Em oi! #405: Philosophy Ruins Films

em_405

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.

Dwelling on How Doomed I Probably Am

Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War: The Complete Edition. Read by Max Brooks et al. Abridged edition. New York: Random House Audio, 2013. MP3, 61 files, 12:12:26.zombies

Max Brooks must have been the victim of the most liberal of liberal educations; everywhere in this book are concerns about capitalism, oligarchies, religion, imperialism and colonization, international relations, race and racism.

Let me back up. This audio book, a full-cast performance of Brooks’s World War Z, was recommended to me by some friends in part because of the all-star cast; characters are played by the likes of Nathan Fillion, Mark Hamill, Jeri Ryan, Rob Reiner, Alan Alda, Common, Simon Pegg, and Martin Scorcese, to name a few. Since the book is set up as a series of interviews, the various narrators work really well (with a few exceptions, which I’ll come to in a minute). The effect was more like a radio play than audio books typically are, and in general I really enjoyed it.

World War Z is a survivors’ tale—it follows an unnamed narrator (voiced by Brooks) as he journeys around the world to interview and record the stories of those who fought in the zombie war, so from the start you know that humanity made it through, and that things are, in a certain sense of the term, all right again. The zombies here are your typical living dead: slow, shuffling, intent on eating any life-forms they encounter. Brooks is not interested in, and in fact explicitly rejects, any attempts to humanize the zombies. He doesn’t delve too far into how the plague appears, though he implies that it is related to the Three Gorges Dam project. He also seems clear that “the plague” is a virus, but doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the idea of treatment or a cure.[1] His characters ask questions about the weirder points of zombies as he sees them, like how they can be frozen and reanimate when thawed, or how they can walk on the ocean floor at depths far beyond what a human should be able to tolerate, but there are no answers provided.

The intriguing thing about WWZ is that it’s not just mindless genre fiction[3]; Brooks really uses his characters to land a number of solid and well-deserved blows against humanity, and the US especially. Zombies are actually really interesting this way—they reflect a lot of different neuroses or fears: they can be metaphors for capitalism or consumerism, represent our fears of our own inevitable deaths and the problems with a desire for immortality, or showcase a desire for a radical shake-up of society. Unlike natural disasters, which hit only a limited area, or even diseases or economic collapse, both of which are manageable if you have sufficient privilege (money), zombies are a nondiscriminatory evil. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the recession started there was a zombie obsession in the US. Zombies represent the ultimate stock market crash, one where you never have to face paying off your credit card after you’ve lost your job.[4]

Although Brooks’s narrator tries to be objective, the book as a whole seems to be relentlessly Marxist. Some of the things Arthur Sinclair (leader of the US resource-management program, played by Alan Alda) comes up with, about people doing useful labor and feeling pride in the things they made, seem to come directly from The German Ideology. Brooks has strong criticisms of capitalism in the character of an unrepentent entrepreneur who used Dr. Oz-like canny to sell Americans a bunch of snake-oil vaccines before absconding to Antarctica to wait out the plague. Brooks is also strongly critical of coercive forms of government; under his projections, China becomes a democracy (United Federation of China), and he has a lot of harsh words for the old guard as they leave; Cuba becomes a democracy too, and he has nothing but scorn for the newly created Holy Russian Empire (primarily because of its co-option of [genuine?] religious sentiment to push a totalitarian agenda). In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place to say that he’s generally somewhat misanthropic, though some of the characters fare better than others. He also digs in deep to give a really diverse view of the problem; although there’s strong representation from the US, the story is also peppered with a South African military planner, a Chinese doctor and a sailor, a Sri Lankan translator, an Indian army engineer, and a variety of other people from the global south. He even manages to get a wheelchair-bound guy and a blind man in. In terms of representation, he’s batting a million.[5]

The cast was generally great, though—and I guess other reviewers have pointed this out as well—Steve Park cannot do a Chinese accent to save his life.[6] The characters are a mixed bag. Brooks is particularly interested in the blue collar, working class, soldier-level view, so while we hear from a few individuals who held positions of authority during the war, most of the speakers were or are army grunts, hired help, suburban homeowners, and others who are essentially powerless (or see themselves as such) in the face of “the system.” He even interviews the vice president, but not the president. I will say that in amongst all the scorn, Israel gets off pretty easy (having self-quarantined at the beginning of the outbreak, they suffered a civil war led by the ultra orthodox, but wound up reuniting with the Palestinians); however, I have to admit I found the character of the Palestinian teenager who believes the plague warnings are Israeli propaganda designed to lure Arabs to their deaths (until he sees the zombies for himself) was a very compelling character.

