Running in Canada, Heading for Home

Generally, I don’t miss the traffic-dodging adrenaline or the lung-scrubbing atmospheric particulates that are involved in getting out for a run in my eastern hometown of Dalian, to say nothing of Beijing. Still, running was sometimes good for me in China. Running is like writing is like prayer, for that matter: frequently, it doesn’t feel like something I want to do until I’m already in the act. (And hey, don’t you assume that, after arrival in today’s Dedicated Writing Niche, I just spent the first 95 minutes hunting Web distractions and brainstorming vision statements for non-existent basketball clubs! Sheesh. You people get so personal sometimes.) So here I am, talking about what I think about when I think about running, especially back home in a Canadian summer.

There’s lots to ponder about running, and about what happens between the ears when we do. I think about all kinds of things when I run. (I also play stale pop tunes in the jukebox of my brain.) I think about the differences between China and Canada. (I rehearse what I should have said in decades-old conversations.) I think. (I think I think.)

I think: I never went for runs like these in China.

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Running, Pull-Ups and the Oneness of Humanity

I’ve never been able to endure even the idea of running on a treadmill, and only reluctantly do I join the walkers dutifully circling the track at local Chinese schools and universities. (My mind constantly runs in circles, so I don’t need cardiovascular reenactments.) Even plodding along familiar streets gets me restless, which partly explains why I love to run in new places. On a recent day in Suzhou, when my balky body had granted relatively enthusiastic permission for a run, I soured on what might have been a sweet outing, partly because my responsibilities as a friendly tourist nixed my locomotion. Walking (and stewing and brooding) burned a few calories, but I was glad to get out the next day.

We were, however, most favoured tourists. Our more-than-gracious hosts’ apartment  was across the street from Central Park, quiet and leafy in the modern section of Suzhou, so my live-in travel agent and I laced up and lumbered. Ponds and stone avenues, lawns and impromptu dancersize groups of Chinese women gave way to streetcore tourism as my bride signalled she’d had enough. I went straight down Broadway – actually, it was called Xinggang Lu, which means “Denim is my Destination”* — toward the Pants. More respectfully known as the Gate of the Orient, this huge dual tower looks like a pair of low-rise jeans on a hipless Chinese girl. Central Park punctuates, for a few blocks, Xinggang Lu as its traffic flows toward and away from the TrouserGate, and it was only partly for the sake of avoiding getting lost that I went Pants-ward. Impertinence aside, it’s enormous and visually quite compelling, and I didn’t resist its bowlegged charms.

* It most certainly does not mean that.

The boulevard made for pleasant city running.

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Lost in Cambodia

I’m back! I’ll be writing about my Vipassana meditation experience, which took me away from reading and writing and phones and friends and music and talking for ten days, but I’m still processing. That was in Thailand. We now continue our Chinese Spring Festival migrations just to the east, in another of the countries that our nearly five-year residence in the Middle Kingdom has made affordable and reachable. I got lost, twice in twelve hours. Story of my life, but a pretty fortunate tale and an extravagantly lucky existence it’s been, and remains. And how are all of you doing today?

So much has been lost in this country, which is the embattled remainder of a once-mighty medieval Khmer empire. I came here knowing little of that, other than something of the dreadfully crazed policies of the Khmer Rouge political movement, its maniacally destructive leader Pol Pot, and the fierce heat of words like “killing fields”: millions of dead in a country with less than half the population of Canada. We came for the more

An astounding pile of rock. How’d they do it? Stay tuned to this radio station for some of the details!

substantial fruit of an earlier monomania: the astounding Angkor Wat temple complex, the most outstandingly ambitious of the hundreds of tributes to gods and kings and god-kings in the area near the city of Siem Reap. We got lost in merely inconvenient, petty or even amusing ways. Again and still, the moral of the story is right up front: people of my time and place are such privileged people. We can tell stories, like these, where the worst peril is blisters, unmerited indignation, or the story falling flat in my telling. Danger! So, let’s see:

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Katherine Switzer (on running and hope)

“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

Katherine Switzer (1947-), the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon. Today, a bitter cast to this gorgeous quote, as the 2013 marathon saw several die, many more injured, who had done exactly what the indomitable Ms. Switzer had recommended.

Save the Thinking for Later

I ran this morning, and it was surprisingly good. After a November that was sickly and often rather blue, I’ve begun to re-establish a (physical) fitness routine, which includes a half-hour run every other day. It’s been going fairly well, considering the draggy condition of my posterior during that sorry excuse for a month, but today I didn’t feel at all like running – until I was five minutes in.

