Monday, December 31, 2018

Favorite Reads During 2018

I'm not sure how many years I've done this, but one nod to experience is to call it my favorite reads during rather than from the year.

My reading strayed well beyond 2018 publications, though the first five that come to mind were all worth the wait and the investment in the hardbacks. Richard Powers The Overstory was my favorite novel of the year. With each novel of his I am awed my the depth of knowledge that he brings to his work.  As I work through the craftsmanship of his sentences, I hang carefully on each turn of phrase and carefully chew it over before moving on. Further to his craftsmanship is the breathtaking authority he has in relating the science and history that he shares with his readers with each novel. Having also read Powers' 1985 debut Three Farmers On Their Way to A Dance, his method and his gifts have been apparent throughout his career and The Overstory shows him at his peak. The stories that he weaves together in his account of the timber protests in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s provides an aching description of the era and will prompt a deep reconsideration of the trees we are surrounded by. If I've piqued your interest in either book, the paperback of The Overstory will be available in April 2019. I'd be happy to lend you my copy but you would likely have me leaning over your shoulder throughout the reading. I may be keen to get it back promptly, but I'd more likely be waiting to ask you, "Right?" with each turn of the page. You cannot go wrong with Powers' novels, with the exception of Galatea 2.2, and it is unfortunate that he is not better-known.

The other visit with a familiar voice was Haruki Murakami's Killing Commendatore. I became familiar with Murakami's work about 15 years ago while I lived in Japan and this novel is an ambitious return to his more surreal or fantastical works and given the creepy presence of an idea embodied as a physical, human presence provides an interesting departure point if you are looking for some insight on the ideas that are shaping the news each day as we crawl through the post-truth 2010's as parched, bedraggled souls trying to cross a desert. It is a thought-provoking book with moments of humour, deep insights into the creative process and perhaps some revelations about Murakami, himself.

Two other 2018 books I enjoyed were the biographies of Arthur Ashe and Robin Williams. The Ashe biography, published 25 years after his death was not just a detailed reminder that we must not forget the men, but a moving account of the man's life. The description of his 1975 upset of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon brought tears to my eyes as the account of the composed, honourable thinking man of sport found the strategy and the focus to achieve this improbable win. Tears visited again as he grappled with the stress of playing tennis, engaging with apartheid-era South Africa to advance human rights there and being one of the key figures during the tumultuous transitions during the first 5 to 8 years of the Open era. The poignant moment in the book is the beautiful account of Ashe taking his 4-year-old daughter to a gala reception just days after announcing that he had AIDS. The book is a rich, emotional reminder of the marks Ashe left throughout his life and it would be hard to read without wondering what he would be doing today if he were still with us, pursuing his passions where they lead him.

Robin, by Dave Itzkoff, gives a full account of Williams' career. From my perspective I went through the book with the realization that I was reading about a career that I had pretty much seen from start to finish, at least as far as his time in the spotlight was concerned. His talent, his compassion and the what if's that surround the last chapter of his life are all evident. Itzkoff does a thorough job, but I suspect that this will not be the last bio done on Williams.

The last of the 2018 books that stuck with me was Ryder Carroll's The Bullet Journal Method which was a deeper look at the time management system that Carroll developed for himself. Since introducing it to a wide number of users, including myself, the bullet journal has become a valuable system for much more than time management.

On that note, I acknowledge that I've spent a lot of time on just five books and risk giving short shrift to the other books that highlighted my year. So, in quick snapper style, here are the other highlights of 2018:

Books on Creativity:
Henri Cartier-Bresson - The Mind's Eye - a quick read with brilliant insights from the master photographer.
Peter Himmelman - Let Me Out - maybe the best of the 25-30 books on creativity I've read in the last 18-24 months.
Wendy Ann Greenhalgh - Mindfulness and the Art of Drawing - I'm not so hot with a pen and sketchpad, but this gave me amble fodder to contrast drawing from photography and the inspiration to dare picking up a sketchpad.
Richard Powell - Wabi Sabi Simple - Powell is, along with Leonard Koren, are to my eye the two leading authors exploring wabi sabi in the English language. This was a long overdue and valuable read.
Torsten Andreas Hoffman - Photography as Meditation - Great!!
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander - The Art of Possibility - This will change the way you examine creativity, risk and education.

Wally Lamb - We Are Water - the second novel of his that I've read. I shouldn't wait 20 years before reading him again.
Nayomi Munaweera - Island of a Thousand Mirrors - an account of terrorism and the Tamils in Sri Lanka in the 1980s
Banana Yoshimoto - Moshi Moshi - beautiful tale of a mother and daughter's efforts to move on with life after the death of their husband/father
Nicholson Baker - Room Temperature - He may be an acquired taste for some but his hyper-acute regard for his surroundings and experiences can be enchanting and wise. Anticipating a new NB book in 2019.

Sherman Alexie - You Don't Have to Say You Love Me - a memoir of Alexie's relationship with his mother
Ta-Nehisi Coates - We Were Eight Years in Power - Eight long essays on the years of the Obama administration and the rise of Trump.
Matthew Carl Strecher - The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami - A look at Murakami's work that definitely informed my reading of Killing Commendatore. A great reference for a careful reading of Murakami's work.
Zadie Smith - Feel Free - The second collection of essays that I've read by Smith. Her insight, perspective and depth of curiosity is illuminating to read, whether she is venting about Brexit or contrasting Michael Jackson's ostentatious dancing with Prince's almost subliminal movement.
Lewis Thomas - The Medusa and the Snail - Thomas was brought to my attention in an article about Richard Powers. I hope to read more of him in 2019.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Vista of Neon: A Wabi-Sabi View of Vegas

Perhaps it is a matter of landing in the city just at dusk, the desert skies a crosshatch of jet plane vapour trails as Friday afternoon provides the prelude to the artificial lighting that will keep the stars out of view in this most darkness-deprived of places.

The artificial light, whether the fluorescent blasts of the slot machines and VLT's, the traditional neon and the enchanting new LED variations that throb through the night to achieve sensory overload and ensure that the place has the allure of the new, polished and appealing. This is the way Vegas is. The way it has to be. Apparently.

As with even the lowest stakes tables in the smoky lairs and basements of the casinos, there is a high cost of entry if you are to thrive and have the type of experience that Vegas promises and that peer pressure expects us to have. It is the place to get away with things as the commercial mantra -- which goes supernova on the cliche scale here -- and which peer pressure further asserts during the preamble and debriefing of a trip to Vegas.

The price of entry is high, whether you are trying to get a seat at even at the lower stakes tables or if you are trying to carve a niche for yourself in the wavering consciousness of people walking the strip. The two CVS Drugstores on the strip pitch themselves for their 24 hour availability and contribute their own lumens to the visual cacophony of the light shows and sheen that make this landscape. The darkest spots on the strip are for the closed businesses that have not been able to carve a niche in people mindsets in this place of acute, commercialized attention deficit. There is a darkened 10 metre sword, kissed by the ambient neon. The steakhouse it once provided a beacon for idled by the declines that face businesses everywhere but the fate here was decided by the inability to thrive according to a formula that is unique to Vegas. It is hard to tell here whether the rules are different or merely amplified by the scales that are required to sustain here.

