Monday, October 25, 2010

The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis — Columbus Museum of Art

Cover of "The Book of Genesis Illustrated...Cover via AmazonWe were present at the Columbus Museum of Art on October 7, 2010, for the members only opening of "The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis."

If you are unfamiliar with the world of comic book and cartoon art, you may not know who Robert Crumb is, known professionally as R. Crumb. But if you have had any exposure at all to that medium, you will likely know who I'm talking about, because Crumb is among the most admired of all underground comic artists. If you've ever seen the one-page comic Keep on Truckin', which was plastered everywhere starting in 1968, or are familiar with "Fritz the Cat," then you have seen a miniscule portion of Crumb's prolific output.

Crumb is not for everybody. Some of his work is vulgar, even overtly pornographic. But above all, Crumb draws well, and his work is usually at least interesting in its meticulous attention to detail, and is at times innovative.

My first conscious exposure to Crumb was by means of the collaborations he did on "American Splendor" with Cleveland comic author Harvey Pekar, who did not draw himself, but simply wrote stories about his own life, and sketched what he wanted with stick figures, leaving the drawing to others.  Crumb was still unknown and living in Cleveland in the mid sixties, when they met and struck up a friendship based on mutual tastes in music. Pekar showed Crumb his ideas for cartoons, and Crumb offered to draw some of them for him, which led to success for Pekar — as successful as underground comic artists get — resulting even in the 2003 movie entitled "American Splendor," with Paul Giamatti playing Pekar.

Meanwhile, Crumb moved on to San Francisco, other work, including such jobs as popular album covers, and eventual fame in the late sixties scene of hippies and bands and all the rest — although Crumb himself was never a hippie, nor was he much like the people he hung out with and who admired him, which included notables such as Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
Sometime in the eighties Crumb and his wife, tired of the United States, moved to an unglamorous dwelling in the south of France, where they remain to this day. He's still hard at work.

Jump forward from the sixties several decades and most of a career, to the present. One day last year, before I was conscious of the name R. Crumb, I was browsing in the art book store at OSU's Wexner Center and stumbled upon an astonishing work: "The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R.  Crumb" (That's the exact full title.) As a student of the Bible for now over forty years, I was eager to see what this was about. Expecting to encounter disrespectful, gross distortions created for laughs, I was surprised to see instead a work in Crumb's polished and unmodified cartooning style that seemed to be a faithful representation of the scriptural text, and including the text itself, though using a modern translation I am not familiar with. I thumbed through just a few pages before moving on, but the experience was memorable, and I wished I had more time to look at the book.

Which brings me to the primary subject of this article. On October 7, the Columbus Museum of art opened an exhibit of not just a sampling, but of all 207 of the original pages of this book, strung at comfortable reading level in a long, snaking sequence through a series of galleries. The originals are roughly 9x12 inches each (an eyeball guesstimate), and extraordinary to look at.

It was then that I learned that every word of Genesis is written on those pages, including the genealogies, looking much like rogues galleries, and that the artist, who says he believes that Genesis is a work of men rather than the word of God, nonetheless spent five years working on the project, giving the greatest care and respect to the subject matter.  It's the juxtaposition of the sacred text with R. Crumb's uncompromised and highly distinctive style that make the work special.

Decades ago I lost track of the number of times I'd read through Genesis (and the rest of the Bible, which, in contrast to Mr. Crumb, I do believe is the word of God). It's fair to say that I know what it says.

I found at this show that it's possible for someone familiar with the source material to cover the entire exhibit meaningfully, thereby "reading" the whole book of Genesis in about an hour and a half — which is exactly what Suzy and I did — with a short break in the middle to go hear a chorus performing on the grand staircase.

Imagine my amusement when I was jolted to see part of the narrative out of sequence. On one page I saw Rebekah nursing twins, and on the next she was pregnant. These things usually happen in the opposite order. That's when I discovered that they had hung up two pages in the wrong order: 89, 91, and 90. (The numbers are written in light pencil outside the printing border.)

We finished just in time to hear the last background lecture by the show's curator, who opened things up at the end for any questions. I asked whether she had been alerted to the incorrect sequence. She replied with considerable surprise that she didn't know, was grateful to find out about it, and wondered how I knew. I said I knew because I know the Bible, and saw the story was out of sequence, but it was easy enough to verify by looking at the page numbers.

Even though hundreds of people trooped through the showing, few were making it much further than halfway; it was crowded at the front, where an anatomically correct Adam and Eve are seen standing naked, and desolate by Jacob's deathbed prophecy, as if to indicate that sampling a few dozen pages was enough for most persons to get the idea. Because it was opening night, and because likely few people were reading in much detail, it's no surprise that this hadn't been reported, but if they failed to fix it, I'm sure someone else came along later and set them straight again, so presumably it is fixed by now.

If you live in Columbus, Ohio, be sure to get over to Columbus Museum of Art before January 16, 2011, when the exhibit closes.
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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Daughters Are Good — Columbus Half Marathon 2010

Last spring our daughter Cyra-Lea wrote to ask if I'd be willing to pick out and run a half marathon with her this fall. I hadn't done that sort of running for several yearse. My last half marathon race was in February, 2004, my last full marathon was in May, 2005, and I haven't run anything but ultramarathons since then. But how could I say no? Not that I wanted to. I was delighted, and agreed to do it immediately. It would give me an excuse to try to get back to doing some real running.

Cyra-Lea and I have run together in the past. Her longest prior race was ten kilometers — either once or twice; the last time she was seventeen years old. She's twenty-eight now. Daughters are good!

It wasn't hard for us to determine that the best choice for a race would be the Nationwide Columbus Marathon and Half Marathon here in town on October 17, 2010 (today), which I had not run myself, but heard only good things about. We visited Cyra-Lea and her husband over the July 4th weekend, at which time we sat down at the computer and registered, engraving the decision in stone. We also worked out a twelve-week training plan for Cyra-Lea.

Cyra-Lea drove in from Charlestown, Indiana (near Louisville, Kentucky) by herself on Thursday. (Her husband is busy in school, so couldn't make it.) This gave us the opportunity to visit, drive the course that afternoon; on Friday to go for a walk and then to the expo, avoiding the weekend rush; and to have a relaxing Saturday.

Well — I did three and a half hours of leaf raking, and Cyra-Lea and Suzy spent about seven hours shopping, so it wasn't physically relaxing, but it wasn't stressful.

It's been a long time since I've had as much outright fun running a race as I did today. Over the years I've grown just a little bit cold toward certain features of mega-races: the large crowds, the high cost (especially when travel is rolled in), the crassly commercial sale of useless, cheesy memorabilia, and the vacuous hype are not my style. On the other hand, I certainly don't dislike the races themselves, and I advocate any sort of fitness activity that helps people live a healthier life style. But until a few months ago, given my own preference for ultramarathons (always much smaller), I figured my own experience with these races came an end long ago.

Now that I've experienced it, I'll give Columbus Marathon a solid five-star rating in every aspect of it that I witnessed, from the expo to the starting area, availability of parking, number of portajohns, pleasantness of the course (I'm familiar with most of the route that the marathoners run, too), timing, the website, aid stations, music on the course, crowd support, the finish, and food for finishers — all are superb. And all of it is practically in my own back yard.

This morning we were up at 5:00 a.m. sharp. Cyra-Lea was sleeping fitfully in the family room rather than the basement bedroom because as a nurse who works several night shifts a week her fractured sleep patterns are unlike those of most of us.

We had plenty of time to get ourselves out the door, and left by 6:05. It takes less than ten minutes to get downtown. (The start is less than five miles away; I could have walked to and from it, and might have considered if I'd been doing this alone.) The one big question was where I would park. I used to work downtown, and know the area well. We would have to come up Fourth Street, crossing Broad a block east of the race start. Surely it would be open at 6:15. To my relief, it was.

