saying we need to be able to talk about these negative feelings honestly.

The Only Story

Recently I read a novel by British writer Julian Barnes entitled The Only Story (2018). Barnes, a brilliant, prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, is perhaps most famous for his book Flaubert’s Parrot. He doesn’t shy away from writing about dark subjects. The Only Story is a love story that begins with a rather aimless young man’s affair with a married woman thirty years his senior. She becomes an alcoholic, and the novel turns bleak in the extreme.

In the end, I found the desolate tone of the story too much, even though Barnes’s writing was masterful. However, what I loved about the book was a passage about panic—the existential panic that most of us feel at times. This passage is narrated by the young man of the story from his perspective many years later. (I had to condense this passage, to the detriment of its perfect rhythm.)

I didn’t realise that there was panic inside her. . . . I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realise, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to . . . minimise it . . . and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us . . .  The panic takes some to God, others to despair, some to charitable works, others to drink, some to emotional oblivion, others to a life where they hope that nothing serious will ever trouble them again. (p. 90)*

I could relate to this passage because chronic insomnia means I spend many wakeful middle-of-the-night hours, when it’s difficult for my mind not to sink into whirlpools of negative thought that sometimes escalate to panic. I recognized the truth in Barnes’s passage and found it comforting because it reminded me that my mental torment is part of the human condition.

Indeed, in those strange dead hours of the night I sometimes feel uncannily close to the great mass of humanity all over the Earth, both the ones living and people long gone that I’ve only read about. Sometimes during those nights I’m overwhelmed with troubling thoughts about how most human beings, in most times and places on Earth, have suffered so much more than I ever have. Recently I felt haunted by the characters in a book by Irish writer Nuala O’Faolin. Her novel My Dream of You is set in two time periods, one modern and the other just after the worst potato famine years of the 1840s. What happened to the Irish peasants during the potato famine is so horrible I can’t erase it from my mind.

Even now, in 2021, when I lie awake, exhausted but unable to slip into sleep because of my churning anxieties, I think about how comfortable and safe I am compared to some people in in my own city, Vancouver, who may be trying to sleep outside on a sidewalk or a park bench.

Covid-19 adding to depression

Recently I was talking to Keith about how Covid-19 has affected me emotionally. My life since the onset of Covid-19 hasn’t been changed as much as the lives of many others. I have my good health and no one close to me has died or dealt with serious illness. I’m not a front-line worker or caregiver facing trauma and long hours of work every day, nor am I a parent worried about my children’s social development and education. I’m not completely isolated as many older people are.

Even so, at times I feel depressed. I miss the live interactions with many friends and acquaintances. It’s easy to add guilt to my negative emotions, thinking I don’t have the right to complain. Yet as Keith wisely said, the suffering of others doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to have my own emotions. Lots of people are experiencing similar thoughts and emotions to mine.

For me, acceptance and finding my new equilibrium means acknowledging not only my physical limitations, but also my moments of emotional weakness. There is no point in adding self-chastisement and guilt to the burdens we carry. I strive to have a positive attitude most of the time, and to surround myself with people, books, and other media that nurture me. And I remember to be grateful, especially for the intimate relationships that allow me to be open about all my emotions.

* Barnes, Julian. The Only Story. © 2018. Penguin Random House Canada Ltd.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My worst Sasamat Lake bike ride ever

Early in the climb up from Ioco Road to Sasamat Lake, August 2018. Photo by Keith Dunn.

For a month or so I was hardly on my bike at all because almost every day was cold and rainy.

January has been better. A couple of weeks ago I finally got back to one of my most regular rides, the trip from my apartment building in downtown Port Moody up to Sasamat Lake. It’s only 8 or 9K, but there’s a lot of elevation gain.

That day, for the first time out of the hundreds of times doing this ride, I felt as though I could barely make it up the final hill before the entrance to the park. I knew I was using lower gears than usual at all stages of the climb. And I had no excuse. I hadn’t done a killer workout the day before or a run earlier in the morning.

No, I have to face it: despite my twice-weekly runs, despite going up the Coquitlam Crunch stairs (487 of them) as fast as I can a couple of times a week, despite my mountain bike jaunts—my legs are getting weaker.

This should not be a surprise. Time is marching on.

I’ve written several posts in this blog about being a middle-aged athlete and continuing to push myself. I remember how it was when I was in my early forties. Sure, I was significantly slower than I had been at my best, but only people at an elite level would see that small difference and understand that it was significant.

Now that I’m 61, anyone can see the difference. A couple of weeks ago I was running on a slightly downhill trail and concentrating on my footing. A man seeing me approach asked with real concern in his voice, “Are you all right? You look like you’re in pain!”

Actually, I had been enjoying my run—but I had probably been favouring my arthritic knee—and he saw me as a cripple in pain; he probably thought I was crazy for even trying to run!

Now I’m experiencing first-hand another truth that the age-grading tables predict. Performance doesn’t deteriorate at a linear rate. Once you get past 60, declining performance is the only thing that’s accelerating!

I am now negotiating the transition from being middle-aged to being—what—a senior?

It’s no longer simply knowing that my PBs are all behind me and I will inevitably run a little slower with each passing year. No, now it’s not only about getting slower: it’s about my body’s unpredictability, and the many ways it is beginning to betray me.

In the past year, it has struck me that there is no longer such a thing as “an easy run”—all running is hard. On my right side, I have an arthritic knee that has seen two surgeries (roughly ten years ago); first for ACL repair and second for cartilage removal. Contrary to my surgeon’s predictions, I’ve been able to continue running, but I never know when my knee’s going to act up with stabbing pains, and its slight instability contributes to my uneven gait. On my left side, I know my femoral artery is getting narrower again (I had bypass surgery almost 30 years ago) because all my leg muscles cramp up and get weak during heavy exertion.

Because of these problems, I’ve reached a point where I’ve questioned whether I want to run. For someone who has run, and loved running, for forty-five years, this thought is sacrilegious.

Sure, there have been many periods in the past forty-five years when I didn’t run—for weeks, months, or even years at a time. It was always because of injuries, surgeries, or pregnancy. And I was always chomping at the bit to start running again.

Those were the days when my body was a finely-tuned, practiced running machine, almost ideal for its function (though the chassis always had weaknesses in the knees, heels, and Achilles tendons). There were a few years in the ’80s when I could stand on the starting line of a Canadian 10K race and know that no other woman could beat me. Or, more often, I’d be on the starting line of one of the huge American races, at times racing against the biggest stars of those years: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristensen, Liz McColgan, Wendy Sly, Lynn Jennings, Anne Audain, Rosa Mota. I’d be bursting with nervous energy, my muscles springy and well-rested. I knew my limitations, I knew I couldn’t beat those superstars (though I beat several of them once, when they had bad off-days), but I could trust my body. I knew what I had to do: run at the perfect pace and have the mental toughness to drive myself to the limit.