The hotels, casinos and other venues need to have the architectural botox required to vaunt their brands to the levels that justify the mark-ups and price points that appeal to the high rollers who come here to amplify the one aspect of themselves, whether shopper, gambler, self-debaucher, that they want to flaunt at the expense of the wholeness of who they are. On the retail level, there is a certain sadness for those on the strip who aspire to do no more than sell they typical souvenirs that tourists would seek. Without even darkening their doors, the lighting there a subtle, but noticeable and off-putting coolness of older fluorescent fixtures that will prompt more shoppers to move on to a newer place with a different tone and a bombast that assaults a different sense with a different blatancy. Without the maintenance to ensure that the experience of the Vegas "machine" is compliant with the expectations that have been built to trick the senses in to forgetting the passage of time and the cycles of the day.

The formula in in Vegas is a simple one. It has been adapted and calibrated over the decades and the influx of gambler and investor money has refined the city into a well-oiled machine for distracted play. The effort to expand the senses is overwhelmed by the ambition to define each experience. The scents that are pumped through the hotels and the corridors between the smoky casinos are another way that the setting is micromanaged and the range of experiences is controlled rather than expanded. It sounds paradoxical to suggest that there is both sensory overload and a limited experience in Vegas but the stereotype of excess that is associated with the city and the Strip do not leave much room for a wide variety of experiences as might be the case in New York or Paris. The possibilities are in the intensity rather than in the variety of experiences that the city accommodates (or tolerates.) One thing that further distinguishes Vegas from Paris and New York is that so much of the city is derivative from those cities and others. There is probably much about city's surroundings that can be drawn upon - the desert, the western heritage, the wonders of Hoover Dam are a few examples, but these seem to be exiled to the suburbs of the imagination in favour of preserving the playground mood.

Little is allowed to age on the Strip, and less still allowed to go dark. Opposites are not allowed to balance. Even if legislated, the acknowledgement that gambling is in a realm that risks inducing addition is merely given lip service while the lures remain untethered. Youth, not age. Excess, not restraint. Vegas makes no apologies for what it is and it should not have to. The lack of nuance or the slick calibration of the Vegas "machine" leaves it unlikely to adapt to changes in the future and reinvent itself. While Vegas is the oasis or enclave for the play that it promises makes sustainability a challenge. It is disconcerting, but telling to see so much energy invested in maintaining a certain look. It is illustrative that Cher's 72-year-old face looms over the strip, her presence projected in neon while the collective restraint to not comment on cosmetic surgery indicates the willingness to buy into the illusion that here, at least for the weekend, in these snapshots and postcard moments the ideal has been attained, regardless of the price of entry. Can all of these illusions be sustained, especially in the desert as other resources dwindle away?

I would not dare suggest that Vegas try to greater encompass the qualities or the wisdom behind wabi-sabi and recognize the impermanence, the incompleteness and imperfections that lurk behind the glimmering facades of the city. People would simply say that Vegas doesn't do that. However, I am curious about the cost of maintaining the playground's appeal and appearance in the face of changing tastes and the physical challenges of maintaining this city in the desert at the pace it maintains. It would be compelling to look behind the curtain and see the margins and machinations of sustaining all of this at its apparent peak. The challenge of maintaining this vista of neon will prove unsustainable eventually and it will be interesting to see what becomes of Vegas when and if the decline proves to be inexorable.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Day

In my naive teens I recall watching the national Remembrance Day ceremonies and television and wondering about the frailty of our Silver Cross mothers and dared to assume that there would be a time when we would not have one to visit the cenotaph on these cold November mornings. Time has nudged aside the notion that we have had or may ever have a war to end all wars and the commemoration is one that has gained solemnity as the veterans include in their number those younger than I am.

Seven years ago, I missed the ceremony for a medical check up with my son to see how he was coming along after 83 hours of life. He has attended a few ceremonies since then without "getting it," but this week he has come home brimming with stories of hardship amongst those who lived through the 20th Century wars that are fading toward the rear horizon.

Today, though, war is remote from our imagination and reality. Not only past wars, but current ones have little place in our daily thoughts. Canadians presume today that there are no soldiers or peacekeepers in harm's way and needing to be vigilant rather than solemnly reflecting as the minute hand reaches 11:11am today. Our affluence and the division of labour that allows us to send fewer and fewer soldiers into action - for it is technology and not peace that has allowed us to send fewer troops - has altered our definition of heroism and has allowed us disparate lives that make the possibility of collective cause more remote than our ancestors could imagine. There are available and urgent collective causes today, but we are somehow unable or unwilling to rally ourselves to them and make the sacrifices that ancestors made.

Despite recent history, there is still a sense that the World Wars are the ones to commemorate and that subsequent wars, police actions or battles are afterthoughts. This is due, in part, to the milestone anniversaries and the respective commemorations of the sacred spaces that have been made of European battlegrounds. Despite our default to say "the war" to refer merely to World War I or World War II, war remains a part of our currently reality and not just a distant reminder. While we acknowledge this with solemnity, bowed heads and a rendition of "O Canada" that finds its way to a muted, minor key, we know little of the commitment and the hardships that contemporary soldiers and their families make on the modern battlefield and on the home front as well.

Over the course of the 20th Century and into our own, there has been diminishing commitment to war. We know from recent experience that the calculations have indicated the expense and loss of war is a futile expenditure. The promise of peace is enticing but it is a deft deployment of deception and platitudes to lure us to the battlefields time and again. Can we ever stop falling for it? We can only hope, but there is a likelihood that we will be rally to defend ourselves or taken on a guardianship that ought to prompt a more humane and generous response than the mobilization of munitions and kevlar. Today, as daughters as well are fighting and dying on the battlefields, we must not only remember but reflect upon what the future holds for us and determine what we wish to do to shape it. The challenges ahead are massive and the response that we reflect upon today - war - will likely exacerbate situations and squander our resources, our young and our humanity rather than bring about the resolution we aspire to. As we reflect on the complexity of our times and acknowledge that right answers are elusive and illusory, we strive for the compromises and sacrifices that will ensure that we stand solemnly with the realization that peace is premised on seeking what is right rather than striving to merely and exclusively have our way.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Creativity: Monoliths and Constellations

Creativity has been increasingly recognized over the last decade, at least, as something more than a pastime or a pursuit that would round out the character or skillset of one who risks going through life with a narrow range of interests and a narrow horizon as well.

Despite the body of literature that has come out over the last few years to underline the social, personal and economic benefits that stem from creativity, it continues to be regarded in some quarters with some trepidation. Creativity continues to be regarded as a remote monolith, steeped in a mythology that reinforces assumptions about god-given creative genius, the quick, easy genesis of complete works and the belief that creativity is merely the reserve of the fine arts.

