Run the Marathon

I was exhausted and decided to slump on a futon in the living room with the TV on. As I browsed through Netflix or Amazon — I can’t remember which — I came across Marathon Man. Watching Olivier’s amazing performance as well as Dustin Hoffman writhing in pain won over raking leaves.

Seeing the movie lead to, of course, wanting to read the book. (What? It doesn’t work that way for you?) I’ve read a few of Goldman’s novels before including Magic, which I checked out of the public library when my parents refused to let me see the movie. It scared the crap out of me.

Early in the movie we see Dustin Hoffman’s “Babe” run around the Central Park Reservoir, and struggle to keep up with another jogger. This is meant to convey the idea to us that Babe wants to be a marathoner just as much, if not more, than the historian we later find he is studying to be.

The scene is right out of the book, except in the book Goldman can put us in Babe’s head (Goldman adapted the screenplay too.) :

“He was going to run the marathon. Like Nurmi. Like the already mythical Nurmi. Years from now, all across the world, track buffs would agonize over who was greatest, the mighty Finn or the fabled T. B. Levy. “Levy,” some of them would argue, “no one would ever run the final five miles the way Levy ran them,” and others would counter that by the time the last five miles came, Nurmi would be so far ahead, it wouldn’t matter how fast Levy ran them, and so the debate would rage, expert against expert, down the decades.”

What I don’t know about running marathons would fill volumes. I hate running, and will be dealing with that for the next several months while I prepare for Tough Mudder. What this passage brought home to me to was pacing as a strategy. If you’re going to run 26 miles you need to know how to set different paces during the race, depending on where and when you are in the race, as well as where your opponents are.

The “life is a marathon” cliché is, well, a cliché. A well-worn cliché. But sometimes well-worn things fit nicely and are quite functional. (Like a favorite hoodie that finally fits perfectly after years of wear and then your wife tosses it. But I digress…)

Seeing things as a marathon gives me the overview I need for sustainable success. A “diet” is a sprint. Eating healthily is a marathon. A New Year’s Resolution is a sprint. Making exercise a part of my regular routine is a marathon.

But seeing things as a marathon also means checking my pace and changing it for the current terrain. “Babe” daydreams of speeding his pace at the end of a marathon to catch Paavo Nurmi in the last five miles. The race isn’t determined by the pace he sets at mile 1: he has to adjust during the race to make sure he finishes, and also that he finishes first.

“Finishing” and of course “finishing first” are where the cliché part of “life as a marathon” become most apparent to me. Life is not a race and there is no finish line when it comes to living well, at least not one I’m in a hurry to get to.

But the idea of adjusting my pace as I go is something I could learn a lot about.

I’ve had a tough past few weeks. Many times I sat at the table, stressed and emotionally and physically exhausted, and felt the desire to relieve some stress with food. Sometimes I was able to resist. Other times I adjusted by eating more but at least keeping it healthy.

Adjusting my exercise pace was were the strategy paid huge benefits. At times heading to the weights or bike and working hard was a help. A few other times recognizing that there were other priorities and that I needed to either skip or reschedule a shorter, lighter, sessions was the right thing to do.

This idea of pacing is a life skill that I am coming to recognize and learn rather late in life. It’s served me well the last few months and even more so the past couple of weeks.


No One Sees The Barn

There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along the cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing an photographing. All the people had camera: some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides —pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

I read the passage above in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” while Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was playing on the radio. This was four days before Thanksgiving.

I used to really like Springsteen’s take on the holiday classic. I remember looking forward to hearing it. Of course I had to look forward to hearing it because even though I listened to WNEW almost continuously as a teenager, I was lucky if I heard “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” 3 times in one year. It was a treat. Not anymore — Christmas tunes show up sometime after Halloween and are flogged mercilessly through December 25th. This is everywhere: the radio (which is only on the for the birds; they like commercials — so they really like music radio), stores, elevators, even at gas station pumps.

My aversion to early Yuletide indicators has nothing to do with religion. I’m not a religious person. I’m more of an a-religious person. It’s just something I don’t have. I think religion has a lot to answer for, but it can take credit for a few things too. (That’s another discussion.)

The problem with early sightings of Santa Claus, tinsel, and wreaths is strictly secular: we can’t see the Barn anymore.

The “Barn” is a season of generosity, family, and peace. It’s the Christmas of  A Visit from St NicholasA Christmas Carol, The Homecoming, A Miracle on 34th Street,  The Gift of The Magi, and White Christmas.