One amusing sight before the race was with some roads closed, the tangle of one-way streets downtown, and some signs up at the ends of some saying STREET CLOSED, watching confused drivers, many from out of town, wander the wrong direction on some of them, fishing around for parking places.

For me it was a no-brainer, as I knew exactly where to go. On Sunday parking meters are free. I used to park on weekends and holidays that I went to the office on a little one-way street called Pearl Alley, just 270 feet from where I used to work (all measurements in this report are according to Google Maps), a quarter mile from the center of Broad and High, the location of our place in the fourth corral, the one for slowpokes. Most parking spaces on the main streets were already taken, but all those in that block on Pearl Alley were still open. So I zipped in and we just sat and chatted in the car for a half hour before heading out to the start, just around the corner and up the street a couple of blocks.

Weather is something that no one can predict before signing up for a race. In mid-October it's possible to have the most glorious autumn weather imaginable. There is also every possibility for clouds, rain, and high temperatures in the forties. This year the weather could not have been more perfect if I had custom ordered it from a website called Weather-R-Us. It's has been brightly sunny all day, the temperature while waiting at the start was around 45, but completely comfortable for both of us, and ranged up to about 55 by the end of the race, with a high later in the day of 70.

We found a place to stand in our corral, but shortly after we arrived, Cyra-Lea wanted to visit a portapotty, so I followed, decided it would be stupid not to try it myself as long as I was there, and am glad I did, as it turned out to be a productive decision. After that I was definitely all set, and just wanted to get started.

The beginning is right in front of the Ohio Statehouse, at the corner of Broad and Third Street, a long block up from where we parked. The race began on time (7:30 a.m.), with the starting gun accompanied by fireworks that shot up the side of a bank. I was only a little bit worried when I realized they were shooting up the side of my bank. It was okay, because our deposits are insured.

As is customarily the case in these extravaganzas, we couldn't budge an inch for several minutes. I don't know exactly what time it was when we hit the timing mat. I was thinking 7:45, but it was apparently earlier than that. Either that, or we started a little later than I thought.

Music was everywhere on the course, and it was almost all well-played. The band at the start was especially good, as they began the race by playing Born to Run, followed by some song Cyra-Lea identified as being by the Beastie Boys. Throughout the race we were rarely more than a block out of hearing range from a live band, featuring everything from amplified soloists to a military brass band on the west side of the Statehouse on the return.

At this race I had two primary goals. Ideally, I wanted to finish one step behind Cyra-Lea. The second was to run the whole thing without walking. I accomplished the second, but at ten miles got separated from Cyra-Lea and finished before her.

Immediately upon crossing the timing mat, I started my watch. I did click mile splits when I saw the signs, all accompanied by prominent race clocks, but I never looked at my watch until I was done, because it didn't really matter. The three or four times I paid attention, I estimated my progress by subtracting ten or fifteen minutes from the displayed race time.

I knew this race would be slow. Not an event I had planned on doing myself, for me it marked a comeback from nearly two years of greatly reduced running, though I still did a great deal of walking during that period. And Cyra-Lea, who has inherited my genes, is no speedster either. Therefore, from the beginning I ran slowly, at times more slowly than is generally comfortable for me, in order to keep pace with Cyra-Lea.

Broad, which goes mostly east, but also angles slightly north, is — well — broad, which helped to minimize the problems with crowding in the early stages. We were able to utilize customary strategies so as to get around people: surging through holes, shifting left and right, etc. It wasn't hard at all despite the number of runners. But maybe that was because most runners were already ahead of us. For the first ten miles Cyra-Lea and I were either side by side or very close together.

The crowd support at this race, encouraged no doubt by the superb weather, was extraordinary. The spectators contributed to the excitement the whole way.
The best sign we saw on the first part of the course said:


The reference is to The Ohio State University Buckeyes football team's phenom quarterback. Until yesterday the Bucks were rated number one in the country. But last night they were thoroughly trounced by Wisconsin, and were not helped by a handful of poor (in my estimation questionable) runs by Pryor, a versatile athlete who rushes more often than most quarterbacks.

Eventually, we turned north on Parkview, in the swanky part of Bexley, and ran by the governor's mansion. Governor Ted Strickland was standing on his corner, accompanied by body guards, and cheering. I'd been expecting to see him, so ran close to the curb as we approached — not close enough to high five, as I had hoped, but I did manage to make eye contact and exchange a friendly greeting. It's likely that many runners, particularly out-of-staters, had no idea who that ordinary-looking man in the brimmed hat and windbreaker was.

Two blocks later we turned south on Drexel, to go 1.36 miles, all downhill, on a wide street with beautiful homes. Suzy was waiting on the corner of Drexel and Main in downtown Bexley, the nearest point on the course to our house (about a mile and a quarter away), a bit past the five-mile point, where we saw her long enough for her to try to snap a picture, but we mostly just waved and cheered and kept moving. We were doing well, and Cyra-Lea was clearly enjoying herself.

Once we got past the shops on Main, the short unattractive segment of the course followed. We turned north on Nelson for less than half a mile, then ran across the south end of Franklin Park.
At the six-mile aid station I was able to pat hands with Cheryl Link, whom I know from Dead Runners Society and Facebook, but had never met in person. Cheryl ran a half marathon herself yesterday, and now, in the spirit of the sport, was out giving generously of her time and effort to help other runners. Volunteer support at this race was extraordinary, for which runners should always be grateful; we couldn't do it without the volunteers.

The road south of beautiful Franklin Park is narrow, hillier than most places on the course, with a surface that is a bit rough, but after coming up the west side, we were back on Broad doubling back the other way (westerly) a little over a mile, then south and into residential neighborhoods to the southeast of downtown. This took us back to Third Street, a few blocks south of where we started, where we headed south again, over the highway, and then into German Village.

By this time I was leading Cyra-Lea by an average of fifteen to twenty-five yards, and kept looking back over my shoulder, as I slowed, several times to let her catch up, but never stopped running. She took a couple of short walking breaks.

Around mile nine she decided she was pretty much toast, but was determined to keep doing her best. I kept looking back, and even ran backwards up to twenty or thirty yards at a time at least three times, hoping she would push herself to keep as close as possible.

Just after the ten-mile marker I turned to run backwards, searched, and couldn't find Cyra-Lea. She'd been doing really well, and said she was fine, so I had to make a decision whether to hang back, or press forward. Confident that she would be okay, I picked up the pace with the intent of running as hard as I could, knowing that a negative split was a real possibility given the slowness of the first half. Although I don't have the exact numbers, I'm sure I was right.

After going around Schiller Park in German Village, we came out to High Street, the main north-south drag through Columbus, another wide street, and a straight shot from the turn for nearly two miles until the turnoff onto Nationwide Boulevard, which encloses a quarter-mile finishing chute in massive chain link fences. I was able to run hard on some downhill segments of High.

The last couple of blocks before that turn is a horribly steep uphill, but once on the straightaway after the turn, it's a screaming downhill to the end, and I sprinted it in as hard as I could, trying to pass one final big guy, who edged me out. (I have no idea what his start time was.)

The organization after the chute was carried out with the precision of a military operation. In fact, they had soldiers manning some of the food tables.

I stood and waited anxiously for Cyra-Lea, not knowing whether she'd blown up or remained fairly close. In fact, her finishing time was only 5:27 behind mine. I was thrilled when I saw her come through the crowd sooner than I expected, with a finisher's medal around her neck, upon which she announced, "I did it! I'm a half marathoner."

There was food in abundance. I took only a bottle of water and a smallish Krispy Kreme. Cyra-Lea grabbed a couple of things to eat later. (I have never eaten or drunk anything during a half marathon ever, so by that time needed water and a shot of sugar.)

We weren't with anyone, don't know hardly any runners in Columbus, and were planning on going out for late brunch, so we didn't hang out to socialize, party, or listen to the band playing in Arch Park. The walk to our car was less than half a mile, and getting out was as easy as could be, since by then everything we had to cross or travel on had opened up, and Sunday morning traffic was light. We got back home by 11:00 a.m., showered, and went out to enjoy a large meal at Bob Evans, a popular and folksy but not fancy Columbus-based family restaurant chain.