When viewed with the fear and regard that a monolith incites, creativity can ultimately remain untapped or unexplored, especially in our classrooms. One factor that limits the extent to which teachers may explore and foster creativity in their classrooms, is the attention that must be paid to the curriculum and assessment, especially the diploma exam. Given the structure that the curriculum and a provincial or diploma exam imposes, there is a strong sense of risk in exploring creativity, potentially at the risk of leading the students down a rabbit hole that diverts them too far away from preparation for exams. Investing class time in creativity when it cannot be accurately evaluated nor is part of a diploma exam would be deemed indulgent or even reckless by those looking for measurable results from their child's education.

Apart from the pair of handcuffs that is put on teachers, especially high school teachers, by the diploma exam, there is a teacher's confidence in their own creativity. If a teacher lacks confidence in their creativity and/or does not have a creative outlet that they can visit to regularly identify significant aspects of the creative experience, he or she is less likely to risk exploring creativity if it takes them out of their comfort zone.

The opposed monoliths of assessment and a fine art perception of creativity need to be re-examined or even atomized. Assessment and education always need to be reconsidered as changes to technology and society occur. Creativity, meanwhile, is being regarded more and more through a different lens today. We are slowly moving away from the monolithic, narrow definition of creativity and as we look at the values, skills and characteristics we can associate with creativity. With a careful consideration of input or outcomes that we would associate with creativity we can generate a constellation of skills or competencies that may not the focus of a diploma exam, but are still vital traits that we, as teachers, would like to model and foster among our students.

A considered assessment of the qualities that are a part of this constellation of concepts that we associate with creativity would provide a few areas where teachers can bring a strength or interest to the classroom to model or support for their students. They will not necessarily be exercising creativity in a strict sense but such an approach will be an opportunity for a teacher who has reservations about their creativity to support students in an aspect of their creativity. There will be a need to adapt the curriculum and assessment to ensure that creativity is fostered in the classroom. There will also be a need for the powers-that-be to give creativity its due place in the curriculum and ensure that it is not pushed aside in favour more easily measured competencies. Creativity, like the concepts that I have associated it with in the constellation above, is sorely lacking in our society today and giving it short shrift because we cannot evaluate it should not be continued much longer.

In the meantime, teachers ought to see the opportunity to identify skills and competencies that are among their strengths and ensure that they embody and model them in their classrooms. Such efforts will ensure that their students are in a safe, supportive environment where they, in turn, can develop their competency in these areas and build the foundation for a creative practice that allows them to think divergently, solve problems, thinking critically and pose the "what about" questions that will generate novel ideas and innovations.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Echoes in "blooming bloodfruit"

I encountered a piece of music last week that still resonates with and astounds me. On one level, it is an accomplished and startling expression of vision and elegiac rage. On another it is an artifact from an experience that I am not a part of and it has cast me into a reassessment of jazz and how I have selected and listened to it for over 30 years.

As someone who has not-necessarily-quietly worn the badge of my tastes as something that defines me, Ambrose Akinmusire's "a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie," provides an assertive reminder of jazz's roots, eclecticism and its activism. As much as I might want to be defined by what I listen to, I realize that I am also defined by what I overlook.

The song -- and this is a case where 'song' risks falling short of capturing the breadth and scope of Akinmusire's palette -- begins with the restrained long tones of a classical string quartet and is complemented by the terse insights of a hop-hop artist. Thus opens a piece of remarkable musical, thematic and lyrical complexity that refuses to remain in the background.

When the rap begins, a hip-hop that echoes the lines that Billie Holiday delineated in "Strange Fruit." The simmering rage remains as does the reminder that for African-Americans only the landscape and the tree has changed with the passing of time. The pastoral scene of the American south is gone and it has been replaced by cellphone footage on the streets of the suburbs and urban core of this America that has become nastier and bleaker as its horizons have narrowed. The current tragedies blip and repeat as the data streams public at an unsteady rate and the institutional indifference toward the rights, dignity and innocence of adolescents like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and other young black men who have died at the hands of the police over the years.

Let's keep it simple -- what formed the African-American experience is still there and it is more visceral and present than we would collectively wish to admit. We know there is still racism, but those privileged enough not to experience it remain ignorant, and blissfully so. We might sense the need for advocacy, but not the urge to respond or become a staunch ally.

The racism that is central to the African American experience in an integral part of jazz lore and reality. Integrated bands were a novelty that met opposition. Cabaret cards were tokens of manipulation and control of African-American players, even in the liberal north. Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and other musicians who came of age during the 1940's and 1950's were haunted by the murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955. John Coltrane's "Alabama" was prompted by Ku Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham that killed three teenaged girls. In "blooming bloodfruit" a malleted drum riff pays homage to Elvin Jones' drumming on "Alabama" and evokes an era that, actually, hasn't ended despite the civil rights accomplishment that can be cited over the last 50-60 years.

These struggles and experiences have deeply informed much of the jazz experience and its language. As much as I have listened to Hancock, Davis, Ellington and Coltrane, my tastes of lead me elsewhere over the years. The jazz I've listened to has been more meditative and sedate, steeped in the Great American Songbook, trio playing and lulled me into seeking out the distinctions in playing among different musicians. I've drifted off in the process.

A few months ago, I patted myself on the back for catching a fragment of Vince Guaraldi's "Lucy and Linus" in the middle of an interpretation of "Monk's Mood." Yes, my grasp of jazz was such that I could cite the hook from one of the most widely known soundtracks of childhood. I'd burrowed into a cave of my own tastes but, by chance, Ambrose Akinmusire's stellar work as a sideman prompted me to broaden my horizons to jazz's ambition and its roots.

Sequestered with my fondness for older generations of musicians who are still present, vibrant and posing no threat to settle for a routine in tuxedos that would never be threatened by the sweat of full on performance, I've found myself listening to music that has been familiar rather than challenging. Akinmusire's piece has given me a reminder to take full note of not only him, but of the likes of Kamasi Washington, Ben Williams and others who are of the generation of musicians younger than me. I've listened to "blooming bloodfruit" a dozen times now and I have ponied up for the album to tell myself at least, in this age of streaming, that this is a substantial piece of music worth the time, attention and the vote in dollars. I have a single that has challenged me to re-examine my listening habits and I anticipate an album that will do the same and consequently change my perspective on

I come away from the track with a humbling note to myself as I expand my horizons: "I know so little."

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Photography, Seeing and Connecting

The commentary on the value of creativity has grown louder and increased in the number of variation
on the litany in recent years, but the familiar challenges that creativity presents have not fallen away.

The anxieties about creative processes will remain and they will menace you with the threat of a mythic hydra. Fear, risk, the dynamics of the ego still guard the transition from work, chores and the everyday into creative processes. Procrastination becomes a familiar companion as one tries to get an atrophied creative muscle into shape, but cannot find the proverbial gym or routine to exercise or even identify where or what your creativity actually is.

