Red trail, green grass.

Ice Age 50 half marathon, take three

One of my favorite spots on the trail.
One of my favorite spots on the trail.

This was my third time running the half marathon here. My times have been very closely clustered:

  • 2012: 2:00:59, 2nd in AG
  • 2014: 1:56:50, 5th in AG
  • 2015: 2:03:51, 10th in AG

Some race is always going to be your personal worst time. That’s just how it works. Interestingly, while I haven’t always gotten slower, I’ve consistently placed lower in my AG. Also, my AG has changed; I do get the feeling that for the half marathon distance, the women’s 30–34 age group is more competitive than the 25–29.

I feel like I’ve recapped this race before (here; looks like B was with me that year—the photos suggest I didn’t have a GPS watch yet, and I had a lot less definition in my shoulders…). Anyway, to avoid boring you, I’ll just hit the highlights this time:

  1. The first loop, I thought most of the hills were not as gnarly as in previous years. Also, unlike 2014, my legs weren’t trashed when I finished the first loop. Perhaps I am becoming a stronger hill runner?
  2. Unfortunately, I did notice I was pretty tired on the second loop (I stopped picking up my feet as well and stumbled a few times, almost falling). And the hills were a lot more pronounced.
  3. I felt like I pushed myself all the way through. This and last week’s race confirm that I’m probably in about 4:10 marathon shape.
  4. After a while, I fell behind all the fast people and was ahead of the slow people, and I found it quite hard to maintain my pace/focus. I knew I wouldn’t win, and I didn’t really want to go into the “pain cave.”
  5. Toward the end of the race, I passed a woman with some Thai tattooed on the backs of her arms. Ungrammatically, I shouted “คนพูดภาษาไทบได้” at her as I came up behind her. She was startled, and responded, “I have eighteen miles to go” (she was in the 50K) before realizing what I’d actually said. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to talk to her.
  6. My bad ankle hurt almost all the way through, which is weird because it didn’t hurt Thursday or Friday before the race and it doesn’t hurt now today (Sunday). Just one of those annoying things, I guess.
  7. I finished 10th in my age group. I’d been hoping I could still pull off a top-10 AG finish, so I guess that’s okay. Disappointed I couldn’t go sub-2, but it wasn’t my day. The weather was cool enough, but very humid. I miss being fast enough to pull off a sub-1:50 half marathon. I wonder if there’s a way to get back there without injuring myself doing speedwork.
  8. Probably not.
Grassy meadows, rather unpleasant when it's sunny.
Grassy meadows, rather unpleasant when it’s sunny.
Red trail, green grass.
Red trail, green grass.

As a warm-up for my 50K that is coming up in . . . four now three weeks and is also held on these very trails, it was reasonably good. I brought my hydration pack along and wore the clothes I thought I would wear for the upcoming race (about halfway through the race, the shorts, which are new, started to chafe, so those are off the menu. Good thing I tried them out.).

  • How annoyed were you with your performance, on a scale of 0–10 with 0 being totally fine and 10 being pretty hacked off? 2.
  • What mid-90s song was stuck in your head almost the entire run? “Gangsta’s Paradise,” by Coolio.
  • Last year, you got disoriented leaving the park, drove to Fort Atkinson, then later started to crash and had to stop at a random gas station outside of Edgerton and buy chocolate milk and potato chips in order to make it home. Did you experience those problems this time? Nope. I had a mini-sized energy bar before/during the race (pro tip: not a great choice of snack if your nose is stuffed up while running, like mine was). After the race, I grabbed a salt cap and some pieces of fruit before I headed out. When I got home, I had some peanut noodles, then later went out for (veggie) sushi with my family.
  • Did you accomplish anything after the race? I slept on the sofa for 90 minutes.
Post-run selfie (post-runfie?).
Post-run selfie (post-runfie?).

Next week, I am co-pacing the 2:30 group at the Madison half marathon, something I’ve never done before. (I’ve never even made it all the way through a race with a pace group, so it should be an interesting time.) I’ll be hanging out at the expo on Saturday around noon, so come say hello if you see me, or catch me at the starting line. Unless you’re going to be weird and awkward and make both of us feel uncomfortable, in which case feel free to continue stalking me quietly from a distance.