The results reporting for Columbus Marathon, supplied externally by a company called MTec Results, is among the best I've ever seen. For each runner looked up, a number of statistics are shown in an impressively laid out display, including, in addition to final chip time, also ten kilometer split time, average pace, overall place, gender place, and age group pace, all in three different formats. It also shows how many runners the displayed person passed from ten kilometers to finish in the overall category, and how many passed that runner. From a software point of view, given that with chip timing, runners are running asynchronously, it's an interestingly tricky problem.

For reference, my half marathon PR is 2:03 and change, run over twelve years ago. When I was running them regularly I typically came in between 2:15 and 2:17. Given that caveat, here's what the numbers tell me about today's half marathon. The percentages shown I calculated myself, as I do for every race I run, dividing my place by the total shown.

7925 (3224 men, 4701 women) ran the half marathon

Average finish: 2:10:33 (I think that's fast for an average!)

Lynn Newton: 2:43:31 (90.4%)
I placed 28 out of 37 runners in the M6569 Age Group (75.7%)
I placed 7165 out of 7925 runners overall (90.4%)
I placed 3055 out of 3222 Males (94.8%)

Cyra-Lea Drummond: 2:48:58
She placed 7366 out of 7925 runners overall (92.9%)
She placed 4270 out of 4701 Females (90.8%)
She placed 917 out of 977 runners in the F2529 Age Group (93.4%)

From those numbers, I can see that after I surged ahead of Cyra-Lea after the ten-mile point, I finished 201 runners ahead of her, by a margin of 5:27. I was delighted that the gap was that small, and given that her own goal was to go sub-3:00, she is pleased as well.

This afternoon we are two tired but happy puppies, having accomplished our mission with pleasure and aplomb.
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Monday, September 20, 2010

I Coulda Had a Medal

It was not until August 25, 2010, that I decided to run the North Coast 24-Hour Endurance Run (NC24) in Cleveland, Ohio. Up until the day before, I assumed that I would not be able to participate, and have done no ultramarathon training at all since 2008.

The year 2010 has marked my return to running, following a period of inactivity resulting mostly from fallout following my move from Arizona to Ohio, the aftershocks of which continue to haunt me. During 2008, I ran less then half the mileage that I averaged the ten previous years. By the end of 2008 I decided to stick to long distance walking, declaring myself to be an Urban Walker; no longer would I run ultramarathons, except perhaps races I could walk.

Life changed in 2009. Gradually I began running again on a regular basis, at first in tiny bits, but ending the year with 650 miles more than in 2008. Beginning on January 1, 2010, I successfully negotiated a 100-day running-and-walking streak, through the ice and snow of dead winter, ending with a forty-mile walk on April 10, followed by eight non-consecutive rest days the remainder of April. On May 1, I began streaking once again, aiming to continue until Labor Day, gradually increasing the ratio of running to walking. Along with the benefits of all this has come the loss of over twenty pounds of slob, which has certainly helped my running, not to mention the general state of my health.

In late spring my daughter invited me to run a half marathon with her this fall — her first. How could I refuse? So we signed up to run the Nationwide Better Health Columbus Half Marathon on October 17, four weeks from now.

Therefore, the type of running that I've been doing lately has been focused around increasing the distance I can run continuously. It was just a few years ago that I occasionally knocked off training weeks with mileages in the seventies, and performed feats like running ten no-walking half-marathons in ten days. But I can't do that any more. So far my biggest running day of 2010 has been when I ran 12.3 non-stop miles on a hot day in late August. I stopped there because I ran out of trail, but I couldn't have gone too much further.

The last several weeks I've experienced recurring pain on the top of my left foot. It's not bad enough to make me lay off, but it hasn't gone away, either, and it's been more than a minor annoyance. I probably should do something about it, but I tend to belong to the "ignore it and maybe it'll go away" school of medical treatment.

Then, on September 2, at two and half miles into a ten kilometer out and back, disaster struck, when a sharp pain shot through my right Achilles tendon, causing me to pull up short with a howl. I knew immediately that I was injured for real, and that it would be impossible to go on. Unfortunately, there was no way to get back to my car except to limp cautiously at a twenty-four minute per mile pace. The next day was the first day I took off exercising since April 30, just a few days short of my Labor Day goal. I began immediately with stretching and icing my heel.

Starting the next day I ventured forth cautiously on a few very slow, short walks. There was little I could do but accept that I would have to endure an enforced fifteen-day taper heading into a 24-hour race that I had decided to run barely a week before.

On September 11, 2010, I experimented with a cautious run-walk strategy, in which I counted steps in cycles of four, starting with sixteen, but never going higher than eighty: 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, ... 80-2-3-4 (320 steps total), breathing in two steps, breathing out two steps. It worked so well that I was confident I would be all right on race day, so didn't run another step until the race, but did walk four, three, two, and two miles the week before race day, and took the last two days completely off.

That is — except that NC24 race director Dan Horvath asked if I could show up in Medina, Ohio, the afternoon before the race to help load the truck they'd rented. Sure, I was happy to do that — until I saw the Ryder truck big enough to move an entire warehouse together with the mass of stuff that had to be hauled out of a basement, up a hill, and loaded onto the truck, including over a hundred cases of water, forty-eight pounds each, almost as much Gatorade, and plenty of other stuff with some heft to it, upon which I began to have visions of my race about to fly out the window. Fortunately, about ten people, including Connie Gardner and Nick Coury, who both had exceptional races, also showed up to help.

Contrary to expectations, the hour and a half of non-stop lifting and carrying worked like a miracle drug, as it helped to flush out the poisons of accumulated lethargy, leaving me exhilarated rather than tired.

Between gimpy feet and having almost no time at all to prepare for the race, I did way better than expected. My elevator speech version of the race is this: I had an outstanding first twelve hours, melted down quickly after that, but did better than last year.

On race morning I timed getting ready about as perfectly as possible. I arrived at Edgewater Park at 7:35 AM, leaving me time to set up at a leisurely pace, then get over to hear the pre-race briefing, leaving almost no time to waste sitting around getting nervous.

My preference the past several fixed-time races I've run has been to operate with a minimalist trackside arrangement, consisting of a camp chair, and a small folding table with a gym bag containing a few things that might be required, most of which I didn't need at all. The table served mostly as a place to set my trusty Ultimate Direction 26-ounce water bottle, the type with a kicker valve.

While I'm happy to have a little assistance when it's available, I've long been accustomed to running these races without support. Maybe I would run them better if I had one of those spacious and festively decorated canopy tents staffed with a large crew of zealous sponsors, friends, and family who don't mind sitting outside all night while watching me lumber by and grumble at them them every fifteen minutes or so. But somehow I don't think it would help enough to make the trouble worth it.

This year the race date was bumped a couple of weeks earlier than last year in order to minimize the possibility of disagreeable weather. The temperature reached the upper seventies, probably hotter in late afternoon on this unshaded asphalt bike path. Easterners consider this to be uncomfortable, or at least a bit too warm to perform optimally, but it never was uncomfortable to this thirty-year Arizona desert man. In the evening the temperature never got below the mid-fifties, if that low. Many male runners ran shirtless all through the night, even when thick black clouds loomed up over the lake and threatened a downpour. I put on my rain slicker when rain appeared to be imminent, but we never got more than a couple of drops. Other than that and a brief experiment with a light jacket, which I shed after one lap, I never changed any item of clothing the whole race.

One thing is certain: in any given setting, weather conditions are shared equally by everyone, for better or for worse.

When the race started, I concentrated on the technique of fixed-time run-walk that worked so well for me the week before. And so it was that I shuffled along about three quarters of every 0.9-mile loop, not doing a walk-only loop until 7:20 PM (the time I finished it), then continuing until twelve hours race time, stopping only to grab something to eat or drink from the aid station table and once for a sixty-second portapotty stop.