As the public commentary about creativity and its importance increases in volume, variety and intensity, the recognition grows that it is good, that it has benefits. You might be willing to acknowledge that creativity is like doing the stairs instead of elevators. There may be the familiar inhibition and frustration the occurs when presented with self-improvement, self-help or a dream. You know what to do, know some of the benefits and at the end of the day merely nod to yourself that you know these things. Still, there is reluctance to do it. Worse yet, you may find a certain inner dialogue taking a familiar tone that leaves you in a rut and that may perpetuate a certain dialogue about the willingness to follow through on something, or start.

The ambition of creative expression is daunting. Apart from developing the belief that technical aptitude is required and that it has to be something we are born with, the other myth that may lock up creativity is the sense that it needs to be about something. Songs, movies, poems, painting, movies, books and blog posts all have this stated expectation that they have to be about something. A Statement is to be made. Once you start to work on something there is that expectation that it have a theme and have this impact on other people and communicate with a certain profundity.

No, no, no. Not your first time out. If you wish to pick up the paint brush, pen, or guitar, that expectation looms in the background.

You could probably doodle without the expectation of about. Or is that "ABOUT?"

The camera, be it a refined DSLR or the one in your smart phone, is another mode of creativity that is not going to impose the word "about" on you. There will be no expectation that you connect with a theme or make a statement about the world. Not that the ambition of a theme is ruled out for photographers. However, when you pick up the camera you are simply doing so to take a picture of something. If there is a statement to be made it may occur only out of happenstance or as a happy consequence or accident from a connection between the photographer and the subject.

No single picture has the burden of having to be about something. If it is about anything perhaps it is about, as I said, the connection, or just as importantly, the moment. Of all the things that you could be looking at in that given moment, and for all the times that you have walked through your day inattentive to your surroundings, this was a moment when you saw and connected.

While high stakes loom and weigh upon you with other creative pursuits in music, writing, acting, and other areas, that is less of a case with photography. The changes that have taken place in photographic technology have allowed more people to pursue it and its spontaneity is such that there is almost no time commitment to taking a single image these days. At the same time, the equipment is not that necessary and there is still the risk of fetishizing the gear a bit too much, especially when it is so ubiquitous that anything can be photographed at any given moment. The moment taken, however, to stop and see something and connect with it, whether merely with the eyes or with a camera, is one that can reward you immensely at a very low risk to you.

Without the pressure of having to take a photo about something and the opportunity to see and communicate something that nobody else sees or is able to see in a given moment of your day, creating with the camera is something that poses very low stakes and has the opportunity to offer immense rewards. There will be the occasional pang of fear or risk when making a breakthrough with the camera, but those will be worth it.

For these reasons, the camera is probably one of the most inviting paths to exercising your creative muscles and having those first tentative jostles with the fear and risk that stand between you and creativity. And if you want to wrestle with the question of what a photograph can be about, it is about you.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Having Gone For It

     Is drowsy an emotion?
     Okay, it is just a state, but it is profound and extends to muscle and toes at the moment. They are sore after the marathon but they want to sleep too. Dearly. 
     Given the opportunity to visit the flat course that qualified me for Boston a year ago, I was curious about how I would feel as the morning started. There has probably been a bit of a let down over the last year after qualifying for Boston, but there has only been a slight drop in my training mileage compared to the amount I had put in last year. I've been more meditatively in my training runs for a very long time and there has been a lingering doubt over the last year that there has not been enough of a push in training to get me as race ready as I was a year ago. Still, I wasn't sure how race ready I was then either.
     I am, however, able to say that my fitness seems to be holding despite the lack of intensity in training lately and perhaps the tactical errors today. It being my second marathon of the year and likely the occasion to shut it down for a pretty long time, it wasn't long before I decided to go for broke. After 10K of comfort at a pace that was on par with the time I needed to qualify, I pushed through at the pace I set, conscious of my questions about fitness and a lingering tweak in my left ankle or achilles that, today, kept itself to a whisper.
   Today, however, was not as emotional as the race last year that qualified me for Boston or running the 122nd iteration in April's tempests. It may have been a matter of not lingering long in the starters' area this morning - a mere 10 minutes today, compared to the usual hour or so I usually put in. It may be a matter of the stakes being a little lower for each of the marathons I've run in the last 12 months. One thing that was significant in my recollection of the Edmonton marathon last year was that I was not connecting today with other runners the way I do when a race is going well. There were familiar faces throughout the race but connections did not form for one reason or another.
    In the back of my mind there, is still a desire to run Boston under different conditions from what I encountered this year, but bucket list items usually don't have parenthetical updates. I still went for it and for the better part of the race my mantra for the morning nudged me along whenever I seemed to be flagging.
   The legs, however, surrendered their drive a little earlier than I needed. My stretch from the half mark to the 30K mark was my fastest of the morning and, as I told myself last year at that point, I had one hour to go. Just ease in 12K at a 5-minute pace. I pretty much nailed that last year, running those last 12(.2!)K in 1:00:57. Today it took 1:12 as the legs gave their walking orders (worst pun ever?)         Part of it was tactical today, part of it was also the lack of the long runs through the summer to prep me for the kick needed to get through that last 1/4 of the race.
   For the soreness and the resignation that a break awaits to heal, work on other aspects of my fitness it is comforting to know that, on a day when things were less than ideal, I have managed to run faster than I did 2 years ago.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Twelfth First Marathon

Decisions... decisions...
     I'm 36 hours away from my next marathon and, well, believe it or not, I don't know what shoes to wear.
     I'm not gaping at a closet full and pondering the right colour to go with my go-to ensemble of orange shirt and black shorts. I haven't done the full matchy matchy, footwear-included match up, in nearly two years and that was more trust in the chosen shoes than striking the right look on the asphalt. Most folks are too bleary-eyed at that hour of the morning to size up the fashion statements unless someone is going outrageous with a tri-coleur afro and matching crocs or beyond.
    The shoes aside, there are familiar questions and doubts about the race. What's the goal? Have I trained enough? Where am I mentally? Physically? Can I rein myself in for the start and follow the necessary strategy? Could I run a negative split? Will I push myself as hard as I can or will I leave something in the tank to avoid conking?
    At this point the die is cast. Preparation and training have laid the foundation for what will happen and I can probably -- despite the questions -- guesstimate my finish time. I know that I will have Asian fast food at lunch to begin the carb load and top it off in the evening with the katsu-don and sashimi repast that served me so well one year ago. It is results, not superstition that has set the menu. Sunday morning beverages are identified and the pre-race pacing and bathroom visits are noted in advance without much cause for concern. I'll line up with the 3:45 pace rabbit as I did last year. After 20-40 minutes or so of looking regularly at my watch to ensure I'm not going out too hard, I'll settle in for the race and the close surveying of mind and body to determine where I am at and addressing the unknowns that I bore with me to the start line. The answers will come to me, wordless. I'll recalibrate my will, my hopes and the demands I make of myself as I determine where I'm at and do what I can to focus on the task at hand.
    From there the following 3 hours, give or take, will be the culmination of a day where the stakes are high. The focus is relatively sharp for that time. There will be distractions occasionally, and my mind will meander and occasionally settle on a thought for a while, but the intention will remain undivided. For water gulps and refuelling the stride will be unbroken as I put all my focus into finishing with as little left in the tank as possible. There won't be a number or a red line to tell me how well I consumed what I have with in me that morning. I'll look within and navigate by dead reckoning. Perhaps that is the challenge that makes the marathon such an intriguing race.
    There are few other endeavours, at least in my life, where the challenge is so intense and the result as tangible as it is. The stakes, at least as I set them for myself, make each run new. The uncertainties about what I'm capable of ought to raise the stakes everyday and make me rally my best self to each  occasion that presents itself. There are moments when I can lock in and bring a certain level of intensity, focus and eventually, flow when I'm writing, doing photography or working. A race, though, is an occasion to see if I can set myself to getting into that flow rather than wait for it to present itself to me.
  So, when I get in the scrum with the other runners on Sunday morning, I might try to treat it like a typical morning long, but I'll be keen to push it and see what I got in me. Now... I just have to figure out whether to go with the pair I ran my last marathon in or a newer pair.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Five Words