Also, speaking of quietly stalking me, if you missed it (and I don’t know why you would have seen this, since I didn’t announce it or anything), I’ve blogged a bit about ultrarunning over at Technically Running. It’s at least slightly humorous and has a picture of a skull I found attached to it for some reason.

One of the better photos from the race.

LMR 20K: Fifth Time’s the…Something

TL;DR:Good 8K, slightly painful 8K, rough final 4K.

I’ve run the Lake Monona 20K (LMR) almost every year since 2009. Along the way I’ve watched it change from a fairly small race to a large one, with all the attendant problems that change could be expected to produce.

For fun, here are my results:

Year Time Pace
2009 1:53:39 9:09
2010 1:41:24 8:10
2013 1:56:41 9:23
2014 1:45:53 8:31
2015 1:50:45 8:53

Holy cow, I was fast in 2010! I ran my half marathon PR that year too, apparently—1:46:02 at the Madison Mini-Marathon. (I have just discovered that there’s a website, Athlinks, which I am probably the last person to find and which displays all my race results ever going back to my first-ever 5K in 2005 in which I finished in 38:05. Holy shit.) So this year was either my third fastest or third slowest, depending on how you look at it.

Okay, where was I? So this race always takes place the first weekend in May, and that means you never know what you’re going to get in terms of weather. Some years it has been quite warm, some years it has been cool and pleasant. This year it was warm.

The course is a nice one; it begins at the Monona Public Library, runs through some hills in the first 5K, has about 10K through downtown Madison/the Near East Side that’s quite flat, and then a few more hills as you come back into Monona. Most of my running group is getting ready to run a 4-hr (ish) marathon at Green Bay in two weeks, so the training pace was set for 8:59 min/mi. Well, good luck. The race now has 1,225 runners, which makes the start quite congested. After shuffling forward for (what felt like) a couple of minutes after the gun (in reality maybe 90 seconds), we crossed the timing mat and took off at an easy jog. At one point, hitting about 9:30, I joked to my friends, “This is the training pace, right?”

One of the better photos from the race.
One of the better photos from the race.

There was a lot of weaving and throwing of elbows through the first two miles. Eventually we managed to find enough open space to really get up to race pace, and to make up time we wound up running a little faster than 8:59 (miles 4–7 were 8:4x, so were 9 and 10). Ironically, the people I was running most with are not doing Green Bay, and neither am I. What the heck. We came through the 10K in about 55:08, which is fine, and hit the 15K in 1:22:25. Then a combination of heat, lack of water, and fatigue started dragging me back, and I slowed to a 9:xx pace. But at that point,we were almost to the finish, so it almost didn’t matter. With about two miles left, we met a guy named Jud from SLC who was having a pretty hard time of it. He was fun to chat with for a little while before he slowed down to walk, and my friend and I kicked it in to the finish.

At this point, I made a critical mistake, which was chugging three quarters of the bottle of water I got handed and then eating a granola bar and half an apple. The sudden entry of food and lots of water into my stomach when I had been moving so hard in the heat undid me. I had to sit down for a few minutes because I felt woozy, and then I slowly shlepped the half mile back to my car to drive home, grimacing from some unpleasant stomach cramps. When I got home, I had a shower and a nap, and then I took a salt tablet with my lunch, which made a pretty big difference in how I was feeling. So, pro tip: if you run really hard, don’t eat directly after you stop running. Give it a moment. Add fluids gradually. You will feel much better. Also, if you’re on a course with infrequent water stops and it’s the warmest day of the year so far, bring both salt tabs and your hydration system. I neglected to bring both, and regretted it.


Em oi! #406: Why I Am Still Awake





Hat tip, as ever, to XKCD for panel 6.

About panel 5: My cat is in late middle age (she’s 12 this year) and she is fine. She has a bladder stone, but other than that she’s in good health. It’s just that after the sudden death of a loved one, I have developed the neurotic idea that anyone I love can die at any time, so I tend to be a little weird about her. At least I’ve finally recognized that my neuroses are what’s getting in the way, rather than anything in particular about her.