Now, no amount of mental toughness can alter the reality of my body’s betrayals. Instead, the toughness I gained through running competition can be put to another use. I’ll grapple with questions that all aging athletes face:

Who am I if I am no longer an athlete?

How will I contribute now? My public face is that of an ex-Olympian. How can I continue to inspire people though my pitiful physical efforts are best kept private now?

And finally: How do old people get high? How can we “senior” athletes find joy in life without the continued infusion of brain chemicals from the “runner’s high”?

***

Of course aging, with its limitations, injuries, diseases, and pain, must be faced by everyone who lives long enough—it’s not merely a concern to athletes. However, to us (athletes) its effects may be starker and harder to accept because at one time we reached such a high physical peak, with all its attendant joys and triumphs. We are used to paying attention to our bodies, and we are supremely aware of their decline; moreover, we can measure that decline in our performance precisely.

My way of coping with this is not focused, mainly, on physical interventions such as surgery, stretching, physiotherapy, better nutrition, or any kind of “magic” anti-aging potion. These are all limited in their usefulness. Instead, I turn to my other lifelong passion, reading. From books I gain perspective, sometimes comfort, sometimes inspiration, sometimes just affirmation that what I’m experiencing is common to all of us. In my next post I’ll write about how recent reading or conversations with people have stimulated my thoughts and helped me find possible answers to the questions I wrote above.

Sasamat Lake on January 15, 2021
Posted in Cycling, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged | 6 Comments

Spirit of a Rose

I am close to letting go of this year’s roses.

I have three rosebushes. One is deep red, and arrived with a description highlighting its “incredible fragrance.”

An Incredibly Fragrant rose in June, showing its distinctive white streak

My second rose variety is called “Grande Dame,” and it produces giant, dark pink roses that also have a lovely fragrance.

I have named my third rosebush “Charlie Brown” because it is scrawny and always looks dead by sometime in July, when heat and aphids have done their best to kill it. Yet it always manages to produce an abundant (though not fragrant) crop of small red roses—last June there were at least fifty.

Charlie Brown blooming in June

All my rosebushes appear to be close to death during the heat of summer, but they grow new shoots in late August or September that eventually produce a few late flowers. This year the second growth started late. Charlie Brown bloomed first, and boasted seven roses. Grande Dame produced a record second-growth crop in September, and Incredibly Fragrant also made several new roses.

An “old” Grande Dame blooming in September
My last Fragrant Rose during an October sunset

I was amazed how fast new shoots grew from the latter two plants in September, but some of the shoots started too late. Both Grande Dame and Incredibly Fragrant produced a last bud that grew to the stage of being ready to open, with some colour showing. But by then it was October, and there was little warmth or sunlight to be had on my balcony. Those buds stayed suspended in their “poised-to-open” state for many weeks. Finally, at the beginning of November I cut back my roses for their winter rest.

A Fragrant Rosebud, frozen in time

Yet I couldn’t bear to cut off those brave buds. I felt so much regret and sadness for them! I thought about all that beauty and fragrance still unreleased. I couldn’t help but think of those buds as sentient beings. They wanted to be roses! That was their potential; that was their destiny!

It was not to be. Four days ago I cut off each bud. I sniffed each one, but couldn’t detect any hint of fragrance. I still didn’t want to put them in my garden waste bag. I filled a teacup with water and added plant food. Then I placed the buds in the cup and put it on my living room windowsill.

Days later, I noticed that a few petals had unfurled from the Incredibly Fragrant bud. I brought it to my nose. Yes! The inimitable fragrance was there! Maybe it didn’t have the strength of a full-fledged rose, but nonetheless it expressed its unique quality. For a second, that fragrance reminded me of all the abundant, flagrant senses of summer.

***

Yesterday morning, before it started raining, I cycled to Sasamat Lake. I haven’t been riding much since the weather turned cold, and I found the climb very tough. The toque I was wearing under my helmet made my breath sound like distant thunder in my ears, a faintly ominous sound that amplified my perceived effort.

At the lake, I could see no living thing—not a person, not even a goose. All the colour in the beach maples was gone.

A gray day at Sasamat Lake. I hope the cougar is gone by the summer of 2021.

Yet I was happy to be there. To me Sasamat Lake is beautiful and familiar in every season. I’m grateful to be outside and to be healthy. I’m not as fast or fit as I used to be. But like the rosebuds, I’m doing the best I can to express my nature. My spirit. The way I love running, walking, cycling, having all my senses alive, appreciating my surroundings whatever they offer. Like the rosebushes I have my seasons, and, unlike them, my body won’t have spring or summer again.

Posted in Cycling, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Seasons, Vignettes | Tagged | 2 Comments

Ayad Akhtar in Conversation With Eleanor Wachtel about Homeland Elegies

I recently listened to a special presentation of this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest: a 90-minute conversation between Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright, and Eleanor Wachtel, the host of CBC’s Writers & Company. They talked about his recently-published book, Homeland Elegies. (Links to the conversation are at the end of this post.)

Akhtar is a writer who won’t compromise his ambition or soften his language to make his points more palatable. After all, he is the writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 play Disgraced, described in a Chicago Tribute review as “a howl of rage.”

Akhtar’s mission is urgent and begins with a “Letter to America” in which he appeals to his fellow citizens to examine the reasons for what he calls his country’s state of “institutional rot.” Certainly, having a president whose “insanity and childishness” are manifested every day hasn’t helped, but Akhtar believes that the current moment is also the result of long-term resentment against colonialism and US global interventionism. Also, how are Americans complicit in allowing this to happen? What moral values and social culture led to Donald Trump’s being elected president of the United States?

The pursuit of wealth, entertainment, and the “hot story”

The way Akhtar sees it, Americans have always been fascinated by the pursuit of wealth. He explains Trump’s popularity as coming from the way Trump performs success. Americans know Trump lies, but “we love the performance . . . too many people prefer a hot story to the truth. If you want entertainment and distraction, that’s what you get.”

Modern technologies and social media have insidiously encouraged a short attention span. According to Akhtar, “entertainment is the dominant mode of politics and thought.” But what happens when people become unable or unwilling to read deeply and think for themselves? Those whose education comes from hatred-fueled Twitter and Facebook feeds and rallies intended to push their emotional buttons of fear, inferiority, and entitlement? People who refuse to engage in civil conversations or to listen to an opposing point of view?

You get a country where conspiracy theories are growing like wildfire, even among members of Congress. You get a country where a large percentage of the population can’t even perceive reality, what Akhtar calls “widespread mass psychosis.”

Akhtar sees America as a place where the accumulation of individual wealth is idolized and the long-term consequences are ignored, where no one asks, “What is the collective good?” It is culture of entitlement, with the idea that the self is central.