When the biography of DeMar DeRozan is written, the grind and threat of growing up in Compton, California will dominate the first chapter. Drive-bys, gangs, uncertainty and witnessing death at a young age will be the early threads that the writer will pull together to start to weave the narrative. There will be comments on the breaks that kept him on the path to the NBA. Motivation maintained, the possibility of it wavering, the hard knocks education that may have threatened to break him instead of doing the sought after toughening that was the perceived requirement. The nuances and details of that boyhood will be epic in their retelling and the climaxes of USC and the ascension to the lottery end of the 2009 NBA draft class will tell a lot about the man.

Chapter two, in inspired hands would be a flash forward to five words. Five words that came from a rookie who averaged an ordinary 21 minutes and 8.6 points a game and may, on the heels of season one, still have been considered more of a project than a cog for the future. With the departure of all-star power forward Chris Bosh looming, the rookie, of all people on the roster tweeted: "Don't worry, I got us..."

Was it arrogant or presumptuous for the rookie to step up on a team with serviceable veterans bearing much of the load? In the end, the answer is a proud, "No." In that first chapter of his life, in that first season of his NBA career there were glimpses of who he was and the qualities he possessed. The determination, resilience, persistence and the work ethic have been cornerstones of DeMar DeRozan's delivery on that seemingly impetuous promise in June 2010, but there is something of that childhood in Compton, of the grit and humility that has formed him and a calculus of commitment that quite possibly assured him that his commitment was within him and that voicing it and holding himself accountable to those words would bring out what was required of him and of the team he integrated himself into.

Afforded the opportunity to shrink away from the boast, to simply delete it because the task he committed himself was too large or earned him a quick round of ridicule, he did not back down. As the 20-year-old grew into a man and the raw talent put in the now-renowned gym-rat hours to hone and complement the skill set he left Compton and USC with, he took on that responsibility and bore it. The numbers bore witness to what he strived to do, but there was the quiet development of other skills or the burnishing of principles that he learned from his parents. He was never late. He was always there. There was no drama. There was a commitment to self-improvement. There is an authenticity and sincerity about DeRozan that was always a sharp contrast to Chris Bosh's social media savvy and telegenic eloquence that occasionally turned glib. DeMar spoke simply, in a manner that belied a preference to put the work in rather than calculate a turn of phrase to turn things in his favour. (There was a sense of that during Bosh's interactions with the media during his last season and the team's close but yet so far meander through the 2009-10 season from the All Star break to the
end of the year a lingering "what if" in the minds of Raptors and fans alike.)

The young man who identified only one way out of Compton, just put the work in and added to that sweat equity an integrity and a quiet leadership that has left an indelible mark on the franchise that will at the very least hang his number from the rafters. Apart from the commitment he made in staying and wanting to stay as long as he did, he was a key figure in the playoff runs that the team has made over the last five seasons. His embrace of running mate Kyle Lowry as the gasp of frustration was yet to be exhaled by the ACC faithful was a moment that fused the team together and in defeat ought to remain as a hallmark of teammates' commitment to one another through all. The heartbreaks have been tough, but we -- whether that is the men in the dressing room or the thousands in the seats and in Jurassic Park -- will persevere, be thankful for the men we have had the chance to go through this with and look ahead to greater successes that will be sweeter for this moment's searing memory.

He has put in the time to take the team as far as it has and he will be a significant part of the successes that will follow for the example he set the time he put in and the glass ceilings of playoff infamy that he had helped the once hapless Raps so adeptly smash through. If greater successes follow in the near future there will be a poignant wish that he and Dwane Casey be in the room to celebrate with those people who are more significant actors in the achievement of the the next level of success. Instead of being at the centre of those future celebrations, ones which they set the foundation for, they will be on the outside looking in, only able to enjoy it vicariously and their contribution to it only calculable by vague and unreliable means. No, DeRozan and Casey won't execute or set the play or adjustment required to score a decisive basket. Achieving the next level will not be a consequence of merely completing a certain number of successful defensive and offensive possessions over the course of 100-plus games strung out from one October to the following June. Championships are progressed toward, in part, as a consequence of organizational will and the mindset of the leaders in that organization. Successes without men of such quality and character as DeRozan and Casey will be bitter sweet for their absence at a time when their contributions to the organization need to be acknowledged.

DeMar DeRozan -- the quiet, confident gym rat who did the self-examination and made the effort
required to continue improving his game and invested so much of himself in the Raptors' progress over the last decade, the man who persevered so much, has shared his vulnerabilities and worn a red leaf on his sleeve throughout his time in Toronto, in Canada -- has left his mark on the Toronto Raptors organization. There has been a lunch-bucket tenacity, a humility and a depth of character that prompted him and the city of Toronto to commit to one another.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Gratitude Versus Expectation: A Marathon Meditation

When the Boston Marathon competitors complete their dawn pilgrimage to the Starters’ Village in Hopkinton each year, the conversations turn to previous versions of the race. In 2018, as we shuffled for warmth in the pouring rain and glanced at the mounds of ice surrounding the tents, comparisons were made to the heat of 2012 and the rains of 2015. In 2019 and beyond, the weather on race day 2018 will have a special place during these pre-race chats. It will not be a mere passing point of reference drawn from a Marathon veteran’s mental scrap book, but an epic retelling requested by one who missed, escaped or avoided it. Details about the will-breaking rains and headwinds will be feasted upon by those who missed it while it evokes an un-nostalgic shiver among the narrator-survivors.

On more springlike days, there is a festival atmosphere in Hopkinton. The runners scatter and sprawl on the school fields to savour arrival and cobble together this version of prerace ritual. They stretch, splay out on the grass, and relax - zone out in their own way. Selfies at the sign marking the start are taken. In 2018, they huddled for warmth in the tents, jammed to near standstill, the runners shuffling their feet in the muddy bog as the hours to the each wave’s start slowly ticked by. There was an airport expectancy. That may be the case every year, but with the weather as bleak as it was, the race start felt more like a demanding evacuation exercise instead of a premiere sporting event couched in a century-plus of tradition.

