Sunday, April 27, 2014

On the Run

Running is for people who can't NOT run.

Besides the fact that it takes a particularly rhino-hided brand of crazy to be found hoofing down the road in little more than your underwear, running is work. Most people can't be bothered—which is fine; that leaves the roads less crowded.

Me? I've had a running habit for 36 years now; I caught the bug during the second wave of the first running boom, in 1977. That was the year Jim Fixx published The Complete Book of Running, and all kinds of unlikely folk took up road-running. For most, it was a short-lived craze lasting til their first bout of blisters or sore shins. A few of us, the crazies, were addicted.

Fixx was a 200-plus-pound lard-bucket who smoked two packs a day when he started running. It can't be denied that, despite being a dedicated runner, Fixx died of a heart attack at the age of 52. Considering his father had died at 43, I'd still say that running probably prolonged Fixx's life.

So, no, running is no fountain of youth and instant health. But that's actually beside the point, for me. I learned back in high school that hard exercise keeps depression, to which I seem to be psychologically predisposed, at bay. I can get by on time in the gym, if I must, but, very simply put, running keeps my brains screwed in straight.

Running is a contemplative action, a Zen-like transcendental thing employing careful observation and control of breathing. A mile or so into a run, the world narrows to the point where my foot meets the road. Body fully occupied, my mind is free to process problems (code that doesn't work, problems with buggy software) and ideas.

Though much is made of the 'loneliness of the long-distance runner', no, we aren't especially lonely per se. It IS rather isolating, though, to find people don't understand our avocation, and put us down for it. We have a neighbor we discreetly refer to as Mrs. Grumpy, who occasionally calls to me from her front porch to let me know that I seem "slower than usual today".

Oh, yeah? Come on out on the road and say that.

There's more than one kind of running, of course. Some people say you aren't a runner if you don't race. I have two answers for those folks.

The short answer is: You go to hell, kimosabe.

The long answer is: Whether you're a runner or not depends on what you're here for.

Sure, some folks are in it for the competition—and the race swag. I hate the crowds at races; my ideal run starts at about 5:30 a.m., before the sun is up, and before hordes of other people are out.

Newport Avenue
I've been running in Webster for about 30 years, and I do appreciate the camaraderie of the road: exchanging a quick thumbs-up with other runners; waving to friends out with their dogs; greeting an elderly couple with whom I've swapped pleasantries for years, as they take their morning walk. I don't know their name or where they live, but we've smiled and said good morning year in and year out. Their pace has slowed, and become less certain; she's grown more stooped, and he's now so frail it looks like a good breeze would blow him away. Their smiles are as bright as ever, though, and their greeting warm and genuine. I hate to think there will be a day when I see one of them without the other.

Webster is runner heaven: rolling hills, winding roads, lush gardens, small critters. Most runners don't like hills; I do. I like the challenge. The camelback up Newport Avenue, from Kirkham all the way through to Laclede Station, is a roller coaster of six different-height rises. On a good day, it's a runner's high as a runner's high should be. On a bad one, it's half a mile of utter hell. Either way, just finishing it is winning.

Ditto the hill on Oakwood: a half-mile of 25-degree rise from the blind corner where Glen Road meets Deer Creek, it has one flat spot, and one dip. Otherwise, it's a relentless rise, and (if I time the run right) the sun rises over the trees just as I make the crest of the hill.

Webster's gardens are three seasons of joy, from the early-spring violets and bluebells  through dogwoods, azaleas, and peonies later, to honeysuckle, sunflowers, and Russian sage, and, finally, to fall chrysanthemums.

Math for my boys started on my morning runs: Mama ran 4 miles today, and saw 15 bunnies; how many bunnies per mile? Rabbits are easy to spot; cats, far rarer finds, I have to actively look for.

Dogs come to find me. Some, like the golden retriever who lives on Oakwood, will join me for half a mile or so of gallop. Yappy little dogs who bite ankles tend to be both territorial and bad-natured. Once or twice, such an encounter has left a nasty little dog describing graceful arc through the morning humidity, and Your Truly hoofing hastily from the scene of the crime.

There are all kinds of runners, from the spare, elegant grace of Alberto Salazar to the muscular ferocity of Steve Prefontaine.

I tend more to Prefontaine than Salazar, so I am racing, even when I'm alone on the road—the only person I've ever been interested in beating is me. The best moment of any run is that single instant of luminous certitude: I can do this. A small victory that's still a victory, every time it happens.

Yes, I'm older and slower than I used to be. But, in the words of the immortal John Bingham, The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.

Waddle on, friends.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Not-so-Social Networking

Online friendships are great. Social networks, and, in a larger sense, the Internet itself, give us the opportunity to join a virtual community and meet people we otherwise might never have known existed. Granted, one does need to exercise care in forming friendships online, since visual cues are mostly missing, but with time, sometimes, online friendships turn grow into real ones, strong enough to even translate themselves into 3D relationships. Even more care needs to be taken in meeting up with online acquaintances in person, of course; most often, though, I think people who are nice online are just as nice face-to-face.