Some sights and experiences seen along the way:

In mid-afternoon a drum circle formed in the park to the east of the race village. They must have played for three hours. Most runners were happy about their being there.

In mid-evening some pretty people showed up: a good-looking tall man and his beautiful female companion, dressed as if they were on their way to the Oscars. The man smiled from ear to ear, wore a shiny silver buckle the size of a serving tray, and glad handed every runner who passed by, including me. I'm told they were on their way to a wedding and had just stopped by to cheer someone they knew, but they were there for at least an hour. At least one briefly strapped a race number on over dress clothes, but I never saw either one run.

On one lap late at night I talked with a young woman from New York who had been stung by some inconsiderate insect. I heard her howl when it happened. She told me she had reasoned that God was punishing her because she chose to come to the race rather than observe her Day of Atonement.

Both last year and this year the lone street crossing on the course was manned for several hours during the graveyard shift by an arrogant, potbellied cop, who fouled the air with his six-inch cigar and rude language hurled at drivers who had been stopped to wait for runners; in fairness, I never heard him say anything objectionable to any runner or volunteer. But he behaved exactly the same way last year. I hope he doesn't come back again. We don't need to listen to some comic book flatfoot abusing our long-suffering family and crew members coming and going during the night.

At twelve hours I had completed forty-five miles. To be more precise, I finished my fiftieth lap of the 0.90075-mile certified loop, giving me 45.0375 miles, when the race clock said 12:00:07. I saw it turn over to 12:00:00 from a few yards out.

Whereas this mark doesn't constitute an elite performance, its value may be appreciated better by putting it in contextual perspective. The number is comparable to or better than several 12-hour races I ran when I was five to seven years younger, and in my best ultrarunning shape ever. I've recorded three 12-hour all-night races of 43.8087, 45.05, and 43.1873 miles. Also, the 12-hour splits that I have from 72-hour races are: 38.836 (2008) 39.150 (2007), 42.253 (2006), 46.292 (2005, the year I hustled to earn my 1000-mile lifetime mileage jacket), and 45.673 miles in 2004, my PR year. Last year at NC24 (2009), when I was barely breathing, I logged around 39 miles by the twelve-hour mark, and finished with a miserable 60.98 miles, walking the whole race, and sleeping about four hours.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the wheels to fall off in the second half. I decided I would walk one lap; then I walked another. Then I just kept walking and never ran another step the rest of the race.

During the first twelve hours I did all the right things. I must have drunk at least eight 26-ounce bottles of water, several cups of Vernor's ginger ale (a life-giving substance if there ever was one), and quantities of Coke and root beer. I took Succeed! electrolyte capsules no less frequently than hourly, and never felt dehydrated. I ate something at least every other lap, even if it was only a couple of cookies. I started to feel full.

From forty-five to fifty miles, my condition deteriorated rapidly, and from fifty to fifty-two miles I went into a tailspin from which I never recovered.

Eating became a problem. I tried to survive entirely on race food. Unfortunately, I don't do very well with typical race food. Dried peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares, pretzels, noodle soup and potatoes that are microwaved, but are room temperature or colder by the time I get them, get old quickly. Searingly hot food is difficult to consume, but it cools off, and needs to be palatable when it's consumed to be effective.

It must have been just after 9:00 PM when they brought out the pizza, which, unlike any of the other food, was piping hot. There were three kinds: plain (meaning cheese and tomato sauce), vegetable, and vegan, but both the latter two had olives. I don't like olives, and was in no mood to pick them off, so I went with the plain. Real big mistake. It was not long afterward when I began to feel my first pangs of nausea. It was never extreme, just sufficiently unpleasant to make me not want to start running again — or eating either, and to stop on occasion to lean over the edge of the path, just in case my body chose to spontaneously jettison the evil turbulence inside. Fortunately, I had some antacid, which helped the burning, but the nausea persisted until sunup.

During the later hours I observed that few runners were stopping at the aid station. It occurred to me that the best-fed runners are probably the ones who bring crews that serve them all their own favorite special stuff, from Scott Jurekian hummus and fruit smoothies to greasy hamburgers and fries. Different things work for different runners.

After the race we received a generous hot breakfast of egg burrito, rice, and pancakes, but I was able to swallow only about a third of it, and chucked the rest. On the way home in late afternoon I stopped at a McDonald's and bought a chocolate shake, ordinarily Something Very Bad for you, but I needed something cool and sweet and soothing. It hit the spot.

However, it was not food that was my downfall, but sleepiness — as it was also last year. I've reached the stage in life where it's not unusual for me to take a ten-minute nap in the afternoon not long after a run. There's little I can do to fight the urge, and no point in trying.

But it's different when you're in a race. I've gone a full 24 hours and longer several times without needing to sleep, including every 100-mile trail race I've ever done when I didn't DNF before that time.

At last year's NC24 I felt drugged, and experienced the same thing this year. On Saturday I went fourteen and a half hours without a single break of any kind, but during the thirteenth hour my eyelids began to droop, and soon I was walking at a 22:00 pace, zig-zagging across the path, occasionally walking off the edge, and wanting nothing more than to lie down and curl up in the grass.

I had caffeine tablets in my pocket pill dispenser, and contemplated taking one. Their effect on me is unpredictable. Sometimes they serve as a wonder drug, charging me into a dynamo; and sometimes they do nothing but make me nauseated. In 2009 my reward for taking one was the dry heaves. Since I was already experiencing that unpleasantry, I had no desire to exacerbate it, so I passed on the caffeine. Would it have helped? I'll never know.

That left only sleep as an alternative. I still don't know which is tougher in a 24-hour race: struggling to fight off the mounting sleeplessness, which does sometimes pass, or trying to get moving again after sleeping a short period and awaking to find I've locked up tight as a drum, nearly need a cane to prop myself upright, and that I walk like Frankenstein's monster for the first lap.

This year, as last year, I found that a brief nap in my chair was insufficient to knock the urge out of me. Each time I woke up, I re-evaluated my goals for the race. At twelve hours, I was optimistic that I would reach eighty miles. That hope got cut back to seventy-five, then seventy, and finally I acquiesced to the inevitability that at the very least I would do better than last year. By 6:00 AM I realized that I wasn't having a lot of fun any more, and just wanted the race to be over, so I headed to my car, where I could sit and sleep more comfortably than I had in my trackside chair, with no pillow or support. At 7:30, it was light out, and I was finally no longer sleepy, so I headed out to the track and stuck it out to the end, but still moved glacially because of the stiffness that had set in.

There is absolutely no getting around how incredibly hard these races are to do. There is no faking it if one is unprepared and hopes to go the whole twenty-four hours. The lesson may be: the secret to enjoying the experience is to be in good enough shape that the fun part lasts long enough that you never get to the miserable part, which is certain to arrive if you keep at it long enough.

My prediction proved to be accurate. My total came up to 65.514 miles, ninety-eighth place overall out of 147 runners total. At least I wasn't even close to dead last. (Ninety-eighth out of 147 puts me exactly in the sixty-sixth percentile.) Plus I really am an old guy now — it's not just something I joke about — so I can use that as an excuse.

Another state I've reached is being able to take home age group hardware by just showing up. USATF championships go deep into the age groups. Unfortunately, one must be a USATF member to get it, and I was too cheap to join. If I had, I would have gotten second place in my age group, with one of the nicer looking medals I've seen to accompany the honor. There was in fact, one person in my age group who finished after me, but he isn't in USATF either. The medals may be only so much bling, but I've never gotten an age group medal ever, and after all NC24 is a national championship, not just another race.

I could write more about the good runners who performed well, but I won't, because this is my report, not theirs. The results are on the race website for all to admire. But I was especially happy to see Nick Coury get third place in the men's division, earning an opportunity to represent the US on the national team in Switzerland next year. I've known Nick since he was eighteen, when he and his two brothers first showed up at Across the Years. As of this year, Nick and his older brother Jamil have taken over management of Across the Years as co-race directors, and I've had the pleasure of working closely with them this year once again on the race website, which will be my last year of doing so.

