running Archive

An Animal Diary, Running

Fallen Tree

fallen treeI run through Jesmond Dene a few times each week when running regularly. It is a long, thin and deep-delved park with the Ouseburn river running through it, a manicured end near Armstrong Bridge with a petting zoo and café, where it leads into Armstrong Park, a tree dominated, steep sided pathway of green, before the more open Heaton Park, with its Santana’s Italian restaurant in the old club house, and disused bowling green and open picnic spaces, packed full of students in summer and dog walkers all year round.

I begin the run by looping around the outside of Heaton Park and then dropping in at its southern gate and then run through in that direction, south to north. There is an access road between Heaton and Armstrong parks, and as I approached today I saw a police line blocking the way, where the top half of a tree had broken off and fallen. To the left, just inside Armstrong Park, stood the cracked tree stump from where the top half had fallen. Wind? Lightning? The broken stump, snapped like a lollypop stick, still sticky with sap, lay across the wall of Armstrong Park and into the road. It was already being dismantled. Many of its branches had been sawn off and lain in rows. The stricken tree itself was resting on the wall, perhaps five or six feet off the ground.

That’s when I should have gone round. But instead I crossed the blue line of plastic tape and went under the tree to carry on my run. That’s when I realised that the tree could still be ready to tip off the wall on which it had come to ret. It was still precariously balanced, perhaps and perhaps the branches I was hopping over and disturbing were not in fat detached, but still connected, and helping the tree balance. If it did come down on me it would rush me, no doubt. And for a moment the stupidity of what I was doing was apparent.

But then I was through, and running again, into Armstrong Park, then the Dene, following the cerise sunset, another clear night sky in the clear January, and forgetting the risk I’d taken to not divert my route. Perhaps there’s something about running that encourages risk in me – something I found out when I got stuck in the mud off Holy Island last summer, both legs up to the things and one arm, all sinking into a stretch of the mudflats they call ‘The Cages’ (the clue is in the name), a mile from any other human life and unable to reach my phone in my back pack.

I escaped from the mud. The tree didn’t fall on me. Yet both times this act of running had awakened in me, as it does for many, a desire to explore a world that is dangerous in ways that we insure ourselves against, with blue tape and pathways and an aversion to the animal feeling of simply not wanting to die; to live. And yet to test that feeling. I know that I needed something last summer, a shaking experience, something to waken me from lethargy; a near-death experience ought to do it. Consciously I was aware of a need for shaking up. Consciously I also was aware that my deeper brain systems wanted to seek out something dangerous. And so even though I didn’t intend to go through the mudflats, after I had, I was glad.

It is why, I think, in some ways, that through running and through experiences that bring to the fore this feeling in me—basics, all shared by we animals, we mammals—that I have to be able to empathise with the bodies of other animals and their needs. Other animals other than humans, but also humans.

Stepping under that tree as it lay fallen and with the threat of falling on me, I felt, for a moment, the same sense as what it must be like for a crow or a starling nesting in its branches in the wild wind. There’s something about the surprise of it that also threatens, and in that threat and surprise our physical animality and mortality is foregrounds. What a weak word. Lived. There is also, as Bessel van der Kolk makes clear in his book The Body Keeps the Score, the way we all, humans and nonhuman animals, keep ourselves from trauma is by mobilising against the threat. Face, fight, flight, run on, into the Dene, and in the dark half where most people do not wander, to run on, to leave the threat behind.

I did another 25 miles after being trapped in The Cages. All I lost was a sock. But what did I gain?

Image (cc) Deb Collins

Blog, Running, Writing

Running and academia: the intellectual aspect of pounding the pavements

This article was originally published on the Guardian running blog

Running has become socio-cosmic,” anthropologist Allen Abramson announces to his attentive audience, a group of artists, academics, writers and, collectively, runners, gathered at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. What he means by this, I think, is that running is now everywhere. Even – as the first International Festival of Running (Run Run Run, or #r3fest) hosted by University College London last week attests – in the hallowed halls of the academic department, where such highfalutin claims are not, as they might be on the track, out of place.

But outside sports science, what interest does running have for the academic? And is running safe in our hands (or should that be shoes)?

About 50 of us have come for this inaugural conference, which is also the beginnings of a new Running Research Network, exploring the intersections of the scientific with the spiritual, cultural and political sides of the thing we all love to do – and now also to study. What is clear, however, from the footwear as much as the debate, is that we’re runners first and foremost.

“We were worried it was just going to be the two of us,” says Alan Latham, a senior lecturer in the department of geography at UCL, of himself and his co-organiser, the artist Kai Syng Tan. “But the response has been phenomenal.”

They needn’t have worried. As the popularity of running has exploded in parks and on the pavements, an interest in exploring it has grown in academic departments. One of the joys of this interest, keenly felt in the positive atmosphere of the festival, is that it draws people from all walks: the philosophers, the anthropologists, the performance artists, graphic designers, cultural geographers, English departments, music and meditation experts.