More troublesome in amongst Brooks’s misanthropy was his borderline misogyny. A lot of the female characters in the book are harpies, or else individuals who need men to save them. The first woman we meet, Mary Jo Miller (played by Denise Crosby, also known as Tasha Mutherfuckng Yar), is an unpleasant suburban woman in a loveless relationship with her husband who seems to hate her children and who comes off as really unintelligent and uninteresting. She’s said, at the time we meet her, to have become a developer making zombie-proof compounds, but the transformation from cliche housewife to entrepreneur is not chronicled. In another scene, we listen to a young woman (Jesika Hendricks, played by Michelle Kholos) recount a story in which, while her family is starving through a Canadian winter and she is on the verge of death, her mother bullies her father into trading a radio for some stew[7] by calling him a number of unpleasant names, including the f-word. This I cannot profess to understand; if your child is starving and you need meat, you don’t need to ask your husband to go get it; you as an adult human being are capable of making that decision and trading the radio yourself. Another woman is said to have the mind of a four-year-old child, owing to traumatic events in her past.[8] Maybe I’m just resentful that the men, even the male characters who were kind of scumbags, all seemed to have sweeping plot lines and interesting, exciting ideals they were clinging to (and make surprisingly few references to wives, girlfriends, or other females that populate most men’s lives), while the women seemed largely motivated by their husbands, children, and in one case by her mother issues, and they were almost all in need of rescue rather than being the rescuers. Yawn.

Science fiction and horror books can often be read as inherently regressive. Technology is dangerous, they seem to say; just look at what it has caused. Certainly by waving a blaming finger in the direction of the Three Gorges dam, Brooks seems to be saying the same thing with his zombies. But he doesn’t dwell on the technological aspect of things—the dam may have caused the problem (or perhaps not), but the real issue once the plague begins is humanity’s damn inability to stop fighting with itself and get on with fighting the real enemy. One former Iranian pilot describes the outbreak of nuclear war between Iran and Pakistan because the governments were unable to communicate; a Chinese naval officer describes having to blow up a submarine that spent valuable time and resources tracking down his sub after he defected; a US army grunt (Todd Wainios, played by an extremely effective Mark Hamill) describes being caught absolutely unprepared and overrun by the enemy at the Battle of Yonkers. The grunts typically understand the tactical errors and idiocy of their superiors; over and over, the general story seems to be “the government made decisions that seemed unethical/unintelligent/impossible, but I was powerless to change it.” Even in the face of the total collapse of the world’s systems, individuals are still largely disenfranchised. Scary stuff.

After all that, my favorite section, the one that nearly moved me to tears, was the interview with Darnell Hackworth, voiced by Common.[9] Hackworth runs a retirement facility for former zombie sniffer dogs; he describes the process of training them and the bond he shares with his partner, a now-elderly dachshund mix named Masie (“Maze”). In the midst of a long, long story entirely about man’s inhumanity to man (both in the inhumanity of the zombies and the stupidity of the various crises), the bond between man and dog really stuck out to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a sentimental animal lover myself, but the clear affection between man and beast stuck out as a wonderful, caring, normal moment in a sea of other unsettling details.

I don’t mean to sound entirely uncritical, since there were a few plot holes that never seemed to be well-explained to me—chief among them that the zombies freeze in the winter. How many zombies can you kill in a day if they’re frozen? Seems like that could cut down on the problem right there.[10] It’s worth noting that there were a lot of gory if clinical descriptions of zombies that turned my stomach. And certainly the weirdest moment involved Todd Wainios’s description of the liberation of Janesville, Wisconsin. That was kind of a “What the ever-loving fuck” sort of moment.