Beyond the overnight sleet and ongoing rain, there were cold temperatures and strong winds that only promised to intensify throughout race day. Many of the spectators who brought signs to the race route eschewed the pithiest old school running signs for Pixar’s lexicon: “Just keep swimming.” The descriptions of the race weather will vary from runner to runner when these Boston veterans return to Hopkinton or the tales of this exceptionally epic iteration of the Marathon are recounted over Thursday night beers or Sunday morning long-run brunches among running clubs. 

Those volunteers hoping to collect discarded clothes on race day on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters stood in the torrents to little avail. Despite expectations of warming up, people kept their clothing on throughout and discarded little on route. If ever the temptation to drop a layer welled up, it was pounded away by a gust of wind that stunned you with a sheet of rain that metaphorically or psychologically stopped you in your tracks or sent you reeling backwards. There is the reality for some runners that it actually stopped them. As I encountered the headwinds, I dreaded the possibility of the cold rain pounding my forehead until the aching numbness of the third eye set in to double me over in a full-body wince. My thin toque managed to fend off that sensation.

Runners would admit that they really wondered why they were racing through these conditions merely for the sake of completing a marathon. For myself, a first time participant in Boston, there was only the most fleeting thought about quitting. I was propelled by the sense of privilege of being on that storied route. There was an overarching sense of pleasure in running that route and having that experience among my races. I noted but did not mind the rains and headwinds. 

As I have slowly come to realize during my previous 10 marathons, the mental component is crucial.  I ran my first Boston Marathon with a serenity that made the miles disappear behind me with little doubt or anguish about the remaining steps. When the rain made its mark it did on the day, I took the pressure off myself and proceeded. I decided the goal would be 3:40 and precisely ran that.

Coming away from the race, I have contemplating the relation or opposition between gratitude and expectation. When expressed from a more A-type mindset, expectations can quickly turn into an anvil to lug up Heartbreak Hill while a sense of gratitude can keep you steady, serene and clear of the flight or fight reactions that accompany a more tense frame of mind.

The opposition between gratitude and expectation echoes the tortoise and hare parable. The elite runners had more expectations during the 2018 Boston Marathon and the sense of gratitude had likely been eroded by years of rigorous training, top level competition and calculating each step, bite and stretch with an eye to peaking for the right races. They were working with not only higher expectations, but the calculus that amounts to risking the outcome of a future race by expending so much energy in a losing battle. To that point, it is significant that Yuki Takeuchi, the 2018 winner of the Boston Marathon runs a compulsive number of marathons, a number the limits the stakes of each individual race and, consequently, his expectations each time he toes the start line because another race is not too far down the line. (Takeuchi raced a half-marathon six days after completing Boston.) There is a willingness to seek fun rather than reward as is evidenced by his Guinness record for fastest half-marathon in a panda costume and less chance of being enslaved by an arbitrary goal such as a certain time, ranking or compensation.

The weekend warriors made up the gap between themselves and the elites, in many cases, with the sheer mass of gratitude they brought to the start line. Finding the gratitude when facing adversity — whether in running or elsewhere in life — keeps you engaged and striving, even if the progress is not evident or satisfying. Parenting, work, relationships and creating are just a few areas of life where you can be stopped in your tracks. It is common to assume or expect that things will just happen and that a high performance state will be entered with mere desire for it. However, there is slogging and strife at times. Finding the gratitude to realize that you have at that moment, the privilege, the energy and resources within to accomplish something and leave your mark is great way to actually position your self within sight of the possible. Shedding or examining your expectations and assessing your perspective at a given moment in terms of expectations and gratitude (or privilege) can reshape a challenge or a moment into one were success and contentment can outstrip frustration and hardship.

My other running posts:
Big Sur 2014 
Vancouver 2016
Nashville 2016 - missed my BQ by 9 seconds
Calgary 2017
Edmonton 2017 BQ
Portland 2017
Prelude to Boston 2018
Boston 2018 (1)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Pat Metheny NEA Jazz Master Acceptance Speech - April 16, 2018

In April 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts int he United States recognized, as it does annually, four jazz artists for their contributions to the art form. Among the recipients this year was guitarist Pat Metheny, whose career has been one of the most diverse and significant in music over the last four decades. 

By his own admission Metheny graduated from high school thanks to the generosity of his teachers in Lee Summit, Missouri, who overlooked the marks that were pummelled by his teen years spent on the jazz bandstands in near by Kansas City. Despite his limited formal education, Metheny is one of the most articulate and insightful public figure I know and while I suspect he would rather let his music do the talking, his commentary on music, society and the arts has been quite value.  With that said I would like to share this transcription of his speech from the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert:

"Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. 
First off, I’d just like to deeply thank the NEA for this amazing award. It’s an honor beyond anything I ever could have imagined growing up out there in Missouri. And it’s especially great to have my beautiful family. My wife Latifa, my boys Nicholas and Jeffery, my daughter Maya are here. I’ve got a whole bunch of cousins that came here from all over the States on the Metheny and Hansen side of our family. They flew in here just to be here. And to look out and see so many of my favorite musicians and favourite music people just makes all of this even more meaningful.  It has been such a special weekend too to share this honour with Todd, Joanne and Dianne. Folks I admire so much and to be able to hear them speak and to be able to be around them makes it all so much more memorable.

And to have Christian and Antonio, my brothers and the whole crew of these amazing five guitar players that are just out there doing their thing. It just makes it absolutely fantastic.
It has been such a privilege for me to have lived and worked alongside with so many great musicians of our time, some of whom have been bestowed this award.  Among them, my most important mentor, Gary Burton who I could never thank enough for the many lessons in all departments learned along the way through him. And my best friend in life, Charlie Haden, whom I miss every day. And my two all time favourite drum heroes, Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes. Also two of my favourite people in the world. And to be noted among them and so many of my other major heroes in this music tonight is an almost overwhelming honour.  When I look at the community of musicians recognized historically by this distinction, representing an almost indescribably wide variety of musical dialects, I see one common thread: a complete commitment to creativity. A commitment to represent who they are and where they came from with honesty and integrity and soul and a commitment to bring a sound into the world that reflects their own personal experiences and individuality. 

To me, that mission is the central objective in this music and my goal has always been to do my best to try to meet that aspiration. As musicians, we find ourselves trading in a currency that has way more actual value than the people at the top might realize.  Sometimes it takes years, decades even for the true impact of what this community has offered to be felt. Politicians come and go. Great music has a way of lasting and remaining influential for a really, really, really, really long time.

Anyone seeking long term political influence should probably pay attention to that. What is represented in this music at its best and the incredible range of musicians who populate it is often transcendent of the culture that it is made in even while being deeply formed by the forces at work at the time of its inception.

Right now, without question there are major cultural and political challenges that we all have to face. It is important to note, whenever possible, how the language of music and this music in particular offers its value, intrinsically and fundamentally, within the currency of good notes and sound itself with little regard for the more everyday kinds of ways that folks tend to measure value.  The messaging system that has evolved through the work and research of the practitioners of this music, the actual values that we trade in every night can serve as an ideal model for many the goals that we aspire to as human beings and as a society. 

