It’s not unusual for me to get messages from friends, former students and strangers asking for help with their running. When faced with these requests, I’m happy to hammer out a content-free pep talk, sharing slogans and koans that have helped me in the past. Or I just say, “You can totally do this,” even if I have no idea whether it’s true.
When people ask me what running and writing have in common, I tend to look at the ground and say it might have something to do with discipline: You do both of those things when you don’t feel like it, and make them part of your regular routine. You know some days will be harder than others, and on some you won’t hit your mark and will want to quit. But you don’t. You force yourself into a practice, the practice becomes habit and then simply part of your identity. A surprising amount of success, as Woody Allen once said, comes from just showing up.
[First published in The Outdoor Journal]
Let’s begin by admitting that when you start, it’s bloody awful.
After you lace up your new running shoes for the first time, step into your short shorts with the built-in panties, pull on a tee-shirt made of recycled plastic bottles or some other technical material that will, eventually, start to stink in the armpits no matter how often you wash it, when you head out the door for that debut run, you might feel good for the first few minutes. You might even feel great. You might hear Bruce Springsteen singing that tramps like us, baby we were born to run.
The years I don’t go, it feels like I’m missing a party. I get texts and emails and photos in the weeks and days before the race. I get invitations to gatherings and receptions. I feel left out. And then, on race day, I sit at the computer and look up bib numbers. I read the split times to see who started out at a pace I know he can’t hold, who’s slowing in the second half, and who surprised herself by doing better than she expected to. I read updates on the elite racers from my many writer friends and hear about all the fun I missed.
Used to be, I was the youngster. I scrambled up the professional career ladder of scholarly publishing so fast that I often had a hard time getting people to believe that yes, I really was an editor from Oxford University Press, not a graduate student. I had to devise ways to make sure that wait staff in the fancy restaurants to which I took my authors, often men twenty or a hundred years my senior, gave me the check. I cringed when Hannibal Lector pointed out Clarice’s good bag and cheap shoes. I had good bags and cheap shoes.
It’s not like I really thought I was going to marry Frank Shorter. But when I found out that we would be staying at the same house during the weekend of the 2012 TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K race in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, I thought, well, he’s smart and attractive and accomplished. Maybe I’ll marry Frank Shorter.
|When you look at him, at the manicured beard and well-shorn, though balding, head, the Italian leather shoes and smart-cut suit, it’s no longer so easy to recognize Jonathan for the geek he truly is. Mostly you can see it in his hazel eyes, now that he’s learned to clean his glasses so they are no longer covered with a grimy film. There are still lots of “ums” and “ahs” that punctuate the cadence of his sentences, but he’s gotten better at getting to the point. That Jonathan is a successful academic doctor who is invited to speak all over the world will surprise no one who meets him; that he is responsible for millions of dollars of research grants and heads up a clinic at one of the best university hospitals in the country seems perfectly appropriate. This is clearly an accomplished individual. However, he’s changed a lot in the decade and a half we’ve known each other.
We were originally set up by well-intentioned friends. When I first saw Jonathan I thought I should be more careful in choosing my friends. His pants were about three sizes too big, his glasses were cobbled together with duct tape, and there were traces of his last meal on his tie. On the way to dinner, Jonathan drove with his arm out the car window. Not in the casual way that men have, one arm resting lightly outside the car while steering confidently with the other hand; no, the door didn’t close properly and Jonathan had to hold it shut lest it fly open.
But Jonathan’s deftness soon became apparent. Not because he fixed his TV by tipping it forward at a precipitous angle which made watching it, for me, a chore but delighted Jonathan because he had been able to rescue the device from the dump. Not because he once spent countless days and hundreds of dollars designing an insulated house for his pet pig that had a separate “furnace” room, thermostat, and window. Not because if you give him a problem he won’t stop until he’s solved it, often in inspired and creative ways. It’s that Jonathan brings things to the brink of disaster and then, through ingenuity and quickness, though intellectual agility and physical prowess, he pulls off a spectacular save.
We were moving in together, Jonathan and I, and had leased a large, luxurious house in a snooty neighborhood. Jonathan had been responsible for finding the movers. He’d set up the date, and on the day of the move, we sat at our individual houses atop our packed boxes and waited. The movers were instructed to go first to my place, load up, move on to Jonathan’s, load up, and then unload at our new love nest. Everything was all set.
Except that they never showed. It got later and later and when we finally called, they had no record of our move.
Naturally, Jonathan and I had both waited until the very end of our leases, and we had to be out that night. At the last possible moment, dangerously near closing time, we rented a gigantic truck, and, with the help of our mutual friend, Mary, and my less-than-athletic brother, Mark, we worked until the early hours moving ourselves.
The next morning, Jonathan and Mark took my dog, Hannah, for a walk to survey the grounds. Our new home was nestled at the top of a long, uphill driveway. The moving truck was conveniently parked close to the house, facing down.
They had been walking on the street and, for who knows what reason, had looked back, at just the right moment, to admire the house. I believe that my brother, when he closes his eyes at night, can still see it: the big truck was rolling down the driveway, headed for the posh home of one of our new neighbors. Jonathan had forgotten to set the emergency brake.
My brother, a lawyer, mentally ran through all of the possible outcomes.
“Oh shit!” he said, his body locked in panic.
“Oops,” said Jonathan.
With superhuman speed, Jonathan sprinted up the driveway. The massive truck was gaining velocity by the second; Jonathan knew too well the formula for momentum. He jumped onto the running board along the side the door, but there was nothing to hold onto. He grabbed the side-view mirror, which swung in his hand, and tried to balance himself, surfing toward the neighbor’s home.
Then Jonathan realized that he’d locked the door to the truck.
With one hand he clawed the roof of the truck; with the other, he fumbled in his pants for the keys.
Reaching deep into his pockets he came out with a handful of change and the key to the new house. So he opened the truck with a paperclip—just kidding. He dug in once again and this time found the right one, then jammed in the key and tried to open the door. But his body was in the way. The house across the street loomed closer. Jonathan maneuvered himself behind the door as my brother gazed on at a scene straight out of some kind of twisted indy action flick: our bearded, balding, hero attached to a rolling truck en route to a colossal moment of destruction.
Jonathan got the door open. He swung into the driver’s seat. In one swift motion he pulled hard—on the windshield wiper lever.
“Oops,” Jonathan said.
He grabbed again, and this time he got the emergency break.
The truck squealed angrily to a halt, having crossed the street, the front wheels stopping just before the golf-course-green grass of the neighbor’s lawn.
“Oops,” said Jonathan.
From JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association
Because of the specialty you chose, and by dint of your personality and the way you practice medicine, I’m sure this letter will be familiar to you; just another missive from a bereaved family member of one of your patients, gushing gratitude for the care of her beloved (good feelings have to find a place to go, in the mix of the displacement of death and vexed family dynamics and often, I suspect, get planted on physicians, whether deserved or not); just another pile of clichés and the inanities we say and think in times when our thinking is muddied by grief.