Sometimes, really great works of genre fiction transcend their genre and become something larger. World War Z is trying really hard to get there. I think it almost makes it. Scathing political commentary aside, it’s got some fun stories, a solid meta-narrative, and it’s also really thought-provoking. In a bad way. By which I mean that after a few days of listening to the story, I started looking around my house and making assessments: too many large windows at ground level—a great selling point when we bought the place, but not great for securing the building. Our fence is only six feet tall and chain-link, built for keeping dogs in rather than keeping zombies out. Our dogs are not really guard dogs and, while they might bark when zombies approach, they also bark when the neighbor goes outside, or sometimes just because they have dog brains and they bark for no reason. I am not really good at keeping plants alive, so growing our own food sounds difficult if not impossible (also there’s six months of winter here). Neither of us can fire a gun. If the economy collapses, my main skills are running long distances and speaking other languages, and B is a computer programmer. We are totally doomed. Doomed.


[1] My understanding is that his first book, the 2002 Zombie Survival Guide, mentioned a few ideas about curing the very recently infected and generally dismissed the idea as untenable—although he notes that in some cases, amputation of the bitten limb may have worked? (This is all based on the book’s wikipedia summary.) Which also makes me wonder about amputation as a treatment for rabies. Sorry, this is a digression.[2]

[2] OKAY I looked it up and it’s actually really neat. So the rabies virus—unlike other viruses, like HIV, which are blood-borne—actually hitches its way up the nerve axons from the place where a victim is bitten to the brain (where it kills you through a mechanism that is still not understood DESPITE HUMAN RABIES CASES GOING BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF RECORDED HISTORY). Thing is, this nervous-system travel is really slow, so if you cut off the affected limb, you can effectively cure the infection. One mouse study found that amputation within eighteen days of infection was sufficient. See G.M. Baer and W.F. Cleary, “A Model in Mice for the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Rabies,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 125, no. 5 (1972): 520–527, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30110879. So the question becomes now: are zombieism (and related conditions perhaps, like lycanthropy) blood-borne diseases like HIV, or do they move along the nervous system like rabies? The literature is remarkably silent on this point (although check this thread on the Straight Dope message board for some opinions). (Future PhD thesis topic anyone? You’re welcome.)

[3] No one is criticizing mindless genre fiction, I’m just not writing about it.

[4] When I bought a house, I read somewhere that a house is basically just an interconnected series of systems—electricity, water, gas, heat, walls/windows (the point being that keeping it in one piece, an intimidating idea for a first-time homeowner, is actually not so bad—you just keep the various systems going). The country as a whole, even the world, are all actually composed of interconnected systems: the delivery of utilities (water, electricity, the internet, natural gas), provision of security, shipping (gas to gas stations, food to stores, parts to factories), the economic system, the health-care system, schools, the roads—a million nodes in public and private networks that work together to make things happen on a day-to-day basis. The substructure, as Marx would say. And I guess the point of a rapidly spreading highly deadly “plague” like that experienced in WWZ is that it overwhelms and crashes a bunch of the systems at once worldwide, versus smaller-scale catastrophes that might crash only one of the systems on a less-than-global scale.

[5] Strikingly, North Korea is mentioned but does not appear; it appears the entire population of the DPRK has vanished. It is suggested that they are underground. (This is rumored to actually be possible.)

[6] In my version of the recordings, there’s also a weird part at the end where a few of the characters sort of inexplicably read the narration to their parts, making the whole thing sound like this. Maybe this got fixed in other releases?

[7] Strongly implied to be human stew.

[8] I didn’t buy this section, for a number of reasons. And she didn’t talk like any four year old I’ve ever met.

[9] Yeah, I know about him because he was on the Nightly Show a few days ago. Seems like a smart fellow.

[10] Wainios suggests the snow is so deep that it’s hard to find them all. Not sure I buy that explanation.

Such Tsuris: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Reviewed

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. 978-0-00-714983-4.

First edition cover, via Wikimedia.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this review, or what my potential readers’ background on these topics may be. I guess the place that makes the most sense to me to start is with Yiddish. Or more specifically, this question: “Why is Hebrew the language of Israel?”