Having lived through a number of political ups and downs; if I think back on my favourite music it is hard to remember which administration was in place during this time or that time because the hard currency of music the arts has a way of going far beyond any of that. Even if the work is formed by a particular time and place, the best music suggests a way of living and being that often provides a kind of timeless substance that goes way past the immediate conditions of its creation, even while presenting sometimes important perspectives on current events or the circumstances of history that effected its arrival.
One important thing to note on this front is that the NEA knows this. The fact that we are all here tonight is such a testament to that. It is very important for all Americans to fight for and support its continued survival. It represents, the NEA represents on an institutional level the soul that a functioning democracy must have to exist.

In closing, there is one observation that I have had over the years that I have tried to point out to musicians as often as I can. The majority of the people who are going to get the most out of this music are likely not on the planet yet. Our biggest audience and the folks who will gain the most from what we are all working so hard on and are so committed to are quite possibly not even born yet. There is a very particular kind of faith revealed in knowing that and still devoting every waking minute to finding the right resolution, the right groove, the right ways to push and pull and to fight and to listen. What we are all swinging for is something eternal. It is always worth it, no matter what the struggle.  And this music at its best is proof positive of the true value represented in that faith. The kind of value that makes the contents of Fort Knox seem utterly insignificant in the larger scheme of things. The essence of music somehow contains the secrets of how we all got here and where we all are going. 

What a privilege it has been to live inside that music.

Once again thank you to the NEA for this incredible honour. I am thankful and grateful beyond words. Thank you."

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Tempest

My medal and my bag of wet gear post-race as 
photographed with my fogged up cellphone camera.
When I recount this race in the future, I will either understate or grossly, grossly exaggerate the weather conditions that defined my first Boston Marathon. As I look out my hotel window, the race a few hours behind me, the screen remains clogged with the rain and the visibility limited.  The wind still howls with a reminder of what happened throughout the day. Chafing went to a new extreme on this one and my neck seems serrated by the rubbing of my shirts against my neck and the drawstring of my shorts had done the same to my waist.

My brother and I both had about two hours sleep and were up before the alarms struck at 4:30. While the weather proved daunting, the commitment of the racers and the community astounded me throughout the day as runners funnelled from our various hotels across the city to fill the busses that would take us west to Hopkinton to settle in and bide our time until we toed the start line for the return trip on foot. After decades of anticipation, and a few trying efforts to qualify, it was on.

I managed to keep the logistics of the day at arms' length throughout the day as my Boston vet brother guided me through the procedures of the day. The wet, windy weather had been forecast prior to heading to Boston, but the conditions were worse than even the most recent forecasts had anticipated.  As the hours ticked by and the tents in the starters' village filled with runners looking to bivouac through the morning with their creative uses of plastic bags to keep feet and body dry, the school field that we camped out on turned into a muddy bog. (Sorry, kids.) The conversations turned to other races and where people came from. While the puddles deepened, runners made comparisons to the rain in 2015 and the blistering heat of 2012. Some acknowledged their odysseys to beat the stormy weather to barely make it to Boston for the race and added that there were others who got stuck in old man winter's tight grip in April. The Floridian and Louisianan I met suggested I was accustomed to the weather, but since arriving in Boston I deepened my fondness for the dry cold of Calgary.

After my 2 1/2 hours of waiting passed, it was time to brace myself for the run. I stripped off my garbage bag raincoat and changed my shoes. At that point I was skeptical that I would shed any of the layers that I had.

The race started well for me. The route heads downhill for most of the first 16 miles before reaching The Newton Hills, which concluded with Heartbreak Hill. The cold weather made it difficult to feel my legs loosen up and give me a sense of settling into a rhythm after the first half hour of the race. All I could do was count on the gravity and hope that my legs would stay in the tight medium they were in rather than tightening up further.

It was a battle throughout the race to keep warm and to fend off the rain. The legs tightened further, however, but whenever I looked at the watch to see how I was managing, I was still on my goal pace for much of the race. Any edge I was going to gain in the race was going to have to come from the will and the heart alone with little chance of the legs responding enough to improve my race.

I pushed on, though as the race moved into the last third the effort was intermittent as the elements sapped the concentration needed to stay relatively fast. At the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which I heard from about 500 metres out, I picked up the pace to push by and I did not take a detour to collect a few kisses from the student body. I suspect the turnout was smaller than more pleasant years, but I was impressed as I had been at several points already through the race at the commitment of the spectators who braved the elements to cheer us on. There was an aspect of the Boston Strong post-2013 spirit that buttressed that, but I sense that the interest in the run has been this strong for much, much longer.

With the Scream Tunnel passed, I found myself doing the math to determine how long it was going to be before I could get out of the rain. The Newton Hills loomed at the 16 mile mark and I managed well with them. Heartbreak, which began at the 20-mile mark rather than the 21-mile mark as I had long assumed turned into a lighter moment. Having finished the climb, there was an inflatable arch in the distance. At first I could only make out "Heartbreak" and I braced myself for the climb but as the arch became clearer I was able to read that Heartbreak was behind me. Route beaten.

With five miles to go, my will welled up to push me along. The route flattened out and gave me the chance to pick up the pace a bit. It felt like the 38th kilometre was the longest of the race and getting down to the last three and the last 15-16 minutes seemed all too long.  As I completed the 40th kilometre and I was met with a fierce squall of wind and rain to daunt me one last time.  I pushed through I kept my eyes peeled for the left turn onto Boylston Street for the homestretch. It occurred much later than I expected, but when I completed the turn with less than a kilometre to go, the blue arch of the finish loomed as close and as distant as any finish.

As the last few hundred metres relented to my finishing kick, I thought about the opposed insistences that did battle throughout the day. The weather -- which exceeded the bleak forecast for its headwinds, rain and cold -- versus my own insistence move forward and not let the race get to me. When the weather set in the night before, I thought about a half-marathon my brother and I did last May in similar, though far less severe, conditions. At the end of the race, however, I thought about the marathon I ran last May, under more summer-like conditions. Last May, when running the Calgary Marathon on a hot day with things just "off" in so many ways I had a tough mental battle, most significantly with the anticipation of people congratulating me for finishing a race that was less than satisfactory. There were times during that race last May when I dreaded having to accept congratulations for getting out there and doing it. From the outset of Boston, I was more flexible in the face of the conditions and the expectations I set. Even under these conditions, Boston was a goal and it remained a privilege to run, regardless of the circumstances. There was never a question of whether or not I would finish or if I had it in me to grind through to the end. The only aggravation was a wonky zipper on the jacket I wore for most of the race and discarded with about 10 minutes remaining.

