Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer Music

Phish and the Blues are always better in the summer. Phish is just happy playing frisbee music, and the Blues is a great counterpoint to the easy living of the dog days of summer.

Having said that, I'm spinning the Allman Bros. at the moment. Classic stuff that never gets old!

Deep Thought

Kids are in the kiddie pool, dog's asleep on the clover, I'm with K on the outdoors couch drinking fancy cocktails (the Leland Palmer) in the heat. Life is good.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Spaceship Clouds

Amazing footage of what's called a "lenticular cloud" near Mt. Fuji in Japan. Look at the size of that giant spaceship!

Hat Tip to Bad Astronomy

Obscure References

In a follow up to yesterday’s post, here are two things that I’ve learned about by listening to podcasts of Kim Stanley Robinson talking about 2312:
  1. Andy Goldsworthy. Swan, one of the main characters of 2312, is an artist who produces works called “goldsworthies”with natural materials. This is a tribute to the artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates “site-specific sculptures and land art.” Here’s one of many good YouTube videos of his work.
  2. Ascensions. Most of the travel in 2312 isn’t done in spaceships, but in hollowed out and terraformed asteroids called Ascensions. This is a reference to Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic, which used to be a barren but which was transformed when Joseph Hooker (with encouragement from Charles Darwin) started to plant trees on the island, transforming the “cinder island” into a tropical cloud forest. It's in this vein that the asteroids in 2312 are transformed, and in fact many of them serve as sanctuaries for endangered and extinct-on-earth species (animal and botanical). Swan, as a goldsworthy artist, used to create ascensions in her early career, creating asteroids that mixed species from different areas (for example, both Mediterranean and Australian fauna).
All references I would have missed had I not looked for more information on the book and the author, and is a testament to both the scope of Robinson's imagination and the vigor in which he grounds his speculation within a realistic foundation.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reading and Podcasting

I love the internet. There are, obviously, many reasons for this, but today i'm loving the internet because of how it augments my reading. So for example, I just finished reading 2312. (Flipping fantastic book, BTW, review coming soon.) My next step was to listen to a few interviews with the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, via podcasts on Geeks Guide to the Galaxy and the Angry Column. I'm not finished listening to them, but listening to KSR pontificate on the ideas in his book is an excellent way to augment the experience of actually reading it. Someday, perhaps, we'll see eBooks with this type of information attached to it, similar to the "directors commentary" on DVDs, but I think i'll always prefer these types of informal discussions. The next best thing to going to an author's reading!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Refuting Arguments

Found on Brain Pickings, I thought this passage from Susan Sontag's September 16, 1965 entry in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) to be quite insightful:
The main techniques for refuting an argument:
Find the inconsistency
Find the counter-example
Find a wider context
Instance of (3):

I am against censorship. In all forms. Not just for the right of masterpieces— high art— to be scandalous.

But what about pornography (commercial)?
Find the wider context:
notion of voluptuousness à la Bataille?
But what about children? Not even for them? Horror comics, etc.
Why forbid them comics when they can read worse things in the newspapers any day. Napalm bombing in Vietnam, etc.

A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Love is Not All

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

- Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Love Is Not All"

Monday, June 25, 2012

On Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon"

The New York Times takes the occasion of the availability of Thomas Pynchon's oeuvre in eBook format to sing the praises of Mason & Dixon. I keep threatening to write a long-form essay on how good this book is, and while that'll probably never happen, IMO M&D is every bit as good as Gravity's Rainbow, albeit not with his more famous work's hallucinatory intensity. Instead, Pynchon focuses on the enlightenment and the prehistory of the United States in a comic romp that becomes increasingly dark as our heroes draw their line deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Although it does take a while to get used to TRP's faux 17th century prose, once you relax into it, his writing takes you on a journey back to the days of wigs and revolution. To choose just one example:
"Does Britannia, when it sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? -- in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of mankind, seen, -- serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true, -- Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied back in, back to the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, -- winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair."
--Mason & Dixon, Chapter 34, pg. 345.
Looks intimidating, doesn't it? Don't be scared, though - it gets easier the more you read it, and the book rewards the work you put into it. (And if you need any help, just use the wiki!) It's a classic. I've read it twice already will no doubt go back for a third go-round.