The answer is both more simple and more complicated than you’re probably imagining. Way back in the day, Hebrew was spoken. Then it wasn’t—those who saw that Mel Gibson film might remember that some of the characters in it spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew.[1] Also, during the diaspora, some Jews spoke Greek. I believe there were actually quite a few Jewish philosophers who wrote in Greek around the beginning of the Common Era. Hebrew survived as a written language through the Middle Ages in much the same way that Latin did; it was a language in which Jews all over Europe could correspond.[2] Gradually, however, people started actually speaking local languages that were to a large extent creoles—Yiddish (spoken mostly among Eastern European Jews) is the most famous, but there’s also Ladino (spoken in Spain), Judeo-Arabic (different variants of which were spoken in many places across North Africa), and Bukharian (spoken in Central Asia), to say nothing of the local languages of the places the Jews were living.[3]

So we have a linguistic jumble, and around the beginning of the twentieth century, we also have what is referred to as the first Aliyah (1882–1903), in which a bunch of Jews (35,000) immigrated from places including Eastern Europe and Yemen to what was then Ottoman Palestine.[4] What language to speak? Hebrew, as the language of the Tanakh, was perhaps an obvious choice, but there are a lot of problems associated with taking a basically dead language and reviving it. To give an easy example, as languages go along they get new vocabulary words as new things appear. So if a language was last really spoken in the Middle Ages, you suddenly have to come up with words for things like buses or electrical outlets.[5] This work was carried out by one guy: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is typically credited with basically singlehandedly bringing Hebrew back to life. Not only that, after making Aliyah, he and his wife raised their son (Ben Zion Ben-Yehuda) speaking Hebrew, making him the first native speaker in centuries.

Moving on from there, I think the history becomes probably better known to most people. Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine[6] increased greatly after WWII and the Holocaust. In 1948, Israel became an independent country and immediately survived the Arab–Israeli war (May 1948–March 1949); Hebrew became its official language, and Yiddish gradually diminished, as Ben-Yehuda had wanted. Actually, it’s not quite as simple as saying that Yiddish “gradually diminished”—the Israeli government adopted a policy of promoting Hebrew over Yiddish, even going so far as to ban Yiddish-language theatre in the 1950s. For a moment, however brief, Yiddish had a shot, and it didn’t work out.

This is approximately where Chabon picks up, beginning his alternative history of Jews with the question of “What if Israel hadn’t worked out the way it did?”[7] What if Israel had fallen, and Jews from all over Europe had instead made their way to somewhere else? During the aftermath of the Holocaust, there were proposals floated to give Jews a piece of land in Alaska. Of course, no one really wants to live in Alaska, so in real life nothing came of this. But in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, after the fall of Israel, that is where Jews wind up, in a settlement called Sitka, population 4 million.

Meyer Landsmen is a detective working for the Sitka police department, homicide division. Before divorcing his wife, he was essentially their top guy, but for the past two years he’s been in something of a decline. His partner is Berko Shemets, who is half Tlingit Indian and also his cousin. About two months before the Sitka territory is set to revert back to American control (think Hong Kong circa 1997), a man is shot in a room of the hotel Landsmen lives in. The man, Mendel Shpilman, turns out to have been a former ultra-Orthodox Jew (referred to as Black Hats in the book). Worse, he may have been the Tzadik ha-Dor, a man who might have, if the time were right, become the Messiah.

I have to give a little digression here on the Messiah, because if you are familiar only with the Christian idea of Messiah—Jesus descending from the clouds, seven trumpets, various pools of blood and people getting the end times kicked out of them—then you are going to be very confused by that last statement. In Judaism, the Messiah is more of a political position—like a king, basically. Somewhat more complicatedly, there are different ideas about how he gets to come do his job. Many people believe that it is up to people to perfect the world before the Messiah will come. Others put their stock in the rebuilding of the Temple (and I guess the reclaiming of Jerusalem? Although maybe that goes without saying) as the thing that will put everything in motion. These ideas are all sort of referred to in the book without really being named or explained in detail.[8]

Going back to the story: Mendel Shpilman is dead, and of course there is a cover-up and much push-back from higher-ups to keep things quiet. And so we begin a journey through a tiny, complicated, fascinating community. Chabon is playing with the oeuvre of Chandler, and the work is an interesting hybrid of the two of them, with Chabon’s poetry and Chandler’s precision of language. Chabon’s metaphors don’t surprise me as frequently as Chandler’s do; he’s too modern and not inspired enough by Hemingway. But he gets off a few good ones. For those who don’t know a ganef from a shlamiel, there’s a Yiddish glossary in the back of the book.