Perhaps only at a running conference would you get the choice over lunch of a running film festival; an injury clinic with Dr Courtney Kipps, the medical director of the London Triathlon; or guided breathing with Devashishu Torpy, the UK Peace Run coordinator. I opted for the meditation, attracted by the relation of long-distance running to self-transendence that has grown out of the Sri Chinmoy school of Buddhism, which combines spirituality with marathons.

What, no option of running? That was later, at 2.50pm, with Collectif Totem, a group of geographers and town planners from France and Italy who are mapping cities through running.

The conference’s wide appeal is perhaps due to what “runner geographer” Hayden Lorimer describes as the “mythical and mundane” nature of running. Mythical in its origins and stories, from the Greek goddess Nike to today’s feats of ultra-endurance. Mundane in the earthy and physical nature of planting your feet on to the earth, and the practicalities that requires.

As if to prove his metaphor, we’re treated to a 45-minute exploration in excruciating detail of Lorimer’s feet. While he gives the opening keynote, a webcam is focused on his calloused toes, the missing toenail he lost on the incline up Sentinel Dome in Yosemite national nark, the torn skin across the balls of his feet after coming down a mountain in Tenerife. It is the perfect opening and the ideal riposte to claims that academia does not have its feet on the ground. Here they are in all their grimy, battered glory.

“I’ve not lost a toenail yet,” says Latham as he shows me around his Museum of Running, a collection of some of the first magazines, shoes and memorabilia from the beginnings of the running phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s, including the first ever published weekly training plan from Eugene, Oregon – home of Mo Farah’s Nike Project team. “Perhaps I’m not a real runner until I do.”

Some of the work being produced by artists and academics with and through their running throws a new light on the wider cultural, perhaps even political, implications of running. Véronique Chance’s wonderful Great Orbital Run, a nine-day, 150-mile run around London, is not only an endurance event mapped on to a 10x10ft wall hanging, but also a commentary on the status of negotiating a global city, with its uncharted waste grounds, traffic problems, pollution and hidden beauty. It is every bit as provocative and insightful as Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital.

With Ivo Gormley’s GoodGym project on show, what was really being explored is what another academic, Dr Russell Hitchings, called the phenomenon of “green exercise”, and the implications of how much better for you running in open green spaces can be over time in the gym.

“The idea of the conference was to bring people together and really see what all the difference disciplines could learn from one another,” says Tan – a little like the “motion-controlled collisions” of a thousand footfalls hitting the ground. “There will definitely be a second conference,” she continues. Around her neck are the whistle and stopwatch with which she timed, and then abruptly stopped, the conference papers after a firm eight minutes. Perhaps other conferences could take a leaf out of #r3fest’s book.

Blog, Churchill 2014, Running

Vancouver Canada Day 10k, race report

spirit park trailSmall world. You travel half way across the top of the globe to take on Vancouver’s finest* in the Run Canada Day 10k, and what’s actually going through your mind on the start line is the need to beat the guy from Wallington in the Great North Run t-shirt.

To be fair, Vancouver’s best weren’t going to be beat (by me, anyway). The eventual winner of the 10k through Pacific Spirit Park was Tony-Carter lookalike Jeremiah Johnson, who won in 33:11, about five minutes ahead of the 2nd place runner. Second place was a Kenny Mac-lookalike, Adam Morgan, six foot something and lithe, and when the gun went, they both flew off, leaving the rest of us to battle out for the rest of the top ten.

33:11 on this course? This hot day? That was some going. I went out for a quick reconnoitre (as they say in this bilingual city) of the last mile of the course, which was an easy incline, although if I’d feel the same after 9k was debatable. I was already suffering with the humidity and heat – by 10am, when the races (beginning with the kids’ 1k) got underway, it would be in the low-20s, and climbing.

And climbing. And climbing. Although not, the race organiser at Vancouver’s Running Room, warned us, until 5k, as the first half was downhill through the trails of Spirit Park, so to not go out too fast and pace it. We’d also be overtaking the fun runners/walkers on the 5k race before us, so to keep an eye out as we were letting the brakes off down the slopes.

Once the 5k runners were off the first straight road, the 10k runners lined up and waited for the lead bike. I had a funny feeling I might do okay. Despite my chronic hip strain seeming to have moved from the right leg to the left in the past two weeks, apart from the first twenty or so runners, the field didn’t look very fast. And so it turned out – or, my increase in training in the past few weeks, with a firm foundation of Pilates over the last six months laid (Pilates is absolutely the future people. Fill your glutes!) is starting to pay off.

Fortunately most of the race was in the shade of the magnificent Pacific Spirit Park trails. This is a park that sits next to the campus of UBC, but was part of the traditional Musqueam peoples’ territory. During my reccy earlier I’d stopped for what I realise now was a rather sacrilegious pee in the forest, and having stopped running for a few moments I was struck by the absolute silence of the place. It was a good place to find that peace of mind that running in nature, whether it be fells, trails, beach, mountains, can provide. Although there wasn’t going to be much of that after 4.3k.