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Dumb and Idiot Child Within Them

Slowly the women file to where he stands
Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,
Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly
Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,
Within whose warm spring rain of loving care
Each dwells some twenty seconds. Now, dear child,
What’s wrong
, the deep American voice demands,
And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer
Directing God about this eye, that knee.
Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled

Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some
Sheepishly stray, not back into their lives
Just yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud
With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone, that hands have come
To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives
Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd
Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice—

What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.
That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,
As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,
Spreads slowly through them—that, and the voice above
Saying Dear child, and all time has disproved.

- Philip Larkin, “Faith Healing” from Collected Poems.

Read this one on The Dish a while back and it's powerful writing has stuck with me ever since.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Space and Religion

I've been pontificating a lot about space recently, and was having a hard time articulating the sense of wonder that it inspires in me. Here was a good take: The Dish pointed me to "If Only We Had Taller Been," a great Ray Bradbury poem, that in turn pointed me to a Neil deGrasse Tyson talk where he says
"The line separating religious epiphany and feelings created by space exploration is awfully, awfully thin."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Voyager is... Where Exactly?

Experts aren't sure if the Voyager spacecraft is out of our solar system yet or not. It's hard to tell, apparantly, because there's probably no well-defined border between our solar system (what's influenced by our sun's gravity) and interstellar space. What we do know is that it's extremely far away:
Voyager launched in 1977. Today, Voyager I is about 121 astronomical units away (one astronomical unit is equal to the rough distance from the Sun to the Earth). That is so far that it takes 16 hours for the radio signals it transmits to reach us. (Voyager II is about 22 astronomical units -- approximately seven years -- behind.) It is traveling at about 17 kilometers per second (38,000 miles per hour), propelled by the slingshot effect from flying by Jupiter and Saturn.
These distances are hard to fathom, although it is fun to try. Here's a more poetic take on the vastness of space from page 328 of Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312:
Sorry, but it's true. it has to be said: the stars exist beyond human time, beyond human reach. We live in the little pearl of warmth surrounding our star; outside it lies a vastness beyond comprehension. The solar system is our one and only home. Even to reach the nearest star at our best speed would take a human lifetime or more. We say "four light-years" and those words "four" and "years" fool us; we have little grasp of how far light travels in a year. Step back and think about 299,792,458 meters per second, or 186,282 miles per second--whichever you think you can grasp better. ... 
It goes on like that until you realize just how long it takes to travel with our existing technologies. It's a humbling grasp of the scope of existence.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What to Read Next?

I'm in the process of finishing up two books: Kim Stanley Robinson's fantastic 2312, and Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality when I get an uninterrupted stretch of time. However, i'm already eagerly looking at the books awaiting me on my kindle and bedside table, which include:

Have you read any of these before? Any recommendations about what I should pick up next?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pix to Distract You From Your Monday Morning

Two great space pictures to put things in perspective as you steel yourself for another long work week:

  1. Star Trail photos from the ISS. Trippy stuff!
  2. The shadow of Saturn's rings. Straight from Cassini.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

For Fathers Day

Learning to Talk

Whenever Jason said "beeber" for "beaver"
or "skirl" for "squirrel"
I secretly loved it.
They're better words:
The busy beeber beebing around;
the grey squirrel's tail
like a skirl of smoke along a maple branch.
I never told him he was saying
their names "wrong,"
though I did pronounce them conventionally.
One time he noticed, and explained,
"'Beeber' is how I say it."
"Great," I told him, "whatever
moves you."
But within a week
he was pronouncing both "properly."
I did my duty
and I'm sorry.
Farewell Beeber and Skirl.
So much beauty lost to understanding.