What else can I say? This book was intense. Unlike (many of) Chandler’s works, there’s something bigger at stake than just figuring out who killed one poor guy—the fate of the Sitka district and its inhabitants is constantly at the forefront of the characters’ minds. Like Chandler, though, Chabon plays a bit fast and loose with some of the plot details; thinking back, I cannot piece together the connection between the main plot and a particular tip given to the main character that leads him into a gun battle . . . but as with the case of who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, I don’t care. The story is too entertaining and engrossing to get hung up on tiny details like that.

The book’s ending is abrupt. Somewhat dissatisfying. Leaves room, perhaps, for a sequel. Of the first three of Chabon’s books that I read, The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, all contain significant Jewish characters and cultural references. I think, in fact, his books have gotten Jewy-er as he went on. Unfortunately, since this one came out his next book was about record collectors and midwives.

Finally, I have to note that despite the book’s centering on Orthodox Jewish men, who inhabit a world in which women are solidly peripheral, there are still a good number of women in the book with not just speaking parts, but some measure of actual power. Of course the main actors (or shall I say villains) are male, but it’s a measure of how attentive Chabon is that over the course of the book Landsmen interacts with a good number of women; in the hands of a lesser (or less caring?) author, there could easily have been only two women in the whole book. Here I think he outdoes Chandler, whose women characters are often around to push the plot forward as villains or seductresses (or seducees), and who are rarely just included as characters who provide information to the detective and then leave in the way that the male characters do. The egalitarian treatment here, in the face of the pervasive sexism of the Orthodox, is a nice if subtle touch.

I don’t have much else to say about this. As a writer, I’m jealous of what Chabon has achieved here. The book is a real triumph—not just of voice, but of culture and world-building. As a (rather unobservant) Jew, I’m excited by the reflection of something I identify with as my culture (if in a distant, somewhat warped way) in the mainstream. And as a critic, I’m comfortable saying to you: read this book; you won’t regret it.


[1] Aramaic is a Semitic language written with Hebrew letters. Today, the place a non-Jew or non-academic is most likely to encounter it is in the Passover liturgy, which has a few songs in Aramaic (e.g., “Chad Gadya”). Parts of the Talmud are also written in Aramaic. Also, not having seen The Passion of the Christ before, I looked it up–turns out the film is also in Hebrew and Latin, which kind of obscures my point.

[2] For more on the transformation from Latin to local vernacular languages (and the advent of nations in the modern sense), see Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson.

[3] My great-grandfather spoke I think six languages, maybe seven, on his arrival in America. He taught himself English by reading the New York Times.

[4] There was also a Second Aliyah, 1904–1914, and then more immigration during the period during which the area was under British control (1920–1948), during which it was referred to as the British Palestinian Mandate.

[5] Latin has also faced this challenge, at least in Vatican City, where you can get the ATM to display in Latin. A friend of mine who is a grad student in Classics claimed that the neologisms they’d come up with in Latin were unpoetic. Hebrew’s neologisms are often drawn from other languages—for example, the word for “bus” is “autobus.”

[6] Seriously, they couldn’t come up with a better name?

[7] I’m simplifying a bit, both in the actual history of Israel and the history of the world as presented by Chabon—the fall of Israel is far from the only difference.

[8] I should emphasize that, unlike Christianity, the arrival of the Messiah in Judaism is not preceded or followed by “end times” of any stripe. Christianity is very much a millenarian religion in that respect. [Ok, since I first wrote this essay, I have been informed by my youngest brother that a religion is only considered millenarian if the apocalypse they are predicting is predicted to happen soon–so Harold Camping saying the world will end on October 21, 2011 (spoiler alert: it didn’t) made him/his followers millenarian, but the general Christian belief that one day the messiah will return doesn’t make Christianity an inherently millenarian religion. I apologize for any confusion my remarks may have caused. –Ed.]

New Year, New Year

rc2_8828 This morning, somewhat against my better judgment,[1] I ran the New Year’s Day Dash, a 5-mile (road) race. Thanks in part to a few friends pacing me the first mile and a half (or perhaps I mean letting me hang with them before they took off), I finished in 40:34, a personal best and about a minute faster than my time last year. Perhaps that will be auspicious.