Given the other results logged that day, my race was a decent one. The elite races featured upsets and much slower times than are typical for the race. When I surveyed the angels I had on my shoulder throughout the race, the people who would be most interested in the outcome and the results, I realized that they weren't going to give me grief about my result. Their response would be overwhelmingly positive, despite the queries about my sanity that running in those conditions ought to provoke. I am not sure if it was a matter of me having already slayed my white whale in qualifying for Boston or a new lasting contentment I had found over the last 11 months, but I was more open and accepting of what came my way during this race.  The weather conditions and the support were both, in their distinctive ways, unconditional. While the race unfolded, I checked in with the same guide posts that I cited during my better races. The distance and the time were manageable rather than daunting. The biggest distinction between Boston and the other marathons was the sheer mass of runners that were out there. Whenever I looked to the horizon, the road was clotted shoulder to shoulder with masses of runners and there were so many different races and paces being run that the people running closest to me changed constantly, there was no familiar pack to fall into step with or bond with. There was less a sense of competition with the other runners and the camaraderie was less tangible than it could become over a 10K stretch of conversation about life.

The steps that followed crossing the line blurred. I was bloody cold and the slowing of stride was bringing on hyperthermia. I was still overwhelmed with a sense of what the accomplishment was and the thoughts about those angels who have been on my shoulder and the gratitude I have toward them. I'm not sure when the next marathon is going to be. Next up is pacing a half-marathon group in late May, but for the time being there is a void somewhat akin to Inigo Montoya's when he realized he achieved his goal. I assure you though that I'm not pondering a life of piracy - my time in today's nor'easter cured me of any aspirations for a life at sea.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Prelude: The Path Thus Far

       The Boston Marathon.

       Me?  ME??
       The Marathon has been in my thoughts for much longer than I have ever acknowledged. In Nova Scotia, we are reminded of the race each spring due to its proximity and the legacy of Johnny Miles, a Halifax runner who won Boston twice in the 1920's and whose legacy adorns one of the most significant marathons on the Nova Scotian racing calendar. Those annual reminders, replete with the legend of his father shaving down his shoes to keep them light for one his Boston efforts, were lore embedded in my imagination from my pre-teens on.
        The mythology of Boston would find me regularly. During the second season of the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere, Denzel Washington's character took on the course, albeit solo on an overcast low-key day. When he came to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and stopped to assess it before tackling the ascent, another page of race lore was embedded in my imagination. This is a tough bugger.
        I have never considered myself an athlete. I played sports yes, but in hockey it was only in my last game of organized hockey that, given a yawning open net, I slid a puck across the abyss from the blueline to the faintest tink of the vulcanized rubber against the back of the net. The goalie was out of position, not on the bench, and the puck moved fast enough to cross the line before he could reposition himself.
        Running, though, had long been in the background. During my adult years, I had run intermittently to fend off the accumulation of brownies and sundry other temptations. For the most part, running has been motivated by maintaining fitness, not improving it. When a change of employers meant that I would have to abandon the mechanized tedium of cardio machines for another means of fitness, running - outdoors, pounding my joints and exposed to the elements - was the quiet classmate who never really bonded with me until we, surrounded by strangers in a new locale, decided to strike up a conversation on the basis of relative familiarity. Runs had their rewards, but more often it was the scenery rather than the runner's high. When I lived in Kyoto for example, I regularly ran through the city's photogenic bamboo grove and one run was crowned with the cinematic solitude of a lone shakuhachi echoing through the river valley on a misty Sunday morning.
      Racing and training, though, never entered my mind until my 40s. The elementary school experience of being the slowest of a group that played tag or raced each day to assess ourselves and -- as my eight-year-old self-worth -- made me reluctant to compete as a runner, even with myself. My first race, in 2005, was an 11K trail run which I finished in an embarrassing 93 minutes; a light year from a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time. It was not a matter of being unfit or having another few stones of fat that I would shed before I got to this particular weekend in 2018. I just went out too hard and lost to inexperience. It would be four years before I raced again. A change of employer had just occurred and exiled me from the fitness centre I relied on for my brownie-burning turns on ellipticals.
      Oddly enough, I gravitated to the half-marathon rather than taking baby steps through a 5- or 10K. Was it just the m-word luring me? The shorter distances were available at this race, but my running commute home was about 11K so I felt comfortable pushing myself to the longer distance. The admission would likely be, that yes a marathon was ... THE marathon was always in the distant back of my mind.  The muted memory of Johnny Miles and Denzel Washington, that hill and that neighbouring city, Boston had leaked into my consciousness as early as age 9 or 10 and loomed as a possibility even before my youngest brother attained the goal as he quietly racked up his sterling results in the marathon.
     After a few half marathons, I indulged in looking up the BQ time for my age group and did the calculations. I was daunted and decided I would only attempt a full marathon if i could do it in in under four hours.  After another four years, in May 2013, I felt confident that my sub-4 hour goal was in range and registered for the Big Sur International Marathon. Those who know that race, are  likely snickering at how oblivious I was to making things easy on myself. Goal accomplished, however. And... I was hooked.
     From then on, I hoped to improve from one race to the next, but more enjoyed the transformational experience that each race proved to be. at this point, I want to circle back to that word that I wear so hesitantly, "athlete," and suggest that the accomplishments come not from gifts of agility, flexibility or the strength that we cite when thinking of basketball, soccer or hockey. Yes there is cardio capacity and endurance in my version of athlete, but much more of my training and racing has been about the journey within.
       For the scenery that I have seen in jogging Kyoto, racing at Big Sur, hobbling through Stanley Park or racing along the foggy shorelines in Nova Scotia, there has been an examination of the scenery in my mind. Whether my darkest, loneliest thoughts are haunting me or luring me with the option of quitting and walking away or my most poignant, palpable anticipation of a joy that is 58 minutes away, replete with the kind wishes of the people who inspire me, the marathons and the training have been more spiritual than athletic. Crossing a finish line is an occasion to reflect on what those particular 42.2K -- good or bad -- indelibly inflect in my voice, smile or posture.
      Boston has been a goal longer than I've admitted before but race day will not entirely about the clock. The zone that I found myself in when running on a beautiful day in Nashville is a hard to articulate but even more of a treasure because it is so personal. When the passage of time leeches into my capacity to outrun younger selves, it will be that zone and contentment that I aspire to.
       Ah... to outrun.
       The goal, getting there, was attained seven months ago and the question that has lingered for several years was whether it was better to qualify for Boston or to run it
       A few days from now I'm going to figure out what shoes to put on -- no, I haven't figured that out yet -- and join the queue for my next deep journey within.  The hopes and the unknowns are still wallflowers at a junior high dance but on Monday morning, they will pair up and find the music and rhythm they want to move to. They will break off with one another and re-pair throughout the race as I follow a route that I have heard about for 40-odd years. I will grapple with darkness, remind myself of inspiration, cling to it dearly and grant myself a moment to acknowledge that tenacity, not numbed habit, got me there, and put one foot in front of the other until I cross the line, my distance put in and another chapter of commitment, perseverance and reflection written.
      There will be a small fist pump, handshakes with the people I shared the last few miles with, and hugs with my brothers when I find them. I might get exuberant, especially if a personal best or a long stretch in the zone define the day. Ultimately, there will be the unknown that follows attaining something that not so long ago seemed unrealistic. From this perspective, with the race days way, the first steps beyond the finish line with the medal around my neck and a banana in my hand seem mysterious, charmed and full of promise.