- Jim Dodge, from Rain on the River

So Get Off the Couch!

"Genius begins great works; labor alone finishes them."

- Joseph Joubert

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Saturn and Iapetus

"Soon after that they were down among the stupendous thunderhead armadas tearing east in this particular zone, around the 75th latitude. Royal blue, turquoise, indigo, robin’s egg—and infinity of blue clouds, it seemed. In the latitudinal band farther south the wind blew hard in the opposite direction; two-thousand-kilometer-per-hour jet streams were therefore running against each other, making the shear zone a wild space of whirpooling tornados. … Now their little diver flew among thunderheads a hundred kilometers tall, and though it was a commonplace to say that perspective was lost in situations like this, such that all sizes looked much the same, it wasn’t really true: these thunderheads were clearly as big as entire asteroids, rising out of a deeper array of flatter cloud formations so that they saw below them masses of nimbus and cirrus, cumulus, festoons, barges—really the whole Howard catalog, all snarling through and over and under each other and constituting what passed for the surface of the gas giant.”
- Kim Stanley Robinson, pages 264-6, 2312
I’ve been enjoying 2312 so much that I’m trying to read the book slowly, to give myself to take in its details and absorb what I can. The passage above is taken from a fascinating chapter where our heros dive down to the "surface” of Saturn to investigate a renegade spaceship hiding amongst the blue clouds there. The entire chapter has elements of Clarke’s incredible story of journey into Jupiter, "A Meeting with Medusa", in that it quite vividly paints a picture of what it must be like to travel down into the outer banks of a gas giant.

Shared via a Creative Commons license
This section of the book also includes a lot of details about the civilization on Iapetus. Turns out there are a lot of “stranger than fiction” elements about this large retrograde moon of Saturn that lend itself quite handidly to our story:
  1. The moon has a light and a dark side; not the side that is lit up by the sun and Saturn, rather a black side that is covered with a shallow layer of dark residue from ice sublimation and a light side that isn't covered with this substance. The light and dark sides are uneven, roughly equivilant to the lines on a tennis ball.
  2. A large ridge (roughly 1,300 km long, 20 km wide, and 13 km high) runs along the equator of only the light side of the moon.

Check out Iapetus' wikipedia entry for more. Space is fascinatingly bizarre.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Happy Ghost World Day!

12th of June, a gibbous moon
Was this the longest day?
I'll walk down to the bay
And jump off of the dock and watch
The summer waste away

Then, I'm bailing this town... or
Tearing it down... or
Probably more like
Hanging around
Hanging around
Just hanging around

- Aimee Mann, from "Ghost World", off the fantastic album Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo. And yes, it was influenced by the equally awesome Ghost World comic by Daniel Clowes.

On Genre Writing and Protocols

Boing Boing published a great interview with China Miéville recently, and within this interview there's a great discussion of Miéville's knowing use of, and meta-commentary on, his genres, leading to this great passage:
Tom: You could call this a paradox of genre realism. All fiction is ultimately formulaic, so only fiction that's willing to acknowledge that it's formulaic is actually in a position to go through this into being realistic again. Often, literary fiction invites you to collude in this pretence that you don't know exactly what's going to happen, what's going on—and this can get in the way of having some genuine and unaffected emotion, and being honest about enthusiasms and limitations. Instead, both you and the author are busy playing this game that says we're all too marvellous and sophisticated to acknowledge that narrative has rules and formulae.

China: I wouldn't go for the word "formulaic," because I think that's quite harsh. But what I would say is "structured by protocols". The vast majority of fiction certainly is structured like this. Even genuinely, wildly avant garde stuff has its own protocols. So you do have to start from that position.