Everyone has been posting about their New Year’s Resolutions: go to the gym, lose ten pounds, eat healthy, get eyebrows under control. Some good ideas, some not so good. Well, I already go to the gym and I don’t really want to lose any weight, and my eyebrows are a lost cause. Instead, I’ve been thinking about books.

I read a lot. But after Goodreads sent me an email congratulating me on reading three books last year, I started going through my records and memory, as best I could, because surely that couldn’t be accurate. And, luckily (surprise), it wasn’t. I just didn’t review everything I read.[2] But I also have a bad habit of reading in parallel, so I might get halfway through something, then put it down and not come back for a year. Also, I read a lot of books for work–last year, I edited books on topics ranging from screenwriting to the rhetoric of the gross anatomy lab to Asian philosophy to nursing. So if I feel like I read constantly, it’s because I do . . . but it’s not always reading for pleasure.

Having come to this determination, I have made a list of books I want to read in 2015. As a writer, it helps to keep the mind fresh, and I begin to find that it’s important to find an escape from the grind of reading to edit, which is a different type of reading. I have to shut down that part of my brain sometimes. There’s no theme to these books, other than for most of them I saw reviews in different publications and found them interesting, and they’re in no particular order. I can’t guarantee I won’t get distracted or add or subtract from the list, but I’ll see how far I can get with it. My other resolutions are to finish reading/blogging about Ulysses, remember to water the plants in my office, and get my SADs under control. Let’s do this!

  • Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd
  • The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Tender is the Night and The Crack Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (maybe)
  • Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
  • Island, by Aldous Huxley (maybe)
  • Viviane, by Julia Deck
  • Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim
  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
  • Relentless Forward Progress, by Bryon Powell
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert
  • Gligamesh, by the people of Babylon
  • The Way of Kings, by Branden Sanderson
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by Lauren Slater (maybe)
  • Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard
  • Blueshift, by Claire Wahmanholm (a pre-publication copy kindly provided by the author)
  • I’m not going to say I’m going to read Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre, but every year this time when my SADs get bad I try to.

Are you reading anything interesting next year? Or, alternatively: Any other resolutions?

rct_8273

You can check out book reviews I’ve posted here on the book review and book reviews tags, because apparently I suck at metadata. Also check out the writing category for reviews of films, plays, and other stuff (I promise most of it is not bitching about how difficult it is to write a novel).

[1] Against my better judgment ought to be the title of my blog sometimes. This particular race was against my better judgment because it was cold and I was up late the night before and also I have some tendonitis in my ankle.

[2] I usually only put reviews on Goodreads if I’ve written a review of them, and I only do that when something interesting strikes me about the books to write about.

I Do My Thinking Myself: The Modernist Detective and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. 1939. Reprint, London: Penguin, 2014.

Philip Marlowe takes a case for an old general by the name of Sternwood. A rich man, Sternwood has two daughters who run wild. He has received some IOUs—a spot of blackmail for one of the daughters (Carmen)—and wants Marlowe to look into it. As Marlowe is leaving the Sternwood mansion, the general’s other daughter, Vivian (Regan) calls him in to ask if he has been asked to find her estranged husband, who departed suddenly not long ago. He hasn’t, but he will before he gets out of the mess he’s just walked into.

The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel, furnishes a complex and twisty plot in which bad guys and good guys alike go down like dominoes. A woman’s ex-lover shoots a man who is photographing said woman in the nude and steals the photo plate, only to have it taken from him. The thief gets killed by the dead photographer’s lover; then the thief’s girlfriend tries to sell some information about the vanished husband’s ex-lover and winds up getting her intermediary killed by the ex-lover’s bodyguard . . . there’s more, but maybe I’ve made my point. At every turn, wisps of truth float through Marlowe’s fingers as he tries to figure out who knows what and who’s lying to him (hint: it’s almost everyone).