Prayer is like that. The disciplines of prayer and meditation have rarely felt easy or natural for me. Although I grew up in a faithful, churchgoing family, I didn’t learn to pray, and certainly not with any system to it; there were only the odd rapid-fire mutterings of grace before a special meal. Though a Baha’i seeks moderation, this one has always been fond of extremes in temperature, immoderate efforts in sport and elsewhere, and those edges of life that “proved”, however uselessly or painfully, that I was no average Jay. Throw in a little melancholy perfectionism, and I found the pathway to prayer free and open only when I felt especially good (read “worthy to approach the sacred threshold”) or remarkably bad (read “emotional free-fall”, “worthy to approach the rocky bottom”). Spirit feast or soul famine. Yet I’ve discovered – and it has felt lovely and fresh every uncountable time – that, mainly, I only really feel like praying once I’m praying. I found that out this morning. (Again!)

In the four months I’ve been heading toward or living in China, the walls to writing have seemed similarly high. For awhile, though I had a very fuzzy imagination of myself being set free to make new word-things here, I was paying attention to the thousand things that a newbie  needs and wants to do. How do we enrol our son in school? Buy groceries? Find this? Understand that? And then I started to think about writing, about creating the psychological and physical space in our modest apartment, about how hard it is here, about the books/time/energy/order I wish I had, and the disappointment of being so far behind writerly young men that I once tutored in the art.

And then I started to write, hesitantly. And it’s early days, yet, but I think I’m remembering that the way in to writing is to write. (As if I hadn’t taught that, not least to myself, for centuries.) It’s such an old and stubborn error: we imagine an existential order in which we have values, and then realize them outwardly; in which we have a recognizable emotion or intellectual impulse and then act upon it. But all the artists who have “gone pro” (as one hard-bitten writing coach put it), all the great Sages, and all the top jock gurus know that it’s often the other way ‘round.

Inspiration comes to those who show up at their workbench, expecting it.

Certitude comes to those who practise, though uncertain.

Guys who can run can run ‘cause they run, so run!

Better Read Than Never 2: WHAT I TALK ABOUT…RUNNING

My series Better Read Than Never – okay, technically, it is now a series because there are two of ’em – has been stalled because I’m too anxious to do too good a job for the too few of you out there in Electronville who, come to think of it, are often too busy to read The Howden anyway. My library copy of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood has been renewed three times and I’ve nearly paid for it in fines; mind you, I’ve never begrudged library penalties, which are merely an unreceipted form of useful charity. The review is going to be long unless I terminate it thuddingly. But it’ll come soon-ish. (I think.) (Prologue ends.)

In the meantime, though, I’ve read a couple of other fine things, one of which is recent enough that it doesn’t quite fit the series rubric, but makes me eager to read two writers that I’ve mainly missed so far. It’s an odd little book, one I found occasionally flat yet generally compelling, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s by a Japanese novelist and translator named Haruki Murakami, and it’s a curious kind of memoir. It mainly tracks his twenty-five year career as a recreational long-distance runner (and sometime triathlete), which roughly parallels and, he maintains, both informs and essentially supports his work as a writer.

Murakami is a diffident confidante, an unfamiliar voice that obscures as much as it reveals about the author. On more than one occasion, he notes that readers “probably wouldn’t like” him, and he is sometimes distant and bland in his summaries of the meaning of this observation or that running result. That’s just how I am. That’s life. This is how it goes. At first, I found these simple blurts disappointing, a signal that this book was something of a rush-job, but I came to see them as an accurate (and, finally, interesting) portrait of a man in search of some limited and non-ecstatic conclusions about his life and its meaning.

In fact, by the end I regarded his tone as a subtle rebuke to the my life is singular and rich and here’s how ALL could benefit from fingering its silken edges ambience of some (western) celebrity bios. For only one small example, an early casual mention of having been married at 22 seemed to me a clear signal that marriage was far in his rear-view window. In fact, his wife later makes brief and almost accidental appearances in this memoir of monkish discipline; she is never named or described, a level of biographical focus (and adherence to privacy, I suppose) that is startling. The Western attachment to personality, fame and disclosure seems exhibitionist by comparison.

He likes to be alone, and he’s with the Buddha: Life is suffering. This narrow gateway to understanding informs his thought about running and life: “[t]hey might not amount to much, but they are personal lessons I’ve learned through actually putting my body in motion….They may not be lessons you can generalize, but that’s because what’s presented here is me, the kind of person I am.” I’m a worn-out ex-jock who still tries to run, though the distances have never been what Murakami routinely pulls off. (The jerk.) I’m also a writer, and the confluence of these two themes – rigorously and sacrificially adhered to by this paragon of focus and discipline – really took me in. If you have either of these two interests, or both, you may be, too.

And the title? Its oddly rambling nature fits perfectly, but it wasn’t until Murakami’s after-word that I realized it was a homage to one of his favourite writers to read and translate into Japanese, the American minimalist Raymond Carver. (I know Carver only by reputation – writers often refer to him – and he keeps popping up for me. Another one for the Better Read Than Never list.) One of Carver’s best-known tales is the title story of a notable collection: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Ah. I think I understand. Hiraku Murakami loves running. He loves writing. He loves simplicity in both. That’s how things work for him.