I bought a new sketchbook (from what is apparently the kids’ aisle at Target, because why would adults want art supplies?), and it has both watercolor paper and regular pen and ink paper in it. I accidentally grabbed some pages out of the watercolor section for this comic, so I decided to pull out my brush and sit down with a bottle of India ink and make them pretty. I think I succeeded–a few of the panels are some of my favorites I’ve ever done. It was less time-consuming than I thought it would be, too, taking just a little more than one episode of QI. The uploading was a bit fussier–it’s harder to edit watercolor paper things because of the texture of the paper and whatnot–but all in all I’m pleased.

Anyway, life around here is mildly chaotic. B’s leg is recovering well. And this week we’ve had workmen removing all the insulation from our attics in order to air seal the house. When it gets done, it will be great, because our drafty old house will finally be actually warm (and cool, in the summer). Unfortunately, it was about 40 degrees yesterday with a few flakes of snow, and today the high is 49. Thanks, Wisconsin. I’m wearing four shirts right now.

The other thing is that we decided on Sunday to start letting the dogs sleep with their crate doors open, for a number of reasons but mostly that they’re adults and unlikely to destroy the house without our direct supervision. And it turns out that our neighbor leaves for work at about 5:30 in the morning–I know this because Monday morning and Tuesday morning he woke up (and woke us up) barking very loudly at just about exactly 5:34. When I went down to comfort him, he decided he wanted to go out, and so by the time I got back to bed I was wide, wide awake and had a hard time falling asleep again. This was especially icky since I’ve been getting over a bout of stomach flu and really, really wanted to be asleep and not vertical. Then today, I figured I’d just get up to run early-early (I thought we had to leave the house at oh-my-G-d o’clock so some of the work could take place). I figured Edgar would wake me up, but I set a backup alarm for 6:00 anyway.

You can guess what happened, can’t you? Edgar did not wake up at 5:30. But I did.

I think there’s something in the Geneva Convention about this, Edgar.

We’ll file this comic under RC548 .L86 2015, for Internal medicine–Neurosciences. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry–Psychiatry–Neuroses–Sleep disorders–Insomnia–General works.

Edgar relaxing on his new bed.
Edgar relaxing on his new bed.
Cave in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam

Are You Afraid of the Dark (Damp, Tight, Dangerous, Rocky, Cold…): Blind Descent Reviewed

Note to readers: I wrote most of this review whilst sitting in B’s room in the outpatient surgery clinic, waiting for his surgery to be over. So if it seems for whatever reason to be more than unusually disjointed, that’s why. He’s fine, by the way, and recovering well.–Ed.

Tabor, James M. Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth. New York: Random House, 2010. 978-1-4000-6767-1.

There is a whole genre of books about people accomplishing difficult feats in incredibly dangerous environments. Jon Krakauer, for example, has made a living writing this kind of book for some time—first Into the Wild, about an independent or insane (depending on your point of view) kid from a wealthy East Coast family who starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness, and then Into Thin Air, about a disaster on Mt. Everest (one he personally witnessed). In some of the book, the feat accomplished is more subtle; a good example is Peter Matthiessen’s[1] masterful The Snow Leopard, the diary of a trek he made through Nepal with the naturalist George Schaller. And then there’s Blind Descent, James M. Tabor’s book of two speleologists racing to find the deepest cave.

Cave in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam
The only photo from the only cave I’ve ever walked through, in Ha Long Bay, Viet Nam.

Caving—the type these guys are into, at least—is basically a crazy occupation; I think if you’re not already into it when you start the book, you’re not going to be tempted to pick it up. I have walked through a few caves that were fitted out for tourists, but real caving involves all the fun (and dangers) of rock climbing and scuba diving, except done in pitch black and often with freezing cold water running over you, with wind gusts as loud as a 747 rushing past. Sound like fun? Caving is cold, wet, dirty, hard, exhausting work, and the only thing that relieves the monotony is that cavers sometimes go crazy and get what’s called “the Rapture,” which is like a panic attack except with hallucinations and other terrible things. Also, if you get stuck on Mt. Everest, sometimes they can land a helicopter and bring you down. If you make a mistake and hurt yourself in a cave, you’re pretty much fucked unless your friends can carry you back to the surface—a journey that can involve vertical climbs (or if you’re incapacitated, hoists) of 500 feet or more. And that’s not even going into cave diving, which is basically a quick way to wish for death, as far as I can tell. Seriously, about half the named cave divers in this book died.