Then the way you relate to those protocols and that structure is up to you. If you don't want to fall into despair, you have to cheerfully accept it as a norm and move on. But also—and I say this a little more tentatively, because I dislike very much the self-congratulation that can take place within genre fiction—my sense is that, at the moment, there is a little more space for this moving on within the best genre fiction than within the mainstream of "literary" fiction: a bit less anxiety about protocols and structures. And that gives me a certain hope.
I've seen this a bit myself recently but hadn't realized that this is what was happening: a genre so comfortable with itself that it's willing to still be SciFi, or Horror, or whatever, but as part of accepting that and "moving on," transforming itself into something new. To choose an example from 2312, my current novel, you can get stereotypical "hard SciFi" passages in which technologies and/or history are described in detail, but Robinson does this as separate chapters so that he doesn't need to put these explanations into his character's mouths. These sections are like the minor chapters of Moby Dick, except instead of being minor treatises they are made up of - and called - fragments, with the effect being that you're brought up to speed in a way reminiscent of continually channel surfing past the History Channel. I like the approach, and hope to more aspects like this in the future.

Monday, June 11, 2012

In Love with Dexter

Recently finished Dexter season four. I’ve been a big Dexter fan for a while now, for a number of reasons, foremost being that the plot is completely unpredictable, the show strikes the right mix of humor and horror, and features excellent acting. I also love the ironies in Dexter’s deadpan voiceovers.

Season four in particular was very well done. It started off slowly with a rather dull first episode that introduced Dexter in his new position as a suburban family man (as overtired as the rest of us new fathers), as well as what I thought to be a unbelieveable romance between Sgt. Batista and Lt. LaGuerta. In addition, it introduced a John Lithgow as a “special guest star” – a dubious move, since I’m not a fan of Lithgow’s overacting. However, as the season went on, it was fascinating to see how desperate Dexter was to reconcile his honorable serial killing with his need for a family life, and the lengths to which he would go to achieve it. As the season progressed, Dexter started making more and more choices that he simply wouldn't have made in previous seasons, but it was all completely believable because of the storylines that led him to this point. And Lithgow was a revelation: the series used his two best acting techniques – over-the-top friendliness and dead-eyed menace – as a counterpoint to Dexter’s bi-polar personality. In fact, the most compelling moments in the series were when Michael C. Hall and Lithgow would circle each other in this regard. Dexter pulled a masterful performance out of Lithgow in the same manner that it did from Jimmy Smits in season three. I can’t say any more without giving anything away, but the three episodes that ended the season were intense, scary, moving, and ended with a shocking plot twist that floored me with it's daring.  

I can’t recommend the Dexter series enough. It’s one of the best programs I’ve ever seen on the small screen. Even if you don’t like an episode or two, give it time, because Dexter plays the long game, and really builds up into something special. Season Five arrived in the mail this weekend, so i'm looking forward to continuing the journey!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Kessel Run

Boing Boing points us to a Oldredjalopy DeviantArt piece called "The Kessel Run" that is very accurately described as "a bit Star Wars, a bit Cannonball Run, and a whole lot of awesomesauce."

Why I Gave Up on "The Savage Detectives"

I eagerly picked up Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives a few months ago, hoping for a repeat of the great experience I had reading his 2666. However, after ripping through about 150 pages, the book went onto my nightstand and laid there, forgotten. Having recently given up ever picking it up again, I came up with three reasons why I wasn't interested in in anymore:
  1. I didn't connect with any of the characters. I also had this problem with 2666, but their stories were so fascinating it didn't matter. Here, I found the characters to be less interesting, their stories less compelling, and the events occurring to them to be more random and unbelievable (amazing, considering all of the random things that occurred in 2666).
  2. After reading 2666, I know the types of devices that  Bolaño uses in his writing. I'm not sure if exposure to them didn't make them as effective the second time around or if they were just done better in 2666 than in The Savage Detectives.
  3. I thought  The Savage Detectives had too many characters to keep straight. That may be part of  Bolaño's point - there are a lot of random people involved in and on the fringes of the smallest literary movements - but not only did I have a hard time keeping a lot of them straight, I didn't even care about them. 
Have you read The Savage Detectives or  Bolaño's other works? Any insight you'd care to share with me about why I found it less compelling than 2666? Any of his other books that I might like better? 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Nuggets from Ray Bradbury