The book is set quite firmly in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Prohibition is over and so, largely, is the recession; the oil derricks[1], which were responsible for putting the city on the map, are beginning to lose their primacy on the landscape, and the place is starting to grow rapidly. Not every detail of the book holds up well by modern standards. For example, the amount of fuss Marlowe kicks up about some pornographic books seems silly by the standards of the internet. A young woman being photographed nude is potentially a major scandal, whereas today it can make someone’s career. There’s a gay character who isn’t treated very well (although to be fair, when Marlowe chews him out, he has just murdered a man in front of Marlowe), and there’s a somewhat perplexing racial slur.[2] In addition, the question of who killed the chauffeur is famously left unresolved—however, I have to admit that had I not read an anecdote in which Chandler confessed to not knowing either, I likely wouldn’t have noticed that detail. Throughout, if these petty complaints ever threaten to overwhelm the story, Chandler throws in another beautifully crafted line to make the reader forget her complaints—although calling them lines fails to acknowledge how masterful his prose is in sum, how well-chosen each word is.

At the end of the book, we leave Marlowe in a bar in something of a moral quandary. Midway through the book, he mentions a chess board in his room: “There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight. . . . The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights” (168–170). By the final pages, Marlowe has taken over the role of the knight, and in doing so proved himself correct. He cannot apprehend the murderer or even reveal the location of the murdered man’s body lest he give the game away. All his attempts to protect the general and his daughters have backed him into a corner. And so he drinks and ruminates fatalistically on death, “the big sleep” (250). This paralysis is intentional. In effect, Chandler is producing a treatise on the modernist detective novel, and does as effective a job in defining it as he does in his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.”

The Victorian detective, epitomized by Sherlock Holmes, is a figure of romanticized panopticism. No matter how grave or petty a crime is, no matter how complex, Holmes reassures us that the criminal will be found. Marlowe, in his own words, is not Sherlock Holmes: “I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don’t know much about cops. It’s not things like that they overlook if they overlook anything” (131). Later he adds, “I’m a very smart guy. I haven’t a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have the itch for is money. I am so money greedy that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whisky, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it: I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of [gangsters]. I dodge bullets and eat saps and say thank you very much” (247–248). Unlike the comparatively aloofness of earlier detectives (such as the aforementioned Holmes; Philo Vance, who is also namechecked by Marlowe; or C. Auguste Dupin) who never get their hands dirty, Marlowe cares about his cases and spends his time sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. He also reflects on the process of detection and how it has been represented to his clients.[3] The world has changed a lot since 1893; on the eve of the second World War, there are no reassurances to be found.

Ultimately I don’t think this is Chandler’s greatest novel—I’d give that accolade to The Long Goodbye—but don’t let that hold you back from reading it. Chandler, even on a bad day, is better than most contemporary writers could ever hope to be.


[1] Mentioned recently on Marketplace.

[2] Perplexing in that I’ve never seen an expression like that used. It was clear from context that it was slightly derogatory in some way.

[3] If the modernist detective novel is characterized by a greater degree of self-reflection, a willingness to get one’s hands dirty, and yet a feeling of futility or of being trapped by the situation in which one finds oneself, the postmodern detective novel is characterized by a broadening of focus in an attempt to solve crimes by looking at the ills of the society that produced the criminal, or by a sense that crimes are in some sense unsolvable. I’ll get back to you about the post-postmodern (i.e., contemporary) detective novel.

Em oi! #404: Why They Don’t Do Reality TV Shows about Writers

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Oh my G-d, that sofa. If I have to draw it again, I don’t know, I’ll go crazy.

We’ll file this under PN1992.8 R43 L86 2014, for Drama–Broadcasting–Television broadcasts–Special topics–Other special topics, A-Z–Reality programs.

I…had originally planned to do a chart of like all the races I did this year, and talk about how much I ran and all that kind of thing, but then I was struck by the thought that no one cares. Basically it’s something I’ve been dwelling on as I try to figure out what I want to sign up for next year. A lot of popular races tend to sell out early, and race directors of course like this and encourage people to register early by offering lower fees if you do so. One race that I do every year sold out in less than seven hours.

So I’ve been trying to figure out what might be a good goal for next year. As a runner, there are basically two ways to go: faster or farther.

I will say now that I suffer from some–let’s call it optimism about my running abilities. I don’t often fail at tasks I set myself, and even when I do, you know, cross the finish line in tears (Marine Corps in 2009) or limping/bleeding (Dances with Dirt 2013), I usually count it as a win because, you know, I finished! Even the triathlon in which I had a panic attack during the swim and took so long finishing the rest of the race that B actually thought I might have drowned and was going to look for me in the medical tent when I finally crossed the finish line counts, to some extent, as a win.