The book chronicles several expeditions launched by two men, American Bill (William C.) Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk. Stone works in a group of caves in Oaxaca, Mexico called Cheve (Chay-vay, not like the cheese; a New Yorker article spells it as Chevé), while Klimchouk works in Krubera Cave in the Arabika Massif in the Western Caucasus, located in what is either the country of Abkhazia or the Abkhazia region of Georgia.[2] In the book, their expeditions are set up as a sort of race to the bottom to discover the deepest cave.

Here I have to pause. In order to draw the reader in, Tabor to some extent skips explaining a lot of his terminology. By “deepest cave,” he doesn’t mean the deepest point on Earth (which would be in the Marianas Trench) or even the deepest point on land (which could be, I suppose, the bottom of the TauTona Mine in Carletonville, South Africa or the Kola superdeep borehole, or potentially the valley under Byrd Glacier[3]), but the deepest depth reachable when descending from the mouth of the cave. To put it another way, Krubera Cave’s entrance is in the mountains, approximately 6,500 feet up (159), so when these cavers descend 7,208 (plus or minus 66) feet, they’re not going 7,208 +/- 66 feet below sea level. Tabor also glosses over what the actual science being done here is—although both Stone and Klimchouk are PhD-holding scientists, it’s unclear what either of them is hoping to get out of the caves beyond just messing around in caves for some reason. Stone does develop technology for use in caves (for example, a rebreather for diving, and a sonar machine for mapping), but he does that to support his caving habit and make caving better rather than doing some sort of cave-based research.

Although I think the book has a number of deficiencies, I first want to say that the writing is good and clear and the book is very engaging. For someone with no knowledge of caving, mountaineering, or diving, I understood the objectives each man was trying to achieve and was able to follow—with excitement—the progress through each cave. The major issues were these:

  1. Women: Although there were women along on both expeditions, Tabor is largely uninterested in them and women in caving generally unless they are 1) sleeping with Bill Stone, 2) the discoverer of Cheve Cave (unavoidable), or 3) I can’t think of a third category. Two of Stone’s girlfriends are involved in the expeditions he leads, and both are mostly described as beautiful—although Tabor is forced to admit that both are experienced cavers, he seems surprised when they actually pitch in and take part in the expeditions. Stone’s girlfriends’ appearances are mentioned both the first time they appear, and then again if they come along on a subsequent expedition, as though we might have forgotten that they are “beautiful,” “tall,” “striking,” etc. Another woman, involved in the Ukrainian expedition, is described as “as strong and brave as she was pretty” (231). Spare me. Needless to say, the men’s physical appearances aren’t really touched on, at least not in such obnoxious detail. In the American expeditions, the presence of women seems to be a point of friction between the male members of the team, but Tabor is uninterested in exploring the roots of this sexism, or discussing at all the history of women in caving; he’s equally uninterested in exploring why the Ukrainian teams seemed to include more women and have fewer problems with sexism. His writing style, though striving for some type of objectivity, doesn’t ever escape from these issues—for example, he mentions a woman getting her hair caught in a rappel rack during a descent—“what every female (and long-haired male) dreaded” (218). Why not just say “what every long-haired caver fears”? Does every female caver wearher hair long?
  2. Communism versus capitalism. Of course, Klimchouk grew up and learned to cave in the USSR, and his view of caving as a cooperative venture between a lot of highly trained people, each of whom takes on specific responsibilities, is in many respects radically different from Bill Stone’s strong-leader-tells-people-what-to-do mindset. Interestingly, Klimchouk’s expeditions seem to be more comfortable in some respects for the cavers (e.g., atmosphere—no sex in the camps; better rations) as well as safer (lots of people die on Stone’s trips, though Tabor absolves Stone of all the deaths). But rather than exploring the complexities of this difference, Tabor seems inherently suspicious of communism in a weirdly 1950s Better Dead Than Red sort of way (maybe I’ve just been hanging around far-leftist academics/radicals for too long?) and is uninterested in the political differences between leadership styles.
  3. Stone versus Klimchouk. While the book is framed in terms of two caves, the book is really written in terms of Stone versus Klimchouk, with the first half serving as a biography of Stone and an account of several expeditions to Cheve and the second half serving as a biography/account of Klimchouk and his expeditions. Except—this is kind of weird, and I’ll warn for a spoiler—while Klimchouk wins, he gets barely ten chapters to himself, plus a few more in the “Game Over” section, while the first thirty-one chapters cover Stone and Cheve, plus more in the “Game Over” section.
  4. A few off-color jokes in the endnotes. To be honest I don’t really care enough to list them here. They were off-color, though.
  5. As, I assume, part of the aforementioned attempt to reduce the science to make everything more readable, many questions about caves, caving, and the rules of the competition are left unspoken and thus confusing. For example, Stone’s group proved via a dye test that Cheve is much longer than its current terminus would suggest—the river that flows into its mouth has an outflow several miles and 8,500 feet down. If the cave went all the way through the distance betweeen the entrances and exits, Cheve would be the deepest cave. Yet clearly the water goes all the way through—why does the cave have to be traverseable by humans in order to take that distinction? Krubera has been dug out and widened in many places by its explorers—why is this legal? (Of course most of the time they’re removing breakdown—piles of rubble left by water—but I’m still curious what the stance on digging is.)[4] Why is cave diving so dangerous? Why do divers have to physically hold on to a line with one hand rather than clipping onto it like a mountaineer?
  6. Somewhat annoyingly, while there is a section of photographs, none of them are actually referenced in the text (as someone in publishing, I see this as poor form, though it does happen). Further, while there are lots of attempts to draw a picture using words of a specific cave feature, a photograph would have been instructive. Maddeningly, in a few spots photographs are actually described, but not reprinted.
  7. Finally, there is the weird desire for completion. As understandable as it is, I have to say that it seems a little bit weird to recount the finding of Krubera’s bottom in 2004 as “game over, end of the line, the last great terrestrial discovery has been made.” There are a couple of reasons for this—for one, that actually wasn’t the lowest point in Krubera—a diver has since pushed the bottom down by another 52 meters (although this happened after the book’s publication, so I don’t blame Tabor for missing it). But that’s the thing—as Bilger puts it in the article I linked to earlier, Everest was Everest before Norgay and Hillary got to the top of it, but you don’t really know how deep a cave is until you’ve gone all the way to its bottom. So not only can there deeper points in the same cave, there could easily be deeper caves elsewhere in the world—something Bilger points out, but Tabor seems loathe to admit. While I understand the desire to tie things up, this seems factually inaccurate.

So there are those things. On the whole, though, while I found them annoying and perplexing—and while I would have made different choices in many places had I been writing/editing the book, I found it, as I said, largely engaging, easy to read, and informative on at least the main points of caves, diving, and the bizarre phenomenon known as supercaves.

[1] I am saddened to see, writing this, that Peter Matthiessen died almost a year ago, on 5 April 2014. If you are looking for a good read, I heartily recommend The Snow Leopard. He wrote a lot of other books, too.

[2] Tabor seems uncommitted on this point, but in fact there’s a lot of geopolitical mess going on in this region—Abkhazia wants to be a country of its own, but it’s recognized by only a few other countries, so it exists in a weird sort of limbo at the moment.

[3] Unlike determining the highest point on Earth, these lowest points seem to have a lot of asterisks: the Kola superdeep borehole is the deepest, but it’s man-made and not human accessible—I think the Kola superdeep borehole was specifically conceived as a project to see how deep a hole could be drilled. The TauTona Mine is human-accessible but, again, man-made. The sub-glacier spot is covered with ice (for a while longer, anyway). There are also caves that are bigger than either Cheve or Krubera (such as Sơn Đoòng Cave in Viet Nam, although Wikipedia doesn’t explain in what respect it is the biggest). So as with so many things, it depends on how you’re asking the questions.

By the way—the Wikipedia page for the Kola superdeep borehole gives in two paragraphs more scientific explanation for why anyone should care about going deep into caves/drilling a deep hole in the ground than Tabor gives in his entire book.