I've been reading a lot of great things about Ray Bradbury in the numerous eulogies. Two of the better ones:
  1. TNC points us to this great quote from a Paris Review interview:
    You seem to have been open to a variety of influences.
    A conglomerate heap of trash, that's what I am. But it burns with a high flame.
  2. Brain Pickings posted a bunch of Bradbury's pithy comments. As Neil Gaimain pointed out, "Ray Bradbury was the kind of person who would give half a day to a kid who wanted to be a writer when he grew up", so there's a lot of good advice from him out there, including this one:
    I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.

Change is Life

"A living thing is distinguished from a dead thing by the multiplicity of the changes at any moment taking place in it."
- Herbert Spencer

Thursday, June 7, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury passed away yesterday at the age of 91. His writing was incredibly influential in my life - in particular his short stories and The Martian Chronicles. In fact, one of the best memories of my life is of a  gloomy and rainy Saturday when I dropped the Beatles White Album on the turntable to serve as the soundtrack of my first trip through Bradbury's future history of mankind's colonization of the red planet. I can't recommend his writing enough.

Ginormous Picture of the Transit of Venus

Bad Astronomy posted this stunning picture of Tuesday's Transit of Venus. Please click through to see a bigger picture and learn more, but this is easily the most dynamic picture of the event that I've seen.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: Neil Stephenson's "Reamde"

Neil Stephenson is usually summarized as a "cyberpunk" author, one best known for SciFi books like Snow Crash or speculative literature like Cryptonomicon. The reviews will have you believe that Reamde, his recent 1000+ page novel, is a return to those days, but I suspect that's just a marketing ploy designed to lure readers - like myself - that were turned off by Anthaem, his dense religious philosophical epic. So while Reamde contains quite a few scenes in T’Rain, a World of Warcraft-style virtual reality, make no mistake: it is a thriller along the lines of Zodiac, his 1988 novel set in Boston. I’m not going to even attempt a summary of this wildly plotted, overlong shaggy mess of a book other than to note that it’s basically the attempts of a family to get a kidnapping victim back, but also touches on computer viruses (the title is a deliberate misspelling of “readme”), a theft of money both virtual and real, a kidnapping, Russian mobsters, Chinese hackers, private jets, travel to at least six countries, and an incredible shootout that spans at least 100 pages. It also happens to be a propulsive read that is hard to put down.

One could argue that Reamde has a lot of flaws: for one, all of his characters think of similar tactics in the action sequences, and this analysis, which interesting, can feel repetitive. In addition, the romantic subplots aren't remotely believable, feeling almost insultingly tacked on. Despite this, Stephenson’s strengths – his ideas and his digressions – shine through. Stephenson’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and so he can write authoritatively about a wide range of topics. Here, enjoying the ride thorough his convoluted plot, I learned an incredible amount about Xiamen, Eritrea, constructing virtual realities, money transfers, how to illegally cross borders, the difficulties in decrypting computer files, and guns. Lots and lots of guns.

Reamde is a smart book that carries you along with its enthusiasms, a thriller as much at home with databases and social media as it is with gunplay and secret agents. If reading over 1000 pages of this stuff sounds like your cup of tea, dive in, because Stephenson’s the best in the game.

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Who is Neil Stephenson?

Tom Bissell's classic take, from the NYTimes review of Stephenson's excellent 2011 novel Reamde, where he pictures novelists as "unannounced visitors":
"Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, shows up smelling vaguely of weed, with a bunch of suitcases. Maybe he can crash for a couple of days? Two weeks later he is still there. And you cannot get rid of him. Not because he is unpleasant but because he is so interesting. Then one morning you wake up and find him gone. You are relieved, a little, but you also miss him. And you wish he’d left behind whatever it was he was smoking, because anything that allows a human being to write six 1,000-page novels in 12 years is worth the health and imprisonment risk."

