Saturday, 18 August 2007

Colonel Blimp and the Burnham Jogger

We are about to embark upon a string a non sequiturs. Fear not. It will all come together in the end.

Item. You may not know Colonel Blimp, the eternally annoyed, jingoistic creation of the cartoonist David Low. But do check the link, so you know what the Colonel looks like. There is also a marvelous old Powell/Pressburger film about him. Highly recommended: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Item. Do you know that your local newspaper is always desperate for stories? Desperate! They'll print anything. Call them up and tell them your dog ate scrambled eggs for breakfast. They'll print it. They aren't disposed to wait for Man Bites Dog. Dog Bites Egg is just fine. Fill that space!

In fact, I didn't telephone, but Maidenhead is a small town and the Maidenhead Advertiser found out about me. An American in England. (Yawn.) A woman. (Oh, yeah?) And a manager. (Got me. That was unusual in England in the early 80s.) The Advertiser sent a reporter to my office/house to interview me. She started with my age. Newspapers always have to know how old you are. They have this in common with race directors.

The reporter brought a photographer. But a woman sitting at her desk in a linen suit is bor-or-ring. Would I mind changing into my running clothes and we'll go to the tow path and photograph you there?

What the hell. I change clothes and we go down to the Thames and I sit on a rock. The photographer photographs. I sit elsewhere. The photographer photographs. We go for an action shot. The photographer photographs. I pose in front of the houses of the rich and famous. The photographer photographs.

You're waiting for the photograph, aren't you? Sorry. I don't know where the newspaper article is. But after it appeared in the paper, the reporter telephoned me to ask if I would like a few of the photographs that didn't appear. There were some wonderful ones," she said. "Much better than the one we printed, but we couldn't use them. Still, I thought you might like see."

And she was right. I went to collect the pictures. It was worth taking up running. Here I am: Burnham Jogger with Colonel Blimp.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

The Time and Space of Uncle Albert by Russell Stannard

Physics was never my best subject. Just before the critical point where I was going to flunk, I switched from a social sciences major to humanities. Humanities majors could get by with only biology.

Living in the mountains as we do, we do not receive radio. Until we discovered audiobooks, car rides were soundless and long Currently, we are listening to Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe. (Sometimes my husband gets to choose the book.) I like and understand the simple bits: Life. Nick likes and understands Universe. Isaacson's book is so well written, though, I almost get parts of the science, particularly if I stop and let Nick re-explain them to me half a dozen times. So, I thought I'd take another crack at The Time and Space of Uncle Albert. Which I flunked the first time.

Uncle Albert, who may or may not live in New Jersey, has a niece, Gedanken. Gedanken, who may or may not be around 11 or 12, has to do a science project for school. The projects her classmates have chosen strike her as really boring: dinosaurs, volcanoes. . .you know, the usual. Her teacher's suggestion, Energy in the Home -- "double-glazing, electric toothbrushes and that sort of thing," strikes her as even more mind-numbing.

Gedanken and Uncle Albert are discussing her problem one evening, sitting and watching the stars, when Uncle Albert recollects the wonder he felt as boy on discovering how far away the stars are: so far their light takes years and years to get here, even though light travels at 300,000 kilometres a second. That's 186,000 miles a second. Or, to put it another way: five times round the Earth in the time it takes to say "rice pudding."

Lately Uncle Albert's interest in light has been rekindled. Maybe Gedanken could help him with his research and write about it for her project. So begin Gedanken's adventures. Travelling in a space ship that appears in a thought bubble above Uncle Albert's head, and with the help of Dick, the computer, Gedanken discovers slow-motion time, squashed-up time, heavy energy and how to live forever.

And I almost did, too. (So that I don't spoil the fun, so you might want to look up gedanken experiment in a big dictionary.) By the way, this is a kid's book.

The year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

After 40 years of marriage and work along side the writer, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion became a widow over dinner. Their daughter, whom they'd just come from visiting, lay in a coma in the hospital.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion struggles to comprehend what has happened to her. The dulled rhythms of the writing (if the world "dull" can ever be used in connection with Didion's prose) manage to express the flatness of her existence. The repetitive thoughts and phrases echo a mind before it is able to move on.