And although I don't know her well personally, I watched Connie Gardner hammer out a superlative race, winning it with over 141 miles, about three miles short of the record held since 1993 by the great Sue Ellen Trapp. Still no record for Connie, but no one doubts that she is one of the strongest runners currently in the game.

As for me: interestingly, my feet, which had me so worried, caused me no trouble at all. I didn't even get blisters, although I'll probably lose a couple of toenails. Sometimes my back also gives out. Not so this race. I'm sore all over, but the truth is, I'm just fine, and will be running again in a couple of days.

Most importantly, I'm happier about what I did the first twelve hours of NC24 than I am disappointed about the second twelve hours; it taught me that I can still run at least a little bit if I really want to.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Pale Fire — Vladimir Nabokov

Cover of "Pale Fire"Cover of Pale FireOn Saturday evening I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov's 1963 novel Pale Fire, a work that appears on a number of lists purporting to identify the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

I wouldn't dare to attempt a literary analysis of Pale Fire. It's been a staple of English literature classes for over forty years, and countless reviews and scholarly studies have been created for it; also a number of study guides, replete with pseudo-analyses. These are readily found on the Internet.

Recently I posted an article on this blog about the movie Bright Star, about the life of the romantic poet John Keats. Now here I am, writing a reminiscence of a novel titled Pale Fire, about a poem of the same name by a fictional poet John Shade. The title similarity amuses me.

Of course, that coincidence means nothing.

For readers unfamiliar with Nabokov's novel, the basic story goes like this: The main character is a lunatic named Charles Kinbote, who claims to be the deposed and exiled King Charles the Beloved from Zembla, located "far to the north." He moves in right next to John Shade and his wife Sybil. Shade is a highly respected poet who teaches at a college in Appalachia. Kinbote, a Shakespeare expert, has come there to teach at the same college, and befriends Shade. It becomes clear rather quickly that Shade has only courteously pretended interest in his neighbor, whereas Kinbote is sycophantically obsessed by Shade, who is hard at work on a new lengthy poem, which turns out to be autobiographical, but which Kinbote imagines will be about Zembla and his role there as king. While waiting anxiously for the completed poem, Kinbote makes a pest of himself to the Shades. Sybil Shade refers to Kinbote as "an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macao worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius." He has not endeared himself to the Shade household.

In the end, on the day Shade completes his poem, another lunatic, a man known as Gradus, appears out of nowhere, and shoots John Shade dead. Kinbote is convinced that the man was a professional but inept assassin whose real target was the escaped King. The police determine he is really an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane who has come to kill a judge who sent him up, but who stupidly kills the wrong man, both in the real part of the story, and in Kinbote's imagined version of it. Kinbote steals the poem, goes into hiding, and writes the commentary that constitutes the bulk of the book.

I've obviously left out a lot, but there is far more to this novel than the story. Most unusual is its structure, which on the surface consists of a Foreword written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, followed by the 999-line poem "Pale Fire" by John Shade, and 250 pages of commentary on the poem, once again by Dr. Charles Kinbote, including an index of about ten pages. Outwardly, the book looks like a scholarly book of literary analysis. However, every word of the Foreword, poem, commentary, and index are fiction written by Vladimir Nabokov, and form a complete and engrossing novel.

Rather than write more about the story, which is obtainable elsewhere, I wish to comment on the copy I had in my possession, which came from the general circulation shelves of the Bexley Library.

After reading every single word on the jacket and in the front-matter before the novel's text begins (there's very little), I concluded that I held in my hands an genuine first edition, first impression of one of the great novels in English literature.

The cover says "Pale Fire/ A New Novel by Vladimir Nabokov/ Author of Lolita".

At the top of the inside front cover flap are the words "First Impression", and flush right at the same height it says PF/ $5.00. (Might PF stand for "prix fixe"?)

On the copyright page it says "© 1962 by G.P. Putnam's Sons," etc. There's a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, but no ISBN number, as ISBN numbers were first instituted in 1966. And at the bottom of that few lines of text, separated by some blank space, in small caps, are once again the words "FIRST IMPRESSION".

The rest, until the back jacket cover is all Nabokov's work. On the inside back flap is a one-paragraph biography of Nabokov, current to 1962, and on the back cover, only a photo of Nabokov, with no words whatever.

The book is in excellent condition. Of course the library has stuck its own goo on it, such as the cellophane cover over the jacket, and various stickers and stamps. The binding started to come loose from the cover, but it's been well mended. On about six pages here are the scribblings of a child from a black ball point pen. (Regrettable.)

I'm humbled by the realization of what I'd been permitted to bring home from the library, to treat no differently than if it were a Sunset book on gardening or a collection of Garfield cartoons. (Which, as a respecter of library property, is carefully, regardless of content, but not everyone is so inclined.)

Pale Fire probably doesn't get checked out very often. This is the sort of item that an unscrupulous person might claim was "lost" and then resell for far more than the cost of a replacement, which would likely be some later edition, not a collector's item.

I'm no rare books collector, but for very rough comparison I found a resource on the Internet about determining the value of first edition novels that used Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five as an example. At the time it was written, the numbers looked like this, depending on the condition of the book:

Fine / Fine:$1,500
Fine / Near Fine:$1,250
Near Fine / Very Good+:$750
Very Good+ / Very Good:$400
Very Good / Very Good-:$250
Good / Good:$100

It pointed out that the first edition first pressing of Slaughterhouse Five was rather small, so available copies are extremely rare. I can't say how collectors might value a copy of Pale Fire as compared with a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in the same condition.

I wondered if the library tracks these things, so when I returned it today, I asked a librarian about it. She said that the library has no way to take special care of rare books, that the book was probably bought new and has just been on the shelves all this time. Yes, it's possible that someone could report it missing, pay the replacement cost, and sell it for personal profit.

No, I'm not thinking of doing it myself.

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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Can You Guess How Oold I Am?

Una joven mano es capaz de arrancar una leve s...Image via Wikipedia
Have you ever noticed how some older people like to tell you their age? It seems I've reached that point in life where I'm anxious to tell people my age, sometimes looking for excuses to do so. It's a pretty sorry state to be in — not being the age I am, but being so anxious to tell others about it, as though there were something special about it.

(Crackly old man voice.) Let me tell you how ooold I am!

SCENE: Lynn meets a young dude at the track.

Lynn: How ya doin'?

Dude: Not bad. You?

Lynn: Okay. I'm aching, though. Can't run like I used to, you know.

Dude: I guess I can see why.

Lynn: Yep. Gettin' too oold I guess.

Dude: Happens to everyone, eh?

Lynn: Yep. Do you have any idea how ooold I am?

Dude: Haven't a clue.

Lynn: Guess.

Dude: Oh, I couldn't. Got no idea.

Lynn: Go on, just guess.

Dude: How would I know?

Lynn: Just guess!!

Dude: Seventy-three.

Lynn: I'm sixty-seven years old!

Dude: That's amazing. I never would have guessed.

Lynn: Yep, and I feel it every day.

Dude: I suppose so. Happens to everyone, eh?

Lynn: Believe it or not, I used to be able to run nine-minute miles!

Dude: Ooh.

Lynn: Can't do that any more, of course. Doubt that I ever will.

Dude: I suppose not.

Lynn: Training now just to get back in shape, maybe do another ultra or two.

Dude: Groovy.

Lynn: Did I mention how ooold I am?

Dude: I think you may have mentioned it. What was it? Seventy-two?

Lynn: I'm sixty-seven years old!

Dude: That's amazing. I never would have guessed. Look, I've gotta ...

Lynn: What did you say you're training for?

Dude: I didn't.

Lynn: So what are you training for?

Dude: The Olympic Marathon trials.