[4] This question and some others that have come up for me were answered at least partially in the New Yorker article linked to earlier: Bilger, Burkhard. “In Deep: The Dark and Dangerous World of Extreme Cavers.” New Yorker, 21 April 2014.

schmaltz shack

Passover Comix

I wanted to get these up here before Passover ended and they became irrelevant for another year.

I have been toying with the idea of drawing comics to submit for publication (not in a newspaper, but maybe in a well-known national magazine), and if I had gotten some of these drawn a few months ago, maybe I would have sent them (well, potentially one of the three). But I didn’t. So whatever.
passover comix1

passover comix2

I should explain that we often substitute a carrot for a shank bone because we have never been able to successfully figure out where to get a shank bone. Also, um, gross. The hardboiled egg is actually supposed to be a roasted egg, but…I don’t know how to roast an egg. I had to look up how to hardboil one.

This last comic is part of a (now) long-running joke between B and I that began somehow when I took a boot over to a local place called Cecil’s Shoe Repair. I cannot explain more than that because like so many things, I don’t really understand what has happened. But if you need your boot fixed, I recommend Cecil’s.

schmaltz shack

The menu here says:

-Hun [chicken]
-Gandz [goose]
-Mit onions [with onions]

* “Pareve” means something that, according to the laws of kashrut, can be eaten with both meat and milk dishes. Usually it can be thought of as vegetarian, but that’s not always the case–for example, gelatin and rennent are both considered pareve (because they are too far removed from the animals to really be animal products by kosher standards) but they are strictly speaking not vegetarian. Also fish are considered pareve. I don’t really understand why, but hey, I’m not a mashgiach.

Also I should state up-front that I’m not actually sure if “hun” means chicken in the sense of the animal or chicken in the sense of the meat. Some languages have two words for the two items (like how farmers raise cows but people eat beef). I did this using Google Translate late at night. I don’t actually speak Yiddish.

What else. Oy. I have had a really hard week. I’ll say it. And yeah, I know people who are having actual hard weeks, and I feel really bad using language that might equate my life with theirs, as if having to go to Walgreens at 9pm to buy extra half-price Easter candy were really “difficult” in some way.

Easter candy shame
Easter candy shame

But I do feel just…ground down, unable to concentrate, tired, distracted…part of it is that I am a mammal, and I guess I need to actually take sleeping seriously instead of EVERY NIGHT setting my alarm for six hours after I go to bed, as if somehow I will suddenly (re)manifest the ability to get out of bed at that hour, which happens to be my current strategy. Then I lie in bed for an hour questioning my life choices. It’s fun.

I have been upping my mileage running, and also eating a lot of matzo**, which is lower in calories than my usual breakfast, so that might account for the low energy as well. (Although I have been also upping my Easter candy consumption.) We’ve also had a parade of contractors through our house as we prepare to fix some insulation issues, and then on Tuesday during the first rainstorm of the year, a window suddenly began leaking. We relatively quickly found the source of the problem and kludged together a repair (okay, B climbed a ladder [during a storm–eek] and pushed the flashing back into place). Since then it has continued to rain, meaning that it hasn’t really had a chance to dry out so we can fix it permanently. Also, B is having knee surgery next week, and I’m nervous about it. More nervous than he is, actually.

Okay, I’m pretty tired and I still have to take the dogs out so I’m going to wrap this up. Happy Passover to those who celebrate it, Happy Easter to those who celebrate it, and also Happy Ostara, and any other holidays I’m missing that might have happened. Happy National Poetry Month too. My favorite poem used to be “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I’ve been getting a lot of rejection letters lately and it’s becoming harder to keep an ironic distance from the narrator. So, uh, let’s go with “Personal Ruin” by Claire Wahmanholm, which is in some respects on a similar theme but a lot more hip. What’s your favorite poem?

** I accidentally for various reasons bought five pounds of matzo. As of right now, one week from the first night Seder, I have eaten…one box (one pound). That’s with the people at the Seder helping me, and also with a friend coming over and eating some.