Because at 4.3k that’s where the climb began. Up to that point I’d gone well. Turning into the first corner in about 12th, I picked off the two Swedes, and the heavy Wallington boots of my fellow Brit were nowhere to be heard. Then over the next 3k I slowly reeled in a Gateshead Conrad lookalike (what is it with all the lookalikes?) who I’d expected more of, for all the handshakes on the start line, and then also took a guy wearing a Spartathlon headband. But it was downhill and I was making the most of the freedom to breathe in the shade of the tall pines.

Then we turned. It wasn’t a straight uphill but a twisty-turny climb, all the more difficult for not being able to see the crests of the rises. About 5k we left the shelter of the trees and hit the road, where the heat and the climb really hit hard. Luckily we were only off for 500m or so, before we turned back into the park, but then also back up. Even so, I managed to pull in the guy in front of me, until about 7k when the hilly run got the better of me, and he pulled away. I looked behind to see if I could see Conrad/Spartathlon guy, to be surprised to see a runner in yellow.

Over the next kilometre he reeled me in, especially as around 8k the race took a deep incline followed by the related climb. Conditions underfoot were almost perfect. This was a really well looked after trail, solid and dry, and even though I had an ankle-wobble around the corner, that was my only mishap. It was enough to let the guy behind me pull me in, however, and when we next left the trails and got back onto the road, I let him take me, with the plan to sit on his shoulder.

Mentally, here’s where I made my mistake. Because I’d planned my long run back to the other side of town to follow the race, I had an excuse for not giving it everything. It was too easy an excuse, and he pulled away. Only five seconds gap or so, but it was enough. Luckily, when we finished, I discovered he was in the 40-49 category, so it wouldn’t have made a difference to getting a top 3 in the 30-39 category. Even so, it was a mental error in a race, one not to be made again.

The final kilometre was back onto the road and into Wesbrook Village and a twisty, turny path up to the finish line. I ungraciously barged my way past two slow finishers on the 5k (a mother and her six year old; hang your head in shame, young man) for a finishing time of 41:36. That’s a way off the PB, but on this course, in this heat, I was pleased with that, and knew I’d have a top 10 finish. Fourth M30-39, and most importantly for general reputation, first international finisher, all in the TBH vest. See all the results here.

A well organised, enjoyable race and a good way to start the tour of Canadian and US races over the next few weeks. Next up: the Windhorse Half Marathon in Bellingham on Saturday 19th July. Prizes for all runners are Mongolian khadags. As they say in these parts, “Go Figure, ay.”

* not actually the reason I’m here, boss. It’s work.

Image (c) of the magnificently named Presley Perswain

First published on TyneBridgeHarriers.com

Blog, Writing Blog

Writing in Iowa City

Saturday 29th March, 804am, Heirloom Java House, Iowa City

There are a couple of Japanese girls at the table next to mine getting exited about the dresses they’re looking at online. I can’t tell what exactly, they’re talking in Japanese. On the desk there’s a book: Wartime America. The subtle relations between book and laptop, past and present, seem to sit lightly in this place. A place for writers, more than anything, to interrogate connections. Normally, when I get to the café in the morning around 745am, I’m the only person in there with a laptop. Although this morning the Java House is not quite as busy, when I came here Friday at around the same time it was almost impossible to get a table. Each one was already filled by a young student or older writer, laptop up, drinking their coffees and waters and eating their bowls of oatmeal, already hard at work. The same happens in the evenings. When I came here for a vegan salad bowl, there was more writerly activity. One middle-aged and one elderly poet were looking over drafts, while another professor and a younger student were working through her script. This is a place for writers. It’s the café that is the microcosm of this writerly city, the UNESCO City of Literature, home of the Iowa Writers’ Centre, and to Prairie Light Books, a Midwestern city.

It’s been a delight to be here, to discover the city. To discover the Java House with its brewed coffee, its alt-folk music on in the background, its set up for writers. A delight, also, that I can run again, and have run up and down the Iowa River Trail, seeing more of the city than most walkers will, or most other people at the conference I’m here for.

Although to say I’m here for the conference is an ostensible reason. It doesn’t feel like the real reason at all. Why’s that? I don’t know—maybe that will reveal itself only later. The conference itself, although not yet over, has been…okay, with a strange energy that befits an Affect and Inquiry conference, perhaps, but the general consensus is there are a couple of badly behaving academics lobbing grenades to see what explodes. Although the initial senses of exclusion can only be counter-productive to what Jasbir Puar, from the Women & Gender Studies programme at Rutgers University, was calling ‘conviviality’, an attempt to live with the crises points that are being pointed to by the moments where affect is pushing at the edges of different disciplines to bring attention to for-too-long excluded questions, such as ‘what does being a woman of colour in the academy feel like?’.