Happy Transit of Venus Day!

I'll be missing it here due to Massachusetts' recent lamentable imitation of Seattle weather, but today marks the last Transit of Venus until 2117. What folks without rain will see is the black dot of Venus travelling across the sun as the planet passes between Earth and our star.

I learned more than I ever knew possible about the Transit of Venus and how astronomers used it to measure the size of the Solar System when I read Thomas Pynchon's excellent historical novel Mason & Dixon. Turns out the two Englishman went to measure the Transit of Venus in South Africa in 1761 before their Pennsylvania/Maryland border measuring days. Read a relevant excerpt here, and more on today's transit here.

First Lines of Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312

"The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. ...
Mercury's ancient face is so battered and irregular that the planet's terminator, the zone of the breaking dawn, is a broad chiaroscuro of black and white - charcoal hollows pricked here and there by brilliant white points, which grow and grow until all the land is as bright as molten glass, and the long day begun."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312.
So far an excellent "hard" SciFi read in that it's full of fascinating ideas resulting from realistic facts, like Terminator, a city that traverses Mercury on a series of elevated train tracks that expands as the heat of the sun hits them, propelling the city forward ahead of the sunrise.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Worry?

"Worrying is an abuse of our imaginative power."

- Jan-Willem Van Den Brandhof, the author of The Business Brain Book. His class and book changed the way I go about learning for myself as well as how I design training for others. Expensive, but you can see a summary of the book and his program at his BrainStudio website.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Quantum Biology

Boing Boing points out that some bacterium can convert 95% of the sunlight that hits them into energy. How? Possibly because of quantum physics:
Why can't we use the Sun's energy as effectively as bacteria can? The secret may be that the bacteria are using quantum physics to transmit energy. It's sort of like the bacteria have a method for keeping boxes of energy from falling off the truck during transport.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Thoughts on Running the Vermont City Marathon

“My time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance — all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson.”
Haruki Murakami, from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I finally ran 26.2! The Vermont City Marathon was last Sunday, and your RR&RS bloggers all took part. I was particularlly excited to run the VCM for two reasons: one, I grew up in the Burlington area, and running the first few races as part of a relay team were so fun that I wanted to experience the race in its entirety, and two, I know that Burlington knows how to throw a party. And the VCM didn't disappoint on the latter! The day will filled with incredible sights that I don't have the time to list now, but short list of some of the more memorable ones were: wall-to-wall people lining the streets of the city to cheer us on, a clapping drag queen on Church Street, Eric and Mo’s wives with their “Dads of RR&RS sign, seeing a view containing both Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump at once, and lots of bands ranging from the to the country rock ensemble on North Street playing “queen of hearts” to the random guys on the sidewalk strumming their guitars or blowing hot oboe riffs.

But all that was in the future. The three of us toed the start line filled with the confidence of a good eight months of training. So good, in fact, that visions of running a 3:30 filled my head, so from the gun, I ran with that pace group, luxuriating in my tapered legs, soaking in the crowd cheering us on, and enjoying seeing some of the old sights from my UVM days (Bove's, the beautiful house of the Fiji fraternity). As we worked our way onto the Burlington Beltway – an out-and-back on a closed freeway – the running started to get serious. Still feeling good, I slowly passed the 3:30 pace group on a downhill and sunk into myself for a bit, enjoying my music and trying to ignore the annoying footing on the canted freeway. Looking back on my splits now, I was running much faster than I had anticipated, but it sure didn't feel that way – I was cruising and feeling damned good doing it.