Lynn: Cool! Couple of years ahead of schedule, aren't you?

Dude: But I've got a long way to go.

Lynn: What's your PR?

Dude: 2:14:30

Lynn: Sounds like you'll make it.

Dude: Sure hope to. Errr, as I started to say ...

Lynn: Want a tip from an old-timer?

Dude: Ummm. Oh sure, why not?

Lynn: Don't go out too fast. I see all these kids jump off the start early and then die early in the race.

Dude: Got it. I'll try to remember that. Thanks.

Lynn: Take it from me. I'm sixty-seven years old, y'know, and have seen a thing or two in my day.

Dude: Sixty-seven? That's amazing. I never would have guessed.
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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Metropolis — 2010 Restoration

Last night we saw the recently restored version of Franz Lang's 1927 masterpiece silent film Metropolis, the progenitor of almost every later science fiction action film. The venue was one of my favorite places in Columbus, the Wexner Center for the Arts on The Ohio State University campus, in the theater that holds about 600 people. (It's the same place we saw What's Up Doc? a few months ago, with director Peter Bogdanovich present in person.) It was a packed house, and I hear it's sold out for tonight's showing as well.

This version of the film, of which I had never seen any part, has twenty-five minutes of additional footage over the 2002 version, previously thought to be definitive. The original was two hours and thirty-three minutes, but was cut down to ninety minutes by the first distributors, who were afraid no one would want to see a movie that long. The film now runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, so not it's 100% complete, but they've recovered just about everything. The new version was first shown on February 12, 2010.

The copy with the missing footage, thought to have vacated the planet, was discovered in Argentina (where it was made) in 2008. Work proceeded immediately on cleaning up the missing pieces and merging them into the 2002 edition. It's not hard to tell what parts are new, because the the print they worked from had deteriorated badly, and the aspect ratio of the screen is narrower than what later became standard. Some of it is so scratched it's like looking through a room through a curtain of glass beads.  Fortunately, it doesn't take long to get used to this and to accept it for what it is. This has all been converted to digital format for distribution, of course. The visual quality overall is superb.

Metropolis has everything a movie-goer could ask for: a great plot with revolutionary and eschatological themes; good acting, all stylized with exaggerated and melodramatic facial and physical gestures characteristic of silent films of the day; fabulous cinematography; almost non-stop action; enormous and complex sets; a profusion of special effects that are decades ahead of their time technically, including the flooding of a city as big as New York, the transformation of a robot into a woman, burning a "witch" (actually the robot), and depictions of massive machinery; difficult stunts such as people falling off roofs; a non-stop musical score written for the original film, with Wagnerian leitmotifs, and references to everything from "Dies Irae" to "La Marseillaise"; thousands of extras; endless shots of hundreds of people at a time rushing around in panic at top speed, in tightly packed mobs, like a school of fish (not good for extras with claustrophobia); and of course, epic length.

This is highly recommended viewing for any lover of classic film. I understand it's been circulating in art theaters across the country. I don't know if it's available from places like Netflix, but I gather it is not, so watch for it at a venue near you.
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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Julie & Julia

Julia Child's Kitchen on display at the Nation...Image via Wikipedia
Last night we watched Julie & Julia. Yes, we're behind everyone else. All the movies we watch are borrowed from the library, so we have to wait until they are available. We haven't rented a movie in nearly three years. The last time it was from Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. Today, as far as I know, neither company even exists any longer.

Julia, as everyone in the world knows by now, is Julia Child as channeled by Meryl Streep, who can do no wrong.

Julie is Julie Powell, which happens to be my mother-in-law's name. Both the movie Julie and the real life Julie created a blog in which she reported on cooking her way through Julia's famous book on French cooking, giving herself one year to cook all the recipes. In the movie, at least, she actually did it.

For once I actually liked a movie more than Roger Ebert, whose sometimes overgenerous reviews I always read, even if I read none other. Ebert's insightful eye did serve to deflate my initial impression, but while he rated the movie with two and a half stars by his system, for reasons he articulates well, and I am impelled to agree with, I nevertheless registered nine stars on IMDB. I don't go that high very often. And I did it because it was so much fun watching Meryl Streep caricature Julia Child and because I loved watching the two women cook with abandonment and enthusiasm, and maybe because I enjoyed watching a movie about two basically happy marriages where nothing bad happens to spoil the fun. (Well, Julie's husband gets fed up with her obsession for a day, but that's easily resolved.)

Perhaps I was just in a mood for a light, popular, romantic tale. I like the movies When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail and thought Julie & Julia has a similar sheen to it. Believe it or not, I did not realize until afterward that Nora Ephron wrote all three. Duh.. I guess you could say she's an author with a recognizable voice.

I am not a cook, but believe I could be good at it. Yet I don't want to get into cooking because I have some of the craziest eating habits on the planet, and am best off on a daily basis if I don't even think about food and stay as far away from it as possible, eating only when absolutely necessary. I can barely eat at all without gaining weight, despite the miles I put in on the road, and if I cooked, I'd give up running and working out so I could do nothing but eat. And that would be Bad. So I'm glad that other people know how to cook and share their skills with people like me. Meanwhile I was content to be a food voyeur.
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Bright Star

Portrait of John Keats by his friend Charles B...Image via Wikipedia
Last night we watched the movie Bright Star, about the (short) life of John Keats — or at least about last part of it.

Good movie. The dialog is captivating, particularly the snippy repartee between Keats' romantic interest Fanny Brawne and his friend Charles Brown. Fanny and Charles never do learn to get along, consistently despising one another in their mutual possessiveness of Keats.

The costuming is extraordinary. Fanny Brawne was said to be a gifted seamstress who designed and sewed all her own clothes, and at least in the movie, apparently also for her whole family. Some of their attire is edgy and almost bizarre. The movie was nominated for an Oscar and also by at least one other organization for its costuming.

The cinematography, too, is simply astonishing, with a presence bordering on 3-D to the imagery. At the top of Roger Ebert's review of this film is a picture of Fanny Brawne in a field of blue wildflowers, in a pose vaguely reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World," but of an entirely different palette. In the film this scene took my breath away. Ebert makes special note of it in his review, describing it with the words: "There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description."

The acting is OK, not Oscar caliber. The main character in this portrayal is Fanny Brawne (Kerry Fox, also the best performer), not Keats; the story focuses on their brief, hopeless, and unfulfilled romantic relationship. Keats had no money or steady income as a starving poet, so was never able to marry Fanny or anyone else. He died in Italy at age 25, apparently of tuberculosis, leaving such a formidable legacy of work, largely unrecognized at the time, that he is remembered today as one of the great Romantic poets. Naturally, a great number of Keats quotes creep into the dialog, in greater proportion as the movie progresses. The closing credits roll over Keats (Ben Whitshaw) reading an ode.

Bright Star, I suppose, will appeal primarily to women. The style of the era being what it is, some of the verbiage, including even the quotes of poetry fragments, may seem a bit syrupy to some persons. Romantic era aesthetics focus on experiences that touch the emotions deeply, in contrast to (and in reaction against) the methodical, refined detachment and intelligence of the Enlightenment that preceded it. Matters of deep emotions would certainly include the type of love between members of the opposite sex that we today also label "romantic." (I'm not sure if that term was used for it before the Romantic period in art, but the reality has been a part of our common experience since the beginning of human existence.)

I don't think this movie got a lot of publicity when it came out last year, and it's not the type of thing that is likely to be found on many people's summer viewing lists. Nonetheless, it is very much worth seeing by those who aren't afraid of a film designed to stir the heart.
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ultrarunning Hyperbole

Certain tainted words occur repeatedly in journalism about ultrarunning, all of which cause noisy alarms to go off in my head whenever I see them. The four most frequent culprits are:
  • crazy
  • grueling
  • test[ing] limits
  • extreme
Rarely have I ever read an article about ultrarunning by a non-ultrarunner that does not use the word crazy to describe the distance or the mindset of the runner.