There was a debate about the ‘sweetness’ of conviviality and the ‘disgust’ of the bleed/edge as two contrasting approaches to these questions of how to do research, how to explore the making of happening. That other sense of conviviality, its companionable enjoyment, was very welcome last night as I went to dinner with three medics from the local hospital who I met at Prairie Lights bookstore following a reading by the essayist David Lazar from his collection Occasional Desire. The three took me to dinner at Devotay, a Spanish tapas restaurant; they went out of their way to make sure everything could be vegan for me, as well as gluten-free for one of the medics. The evening was pleasurably free from academic infighting (“this isn’t a competition to see who is grieving most, is it?” one awkward moment at the memorial session for the critic Jose Munoz, who died awfully young) and full of talk about books, travel, dogs and jobs (not necessarily in that order), things that people should be talking about when they’ve only just met. My dinner and two bottles of Portuguese red was paid for. The finest hospitality from those grounded in workplaces of everyday life and death.

And this morning I’m bunking off the first session so I can come here and spend a little time writing. Just writing. The first session yesterday was from a wonderful presenter, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, from the National Centre for Faculty Development and Diversity, on addressing the pressures and resistances to writing in the academic role. It was very well presented, very generous, and yet if there was anything that I drew from the session it was how very well I have progressed over the last few years in developing my own writing practices. Although it is still always mostly hard work, the problems she was raising (three types of resistance, based on technical errors, psychological obstructions, and external realities) were all problems I had faced and in many ways dealt with, or developed strategies for dealing with, in the past few years. Writing every day. Check. Finding effective ways to motivate via recording and networking. Check. Breaking tasks down into chunks. Yep, etc. In that way, the PhD has been a very useful training ground, giving me the time and focus to learn how to work better as a writer.

Two key words she didn’t mention, and, if there had been time for questions, I would have raised. Identification, and play. She touched upon them, nearly. The presentation remained introductory, if useful for many if not most of the people in the room.

But what I wanted to know were here thoughts on how identification with a particular role (“I am an academic” for example, or rather, putting it into Byron Katie’s terms, the negative impact of beliefs such as “I must be an academic”) can be so strong and forceful, something so critical to one’s sense of self, that it paralyses, or certainly obstructs, fierce productivity and the ability to ensure a healthy work/life balance. Talking with another academic in the room who had been trained as a journalist, we both felt academic work was much easier than many others seemed to feel it to be. Not only perhaps because we had a more thorough understanding and set of tools to tackle the technical errors than many of the other writers in the room—in particular the need to simply let go of stuff on deadline for publication, having done it so many times we’re trained to do so. But also because, at least for me, my identification is not so strongly as an academic, but as a creative writer, and so academic work feels to me much easier. I care less about it, which means I can enjoy it a bit more.

[Talking of which; one of the Japanese girls is a photojournalism major and she’s just asked if she can take my photo for her class project. She’s sending me the photos she took of this place.]

Which leads to the other point. Play. When I write academic work, I don’t struggle with it so much. I play with it. I sit down and think about not just what I want to say, but how to say it. That’s not to say it’s always easy. It can be a challenge. But a good challenge. One of the conference organisers introduced a panel, and the conference, by talking about how we can enter flow in our dialogue as academics, and how really good critical debate can help us reach that high challenge-high skill place that characterises flow (that I’ve written about elsewhere in relation to running). And I’ve worked really hard, through writing every day, through addressing the heavy-laden psychological ‘need’ to be a creative writer/novelist and taking off some of that pressure, to bring more play (back) into my creative writing.

Which is why this morning I’m taking a break from the non-fiction book proposal I’ve been working on. It’s actually been a lot of fun to write. But over the last few days, with the conference, the jet-lag, and dalliance with strong coffee (a day spent sweating, palpitating—how is this stuff not contraband?!), I’ve found it a struggle, and I want to stop, give it some space, come back to it when I feel more creative, more playful with it. It hasn’t reached the hard-ass honing stage yet (I feel I may be adopting the tone of my temporary residence). There’s more to say, to play, before getting there.

And one more thing on writing. Another way of becoming unstuck, and a reason why I put away the book proposal. I was trying to work out how to link together some of the still disparate elements. I couldn’t think how. And now I can again, after five months, I went for a run. On that run, pushing myself enough so that my mind couldn’t really ask itself questions, after a while I found myself writing in my mind the introduction I needed to do for the panel I was chairing later that day. Ah! So the reason I couldn’t find the answers to how to knit together the disparate parts of my book proposal was because my unconscious was already working on/worrying out another thing that needed writing. It was a lovely lesson. Rather than pushing too hard against what was being crafted internally to try to fit an conscious demand, I let the mind rest, and let what was going on inside come out.

It’s very good to be running again, not least for the job it does in my writing.

I’ve just a few more hours in Iowa City, this city of writers, before I have to check out, see the last of the keynotes at the conference, and head to Chicago. And back to that question. Do I know why I needed to come here yet? Was it to experience what a writing city feels like? To meet the doctors, have fun, and make those connections? To have my photo taken by a journalism student? To learn that my writing habits are actually strong, healthy, advanced, developed? (Although not perfect, not that! Still always work to do.) All these things?