So I was surprised when I started feeling my calves around mile 10 as we turned onto Church Street. Not good. I've experienced this before in races: the calves tighten up because of the faster pace of the race and the extra pounding on the pavement. I slowed down and tried to drag my toes a bit in an attempt to stretch out the calves as I ran, but as we started south the situation wasn't getting any better.
My own personal cheering section!

One major highlight was mile 12, where my family gathered to offer me encouragement and water. After that, after this my race went sour. I knew I was in trouble because my calves were hard as rocks and not loosening up. I was drinking lots of water and Gatorade in fear of cramps. I was stopping  to stretch the calves. None of this helped. At the half-way point, I just tried to relax and enjoy the awesome scenery of the Adaronaks across Lake Champlain, and this distracted me enough to get me to the Burlington Taiko drummers situated at the foot of the course’s major hill: the assult on Battery.  Hearing the pounding of all of these deep drums was incredibly invigorating, and fueled what was a great run up the hill: it was actually a good rest for my calves. Unfortunately, as I crested the hill and started down North Ave around mile 16, I started experiencing sharp nerve pain in my right knee.
KBVCM Splits
I toughed it out for a while, but by mile 18, I was half walking and half jogging in an attempt to mitigate what was an electric nerve pain shooting from my knee. It was occasionally so debilitating that I literally couldn't run at all. Cursing my bad luck, I sunk into a dark place within myself as I struggled to keep moving, completely ignoring  the lawn parties lining the race route as we weaved our way through the suburbs north of the city. By mile 20, I was miserable and debating giving up. People were passing me left and right, and I wasn't even enjoying the families offering me water, oranges, watermelons and, in one extreme case, small cups of beer.

The turning point was at mile 22, when a guy in an oversized foam cowboy hat passed me, smiling and having a grand old time. This finally drove home that I wasn't going to achieve the time that I expected, and just needed to relax and focus on finishing. My dirty secret is that I’m a stubborn bastard at the core, so I vowed to keep moving the best that I could and finish the race even if I needed to walk the rest of the way. I felt like DeNiro chanting "I've come too far" in Midnight Run. So I soaked my head in a garden hose sprinkler, took a bathroom break, texted my wife to let her know not to expect me until after the 4:00 mark, and figured out a way to “run” that minimized the pain. This involved pumping my arms as hard as I could, which eventually lurched my legs into motion, and I alternated between this shuffling jog and speed walking for the last few miles. For this reason, the last hour of the race passed in a delirious haze - all I really remember is the pain, my thoughts as I struggled to keep moving, and a few more memorable scenes (incredulous joking with another slowpoke that we were doing this for Michelob; the woman wearing diamond-studded Mickey Mouse ears; an annoying sign claiming that "Pain is Weakness Leaving Your Body").

I wish I could say that I crossed the finish line and felt an incredible sense of accomplishment at my time of 4:15, but honestly I was just glad that it was over. I grabbed my knees and sucked wind for a few moments, tossed back a few chocolate milks and a banana, and worked my way over to my family, where the endorphins carried me through an over-loud and overcrowded “reunion zone.” It was a hot day and my kids were overstimulated, so we didn't partake of the end-of-race scene: we took some pictures and headed to my Mom’s house for BBQ and cold Magic Hat. Is there anything better than a cold beer in the sun after a long race?

It was a long race, and one that I enjoyed overall, despite the uncomfortable finish. Reflecting upon the experience, I've been pondering which concrete lesson to take away (as Murakami suggests above), and  the major one is how humbling running 26.2 miles is. I consider myself a pretty fast runner, and yet 343 runners passed me in the last six miles of the race! Still, I finished, which I didn't believe I could do even six months ago. I'm also surprised I let ambition take over my belief that running is practice, but next time i'll be more diligent about adhering to my pacing plan - really, just looking at the marathon as another long run. And there will be a next time, because at some point, i'm taking another crack at 26.2: I want to see what I can do with a healthy knee!

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Questions in a Foreign Language

"I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

- Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Good words for when you're feeling down.