I've never read an article written by someone who doesn't do it himself that doesn't describe the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley to the Mount Whitney Portal, or a 100-mile mountain trail race, or for that matter a 24-hour race as grueling. It's as if grueling were an automatic part of the event label: "Next month I'm going to do a grueling 24-hour race, and the month after that, a grueling 100-mile race." They're all grueling, right? I don't know of a single such race that anyone would consider easy.

The knee-jerk response of many runners, when put on the spot with a question about why they runs ultras, having not prepared an answer beforehand, is, "To test my limits," or words to that effect. Sometimes it's, "To see what I'm made of." And guess what? The answer is always flesh, blood, and bone, just like the rest of us, and in the case of ultrarunners who like to talk about their sport, perhaps also a larger than usual internal bag of poo.

I can't remember when I've ever run any distance to test my limits. God help me if I ever reach them. Then what? Congratulate myself and die?

And to persons who customarily view a standard marathon as the "ultimate challenge" (which, when you see several thousand persons young and old of all levels of fitness lined up to start, you realize it's far from being), any distance longer than that must be extreme. (See my article Half Crazy.)

To me, the word extreme brings to mind the world of X Games, the domain of testoserone-fueled backward-hatted, muscle-shirted, tattooed and pierced, foolhardy risk-takers who live on the edge of life and society (and a few of their female counterparts). I've always maintained that ultrarunning in general, as tough as it is to do well, is not an extreme sport in that sense of the word. That category of activity, in my view, must include elements of great danger over which people have little control — like jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping. Also, I don't care much to watch rock climbers without ropes for the same reason. It's just stupid to risk one's life that way.

Which is not to say that there are not certain events in ultrarunning that could be classified as such. The Barkley, which hardly anyone ever finishes, is pretty weird, but at least no one has died doing it yet. So is the Marathon du Sables across the Sahara Desert. Some people think of the Pike's Peak Marathon as extreme, but I would call that an unusually tough marathon with one big hill, not an extreme event. One day I ran into an old man running down the street wearing a Pike's Peak Marathon t-shirt. We stopped and talked. He was in his mid-seventies, had run the race eight times, and was planning on continuing to do so as long as he was able. Didn't strike me as an extremist. He did it because he could and knew how, not to tempt death, which at his age was likely not far away no matter what.

So the next time you hear about some crazy extreme runner finishing a grueling 100-mile race in orer to test his limits, don't believe it.
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Monday, July 19, 2010

My Grandma

My Grandma Newton
  • had no automobile;
  • had no television;
  • had no radio;
  • had no telephone;
  • had an ice box instead of a refrigerator until 1952;
  • had no modern record player;
  • didn't own a book except a Bible;
  • didn't think much of music except hymns;
  • didn't approve of my father's choice of profession;
  • didn't approve of dancing;
  • didn't approve of alcohol;
  • didn't approve of card playing;
  • would play Dominoes with me by the hour;
  • never left the house, even to go to church, most of her adult life;
  • basically had no life at all;
  • but was probably well-suited for playing Farmville.
It was not until recently that it ever occurred to me that there was anything unusual about her.
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Friday, May 28, 2010

Why Boys Fail -- Richard Whitmire

Last week I stumbled across a newly published book displayed on a book stand next to a terminal in the Bexley library: Why Boys Fail, by education reporter Richard Whitmire. Intrigued, I snatched it up and read it in two days.

The book's main thesis is:

The world is becoming more verbal. Boys are not.

That's a direct quote, stated twice: once several chapters in, as a conclusion driven to by the evidence presented, and again in summarizing paragraphs.

The problem boils down to one of a lack of basic literacy, which is increasingly lacking in boys. This reality is obvious to me as I read drivel posted to various lists to which I subscribe, and even moreso on Facebook, Twitter and telephone text messages. To paraphrase a friend: Anyone whose thoughts are limited to a 140-character event horizon doesn't have much to say.

Recently, a young friend sent me email to which I was obliged to respond, "So what's with the gansta talk?" His reply, with numerous errors edited out here, said: "It's just the way I type things out on the computer. I guess it comes from too much texting back forth to people who talk like that as well."

This is not to say that one needs to deliver essays when a short sentence or two will do. But whatever is written should at least be reasonably correct. Occasional typos and blunders in informal writing happen with everyone, and are forgivable, but when every single sentence is laden with several misspellings, along with punctuation and grammatical errors, it suggests something is fundamentally lacking on the part of the communicator; it also suggests that he may not even care. Unfortunately, the ironic tragedy of ignorance is that ignorant people don't know they are ignorant, so can't detect the problem so as to fix it.

Whitmire presents abundant data to demonstrate that in the world of formal education (meaning in schools) and in those arenas of life that follow and surround the receiving of such education, there is a rapidly increasing gender gap.

Today 60% of college students are women. With the layoffs that came as a result of the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, the workforce in the United States is now over half female. Whitmire doesn't make the point directly, but it seems the days when Dad went to work and Mom stayed home with the kids are behind us.

In Montreal 71% of medical students, 63% of law students, 80% of optometry students, 64% of dentistry students, 56% of management students, and 70% of architecture students are women. The situation is similar elsewhere, indicating a shift to a female based economy in professions and services. While this is in some ways wonderful for women, it suggests that something has been happening for a long time with boys coming up through school age. The numbers are indisputable.

Whitmire presents and debunks the commonest knee-jerk explanations, among them:
  • It's those @#$! video games! World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto are keeping boys away from more productive activity.
  • Girls mature faster than boys.
  • It's because of the feminist movement; those women are taking over!
  • Boys will be boys. They love to play, goof off, and delay growing up.
  • If there's really a problem, it's happening only among the poor segments of society or among certain ethnic populations.
All baloney as explanations of the waning literacy of young males.

Furthermore, the problem is happening throughout the world. In Australia, also in one or two other countries, authorities have already recognized the problem and have begun to confront it.

The last part of Why Boys Fail is devoted to a number of proposed reactions, which is what I prefer to call them rather than solutions, because none have been tried sufficiently to know they will work.

It's not my intent here to present the arguments, the evidence, or the proposals. The problem is real. The reasons and solutions are not as obvious. Instead, I'd like to relate my personal experience.

When I was four years old, my mother, the oldest of eight Depression era farm kids, and the only one of her family to be sent to and complete college, obtaining a teaching degree, taught me, the oldest child in the family, how to read from the Dick and Jane series of reading primers. So in those pre-Sesame Street days I became an enthusiastic early reader, already fluently so, and even a hunt-and-peck typist, a fledgling writer, by the time I started kindergarten. My parents also introduced me to the library when I was very young, which I found to be an exciting place. In addition, we were the last family in our area to acquire a television, so that during the summers before we got one, I spent many days reading one book after another.

On page seventeen of the Why Boys Fail I encountered a subheading that caught my eye: "The Wilmette Discovery."

Glenn "Max" McGee was serving as state superintendent of schools of Illinois when he noticed that interest in reading on the part of his own two sons showed a significant decline when they were in fifth and sixth grades, something he found hard to comprehend. Here I quote:
In 2002 McGee became superintendent of the K-8 Wilmette schools along Chicago's high-income North Shore, right on the doorstep of Northwestern University. These schools feed into the famed New Trier High School, which rests high on any top ten list of America's best high schools. McGee sat down to map out a way to accomplish what he describes as making the great schools there even greater. Based on his own family experience, McGee had a hunch: Let's look at boosting boys' performance. To the Wilmette educators, this was a radical approach. Who thought the boys had any problems?
So they got to work. It continues, "In Wilmette, ... one of the wealthiest and most education-focused school districts in the United States, these inquiries are taken very seriously." They issued a 107-page report to demonstrate that McGee's hunch about the boys being in trouble was well founded.
Parents there appeared shocked by the report. Nobody thought this could happen in Wilmette. "We have very high-achieving parents ... who serve as strong role models."