When will I find out. Perhaps I won’t. Either way, it’s been an Iowan delight.

VB40

Saving face with home-made cake (or loneliness, Pt.2)

“I didn’t take you for a baker,” one of my students said, after I’d offered some vegan carrot cake round the class yesterday morning.

“If you’re vegan, you probably need to make your own,” said another. “Otherwise you’d never have any cake at all.”

“There’s one place,” I explained, “in Newcastle’s Grainger Market, the Health Box, that makes vegan cakes. But it’s only on certain days. Tuesdays or Saturdays, I think. So yes, I bake my own quite a lot.”

I’d originally made the cake for finishers at the Newcastle Town Moor Marathon, but I was marshalling a way from the finish line and didn’t want to leave my spot, as cheering on the runners, fast and slow, had become an important and enjoyable role. So I had too much cake on my hands for personal consumption, and I brought it into work/class.

Cake was already on the curriculum, however. It was one of the students’ birthdays, and the others had bought her a chocolate caterpillar cake, possibly the hardest of all the food types to resist–for me, anyway, having been brought up on sugary foods, chocolate and cake (my mother worked for Nestle, so brought home plenty of goods, and was also an excellent baker herself).

“It’s probably the worst thing you could give up being vegan for,” said the same student, pointing to the caterpillar cake. “It’s even shaped like an animal.”

It brought a laugh, but it’s rather a relevant point. So much food we eat doesn’t look like the animal from which it came. As I read somewhere recently, it is strange that meat eaters pillory vegans for having ‘fake’ foods that look like ‘meat’ such as sausages and burgers, when these, in their ‘original’ forms, are completely artificial shapes and bear no resemblance to the animal they came from.

Which is not a problem with vegan carrot cake. Although if it were shaped like a face of some sort, it would be, perhaps, a saving face. That’s because, as Jessica Greenebaum from Central Connecticut State University, suggests in the journal of Humanity and Society, we vegans use a number of “face-saving strategies” to maintain our social relations while managing vegan living.

Most people strive to create an image of the self in a positive light; people don’t like to be shunned, discredited, or have people respond to us aggressively. For the vegetarians and vegans in Greenebaum’s study, it was “critically important to represent vegetarianism and veganism in a positive light in order for their audience to listen and accept what they hear” (312). Many of them, when first becoming vegan, would be proactive, blunt, advocating for change in powerful and emotional terms. But nearly all found this didn’t work:

Stephanie (vegetarian) concurs: “I learned along the way that the majority of people have no idea how the animal gets to that plate. They are just completely ignorant about that. And when I start talking about it they just tell me to shut up.” Many of the participants were told at some point during their tenure as vegetarian or vegan they they were “wrong,” “biased” or “making it up”.

According to Carol Adams, in Living Among Meat Eaters, this is no real surprise, because such facts are “experienced emotionally by the omnivore.”

In a way how could they not be? If the meat eater knows what is going on and doesn’t care; or if the meat eater doesn’t want to know, because they know that it would change their entire life, and they don’t want their life to change… either way, the realities of the Animal-Industrial Complex (warning: Graphic Images) would be an affront and challenge to their, they believe, absolute core values of living. That animals have no rights. That we have a right to eat meat and other animal products, regardless of the ways in which those products are produced.

What happens is that, to steal from Sara Ahmed’s work on feminist killjoys, the vegan or vegetarian is seen as the killjoy, the problem, for speaking out, or even simply embodying their values. When a woman/feminist points out something is sexist, she is belittled, seen as tiring, ruining everything. The same goes for the vegan, in my experience.

And this is alienating. As Greenebaum goes on to say: “Since many of the vegans in the study have felt alienated from the mainstream society, they recognize the threat of standing out and being rejected by omnivores after adopting a vegan lifestyle” (315). According to one of the participants, Leah (vegan), “the marginalization takes place in two ways. You marginalize yourself and others marginalize you:

When you decide to be vegan, you choose to in some ways marginalize yourself. There are assumptions about where you stand politically, but there are also assumptions about how you marginalize yourself and how you don’t take of other things. So you don’t get invited to other things as much because there’s an assumption that you are not going to go along with it or you want to go along with it. In addition to having people not invite me, I’ve also cut my social circle down. My partner has a lot of non-vegan friends and I don’t like to go to their events. I don’t even like to go to my partner’s mom’s house because I won’t have anything to eat there.

I understand this, as do many others struggling with being “vegan in a non-vegan world“. Would you want to go to a party with a load of sexists and racists? I guess not — you’d end up playing with the dog. For a vegan, well, at least for me, going to a party full of meat eaters is a party full of speciesists. I don’t particularly want to go there either, especially when food is a central part of the event (e.g. a friend’s summer barbecue). How do you negotiate this?