Akhtar gives the example of a Walmart store taking over a town, killing almost all of the local businesses with countless trickle-down effects. Why is this allowed? It’s because people accept the rationale of “lowest prices” without giving any thought to the deeper implications of global monopolies. According to Akhtar, this is part of the reason why “we have technical behemoths who are transforming our very cognitive functions to make money—for themselves.”

Akhtar’s perspective as the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants

Akhtar is the son of Pakistani parents who emigrated to the US in the late ’60s. His father was a doctor who made huge contributions to his profession and his society, a man of great appetites who was a successful example of achieving the American Dream. His mother was a less flamboyant, more thoughtful person who missed Pakistan. Akhtar, with his family background and his outstanding career as a writer in America, seems the ideal person to be a role model for the Muslim community, to write a book that “explains” Muslims to Americans and shows that not all Muslims are like the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Yet that was not the book he wanted to write. He acknowledges that questions of identity, which include not only the immigrant experience but minority experiences based on skin colour, religion, and sexual identity, are significant, but they are not what he calls the “fatal illness” he wanted to address in his book. His ambition was to write a book that would probe American history, global military interventionism, and current social culture to explain the crisis in America today.

This is not a book written to make Americans understand Muslims, but being a Muslim in America gives Akhtar (and his alter ego in Homeland Elegies) a unique perspective. Akhtar sees himself as an American, but one who can also see and articulate the flaws of his country—he describes himself as “a kind of conscience for his fellow citizens.”

As the son of immigrants, Akhtar can see the consequences of American interventionism since 9/11. He notes that immigrants have relatives in their countries of origin who have suffered, and in many cases, died, because of America’s warmongering.

Also, he says, most Americans don’t understand the complexity of what lay behind 9/11. “What we are seeing now is a consolidated pushback against the heritage of colonialism.” He reminds readers that the Industrial Age, a so-called time of enlightenment and progress that changed the world for the better, was built on horrific systems of slavery and exploitation; on individual fortunes made in sugar, rubber, and cotton.

“What can’t be disputed are the long-term emotional impacts on cultures. Burning resentments still exist.”

In both Homeland Elegies and Disgrace, Akhtar’s Muslim characters say shocking things. One says, “I felt a sense of pride watching the Twin Towers falling” and another, “They deserve what they got and what they’re going to get.”

Of course, many Muslims hate Akhtar for writing such things. They expect him to be a role model for other Muslims and to give a positive representation of the Muslim community in his books. Akhtar explains that such an expectation shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of what an artist is meant to be doing.” Akhtar is trying to write what he believes to be the deepest truths. He is not trying to be a PR person for the Muslim community.

Why does he have his Muslim characters say such inflammatory comments about 9/11? It’s not that these comments reflect his own feelings. Yet, as he explains to Wachtel, this dialogue is necessary to explain the complexity of the Muslim reality in America. As the son of Pakistani immigrants, he understands the deep-seated resentments of minorities in a way many Americans do not. What has it been like to be a Muslim in the US since 9/11? Akhtar says: “Seeing the word ‘Muslim’ is like hearing the word ‘cancer’ in this country,” and “Muslims could only be from somewhere bad.”

Akhtar says the US has not healed from the wound of 9/11. Whether people are conscious of it or not, the country is motivated by revenge and has “inflicted the wound on others” with its interventionist foreign policies.

Why I felt compelled to write this blog post

I wanted to write about this conversation because I admire Akhtar hugely for having the courage to write the book he wanted to write, the book he felt was necessary. His comments about the purpose of art are compelling. Artistic integrity does not mean doing what people expect of you, even if doing so would accomplish something positive and helpful. It means following your own ambition and purpose. In Akhtar’s case this meant writing a book that could help both Americans and an international audience understand what is at stake because of the failure of the United States and its leadership.

This interview stretched me to my intellectual limits. Akhtar’s comments about the current situation and its historical roots rang of truth, of personal experiences tempered with much thought. In his book he uses words and arguments that go against the political correctness of every country and religious group. He had the courage to expose himself to hatred and misunderstanding from all sides.

He speaks the same way in this interview. He doesn’t try to simplify or soften his comments to make the interview easy to listen to. Indeed, he tells Wachtel that he appreciates what he sees as her open, welcoming questions. They encouraged him to speak on a radio show with as much honesty as he does in his writing.

When Wachtel asks Akhtar whether the Covid-19 pandemic has made the message of his book even more urgent, he confirms that the pandemic has made the “institutional rot” he talks about more obvious. He compares this particular moment in American history to “an absolutely dreadful [TV] program that does not seem to end.”

Wachtel asks him why he chose to write Homeland Elegies as fiction rather than as a memoir; its characters are clearly semi-autobiographical. Akhtar explains that as a playwright and dramatic writer, he doubted he would be able to write memoir. Moreover, he says, he wanted to address reality in his book, but forming it as fiction allowed him to give it an addictive thrill, like reality television. Writing in this way would enable the book to capture a large audience, he hoped.

I considered what Akhtar said about the shallowness of people’s engagement with serious issues, their desire for constant entertainment and distraction.

I can’t help but think how much of this Ray Bradbury predicted way back in 1953 with Fahrenheit 451, a book depicting a society where mindless entertainment is pumped into people’s ears constantly, the walls of their houses have become TV screens, and books are banned. But even Bradbury could not have foreseen the horrific depths to which the United States has sunk. He couldn’t have predicted the power that each individual has, with their personal computers and smartphones, to willingly take part in the “dumbing down” and their own demise by spreading hatred, conspiracy theories, and mindless (though cute) entertainment.

This blog post is, in a small way, my own attempt to engage more deeply with a subject and a book I feel are significant.

I felt a surge of inspiration and hope because of the artistic integrity Akhtar demonstrated in writing Homeland Elegies. He tells Wachtel that writing this book has given him a feeling of “something settled, something secured . . . something integrated to the centre.”

This comment reflects what I mean by artistic integrity. He has accomplished what he was driven to do. His family background was what created him and he has the unique experience and genetic makeup that could have produced Homeland Elegies. So it was most satisfying to get it out, despite the risks and criticism he exposed himself to.

To me, Ahktar’s words “integrated to the centre” articulate the way maintaining artistic integrity is part of maintaining our personal integrity—our sense of wholeness as an intellectual/spiritual/physical being—and being at peace with ourselves.

Listen to the conversation (full or abbreviated)

Spotify link (87 minutes)

iTunes link (87 minutes)

Writers and Company (59 minutes)

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Writing, Writing Criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Third Beach in the summer of Covid-19

Above Third Beach, Stanley Park

Being at Third Beach in Stanley Park this year seemed like an escape to a fantasy world.

I always try to make the trip to Stanley Park to swim at least once every summer. I’ve never left it to September, but our recent week of scorching temperatures encouraged me to grab my chance.

Keith and I found a place both familiar and strange. Third Beach was a world where everyone appeared happy and relaxed. I didn’t see any masks. The parking lot was closed; instead, there was a full rack of bikes, and cyclists were constantly arriving and departing.