In “A Christmas Carol” Dickens set out to create a picture of Christmas that would appeal to both religious and secular people. He was an advocate for the poor and sought to reach them via story. It’s safe to say, 170 years later, that he succeeded.

Right there, in that story, is a plea to not lose the Christmas Spirit. So is my concern misplaced? Are my complaints simply a symptom of my impending (some might say nascent) curmudgeon-hood?

Well, things have certainly gotten worse, not better. A couple of years ago stores starting opening on Thanksgiving day in an effort to capture our shopping dollars by moving the season up. This year Wal-Mart is moving “Cyber Monday” to Sunday. Even secular traditions last less than a decade when faced with the weathering effects of a retailer’s greed.

We’re so consumed with “Black Friday” that’s it become a (largely inaccurate) economic indicator. We don’t just talk about shopping and low prices, we talk about shoppers and total sales, and it influences stock market prices and the annual plans of some businesses. It’s similar to the relationship between commercials and the Super Bowl.

The noise has consumed the signal.  We can’t see the Barn.

While rumors of my curmudgeon-dom may or may not have been exaggerated, I’m not one to blame all ills on capitalism. The market can drive creativity instead of always derailing it. Dickens wanted to convey a message about generosity and helping the poor, but he was also at a point on his career where he needed a bestseller too. These needs combined to create an enduring cornerstone of Western culture.

To a certain degree the secular notion of Christmas is a victim of the forces that created it. Marketing the holiday to a broad audience requires altering the message to one that can be appreciated by people that are not practicing Christians. This becomes like a game of “telephone” and eventually we end up with “make yourself (and maybe others) happy with more stuff!” It’s not an inevitable outcome, but that’s what seems to have happened.

It’s not a stretch to say that this is driven by the retailer’s desire to get the holiday buck, and the pressure they are feeling due from online sales is making them more desperate each year. Rather than competing with quality products and a better shopping experience, they seem to think that getting to you first is how they win. So we have Christmas sales after Labor Day. We even have the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer frantically trying to apply this logic to Cyber Monday.

Where’s the Barn? Is it gone? I don’t think so.

When I was a kid the Barn was family. I didn’t know it at the time but it was.

I have a few fond memories of Christmas. Here’s one that resurfaced when my son was young that made me realize what it’s all about.

My grandparents brought my father’s family to the United States in 1929. They believed in starting the celebration on Heiligabend, what we call Christmas Eve.* My grandmother wanted to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve too. Sometimes we did, sometimes we did not.

One Christmas Eve, I think I was 5 or 6 years old (mainly because I don’t remember my sister being around yet and I still believed in Santa,) my grandparents visited us at home. Santa Claus had visited their house early and left me my very own rocking chair!

I don’t remember why I was so excited about a rocking chair. I remember a kid-sized rocking chair. I remember being excited. I remember that moment. I remember my surprise at my grandparents arriving.  I remember being thrilled at seeing them.

While the 5 or 6 year old Eric was probably thrilled by getting a gift just as much as at seeing his grandparents (they lived a few minutes away and I saw them often) adult Eric looks back on those family times and gets a different thrill.

There’s not much to be done to about the greedy marketers and retailers that are actively diluting Christmas to nothing more than a vehicles for “sales” that are more of a bad deal than anything else.

We can only try to keep Christmas ourselves. Find your Barn, and keep your eyes on it.

Photo credit: Kristen B

* They actually followed the full “Advent” package with the calendars etc, but in terms of the actual holiday, they considered it 2 days, like most of Germany still does. Yes: many stores actually close for 2 1/2 days (starting midday on the 24th) in Germany and the economy withstands it!




American Vignettes (I): Totalitarian Undercurrents

“Yet, the world around you is being made more uniform. The neighbourhood bars, the little storefronts and the local factories you remember from childhood trips through Chicago are slowly being replaced with identical corporate units. Manhattan makes you uncomfortable with its cleanliness, its order, as if the madness of those streets promised in the pages of Kerouac and scenes of Scorsese is now tended like a garden in a California theme park.”

I know the point of this blog was something much more important, but this paragraph really stuck out to me while I am visiting suburban North Carolina, and was just thinking how much the metropolitan New York City looks like it. For a long time we seemed to be able to resist it. Not anymore. The corporate least common denominator is winning.

Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt

(This post originally appeared on Medium. This is a week of thanks, and while I am still very sad to have lost Caffeine I am still grateful for the 12 years she spent with me. It seems appropriate to repost over here this week.)

I said goodbye to Caffeine, our 12 year old Border Collie mix a few days ago. This is my attempt at processing the grief.

It’s 5:57 AM and I have, as usual, awakened a few minutes before the alarm. I’m barely conscious and have only now opened my eyes.


That’s Caffeine’s tail thumping on the bed. She has sensed the change in my respiration. If I move I will be smothered in “kisses.” I’m not ready for this yet.

A minute later I shift from my left side to my back. Because I am ready.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido once said:

The Aikido I practice has room for each one of the world’s eight million gods and I cooperate with each one of them. The Great Spirit of Aiki enjoins all that is Divine and enlightened in every land. Unite yourself to the Divine and you will be able to perceive gods wherever you are.

Ueshiba’s notion of “gods” and the “Divine” are rooted in Shinto. Unlike the monotheistic supreme being of Abrahamic religions or even the limited pantheons of Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology, Shinto believes in Kami, the divine life essence in all things. Nature is made up of gods and makes up the God in Shinto, and they represent what we humans should strive to be. (This is, by necessity, an oversimplification. Translating Kami to English requires entire books, not a blog post.)

In my personal creed dogs are Kami. They contain this Divine life essence and represent what we humans can only hope to be. My answer to the famous riddle is a unequivocal “yes.”

Most importantly, dogs are special because of what they are. Not because they are like humans, but despite any similarities.

It’s a cold Thursday evening in February, there’s snow on the ground and the roads are a mess. I left work early so I could visit a rescue in Lyndhurst with Dagmar and Christian.

Despite the terrible condition of the roads we get to the grooming storefront where the rescue is run early and they are closed. I decide to stop over at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a snack since we skipped dinner to make the trip. I’m tired and running on empty.

When we get back to the storefront they are unloading the 2 black and white puppies we came to see, a boy and a girl. They don’t have names yet. We follow them inside.

When we get inside they leave us alone with the puppies. The girl is a firecracker, prancing around the room and soliciting play with Chris and I. At one point she attacks and shreds the waxy bag my Dunkin’ bagel came in. I quip that they should name her Caffeine.

A week later Caffeine is part of our family.

The Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 can “see in all four dimensions.” Meaning that rather than perceiving time as the linear and serial progression we do, they can see all of time at once.

Early in the novel Billy Pilgrim describes how the Tralfamadorians relate to time and death:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever…Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”

Is this phrase meant to be glib? Does it represent an acceptance of death or a numbness to it? I’m not sure what it means, but right now it seems to be comforting.

Dagmar and I are in the outdoor agility ring at St. Hubert’s. It’s our third or fourth agility class with a just barely 1 year old Caffeine. I miscue her for the millionth time and she breaks away from the A-frame we’re standing in front of to take the tunnel, the dog walk, the chute…anything but the A-frame.

Then she returns to me, gives me her big goofy smile, and seems to be saying “That was great! Why don’t you come with me this time?”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

No. Everything doesn’t. Things happen and it is up to us to deal with them as they come. It’s easy to blame (or credit) external forces rather than accepting responsibility for where we are. Our lives are the sum total of the decisions we make, minute to minute, day to day, year to year.

We hate uncertainty and ambiguity. Everything must have a cause and an effect. This seems to be related to our inherent desire to find patterns and reason in our chaotic and random world.

But things happen that can’t be explained and can’t be wrapped into a neat package. Some times these things are very good. Some times they are very bad. Most often they are somewhere in the middle.

Some people, including my father if he were still here, would call this existentialist or even nihilistic. But looking past external forces and accepting responsibility isn’t the same as denying meaning.

It’s up to us to find any meaning in events that we can. The moments are still there, it’s up to us to sort them out and pick out the important ones.

I am kneeling on the blanket the vet tech brought into the room. Caffeine’s head is resting on my arm. She is completely relaxed as I stroke her neck. As the doctor pushes the plunger on the second injection she tells me “She can still hear you.” I nod, while thinking that we don’t need words to talk to each other. She knows I love her. The doctor pushes the plunger on the third hypo, and I watch her chest rise and fall for the last time. I weep for the first time in many, many years, and the first time in many for the next few days.

I wish I could view time like a stretch of mountains, and not like beads on a string.

I’ll have to do my best.