As Greenebaum summarises: “Initially, many of the vegetarians or vegans used traditional tactics of confrontation, but they found that it was not an effective way to get people to listen to them. Aggressively defending this identity created boundaries that left them feeling isolated. They created strategies that proactively protect relationships with omnivores using technique that ‘save face’ for all involved in the vegan encounter” (322).

Which is why I bake vegan carrot cake and share it around. First with a very accepting running clubplant-based athletes are welcomed as perfectly normal, I’ve found, in their search for improved nutrition and fitness. And now with work and students. That by baking something that tastes good — “It’s just like a normal carrot cake, for normal people,” said my student — it’s something that is positive about veganism and about my lifestyle choices, while also planting some seeds of how veganism isn’t unbearable or lonely or, in the end, too difficult.

If the food system makes it “possible, even necessary, to not think about the production and quality of food, particularly food that comes from animals” (323) then offering alternatives, and using those alternatives to talk about the reasons why veganism is a healthier, happier, more compassionate way of living, is a way forward for vegans and omnivores.

[Update 29/10: more people thinking Veganism via Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Killjoys concept, such as James Stanescu on his blog]

References
Greenebaum, J (2012) Managing Impressions: “Face-Saving” Strategies of Vegetarians and Vegans. Humanity and Society 36(4).

Novel Writing, Running, Writing Blog

Murakami on Writing, Running

The thing I notice most about novelist Haruki Murakami’s style is this: a sense that when I pick up his work, the story has already been happening without me, and when I finish it and put it down, life inside is carrying on somewhere without me too. The fact there is a page 1 and an end page is almost accidental to the story.

His first book that I read, Dance Dance Dance, is about an unnamed protagonist who makes a living as a commercial writer and, for me, typifies this style. There is no real explanation for much of what happens and the motivation for the action comes from what has already gone before, before we meet the characters. This is not about a novelist dropping us into a plot in medea res, however. It is about creating a sense of open-endedness in character, perception and affect, as well as storyline.

Perhaps this open-endedness is something to do with Murakami’s life as a ‘running novelist’ that he captures in his travelogue/memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I read this over the summer, often sitting on a beach, or during a long walk, often alone. For a running would-be novelist, the book captures a sense of discipline and learning that is gently acerbic in its understanding of doing things of value (writing, running).

The value of running is always open-ended. Murakami experiences this when running a 62-mile ultra-marathon (well—wow). Beyond a certain point, he explains, “the end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It’s the same with our lives. Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence.” As for running, as for the metaphors of writing.

There are two key essences in the book that make it worth reading, beyond an appreciation of Murakami’s own style, his almost poker-faced honesty (perhaps to do with the translation between cultures).

First: instructions for novelists

What makes a novelist? Murakami says he’s asked this in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent” (p.76). But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance”:

If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.

Murakami then goes on to express this in a fundamentally embodied way:

You can compare it to breathing. If concentration is the process of holding your breath, endurance is the art of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs. Unless you can find a balance between both, it’ll be difficult to write novels professionally over a long time. Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.

According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day and making the effort to go out running. It is the same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance, to become a long-distance runner or a long-form writer. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

Second: leading the curious life

The second essence, that is not written out so directly, is what brought Murakami, at the age of 33 (just a year younger than I am now) to begin his career as both a long-distance runner and a long-form writer of fiction. It was, in no small part, curiosity, and a curiosity about acquiring an openness to life, or even, I’d argue, an open-endedness to life.

Murakami went to college, ran a jazz bar, collected jazz records, got married, and had a whole host of life experiences before becoming a writer. On page 17, he says “By sticking my nose into all sorts of places, I acquired the practical skills I needed to live. Without those ten tough years I don’t think I would have written novels, and even if I’d tried, I wouldn’t have been able to.”

Curiosity then, “sticking my nose” into all sorts of things, to acquire practical skills to live. What are those skills? Murakami talks first and foremost about acceptance without judgement—one of the assets that Todd Kashdan describes of belonging to those ‘curious explorers’ who live fulfilled and happy lives. If we are open and do not close off judgement too soon – in Murakami’s words, “for now all I can do is put off making any judgements and accept things as they are” – then we are more able to see the potential novelty and meaning in any activity or moment, rather than searching for certainty.

For Murakami, this acceptance comes through the practice of concentration. Or, via running, through the “acquiring of the void” of a mental state where ideas do not fix themselves. As he explains:

I run to acquire a void… the thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run are subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void…

The thoughts are like clouds in the sky… and like the sky, “it has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”

The suggestion is, to me at least, that it is this void, this ability to accept all ideas, thoughts and substance, that both is a practice of concentration and the thing within us that makes writing possible. Without that void, created by curiosity and what sounds a lot like mindfulness (“continuing to breathe while holding your breath”), writing long fiction is impossible. At least for Murakami.

And I feel for me. Writing, mindfulness, running, and an academic search for curiosity, decision and their relationship to literary acts: these are my ‘supplements’, so to speak. In Murakami’s words:

The methods and directions a writer takes in order to supplement himself becomes a part of that writer’s individuality, what makes him special.