We hadn’t known about the closed beach parking lots, but we were lucky and found a parking space in the small Hollow Tree lot high above the beach.

Hking down to the beach

The washroom/changeroom building was open, and people were washing their sandy feet under the taps as usual, but the concession was closed. There was no lifeguards’ sign to tell us the air and water temperature or the tide times.

We had a late afternoon and evening of relaxed perfection. Even in “normal times,” Third Beach is my favourite place in Stanley Park because of its relaxed ambience. It’s more isolated than Second Beach or English Bay.

However, my main motivation for making the long trip from Port Moody is to swim in the ocean. It’s totally different from my usual swims at Sasamat Lake!

Even on a relatively calm day, the waves tell a swimmer who is in charge. I need to time my strokes and my breathing to the massive surges of water that throw me around. It’s fun! The salt water is much more buoyant than the lake I’m used to. Instead of trying to do a swim workout, I just let the water play with me. I can “sit” on it to be rocked and carried. When I’m too cold to stay in any longer, I swim in and the waves bringing me in make me feel like Superwoman.

After drying out in the hot sun for a while, we climbed up the trail to get our simple picnic dinner from the car and returned to eat at a table above the beach. I had no desire to go to the Cactus Club, like we did last year when we went to Third Beach.

We went back down to the beach to wait for sunset. I didn’t want to swim again; I knew I’d get too chilled now that the sun was no longer hot. But I walked up and down the beach with my feet in the water, taking photos, people-watching, being immersed in all that beauty. I thought about how people have been swimming at English Bay, Second Beach, and Third Beach for over a hundred years; Vancouver is so lucky that this place was preserved as a park.

A few people were still going in the water right up to the moment of sunset, but most were just quietly watching, as we were.

Five minutes after sunset, as Keith and I slowly climbed back up the trail, my mind went back twenty years to when my friend Judy and I used to bring our boys here. The same trail seemed shorter then. The boys would run down it eagerly. I didn’t have to think about my knee.

As we reached the top, a cyclist sped by us at incredible speed, far beyond the 30 kph speed limit. Other cyclists followed in the gloom of the deepening twilight. The whirring sounds of their expensive bikes and their quick disappearance added to the surrealistic atmosphere of this magical day’s ending.

***

I wondered what “real lives” all these relaxed beachgoers were returning to after their hours in the benevolent sunshine and sparkling waves.

We are all participants in a world of uncertainty, restrictions, and fear. Most of us have adjusted to much-diminished social lives.

I am better off than many people. I still have work. I don’t have the responsibilities of children, including their education.

Yet in the wee hours of the night, after that golden evening at Stanley Park, I was awake for a long time. I couldn’t stop my mind from turning to fears about what the coming fall and winter will be like, when we don’t have such a lovely outdoor environment for solace and socializing.

We can’t always deny the losses that the “new normal” has imposed.

I miss the many talented people in my Toastmasters club who chose not to continue when we had to switch to Zoom meetings. We continued as a small but dedicated group and were able to meet in person at Rocky Point Park. Now, with the earlier sunset, those outdoor meetings are coming to an end.

I miss the Phoenix Running Club, now disbanded, and the Mundy parkruns that I thought would help me stay connected to my running friends and community. I miss the Run Club at Running Room. I miss the monthly Editors BC meetings where I could socialize and share professional tips and opportunities with like-minded people.

However, we must be—and are—resilient. Living means change. Changes don’t always appear to be positive, but even out of sadness and loss there can be unexpected growth.

I have a scrawny rosebush that I’ve named Charlie Brown, and it is my reminder about resilience and pluckiness. This year it had a record spring bloom with about fifty roses weighing down its tiny branches. Then it was infested by aphids and all its roses and leaves died. Yet a month ago it started sending out new shoots and now I’m about to see its seven new rosebuds bloom.

Goodnight, Third Beach
Posted in Personal stories, Seasons, Vancouver events and entertainment | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Two 1,000-page novels at once: Kristin Lavransdatter and Ducks, Newburyport

Reading during a COVID-19 summer

This summer has been memorable in several ways, not only because it is the first (and perhaps not the last) summer of living with COVID-19.

For one, this is the first time I’ve ever read two 1000-page novels at the same time—and I finished them over a period of about six weeks. How did I get into this? It’s not as though I had tons of spare time—my editing work has continued during the pandemic.

No; it’s just that during a Skype call with my brothers, I mentioned I was looking for some new book ideas. One brother mailed me Kristin Lavransdatter, a three-book classic. The books, centred on their fourteenth-century heroine, were written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset in the 1920s. This translation by Tiina Nunnally brings them together in one volume. My other brother got me intrigued with his description of Lucy Ellmann’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport, which I found at my local bookstore.

Both books are worthy of devouring. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and won many awards and accolades. Though this Norwegian classic and the audacious, creative, and eminently modern Ducks could scarcely be less alike, I urge you to read them both!

Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter follows the life of its heroine from the time she is seven until her death ( I didn’t appreciate the spoiler about this in the Introduction). Kristin and the other main characters in the trilogy are members of the well-off landowner class. In fourteenth-century Norway many of these men were involved in the politics of the country and sometimes served the King by fighting Norway’s wars or in other ways.

The political parts of the novel are sometimes difficult to follow, but the main story is timeless because it is about the powerful sexual bond between Kristin Lavransdatter and the man who becomes her husband, Erlend Nikulaussøn. Their union leads to the birth of seven sons in rapid succession. However, despite their enduring passion, happiness eludes the couple because of their stubborn incompatibilities.

Erlend is a deeply flawed man. At the time he meets Kristin he has already been involved in several scandals, including living with a woman who is married to someone else and having two children by her. Erlend is not patient or organized or good at the administrative work of running his estate. Yet he is physically brave, intelligent, and beloved by the men he leads in battles.

The attraction between Erlend and Kristin is so intense that she allows him to seduce her very soon after they meet. Premarital sex, in Christian Norway, was considered a grave sin, and if pregnancy occurred (as happened easily and often) that meant disgrace for the young woman and her family. Despite knowing the risk she is taking, Kristin doesn’t hold back, and she believes Erlend’s promise that he will love and be with no other woman but her forever.

The catch is that Kristin is already engaged to another man. When she gets pregnant, her her fiancé frees her from her promise, but her father is deeply hurt and disappointed. He agrees to let Kristin and Erlend get married, but he knows Erlend’s shortcomings. The couple’s transgression can’t be hidden as a child is born only a few months after the marriage.

One of the striking impressions this book made on me was the way people at that time believed in God and Heaven and Hell. It’s hard to explain, but the book made me feel that at that time, God, his rules, and the consequences for breaking them were unquestionably real. The characters’ beliefs created that reality. What else did they have to explain the world and cope with its cruelty? They had no scientific understanding, no cure for most diseases (like the Black Death that was soon to arrive), and nothing to help women with the pain of childbirth or prevent them from dying from it.