I've spent the last couple of months watching a good friend struggle with a group of his online 'friends'. My friend, a man I’ll call Charlie, is an online buddy repurposed as a 3D friend. A really nice guy, he has hundreds of online contacts. He’s cheerful good fun, able to make amusing and intelligent conversation on a dozen subjects—everything from music to technology to the country’s health-care quagmire.

One particular group of his friends had kept a steady conversational thread going on a daily basis for some months before things began to get a bit strange: oddly barbed little comments, people being left out of the thread, and seemingly random unfollowing/blocking, followed by equally random returns to friendliness. Charlie couldn’t get a straight answer out of any of the others about what was going on, and eventually, the whole thing had degenerated into little more than trolling. After a few months of puzzlement and frustration, he unfollowed the others, and locked his account down.

He’ll probably never know what actually went wrong. 

Seems to me some folks regard online friends and acquaintances as somehow disposable. Strange, since there are real people at both ends of the wire—but it’s alarmingly easy to block another person thoroughly, and edit them out of your life as though you can make them cease to exist entirely. Not hard to convince yourself it wasn’t ‘real’, too, since online communication seems so ephemeral. 

What a waste, and what a shame. Friendships shouldn’t, I think, be regarded as disposable.

If friendships are worth having, they’re worth fixing—whatever their format or medium: I hate waste, and I hate unnecessary hurt.

So…why nursery-school behavior online? I always wonder if the folks who behave so childishly online are that way in person—does it make them feel powerful in a way they don’t in their 3D life? Some seem to regard online interaction in light of an old-fashioned masquerade party: if you can't be identified, you can't be held to account—and never mind the cost, in terms of your own integrity. Frankly, I think that sounds more like a drive-by shooting than any other form of social intercourse, and I can do without it.

There’s also a significant underbelly of folks who use social networks for casual, indiscriminate sexual activity. What they do is their own business, until it impacts others. (NB: Make that kind of approach over here, honey, and I'll kick your sorry ass clean to the curb...!) There are good-sized grey areas where all these things, and a great many others, overlap.

Negotiating relationships is an art, a delicate process requiring the four F’s: finesse, forbearance, forgiveness, and faith—trust, if you’d rather use a homelier word.

Give everyone a chance to fix problems—or two or three chances, if you’ve the guts, and the time. I do understand that some things can’t be fixed. Repeated bad interactions or patterns? Reruns of thuggish or cruel behavior? Chuck the offender, and make better friends instead. Lord knows there are enough people out there; most of them are well worth getting to know. Anybody who makes you feel like you’re standing on a cliff edge with a stiff wind blowing at your back needs to be rethought. So too with the people who insist they’re your friend, but will cut you dead to ‘support’ someone else, or those who don’t have anything to say to you anywhere but via private message. Do they think others might think less of them because of the company they keep? 

As Charlie himself put it, anyone who isn't your friend in public isn't your friend period. I agree. 

Trust is hard to re-grow, since it’s never quite the same after it’s been damaged—better to keep it in good shape from the start. You’d have to go a long way to beat Tommy Clifford’s everyday eloquence: he says trust is a hard issue, and he’s right. Without it, though, you’re nowhere, because honesty is the core of life. 

How real is anyone, really—especially online, where people may hide behind made-up names and avatars? The only proof of what another human is actually like is how he behaves. This is exponentially true of folks who put nothing of themselves into their online presence—no name, no location, no nothing real? No chance.

Putting someone in the deep freeze socially may make sense—temporarily—if you've tried talking with them about behavior you find unacceptable, and they've been unreceptive to your concerns. Occasionally, it’s necessary to take a break to let tempers subside. If you just can’t get through, or—worse—if they blame you for their behavior, it’s probably time to cut them loose, as Charlie finally did. The decider is this: do your friends bring you down, or do they help you to be your best self? Tommy’s right on this one, too: “When you surround yourself with people who want to make you better, it's infectious. You thrive off each other.” 

At its best, friendship is a kind of love, building bridges between, sometimes, the most unlikely people. No, it doesn’t always work, and doesn’t always last—no matter how hard you try. Even when things don’t work, though, it’s worth it. As the wise Elizabeth Bushey once wrote, “Love is never wasted. It is creative and good. It makes us better. It makes us better to each other. Whether or not it is returned matters not.” 

Relationships as training for the soul? I don’t know about that, but I agree with her. Win or lose, friendship, like any other kind of love, is an opportunity to be more than you were, a better version of yourself—for real.

I doubt Charlie will stay locked down forever. He’ll probably re-evaluate, after he catches his breath, and refuse to let bent people make him be less than his best self. Smart guy, that Charlie.