If the book lacks spirituality, as some have said, it is because, for Didion, there was nothing spiritual in the loss of her husband and the illness of her daughter. It was a black hole of devastation and the grinding effort that living became.

Didion turns to books to make sense of her condition. She searches for words that will lend comfort and fill the hole in her being; to make the hurt go away; to make it better. Nothing helps, except, perhaps, Emily Post, the mistress of etiquette from another generation. In the rituals of proper behaviour and concrete instructions for caring for the bereaved, Didion finds tradition something to lean on. There was always a reason for good manners, correct behaviour, the formalities of life and death.

And, in the end, there is hope. Not because there is redemption in suffering, but because she survived.

We all survive.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

No spoilers!

J. K. Rowling is the best thing that has happened to children's literature since Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott and Frank Baum. And she has finished up the Harry Potter series in fine form. After beginning to lose her way as her books got longer-- No. 6 was veering toward the leaden -- No. 7 is as good as it gets. We meet many of our old friends, the adventure rattles right along, and all is revealed in the end.

Thank you, Ms. Rowling.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Becoming a Burnham Jogger

You'll be happy to know that I'm recovering from the groin injury. I can walk now. Four more days on anti-inflammatories and then, if I'm not perfect, it's X-ray time. Pray for perfect, so I can run, again.

No one, even in jest, would refer to me as athletic. Once I hit puberty, I went from skinny, active kid to endomorphic sloth before you could say, "hormones." Like Lance Armstrong, my lung capacity is beyond the machine's ability to measure. Unlike Armstrong I fell off the wrong end of the scale.

Oh, I tried. In high school, I took up gymnastics and learned faster than anyone in the group -- until week three, when I hit the wall. (A running expression.) I joined the Synchronised Swimming Club where Amazonian effort kept me afloat or underwater, as the need arose. But you still have to be able to breathe to succeed. So, I settled for looking good in outrageous swim suits and lazed into my twenties and thirties.

As an adult, I would occasionally summon up the optimisim to try again. I have spent more money on gym memberships than anyone in my salary bracket. Two weeks of calisthenics or Nautilaus machines and I would feel the irresistible Call of the Couch. With beer.

My colleagues took up running. They came to work, wittering on about their three-mile gallop along the lake at six in the morning and how great! they felt. I'd slump further behind my desk and and dial the phone for a relaxing chat with a client who'd blown up his computer in the night.

Sometimes I would exercise at home. Canadian Royal Air Force Exercises: Conquer the world and your body in 10 minutes! Somehow, it always took longer. Yoga in 28 days! Bo-r-r-r-ing. Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics. Isn't this where I came in? Running? No, thanks.

Now and again. regretting my lack of get up and go. I'd read another book. Cooper's wife wrote one just for women. She recounted how Ken had taken his own pulse (39) and then hers (78), and then explained to her that, since her heart was beating twice as fast as his, it would wear out in half the time. She wouldn't live to see their baby grow up. I'd have divorced him, but she took up running. Pushing the baby buggy. They deserve each other, I thought.

Aged 39 1/2, I moved to England. Well, it's funny when you hit 40. One day you're sylph-like in a bikini and the next you're buying women's magazines exhorting you to Look Good on the Beach This Summer and Lose a Stone Overnight on the Chocolate Diet.

The day I returned home from boarding school at 13, my mother had invoked her mantra -- "I weighed 104 pounds soaking wet when I got married" -- and put me on a diet. I was 2 inches taller than she at 13, but I bought the line and had been on one diet or another ever since. Now I just couldn't do it any more.

Ruminating over dinner one evening, I began to consider the problem. Can't diet; hate exercise; no time; wanna eat; hate exercise. Sometimes, life is just one Monday after another. (Garfield, my hero.) "So here's the deal," I said to myself. "If you run, you can eat. Any day you don't run, you don't eat." I may not be able to give up eating, but I'm very good with bargains. I am the person who gave up drinking for 5 years. I am the person who gave up smoking. Three times.