Kristin proves to be a wonderful mother to her seven sons, and a most competent administrator of Erlend’s estate. Yet their powerful bond of love and sex can’t make them compatible or help them get along. Kristin’s life-changing flaw is her guilt; her inability to ever forgive either Erlend or herself for their youthful mistake. She often treats Erlend badly and speaks to him with cruelty, not giving weight to the fact that despite his faults, his love for her never wavers.

The two end up living apart. At one point, when they are almost old by the standards of their day—in their forties—Kristin visits Erlend at the crude, filthy dwelling where he has become a hermit. Again, passion overwhelms all else. They are happy together for a couple of weeks, but both are stubborn; Erlend won’t return to the estate, and Kristin is bound to return to their children. The only result is another baby, which is sickly and dies without Erlend ever having seen it.

A third main character, the man who was betrothed to Kristin, Simon Darre, adds more heartbreak and complexity to the novel but I will not write more about that here.

Ducks, Newburyport

What does that title tell a reader? Not much, other than to prepare you for a book that is unlike any other.

We are in the mind of the narrator and reading every thought, every word passing through her mind. And what a mind it is! Tormented, creative, expert at word-association and wordplay, filled with sadness, anger, self-doubt, and love. And our narrator’s mental meandering provokes belly laughs on almost every page.

It’s hard to explain this book—you just have to read it. Its flavour can’t be conveyed by telling you that the narrator is a woman in her forties, married, with four children, who bakes hundreds of pies and cakes a week to supplement her husband’s income as a university professor. She lives in a small town near Columbus, Ohio, and her recurring themes are gun violence, destruction of the environment, and how much she misses “Mommy.” The narrator’s mother’s long illness and death, occurring when the narrator was only a teenager, have left her “broken,” as she repeats over and over again.

How does Ellmann fill 988 pages with this? (The book also includes twenty-five pages of acronyms, one page with a map, four pages of quotes, four pages of laudatory blurbs, and two pages of thanks.)

Well, at first I thought Ducks was perhaps ten times too long. I found it peculiarly addictive, yet unsatisfying. I realized this was because there was no chronological narrative, and I was missing that “sense of story.”

There is, however, one conventionally-told narrative within the book, but it makes up a scant 2% of the text. It is the story of a rare Eastern Cougar mother (“the lioness”). She has three cubs who get “rescued” from a poorly-hidden den while their mother is out hunting. The cubs are taken to a nearby zoo. The lioness, relying on her instinct, goes on a long journey to find her cubs. Her story is told in sections of two or three pages separated by long sections of the main “stream-of-consciousness” text.

I looked forward to these short sections of the book eagerly, but after reading about three hundred pages of Ducks I was so frustrated that I abandoned it and went back to reading Kristin Lavransdatter, which I had just started.

It was only after finishing that massive work that I went back to Ducks. This time I enjoyed it thoroughly. I became more in tune with the narrator’s stories. Her interior monologue revealed more and more about her past relationships, her current crisis with her teenage daughter, Stacy (“she hates me”), and her recent bout with cancer.

The narrator, like so many women, is ambivalent about having four kids. She clearly loves them, but finds them all-consuming. Her doubts about her mothering abilities are just one topic in her continuous litany of self-criticism. As many people do, she worries constantly about her faults, but doesn’t congratulate herself for her successes, strengths, and heroic qualities. Personally, I was impressed by the patience and skill it would take to produce the number of pies and cakes she makes every day, in spite having four children constantly underfoot!

I found the ironic but real kind of solace you find in reading about another person’s despair. Sometimes I was reading Ducks in the early hours of the morning, tormented by insomnia yet again, when the narrator’s outpouring of negativity meant I was not alone in sinking into these irrational depths. Also, Lucy Ellmann is a genius for being able to make even depression laugh-out-loud funny.

The self-deprecation and the narrator’s endless rants about guns, shootings, toxic damage to the environment, and her mother’s death are balanced by one constant bright light—the narrator’s thoughts about Leo, her husband. It’s heartwarming to read about such a steady, staunch kind of happiness. We know Leo must have lots of reasons to love her.

Reading to the end of Ducks brings an unexpected reward. After over nine hundred pages of wandering comes a terrifying, suspenseful climax (no spoilers!). The lioness’s story, too, comes to a parallel climax. Ellmann combines both human and animal stories in a masterful way. The cougar interludes in the text, which at first seem to be irrelevant, are united to the main story by the theme of motherhood and all the passion and devotion it entails.

Both human and animal stories are resolved in ways that are happy, though not without ambivalence. The lioness’s disdain for the human race exceeds even the narrator’s distress, and both characters’ points of view make the current sorry state of humanity (especially in the United States of America) all too obvious.  

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The aging athlete: protests and silver linings

I have found that being an athlete over sixty means feeling a mixture of conflicting emotions: gratitude, exhilaration, disgust, sadness, sometimes even despair.

Then: Racing 10,000m at the 1988 Olympics. Photo copyright CP Photo/COA by F.S. Grant. Used with permission.

I wasn’t sure whether to write this post because in public we are always supposed to be upbeat and optimistic. And it is true that I could give lots of encouragement about how exercise helps us physically as we grow older, just as it helps us at any age. It also has beneficial effect on our moods and cognitive abilities.

Yet I feel a perverse desire to throw all the negative stuff out there anyway. Maybe I want sympathy. Maybe I want to reassure others who are going through this process and thinking, “Getting older sucks!” The goal is to be honest about all the negative stuff, to come to an acceptance that it’s OK (because it’s normal, inevitable), and then to remember gratitude. Gratitude is the silver lining we can choose to focus on most of the time.

Now: Acting goofy in a Mundy parkrun, January 2020. Photo by Keith Dunn.

So here comes my personal list of complaints, humiliations, and injuries I endure as I continue to run twice a week. Feel free to skip this section if you wish to go straight to silver linings!