Postmodern Mysteries: Hawksmoor Reviewed

Ackroyd, Peter. Hawksmoor. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Where to begin with this one. How about a summary, I can do that:

Around 1711–1715, London architect Nicholas Dyer is building seven churches. The churches are all being built on various ancient sites around London—places where there are plague pits, ancient cemeteries, or the remains of older churches, both Christian and pagan, because in those spots there is “an Assembling of Powers” (p. 23). Dyer follows a sort of pantheistic syncretic religious tradition that, for reasons that aren’t completely revealed, requires someone to die at the site of each of his churches. In one case, the problem is solved by the son of a stonemason falling off the scaffolding; in other cases, Dyer murders someone and buries them on the site or leaves their body there to be found later.

In the twentieth century (no date is given, but it’s presumed to be modern times, i.e. 1985 or so), Nicholas Hawksmoor is investigating a series of murders at a bunch of London churches. All the murder victims have the same names as those killed by Dyer—and that’s not the only similarity. For example, Dyer’s assistant is Walter Pyne and Hawksmoor’s is Walter Payne. Bits of rhymes survive across the centuries to be recollected dimly by various characters. And of course, the places that the characters visit are basically the same—London is, after all, a very old city.

To add somewhat to the confusion, there actually was an eighteenth-century architect named Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked (as Dyer does) under Sir Christopher Wren and built several (six)[1] churches in London in the early eighteenth century, and his churches were mentioned in From Hell as being symbolic of a weird, pantheistic (in that book, Masonic) tradition.[2]

The book alternates between the first person recounting of Dyer—written in a very credible eighteenth-century English—and a twentieth century omniscient narrator. Thus although the death happens before the end of the first chapter, we don’t actually meet Hawksmoor until almost halfway through, which in a traditional mystery novel would be quite odd. It does make it much easier to sympathize with Dyer as a character over Hawksmoor, who remains aloof.

Hawksmoor has been seen as a postmodern novel by critics (though not specifically by its author, evidently) and has won a lot of awards. The book itself is steeped in symbolism and has attracted a lot of notice from academics. I found it interesting intellectually, but I didn’t feel any real emotional pull. The parallels between the eighteenth century and twentieth century start to make the two parts kind of repetitive and predictable. I enjoyed parts of it, and I like the idea a lot, but I don’t think I really liked the book all that much.

One major theme in the novel is the “battle” between chaos and rationalism, with Dyer and his ilk representing chaos and Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society. The 1700s were the beginning of the Enlightenment, and Wren argues that people are beginning to look at the world rationally. Dyer, on the other hand, sees the myriad ways in which people are terrible to each other, wrapped up in superstitions, uneducated, stupid, willfully blind to the truth, and sees the world as being on an unalterable downward spiral. The assumption of the book is that in the twentieth century, Wren’s rationality has won (represented, for example, by Walter Payne’s computerization of police work), but Dyer’s chaos echoes through in the churches (and certainly touches Hawksmoor, who begins to descend into madness during the course of his investigation). I am not sure what the conclusion is, who Ackroyd thinks has won; probably a case could be made for either. For my part, looking at the world today I am pretty sure chaos is winning—people are still controlled by superstitions, which they spend immense amounts of time arguing about and even killing each other over; politicians are controlled by corporations instead of listening to their constituents; we’re unwilling to treat other people like human beings on the most specious of characteristics—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof—one would think, in a civilized world, we wouldn’t need laws to tell people to treat each other nicely, it should be common sense. Americans are more willing to give up their lives than to admit that global warming is happening and have to give up their lifestyle. In short, things are pretty bleak.[3]

And yet. As much as I am convinced that this is a crappy time of human history to be alive, this book reassures me that between the plague and the London fire, the admission of tourists to see the madmen housed at Bedlam, to say nothing of the French Revolution (not mentioned in the book but a prominent event of the eighteenth century nevertheless), every time of human history has always been a crappy time to be alive.[4]

A slightly more optimistic ending that I wrote and couldn’t decide what to do with:

If you read the footnotes, you’ll see I referenced Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, who was a blood libel martyr—that is, in around 1255 CE, he was found dead in a well, and someone claimed he had been killed by Jews;[5] as a result of this and some other political factors relating to the collection of taxes from Jews, ninety Jews were arrested and eighteen were hanged.

Seven hundred years later, in 1955, the Anglican Church put up a plaque apologizing for the whole thing. While seven hundred years is certainly a long time to wait to issue an apology, it’s a start. I’m still pretty sure we’re doomed, but, eh.