"In Wilmette, nearly everyone eventually goes to college, even the slacker boys."

Quite true. The reason this interests me is that I went through the Wilmette public schools and New Trier High School myself. New Trier was then and still is today a large and high quality public high school. My graduating class was over 960 people. We were told that 96% of us were headed off to college. No other future was ever discussed or even hinted at for anybody while I was growing up. The few who did not go were largely the troublemakers and the kids in the slow track courses, but I didn't know many of them.

Our family was not rich; we were barely middle class economically speaking, as my father worked very hard to be the sole breadwinner in the family, making enough money as a classical musician to support a wife and four sons in such a place. The payoff for us boys was an enriched cultural experience that has influenced my viewpoint on education and life in general to this day.

To me education has always been only tangentially related to the formal part of it -- attending schools, getting degrees and accreditations, pursuing the so-called American dream of having a family and a house in the suburbs with all the accouterments that go with that style of living. Frankly, when I was in school, I gave almost no thought to those matters, so little that it has caused me difficulties at various times that continue to this very day, as there are many practical subjects, even at my age -- past the ordinary age of retirement -- about which my understanding is deficient.

Education to me has always been about growing as a person by drinking in knowledge and experience by whatever means I can get it, and synthesizing that in such a way that my perspective on life deepens. And thus, at least for me, it continues to be, as I attempt by whatever means I can to learn more every single day of my life.

Sadly, it appears that this is not going to happen with many young males today.

Persons interested in knowing more about this topic may be
interested in reading Richard Whitmire's blog.
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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bone -- Jeff Smith

Exactly one year ago today Suzy and I attended the world premiere of a documentary about comic book artist Jeff Smith, who is from Columbus area, and a graduate of The Ohio Statue University. Smith is famous in the world of comic book art as the creator of Bone, an epic graphic novel. The work has been translated into about fifteen languages, has sold over a million copies, and has been given two or three dozen different awards. I wouldn't have guessed there are that many awards for comic books.

Though I have long loved good cartooning, as one who has had no interest whatever in comic books since my childhood days of Superman, Batman, and the Disney characters—particularly Scrooge McDuck—Smith and his work was utterly unfamiliar to me. When I saw the documentary, for which Jeff Smith was personally present, and the long line of people, including many adults, who were present to meet him and have him autograph their personal copies of Bone, I knew I had to put it on my reading list.

Bone is published in nine volumes, which I obtained recently from the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I spent about a day per volume reading the nine volumes, a total of 1375 pages, adding up the numbered pages, and finished it two or three days ago.

Anyone prejudiced against comic books might think that the term "graphic novel" to be pretentious, but Bone deserves the designation because it tells a continuous and well-crafted story.

The original comics were drawn and published in black and white, and then combined under one cover, which I have seen. Smith thought he was finished, until a friend told him that he really must republish the series with color added.

What I received from the library in three different trips was all nine volumes, but a total of eleven books. One volume they sent me both the color and the black and white versions, and another they sent me two identical color volumes. Two volumes arrived only in black and white. They are all still sitting on my desk behind me, waiting to be returned. Suzy is in the middle of the last volume herself, so I'm waiting for her to finish.

Smith's friend was right: the added color is brilliantly done, so much so that I can't imagine the book without it. Nonetheless, Smith had become a superstar in the world of comics well before the series was completed in black and white.

The story is readable by young readers, but includes much detail it to keep adults entertained. The main characters are the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone, the cheerful nice guy; Phoney Bone, who is driven relentlessly by sheer greed that drives him to perpetrate crazy schemes, but remains strangely likeable nonetheless; and Smiley Bone, about whom Fone Bone says, "He doesn't have a brain," though he proves to have a heart and many likeable qualities. Smiley Bone is definitely the Ringo of the group, as the trio would be incomplete without him.

The three are white like Casper the Ghost. Fone Bone is generally seen without clothing but carries a knapsack; Phoney Bone wears a t-shirt with a star on the chest; and Smiley Bone wears a vest and usually can materialize a cigar, which is never smoked or even commented on.

The other characters include a human girl named Thorn, drawn to appear drop dead gorgeous but not at all sexually provocative, appearing to be between sixteen and years old. Her grandmother Gran'ma Ben, who squints, wears a white apron, and has a mouth that both smiles and scowls simultaneously. Gran'ma Ben is as vigorous as Yiannis Kouros, runs many miles a day, races cows, proves to be a dynamic leader, and an invincible warrior. Thorn does not know it at the start, but Gran'ma Ben was a queen. Thorn's parents, a king and queen, were killed in a war while fleeing from their city of Atheia, which makes Thorn a princess, and one who has special as yet undiscovered powers. At the beginning Gran'ma Ben and Thorn are living together in a tiny cabin in the woods.

There is a supporting cast of hilarious characters: a friendly dragon with floppy ears, a bug of unnamed type named Ted, drawn as a tiny green triangle with four little black legs sticking out of it, packs of rabid monsters called rat creatures who try to kill and eat whatever they can find, two in particular who remind me of Laurel and Hardy, love quiche, and are always bickering with one another, an inn and tavern full of humans men, and gigantic mountain lion named Roque Ja—the "r"should be rolled, but the Bone cousins call him Rock Jaw, evil hooded personages, and a host of others. Numerous new people are introduced in later volumes, some only briefly.

Fone Bone, the main character, the nicest guy, who becomes enamoured of Thorn, carries a backpack, with apparently nothing in it except a copy of his favorite book, Moby Dick, about which he can soliloquize at great length, causing everyone to fall into instant slumber. This becomes one of the running jokes for adults. In one episode Fone Bone and Smiley Bone are a hair's breadth from being devoured by a pack of slavering, screeching rat creatures, when Smiley dives for Fone Bone's back pack and begins reading: Call me Ishmael! whereupon the pack of rat monsters is rendered catatonic, frozen in sleep out of instantaneous boredom.

Later on Smiley finds a cub rat monster and cares for it, and it becomes friendly. He names it Bartleby, another nod to Herman Melville.

The story line eventually gets quite involved in intricate plot details in the manner of much fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am not generally a fan. I could care less about a tale of the struggle between mythical forces of good and evil. But story this is so well told with sufficient humorous twists that I couldn't put it down for the humor, in addition to which it is brilliantly drawn.

Some main characters do die during the course of the story, so it's not all a barrel of laughs.

There is a bit of pseudo Biblical allegory in the plot, though it's obviously not intended to mimic the Bible too closely. There are great dragons (good guys) and Mim, the greatest dragon (very bad), and a Time of the End (or the End Times). Thorn is a vaguely messianic figure, who gradually learns her role in life, is abused and suffers for a while as she attempts to seek the Crown of Horns, which sounds much like a Crown of Thorns, and particularly so given her name is Thorn; thus when she accomplishes it, it becomes a sort of "Crown of Thorn's" as it were. Except the crown is not a crown at all, but a stone wall deep under the earth, and it is not to be worn, but touched. Furthermore, Thorn is trapped in a dead bad monster's jaws with a giant tooth through her thigh and cannot reach it, but she can touch Fone Bone, who can in turn reach the wall, upon which Good Things happen.

But more remains to be wrapped up after that, as there is an apocalyptic ending, where the floppy eared good dragon appears, calls up a horde of thousands of fellow dragons deep out of the earth who rise up, surround the giant bad dragon Mim, and carry it down into a massive pit within the earth that closes behind them, which is the end of this particular war of good versus evil.

Did you get all that? Were you taking notes? I don't think I gave too much away that matters.

The ending, which takes a couple more chapters to spin out, is of course happy, and surprisingly mild, as the three Bone cousins get on a wagon and head back to Boneville, from which they were driven because of one of Phoney Bone's crazy misguided plots a year before, as Phoney is foiled in his attempt to pull yet another dishonest stunt even upon their exit.

Bone is entertaining, well crafted, and very much worth reading by young and old alike; but don't get started unless you're okay with plowing through 1375 pages of comic book.
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