  • My arthritic knee is an injury that limits me and it will never go away. I tore my ACL in 2009, had surgery to repair it in 2010, and surgery to remove all my cartilage in 2011.
  • My latest injury was also my first-ever broken bone! I was hit by a car while cycling in December 2019 and fractured the scaphoid bone in my right wrist. I recovered well from surgery in January but will likely never have full strength or flexibility in my wrist again.
  • I used to be a good hill runner. Now running uphill makes me aware of how weak my quads have become (despite lots of cycling and some weights). I resolved to do squats to strengthen my legs but that resulted in increased knee pain. I can’t run downhills normally because it would impact my knee too much and plus, my knee doesn’t feel very stable.
  • There is another reason why hills are hard for me. Decades ago I had bypass operations on both my left and right iliac arteries (near the groin) because they became blocked. These arteries are the giant ones supplying most of the blood supply to the legs. I learned I have a rare genetic condition called “fibromuscular dysplasia.” Without surgery I wouldn’t have been able to do any running or vigorous cycling after my first blockage at age 33. For the past few years I have been feeling impaired circulation in my left leg, and that means I have some kind of narrowing again. Thankfully, it hasn’t got much worse for several years. However, it limits me when I do intense exercise like fast running for more than a minute, running or cycling uphill, or climbing a lot of stairs. For example, when I do the ~ 500 stairs of the Coquitlam Crunch, I try to go all-out but the muscles in my left leg cramp up before my lungs reach their limit.
  • Running just isn’t easy and natural anymore, not even so-called “easy runs.” Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet given myself permission to “jog” or “shuffle.” Most of the time, in my steady runs, I’m running at a pace that I perceive as being fast—but Garmin tells a different story!
  • I’m aware that unless I have absolutely perfect footing, either pavement (which I avoid) or a well-groomed trail, I’ve become an awkward runner. Last week I did a run in Mundy Park on a rainy day. There were puddles and muddy spots everywhere. I struggled. That run reminded me that cross-country running is over for me—forever. In the face of obstacles, jumps, or rough ground I would be awkward and afraid. I couldn’t trust my bad knee or my weak legs. I would end up shuffling at a ridiculously slow pace, in true “old lady” style. Cross-country running was my first love, my introduction to running and its camaraderie, so I can’t help but be sad about losing it.
  • When I’m mountain biking over rough terrain, I notice how fearful I’ve become. My wrist fracture has made it worse. I know it would be very bad for me if I fell on that wrist again.

Silver linings

I count myself among those who are lifelong runners. No matter our deterioration, no matter how much we slow down, running is a part of us that we won’t give up until we absolutely have to.

I’m always grateful to simply be able to run. After my second knee surgery in 2011 my surgeon told me I could never run again. I’ve proven him wrong.

Yet, I know that any run could be my last run, and that makes gratefulness easy.

I’ve experimented and accepted my limitations. I only run twice a week. The rare times I’ve raced or my knee is sore for whatever reason, I back off and take a week or two off.

I know I’ve been blessed with talent and, even with limited training, I can still run well “for my age.” Genetics plays a big role: my featherweight frame probably has a lot to do with my ability to run on an arthritic knee. The late Canadian runner Ed Whitlock was a wisp of a man who, into his 70s, “floated” at speeds that were the envy of runners decades his junior. He ran under 3 hours for the marathon at age 72!

I’m grateful for the times when running is still perfect. Notice I wrote “perfect,” not “fast”! Yes, there are those rare times when I have the sense of running gracefully, when all parts of my body are in harmony and I feel the rhythm of my legs, my arms, my deep breathing, my blood coursing through every part of my body as I become part of the forest around me, a simple running creature. When the trail is flat and smooth, you can still see sometimes the ghost of the elite runner I once was, with a long confident stride, powerful arms that swing in synchrony, and lungs that are as deep as my willpower demands.

From my coach George Gluppe I learned what a critical component speed training is, even for a 10,000m runner. Doing short sprints (50―250m) with Laurie has shown me how fun it is to run fast. Maybe I’m kidding myself about how fast we’re running, but I know I’m up on my toes and pumping up my running cadence. Sprinting reminds me of being a kid, when the purpose of running was to catch someone or avoid being caught. Running meant moving as fast as possible for short bursts of time. Back then, there was no need for a warmup and, of course, no stiffness afterwards!

In Laurie I have found someone who shares my love of running. I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm she brings to our workouts. We help each other. This could be another lesson about being an older athlete: never compare yourself to the “average” person of your age; seek out positive and energetic friends and training partners who share your passion for running.

Moving forward

Continuing to run as an aging athlete requires a delicate balance of gratefulness, courage, determination, and—surprisingly—a willingness to give up that was unacceptable in youth. You must recognize your limitations.

I have one final note of consolation, though—and it’s a big one! The runner’s high doesn’t go away. So go after it as long and as often as you can.

Chasing the high: running at Sasamat Lake, 2019. Photo by Keith Dunn.
Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Summer at Sasamat Lake in the time of coronavirus

The short story: Important tips if you are planning a trip to Sasamat Lake

  1. You may not be able to get in to the parking area unless you go well before noon, especially on nice days. Parking is not allowed on Bedwell Bay Road as it usually is.
  2. If you see the sign says “FULL” for White Pine Beach, you may still be able to get in. I have seen the “FULL” sign on when the gate is open, and I suspect park staff are using this as a deterrent to prevent the beaches from getting too crowded.
  3. Expect lots of people on the beach. It could be difficult to maintain physical distancing. White Pine Beach is not a good place to be if you are worried about Covid-19 and are in a vulnerable group.
  4. The Sasamat Lake Loop hike is one-way only (counter-clockwise). Please respect this.

I took this photo of triathletes about to start their workout during an early-morning bike ride. This was a few weeks ago when the lake was still peaceful!

My first swim of the year at Sasamat Lake

One of the joys of summer for me is swimming in a lake. I’ve written in other posts about swimming at Sasamat Lake and the mini-triathlon course I set up for myself many years ago. At least once every summer, I do my triathlon all-out as a solo race.

This summer will be different.

I realized this last week when I decided I’d go to the lake in the morning to avoid crowds, and run a couple of laps of the lake trail to get warm enough to try my first dip in the freezing water. There haven’t been very many warm days yet.

First, I was shocked when I saw the sign saying White Pine Beach was “FULL” even though it wasn’t even 10:00 a.m.! That’s when I suspected it was a false alarm. Sure enough, the gate was open. However, I was astonished to see that the parking lots were about three quarters full, and it wasn’t even a sunny day!

I followed my plan, and ran over two loops of the lake trail. There were only a few people walking the loop. It was my first run there since last summer, and by the last 2K I was struggling with the many steps (which are tough on my arthritic knee) and the occasional steep little hills. I worked up a good sweat, though!

The beaches were crowded but I was able to isolate myself sufficiently in a grassy area. I managed to stay in the icy water for almost three minutes! I hadn’t been swimming since my last time at the Poirier Aquatic Centre, way back in February when I had my waterproof wrist cast on.

It was exhilarating to brave the water and swim frantically for a couple of minutes. I saw lots of triathletes in their wetsuits. No wonder they are at the lake—where else can they train? As for the rest of the crowd filling the beaches on a cloudy weekday morning—it shows how much people are longing for an escape from their homes. Kids haven’t been at school and all their organized sports have been cancelled, as have most trips and vacations.

We are living through a complicated medical and social experiment in this time of coronavirus. We’ll find out in the coming weeks if the crowded beaches lead to spikes in Covid-19 cases or not. If not, why not? Is the virus weakened by warmer weather, as other influenza viruses are? Will public health officials and parks officials impose stricter limitations to the number of people allowed on the beaches, or even close them altogether?