[1] Interestingly, six of the churches named in the book are real and were built by the historical Hawksmoor; the seventh, the church of Little St. Hugh, is named for a blood libel “martyr” (entirely appropriate for this book).

[2] That’s not to cast aspersions of any sort on the real Hawksmoor, just to note that this book was an influence on Alan Moore.

[3] Alternative sound track suggestion.

[4] I hear there were some days in 1962 that were pretty nice (somewhat dependant on where you were living).

[5] Typically, blood libel accusations included Jews killing Christian children and, in an ironic communion-like twist, using their blood to make matzos.

Em oi! #405: Philosophy Ruins Films


Well hello. It has been a while since we had one of these little chats, hasn’t it? I’ve been reading a lot, but not blogging too much beyond book reviews. So you’re probably asking, “Hey Em, how’s it going?”

It has been all right. Not great, not amazing, but also it’s going much better than it was in January. I went through a rough patch between seasonal affective disorder and a leg injury. The first was solved with phototherapy, the second with PT, which is just about finished. PT has been a strange collection of triggerpoint dry needling (which is not super pleasant, and the alcohol wipes are giving me a rash) and various exercises and stretches designed to 1) make you feel inadequate when you realize how many of them you keep forgetting to do and 2) fix whatever imbalance exists in my hip that is hurting my ankle. In the meantime I spent a lot of time swimming in January when I was totally off running, and then running only on the dreadmill and elliptical in February—I’ve been doing about 24 miles on the dreadmill and close to that on the elliptical as well. I’ve also been lifting weights a lot; since early September, B and I have switched to a 5×5 program which is a lot more intense than our previous 3×10-type program. My lifts have gone up a lot, which is very satisfying, but I’ve also put on some pounds of muscle and so my bra no longer fits right.* The best news is that as of tomorrow I am encouraged to try running outside again; if everything goes well, I may be able to show up to race the 50-Furlong World Championship in Paoli on Saturday. I doubt I am in condition to defend my title as 8th fastest woman in the world at that distance, but it would be really nice to race again.

What else have I been doing? Learning to code. As in write computer programs. So far if you want a program that spits out a triangle (right or equilateral) in ASCII or that curses at you in a variable way based on your input, I am your programmer. Actually, I have to admit that this is my second attempt at learning to code. When I was an undergraduate, I took the introduction to programming course the UW offered (which is taught in Java). Now I am learning Caché ObjectScript, which is a much less well-known language, but it is easier in part because B is teaching me, and it turns out that he is a much better teacher than the grad student (who may have been a forestry major?) they had teaching the intro class when I took it. B is a good teacher; it’s also convenient to have my professor on site rather than inaccessible except by email sometimes. I may also be a better student now.

Well let’s not go overboard on that.

I’ve also been learning indexing. And Chinese. And editing a bunch of books (I did three full-length manuscripts, on ancient Athens, moral philosophy, and sociology, from the first week of February until last Friday the 7th of March). In other words I have been busy, not sleeping enough, unable to find time to do the things I enjoy or see my friends much, and basically acting like I’ve not developed any coping skills since college. But things will get better now.

A note on podcasts and the like. A bunch of people gave me recommendations, many of which have been very satisfying. The Hound Tall Podcast (formally The Hound Tall Discussion Series with Moshe Kasher) is very funny and a lot more Jew-y than Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me (I recommend the George Clinton interview if you haven’t heard it yet). Of course the Ultrarunner Podcast is a good way to keep up with a sport that no one follows but me; my new goal is to get interviewed on there, since I’ll probably never get on Fresh Air. Also, the Moth Radio Hour has some very good stories–also some gutting ones, so do be careful. Finally, John Harris’s excellent podcast/audiobook of The Epic of Gilgamesh was both exciting and intellectually stimulating. I may or may not have time to do a whole review, but in the meantime, it’s highly recommended.

I’m filing this comic under PN1995.9 S695 L86 2015, for Drama–Motion pictures–Other special topics, A-Z–Star Wars films.

*If you are reading this and saying, “Wait, you only own one?”, I will tell you: You obviously don’t know me. Ninety percent of the shirts I now own came from races. I am not an enthusiastic shopper.