Writing

Running Hard

Tonight in Edinburgh the Take Tea with Turing anthology was launched at Edinburgh’s Informatics Centre, celebrating the life of Alan Turing. This is my piece from the anthology, inspired by Turing’s excellence at running and other questions.

Jessop knocked on the door and poked his red face into the room.

‘Football’s cancelled.’

I propped myself up on the pillow and looked out of the window. When had the fog come down? I guess I’d been nose to book for—two already? I had until six. Football would have filled that gap with time to spare; and I needed to collect my shoes from the cobbler at Kings Gate. I put the book down. My feet were itchy. The run out to Ely was seventeen miles, and back again. I looked at my watch.

‘Jessop!’

A grunt, then footsteps back down the corridor. Red face round the door.

‘What is it?’

‘Tell the guest from—’

‘Alan! Shhh…’ Jessop’s neck disappeared into his shoulders. ‘You’re not meant to—’

‘Calm down, man. Okay, tell Mr Simms I might be a little late for supper.’

*

There was that fellow again. I’d passed him a few times on the trail somewhere between Dimmock’s Cote and Waterbeach. That week the river at Swaffham Prior burst its banks and the trail was virtually submerged. He was splashing through, having a great time, the muddy duck. Up to his knees. He always smiled and greeted me. I strode on past, it was my fastest section and I wouldn’t slow down.

‘Gentleman Sir!’ he shouted, and gave a mock salute. ‘You’re flying again.’

I never seemed to have breath to reply. How he mustered up the free will to be so god damn friendly I’ll never know. Maybe there was no free will, and he was simply bound by universal law to greet me. Gentleman Sir!, really?

They gave me an awful look at dinner. Mr Simms was all Brylcream and standard-issue cufflinks. Who was he kidding? I managed to avoid them for the most of the night, sticking to the bar and Jessop and keeping one eye on the roving mortar of Battson, who was doing his best as host to keep Simms interested. But I suppose there was no getting away from it. He’d read my thesis, he’d come to meet me.

‘Turing,’ I heard Battson snap at my ear. I jumped and almost dropped my half-and-half. Mr Simms was standing there, fiddling with his tie. Grey and dreary cotton. And next to him, that man from the track, smiling. They were all looking at my feet.

‘Running shoes are not allowed in the dining hall, Turing,’ said Battson, shaking his head.

*

So it turns out we are not built of grass or cement or seeds, but bricks. We are made of little living bricks. When we grow, these bricks divide—okay, perhaps brick is perhaps the wrong material. But stay with it. How they grow, and where they should be placed, and when they should split again, no-one has worked out. What we know least about is the calculation. Take this example from today. Turned over my ankle, not severely, only a minor torque. The tendonopathy stimulates regenerative growth of tissue, and the body need know how many, where, how fast, to re-grow. What can calculate that? Only the mind—at the moment.

The force of impact of the heel striking the ground is measured in moments. They are called moments of force. I avoid all such moments, or at least try to. They bloody hurt. Most of the time I land on the mid- foot, not the heel. That way the landing is cushioned. The torque is still at the ankle, but rather than, oh, I’d guess 600 body-weights per second going up the leg into the lower spine, it will be around 100 body-weights per second. That’s how I dodge injury, usually: avoid the moments.

Bletchley is a cold, lonely place.

And I have not seen Gentleman Sir!, nor Mr Simms, since I arrived.

*

‘Off again?’ asked Malcolm. Malcolm opened up Hut 8 in the mornings and turned on the machine and made sure she was running by the time I arrived. He locked up at night. One time I’d found him here on the weekend. Said he’d had a tiff with his wife. I’m sure those things happened.

‘London, Malcolm, yes,’ I said.

He crossed his arms.

‘You’re running there?’

He stood blinking like one of the displays on the left rack. Not the right, for some reason, they had a different pattern. We hadn’t configured that yet. I tied my laces.

‘Yes, Malcolm. How else am I to think?’

‘You could get the train, sir.’

‘Think? On those narrow carriages?’

‘You could go for a jog around the lake, sir.’

I snorted. Oh, the lake! They kept me to laps of the lake. They didn’t let me out far enough to stretch my legs. National Security, really! I stood and stamped my feet.

‘It’s only when I go down to London that I get let off the leash.’

‘You’re a funny one, if you don’t mind me saying, sir.’

‘Keep her running for me Malcolm. And say hello to the wife.’

Twenty and a half miles in I was jumping over the slippery mud track of the canal alongside the Watford Road. It was drenched from the past week’s irascible showers. Hmmph, I thought, I suppose they could think of me that way. I resolved not to chain my mug to the radiator. But that was all! I slipped off the path into bramble. I pulled myself out. Nothing serious. I would shower before dinner. I thought of GS while I ran. Why, I’d not thought of him for months. Gentleman Sir! You’re flying, go on with you. Hardly anyone on the path that day—the downpour saw to that. I waddled through caramel-coloured mud. The ground slipped sideways under each foot landing, from the sagittal to the transverse plane. It was like running on flapping silk. Rather a contradiction. The ground moving as I moved across it, light enough to tear but strong enough to bear me. Leaping across puddles that covered the whole path; jumbling over buried stone; mounds of trodden clay and lichen-covered branches that blew off in the storms and lay in the path like lost crooked legs. Running, it made sense. It was past Hemel Hempstead as I entered Merlin Wood that I knew what I’d tell the brass. I didn’t attend the dinner. I stayed in my room at the Belvoir and wrote until I ran out of lead.