Whatever happens, I doubt that I’ll be able to swim at Sasamat Lake this summer whenever I want to. My favourite time at the lake is late afternoon, when the water is at its warmest and the sun’s rays don’t burn as fiercely. But I may have a lot of competition for my 2 square metres of beach real estate.

My first swim day was cloudy but that didn’t deter the beachgoers!
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Three unexpected gifts

IMG_3521

For nine years now, I have been keeping a journal I call “Three Good Things.” I write in it every night before going to bed, sometimes for less than a minute and sometimes for much longer. The only requirement is that I choose three positive things from my day to note down. It can be a whole experience; a special event or time with someone; it can be something tiny—a snippet of conversation, or something I read, or something beautiful that I saw or captured with my camera.

TinyBlueInSun

Even on the most awful days, I’ve always thought of something to write.

Yesterday was extraordinary. When I went to write in Three Good Things, I realized what made that day extraordinary was that I received three totally unexpected “good things.” To have had these three out-of-the-blue gifts bestowed in one day jolted me into writing this piece.

A new friend

The first gift was an email. To protect privacy, let’s just say it was from someone I met and interacted with in a Zoom meeting. He had a businesslike reason for sending me an email but chose to write a lot more about his personal life and goals than required. 

Most importantly, this person revealed an astounding genius with words, which I had already gathered from listening to him in the Zoom meeting. His email was a pure delight to read. Unlike my rather simple writing style, he was consciously poetic in his language and displayed a wonderful facility to play with words. I was so taken by some of his expressions that I copied them and, in my reply email, told him which ones were my favourites.

His words were not purposeless toys, though; his story made me want to emulate his creativity and work harder at reaching my own creative potential.

The long-lasting part of this gift is recognizing that I have met a “kindred spirit,” another person who loves words. I suspect we will have a fun and fruitful friendship through sharing words.

Loads of money

I must protect my own privacy here so I will only say that I received an unexpectedly decent sum of money yesterday. Like many people, I have lost money and work during Covid-19. This sum of money will “buy me time” to search for editing work that challenges and excites me. I can also spend time learning new skills that will help me with my editing business.

Eventually, when Covid-19 is over, I might use some of my newfound money to travel. I suspect that will stimulate me to produce many new words and photos!

An old friend

Early in the evening, I got a phone call from an old friend, Hans Fenz, who used to run sometimes with the Phoenix Running Club. Hans is 84 years old now, and he can’t run anymore because of foot injuries, but he keeps active with walking. In his time, Hans was an elite runner and mountaineer.

I was surprised to hear from him because we haven’t been in touch recently and the last time I saw him was probably at a Phoenix party almost two years ago. Hans started the conversation by telling me how wonderful my photos are—I guess he’s seen my photos on Facebook even if he doesn’t post there. Hans is a serious photographer himself—a much better photographer than I am. His compliment made me feel good. Then he went on to tell me about a trip he took to northern BC a few years ago, when his group’s guide got them very close to grizzly bears feeding on spawning salmon. Hans said he would like to send me some of his best bear photos.

After I asked him some questions about his bear sightings, Hans mentioned that he had planned to go to Europe this summer to visit his brother (he’s German) and do some hiking in the mountains he used to love. Now he can’t go because of Covid-19.

I could hear the fragility in his voice, and the sadness of an old man who was once a great athlete and can no longer participate the way he used to. And he knows his time of being able to hike mountainous trails is running out.

Hans finally got around to the supposed reason for his call—he was asking me if I had the phone number of a certain sports medicine doctor. I didn’t, but I was very happy Hans had called, and I told him so. It made me reflect yet again on the long-lasting bonds of friendship that running creates. Hans and I will always share this love of our sport and our understanding of what it has meant for us.

It seemed so special to get a phone call in this age of email and social media communication.

When Hans sent me his photos, I was pleased to see that, along with four bear photos, he had included a photo he had taken of me (holding my camera) at Jericho Beach perhaps eight years ago. We would have both been spectators at some important cross-country race. I liked the photo a lot—probably because I was younger!

HansNancyAtJericho

Me at Jericho Beach, ~2012. Photo by Hans Fenz.

Giving back

As I sat out on my balcony after sunset last night, in the lovely cool air following a heat-wave day, I reflected on the significance of the day’s three unexpected gifts.

I felt wealthy—not just because of the money part, but because I’d been reminded of the value of friendship, and of opportunities to continually grow and be creative.

I also have a basic idea about karma: that in some way, at some time, I will be returning the gifts I received. The currency of the gifts will be different. I don’t know exactly what I can give, and I don’t know for sure what my mode of giving will be. It might be something to do with writing; it might be something to do with my editing work; it will surely be about appreciating close friendships and all the other gifts that are part of my life every day.

IMG_3466

Sunset from my balcony.

Posted in Personal stories, Relationships, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Books for comfort: Duane’s Depressed, The Last Picture Show, and Machines Like Me

DuanesDepressedNote: I wrote this post over a month ago—before the time of coronavirus. Maybe it is even more relevant now.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post about books. Ironic, because in the past three months I’ve read many wonderful books. Books have kept me afloat during a physically difficult time. In a two-day period (December 24 and 25), I had a cycling accident that left me with a fractured wrist and came down with a horrible two-week bout of laryngitis.

Even before these two things happened, I was feeling a kind of lethargy that left me almost paralyzed during most afternoons. This lethargy may have been caused by my chronic insomnia or worsened by the season, but to me its grip seemed mysteriously strong. During that time, books prevented me from going crazy (especially during wakeful nights). They comforted me and kept me intellectually stimulated so I could avoid negative thoughts.

I’ve recently finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Duane’s Depressed and The Last Picture Show, as well as Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel. I want to write about these books because I’m surprised by the way I responded to them.

Why did these books affect me the way they did—in some ways against my expectations? I have read many books by both of these authors. What I came to realize is that our responses to books can be affected by our mental states or experiences we are going through when we read them. Books nurture us, and just as a given type of food or a certain recipe may be perfect for us during an illness or after a hard workout, books can give us exactly what will most benefit us at a certain time in our lives.

I read McMurtry’s books first, starting with Duane’s Depressed. I got this book out of the library though I was pretty sure I had read it before, perhaps twenty years ago. As soon as I started reading it, I recognized it. Moreover, I wasn’t impressed. The writing seemed superficial and casual. “This book is not worth my time,” I thought.

Yet it was easy reading—perfect for my lethargic afternoons—and I found myself being drawn in. The protagonist, Duane, is sixty-one years old at the start of the novel, and he’s undergoing a major life crisis. Abruptly, he quits his job as an oil field boss and hands the reins over to his son. He vows to stop driving his truck. He starts walking everywhere—this in a small Texas town where everyone drives, and no one has even heard of walking for mental or physical health. He walks right out of his lively home, away from his wife of over forty years, and away from the children and grandchildren who also live there. He plans to stay at his rustic cabin ten kilometres away while he thinks things over.