The next day, I was browsing in my normal habitat -- the library -- when I saw a notice on the bulletin board. Learn to Run! Join Us on Monday Evenings at the Maidenhead Athletic Club! Beginners welcome! Telephone Angela! I telephoned Angela.

I'll do the short version. It was a 400-meter track and I couldn't get 'round a quarter of it. But Angela was nice and her husband, Malcolm, was nice and the other people were nice, and no one laughed. They just ran and walked with me. And I ran and walked, ran and walked, ran and walked for the next two hours. I couldn't walk for the following five days, but the next week I was back, again.

After several weeks, Angela and Malcolm suggested I come to the Burnham Joggers with them. It was so neat! First you did the Social Mile -- the entire club together. You got to meet people you'd never have seen if you'd had to catch them first. And I could do it! The whole mile. I had been practicing for, lo!, these many weeks. After the Social Mile, we split into groups of like abilities and ran distances accordingly. Then we showered and repaired to the pub. Was this a good group or what?

In another month I could run two miles. (And drink more beer.) Another month and I could run six. Six months later, one of the guys took me out when my regular group wasn't there and said we'd do a new route. "We'll try an 8," he lied. When we got back to the club house, everyone congratulated me. I had completed my first 10-mile run and hadn't known it. When you run the way I do, after a certain level of misery it's all the same. All runs longer than 5 1/2 miles take forever and will probably kill you. Having made this discovery, I have always known I could do a marathon.*

A club keeps you going. There is your particular group waiting for mutual encouragement each Tuesday and Thursday. And, frequently, Sunday. And special occasions. And Boxing Day. And New Year's Day. (You cannot be serious! But they are.) You can't let them down. There are the better runners who encourage you and force you to stretch yourself. And the race organisers who force you to race (or, in my case, "race") and not be embarrassed about your time. (They have no qualms about any embarrassment you suffer by seeing your age posted on the bulletin board.) And there's the pub. And the parties. And the weddings. Where do you think I met Nick? Forget that night class stuff. Athletics is it!

But I also am happy to run alone. Running alone in the quiet -- no earphones for me -- sets your mind free: to watch the scenery with more than your usual attention; to appreciate; to think; to solve problems; to rid your mind and body of the day's stresses; to diss young men in their cars and feed your growing superiority complex.

There is this wonderful thing called a "runner's high." Running shoots endorphins from your brain into your bloodstream (or maybe the other way around). Endorphins put you on top of the world. Or so they tell me. On a good day, I get, maybe, a runner's medium. I once bought a book just for the title: The Man With No Endorphins.

So now I've been running, off and on, for 27 years. There have been lay-offs, but I have never, ever, considered, giving it up permanently. Even though, every day that I contemplate putting on my shorts and shoes, I hate it. It's hard; I'd rather read; the weather is lousy; I'd rather nap; I'd rather a lot things.

The trick is: Don't Think! Turn off your brain, change your shoes and GO! Because the days that I don't run, I feel guilty. If I see a jogger on the road, I know what he's thinking when he looks at me. "Hey, there! You can't do this." Well, yes, I can. And I know that I will feel better for it.

Medium is good enough.

Oh. And the original problem? Once I hit 20 miles a week, I could eat anything. And do.

*But I haven't. I limit myself to halves, 10Ks and the like. I am much too well bred to inconvenience the race marshalls by keeping them there two hours past quitting time.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Fair-weather Skier Part I

As I lie in bed with a groin injury that prevents me from walking for a time, my friends and enemies question my good sense. Over the past 20 years, I have ruptured one ACL and torn the other, the meniscus in my right knee is rattling around unpleasantly, and I have a bad back as a direct result of the first ACL injury. O.K., as a direct result of my own stupidity and stubborness -- while recovering from the first ACL injury. And yet, as soon as this injury heals, I will be out running, again, and when winter comes, skiing. At my age, shouldn't I know better?

Here's my theory. There are two ways I can be crippled: I can continue to run and ski, and chance becoming physically unable to do either. Or I can stop now, crippled by fear of what may happen. The end result is the same: no running or skiing. Why not wait for the real thing?