‘The cryptanalytic machine,’ I announced at the next morning’s meeting.

The generals looked less confused than the brigadier. Bless him.

‘The idea that you can use, in effect, a theorem in logic which sounds,’ I hesitated, but why not, god damn them, you’re flying, go on with you, ‘which sounds to the untrained ear absurd; namely that from a contradiction, you can deduce everything.

It took them by surprise. A long silence. Then one of the generals cleared his throat.

‘What the hell do you mean, man?’

*

It was 1946 when I met Johnny and Chris. I was past those workhorses in ten strides usually, a lunchtime run round the NP. That day Johnny and Chris kept up, slogging through the mud on the back trails. Or tried to keep up, that is; long enough to ask me who I was. I grunted louder. I was a noisy runner. I preferred running alone. Hadn’t I always run to get away from bothersome questions?

‘Come on chap, who—who are you—then?’

‘Nobody,’ I said.

The worst possible answer. They asked me to join Walton AC immediately.

*

Years before, I’d sat in Hut 8 wiggling my toes in front of me. I’d gotten a callous on a run back from London and had my socks off while working on the prototype. I had my feet up, and for fun pushed at the crib. The rotor settings weren’t connected to the plugboard, so there was no threat of breaking the damn thing. But wouldn’t you know it, that was the only day GS came to visit. Surprised me. Said his name was Frankie. That was all: Frankie.

‘Always create with your shoes off?’ he asked, smiling.

He wanted to know how the bombe worked. For each possible setting of the rotors, I told him, which had of the order of 1019 states, or 1022 for the four-rotor U-boat variant,the bombe performed a chain of logical deductions based on the crib, implemented electrically. The bombe detected when a contradiction had occurred, and ruled out that setting, moving on to the next.

He had his arms crossed. He was nodding too fast to know what on earth I was talking about. He looked at me. It was rather a sly look, I thought.

‘And it’s foot-operated?’ he asked, one eyebrow raised.

*

Johnny was leaning against the post by the Milton Country Park gate. We’d just done our Sunday twenty. I was out of sorts that day. That’s why Johnny looked so flushed: he’d been able to keep up. It was ’49 I think. After the Triple As. I’d lost motivation. I remember he and Chris were laughing as we packed up. Then from his bag Johnny pulled out that five pound note I’d given him before the boys went over on the ferry for the Nijmegen marathon.

‘Here,’ said Johnny, ‘I said I’d give it back.’

‘It was for the drinks after the race,’ I told him.

‘Guilt money, more like,’ said Chris.

I pulled on my tank top, and somehow ripped a hole in the side.

‘God damn! What do you mean by that, Chris?’ I snapped.

‘I meant you should have come with us,’ said Chris, stuffing his vest into his bag. ‘You should have raced.’ He stared at me as if I were some horrible creature. ‘The war’s over you know, Alan.’ He walked off.

I threw my bag over my shoulder.

‘I think you’re a little too stern with Chris,’ said Johnny.

‘I think you should have brought me back some clogs.’

‘To run in?’ Johnny laughed.

We started walking after Chris. Johnny thrust the fiver under my nose.

I waved him away. ‘I don’t need it. Keep it.’

Johnny frowned. Then he put the money back into his bag. We walked for a while in silence, back to the pub. Just the gravel under out feet.

‘Why do you punish yourself so much, Alan?’ asked Johnny, rather out of the blue.

Had I let the boys down? Fifth at the Triple As was not shabby. Only ten minutes off Olympic pace. I supposed it was a classic halting problem. Given a description of an arbitrary program, decide whether the program finishes running or continues to run forever. I thought I’d solved that back in 1936. It wasn’t possible. But that was all done with now. I never wanted to dedicate a life to running. I never wanted it to become an obsession. I put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.

‘Sorry about Chris. I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard. It’s the only way I can get some release.’

*

A machine is a device that manipulates symbols on a strip of tape. Through simple instructions—move forward, erase, write, read, my machine can enact any algorithm.

But not every algorithm has a machine to run it.

What if I’d never stopped running? What if I’d said ‘Gentlemen Sir! to you too?’

Well, it would have all been over a lot earlier than it was.

Think of running as a strip of tape. Move forward, left, jump, halt. Race. Erase. A computer, it turns out, is just a particular kind of machine that works by pretending to be another machine: a calculator, a ledger, a typewriter, a code-breaker.

But not a runner. A runner doesn’t pretend. He’s nothing other than what he is.