I soon realized that despite having read this book before, I could relate to Duane in an entirely new way now that I am sixty instead of forty. Duane is facing old age. When I was forty, old age was far away—I didn’t even consider myself middle-aged! Now, at age sixty, though my life story is completely unlike Duane’s (my education, places I’ve lived, athletic life, and social life could hardly be more different than his), I’m facing some of the same existential questions that he faces in the novel. There is a summing-up of what life has been. There may be regrets. There are things we are no longer capable of doing. It’s an age when we understand that the years are finite—what will we do with our remaining time?

McMurtry’s great achievement in this novel is the way he creates a sense of urgency despite the apparently casual, wandering tone and actions of his protagonist. He creates an inexorable psychological climax.

In this scene, Duane is revisiting a place where he used to buy fishing lures from an old man who was valued as much for his wild stories about the first oil booms as for his lures. Finding no trace of the old man or his tackle shop, Duane’s thoughts take a melancholy turn. Here, we see McMurtry’s words sing with power against the perfect backdrop for Duane’s epiphany—the mighty Red River that separates Texas from Oklahoma. Despite his deceptively simple and casual style, McMurtry is perfectly in control.

Mixed in the sudden pain was the feeling that he had arrived at the far edge of himself. The list of things he had never done was far longer than the list of things that might be considered accomplishments. All that he had done in the way of building things had merely slipped away, into the great stream of human effort, gone as silently as the sand below him slid into the flowing water. What had happened to his life? Why, in sixty-two years, had he made so little of it? He was not educated, he had not traveled, he knew nothing of the great cities of the world, he could speak no language except a crude English; he had never visited a great museum, or seen a great picture, or heard a great symphony orchestra, or read a great book.*

The above passage gives only a taste of Duane’s interior monologue during this powerful scene.

At this point, I raced through the remaining third of the book. Finishing it, I realized how thoroughly it had gripped me emotionally. McMurtry had succeeded in making me identify with a character completely different from myself, a man who had limited choices and lived his whole life in a small Texas town. In fact, I had become so attached to Duane and his supporting cast that I immediately went to the library and took out The Last Picture Show, allowing myself to read another book that I had read at least once before. I wanted to revisit Duane’s youth (this book covers his life as an 18-year-old) and rediscover the connection between the young man and the older man he became. (The Last Picture Show was made into the 1971 movie of the same name. It was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.)

LastPictureShow

I found it very satisfying to revisit many of the same characters I had encountered in Duane’s Depressed. There was sadness, too, in comparing the youthful versions of these people with their older selves. The two books made me think about the limitations of small-town life (especially in the past, before cheap air travel and the internet). Small-town people may have so few choices in life, and it is only a few gifted or lucky ones who escape from predictable and mundane lives.

Yet who am I to judge? Some, maybe many, find great happiness. Most of us live now in dense urban places with almost limitless technologies and gadgets, with vast online lives running parallel to our “real” physical lives. Yet all of this gives us no guarantee of happiness or freedom from loneliness. The complexity of our lives and the endless decisions to be made can overwhelm us.

Immediately after finishing The Last Picture Show, I started reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me. Ian McEwan is one of my favourite writers and I consider some of his books, such as Saturday and Atonement (made into an acclaimed 2007 movie directed by Joe Wright and starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly), to be masterpieces.

McEwan’s style is completely unlike McMurtry’s. McEwan has won all kinds of literary prizes (including the Booker for Amsterdam), and would be categorized as a “literary fiction” writer in contrast to McMurtry’s more “popular” appeal (though both are prolific writers with numerous bestsellers to their credit).

 

What I’ve always loved about McEwan’s writing is the way he seems able to capture human relationships and the human condition in all their complexity, creating characters that seem completely real. At the same time his novels are both plot- and idea-driven, always set within a fascinating or suspenseful historical or political context.

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In Machines Like Me, the story is set in an alternative-reality 1980s Britain where artificial intelligence is far more advanced than it was in the real 1980s. Charlie, the main protagonist and narrator, has just bought a synthetic human, one of twenty-five “Adams” and “Eves” who possess almost perfectly human appearances, movements, and abilities.

McEwan is going out on a limb in tackling the subject of advanced AI. This is fertile ground for so many questions about the plausibility and implications of having artificial humans around. What will the role of “real” humans be when the machines are vastly superior to humans in many ways? Charlie appreciates Adam’s taking over his stock market speculations and turning him into a rich man in a short time; but he is outraged when Adam has sex with his girlfriend, Miranda. He makes Adam promise to never do that again. Charlie and Miranda learn that Adam is unpredictable in disturbing ways. For example, he quickly learns how to disable his own “turn-off” switch.

Charlie finds that even though his rational mind keeps telling him that Adam is only a machine, he’s unable to hold back his emotional responses to Adam at times, and finds himself treating Adam like a fellow human being. McEwan’s fictional version of Alan Turing, one of AI’s greatest pioneers, insists that the Adams and Eves are “sentient,” and have a “self.” Adam himself proclaims that he is in love with Miranda, and he writes hundreds of haiku poems for her as proof.

Machines Like Me becomes increasingly dark as Charlie and Adam begin to disagree with each other in more ways than being in competition for the same woman. What are Adam’s “rights”? Why are many of his fellow Adams and Eves committing “suicide”? Why are Adam’s moral decisions so radically different than Charlie’s—how did the programmers get it so wrong?

This book, in its exploration of the potential incompatibility between humans and the machines that we might create in an attempt to replicate ourselves, forces us to confront what it means to be human. How are our decisions flawed, morally or otherwise, in ways that machines’ decisions don’t have to be? Will we always prefer human companions to machine companions because we instinctively value “humanness,” no matter how flawed?

McEwan’s scenario follows the familiar theme of humans losing control of the beings they create, but he also creates a new twist: the proposition that these machines do possess consciousness, and seem to become so depressed by their “lives” in the human world that they choose to commit “suicide.” They engineer their own destruction.

I finished reading Machines Like Me almost a week ago. I see from what I’ve written above that its ideas have stuck with me and provoked a lot of thought. Yet for sheer enjoyment, I preferred the two McMurtry books. Since Ian McEwan comes higher on my list of “favourite writers” than Larry McMurtry, I was trying to figure out why, as a reader, I didn’t like Machines Like Me as much as many of McEwan’s previous books.

I’ve decided that it’s because I don’t think the human characters, Charlie and Miranda, are as fully realized as McEwan’s protagonists usually are. Charlie, especially, is not likeable or admirable, and Miranda remains somewhat mysterious. This is a novel of ideas, set in an alternate 1980s world where AI has already advanced far beyond what we have now in 2020. Although it engaged me intellectually, McMurtry’s books, with their down-to-earth characters facing crises of youth, middle age, and old age, were the books that nourished me during this difficult winter.

*McMurtry, Larry. Duane’s Depressed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 279.

 

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