Why I run is, maybe, for another post. But I ski because, much to my astonishment, I love it. I, who, despite the misleading impression I may be giving, am not athletic; I, who hate the cold; I, who am miserable getting up early; I, who detest standing in queues; I, who, above all, am chicken; love to ski.

All through my teens and early 20's in Chicago, I resisted skiing. When I lived in New England, I resisted skiing. When I moved back to Chicago, I resisted skiing. Then I got this new boyfriend? And he skied? Well, you know how that is. Chicken, here, didn't want to say she was afraid for fear he'd dump her.

So, one morning in Atlanta, we get up at 5:00 a.m. -- hey! I stay up until 5:00 a.m.; I don't get up at that hour -- and we get in the car to drive to North Carolina. That's right, I learned to ski in North Carolina. Looked at one way, mud has advantages. It helps you to stop. The disadvantage is that it makes you stop kind of fast.

So we're in the car and I'm sulking because I'm scared, both of skiing and of being found hopeless, but I'm sulking discreetly because I don't want to be caught sulking, either. It was a long ride to the ski area, sulking, and there wasn't enough coffee in the world to make it better.

First stop, equipment. Boots. Here's the thing: I have square feet. Literally. 4 x 4. As a child, my mother used to come home in tears after trying all day to buy me shoes. I would be in tears when my father was ordered to take me out and he bought me brown oxfords. All the other little girls had pretty little patent leather shoes with straps across the top. The maid would be in tears because she had to dress me in those brown oxfords. Even if a pretty little patent leather shoe wide enough for my feet had existed, the strap would never have reached across my instep. The arch of my foot was so high, I only made two unconnected halves of a footprint. As I got older, my father became worn out and suggested that I buy boys's shoes. Or why didn't I just wear the boxes? Salesmen cringe when I walk into a shoe shop. My friends will never go shopping with me after the first time. (The first time they don't believe me.) I moved back to the country just so that I wouldn't have to buy shoes ever again.

Anyway, boots. To get them wide enough, they had to be too long. This is not the ideal fitting for control on the slopes.

Next, skis. These days, when modern technology has made skis so easy to turn that you just step onto them, let slip and enjoy the ride, the correct length is somewhere between the height of your mouth and the height of your nose from the floor. When I started skiing, shortly after the wooden models were retired to the museums, you determined your correct ski length by raising your hand straight up in the air and measuring to your fingertips. As the skis were so much longer and so much harder to manoeuvre, this ensured that you stayed in class for the rest of your life, trying to learn to use them. Ski schools have to stay in business, too.

So here I am: booted, after a fashion, and standing on these planks, with sticks in my hands. I couldn't move. Not from fear, although that played a part; I just couldn't figure out how to move my feet, which were now almost two meters long. And heavy. And didn't bend. My boyfriend took one elbow, the guy from the ski shop took the other, together they raised me off the ground, carried me to the ski school, and plopped me down. Boyfriend says he'll be back for lunch and leaves me to it.

I am the only adult in a class of children -- a dozen 4-year-olds and two kids who turn out to be an 11- and 12-year-old sister and brother. Now I am not only terrified, I'm embarrassed.

The instructor separates us into two groups. I'm with the big kids. As the three of us wait for the instructor to sort out the babies, the 12-year-old (boy, of course) looks up at me with a malevolent eye, and demands,

"Is this going to take long?" Like it's my fault we're here.

"Why?" I answer. "You in a hurry?" (You little creep.)

"My father says," he says, "I can't go up there," pointing at the equivalent of Mont Blanc, "until I have a lesson." ('Course it's your fault. Grown-ups are all in league.)

"Shut up, kid." No, I didn't say that. But I thought it.

Finally, the instructor gets back to us and takes us to the top (top! ha ha!) of the nursery slope. I have no memory of how he got me there, because I was still incapable of locomotion on my own. But there I was, at the top, looking down the vast expanse (ten meters?) of baby slope (baby flat?), being instructed to turn my toes in and go! I think he pushed me.

I went.

And I never wanted to stop.

It was unimaginable freedom and lightness. It must be what hangliders search for, or pilots or sky divers. I was flying. No, I was floating. I was floating and flying.

Then you spend the next 30 or 40 or 50 years trying to recapture that feeling.