All this comes to the fact that recently, I’ve been doing some speed work. Nothing too big–one week I did 5×400, then the next week 4×800, then this past Thursday 3×1200. My 800s were at an average pace of 3:22. According to one marathon time-predicting test, called the Yasso 800, if you want to run a marathon in x hours:y minutes, you should work up to a set of 10×800 where your time is x minutes:y seconds–in other words, 10×800 at 3:22 could predict a 3:22 :xx marathon. I thought about this and figured that even if I took a bunch of extra time on the second half, I could still run a 3:30:xx, which I think would be a Boston qualifier for me. I am of course ignoring a few key facts, like:

  1. I did 4×800, not ten, and my times were definitely dropping by the last one.
  2. This would require me to run an 8:01 min/mi for 26.2 miles. My single fastest race last year was 10 miles in 1:21:46, an 8:11 min/mi pace. There is, it turns out, a huge world of different between an 8:11 and an 8:01.
  3. I ran that race in April.
  4. Also, every time I have tried to do serious speed work, which is the only way to get faster, I have gotten hurt. In fact, even with the 3×1200, my foot was starting to act up.

I actually am so optimistic that I couldn’t convince myself that this was totally out of the question–I had to instead convince myself that Boston is bourgeois and I don’t really want to do it.[1]

So that leaves farther. You can’t have followed this blog for long without realizing that I really enjoy ultrarunning as a sport, and that I often think farther is better. I’ve run an average of 45 miles/week this year, despite being off several weeks with various injuries, and managed to somehow do 61 miles on a week that I was “cutting back” before a marathon. Because I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I finished my last 50K, I thought: Why not do a 100K?

There are actually plenty of good answers to this pro or con, depending on how much you feel like running around in the woods for ten hours is a good time. But the major con is injury. Specifically, the problem is that I have recurring injuries, and the cause often seems to be running above 20 miles in one run. You can run a marathon off a long run of 18 miles, even a 50K, but I’m going to guess it will be hard to do a 100K on that kind of training.[2]

Bring it all back home, Lupton–what’s your plan? To be honest, I have decided that what I really need is a year of not getting hurt. So I’m going to take it pretty easy–I’m planning to do the Ice Age trail half marathon in May, and then the Powerman in Kenosha in June, and then see where I’m at. If things are feeling good in the first half of the year, I may try to jump into a marathon or 50K, like the Trailbreaker or the Mad City 50K, both of which are small enough that I should be able to make the decision last-minute. And then after June…I don’t know. I’m not going to plan that far ahead right now. I know lots of people who have super impressive plans for next year; I just have to admit that’s not going to be me this year.

Next time, hopefully I’ll have something to write that’s not about running, like more on Ulysses or something. Wouldn’t that be fun? ‘Cause seriously.


[1] Perhaps the most fantastically snobbish statement I’ve ever made. Hilarious too, because by many (economic) measures, I’m kind of bourgeois as well…

[2] For those who might be somehow curious: There’s actually very little research on what constitutes a good training plan for a 100K (because so few runners do them), and most plans that are available are kind of based on “this worked for me” strategies.

Em oi! #403: Stress

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A little more surreal than we typically go, with I guess the exception of some of the older strips like this one:
One of my favorite early comics.

I was going to write something mildly amusing about stress here, but then Daniel introduced me to Numberwang and I sort of figured “why bother?” No, that’s not right… uh…This started when I had to edit about 320 pages in a week (actually closer to 450 over two weeks, since there were two distinct projects). That kind of speed is not my favorite, since I am pretty meticulous in my editing and like to have a chance to look at things really closely, and when you have to edit fifty-ish pages per day, you often can’t do that.

Life has been as usual a series of ups and downs here. I ran my last race of the season, the Burbee Derby, on Thanksgiving. It was my slowest 10K of the year at 52:34 (the fastest was the 50 Furlong World Championships at 50:55; of course, 50 furlongs is actually 6.25 miles, but I measured the Burbee course at 6.3). I feel both happy to not have any more commitments until New Years and a little sad not to be preparing for any major races. Still, I’m committed to sitting on my tuchas and eating ice cream caramel cookie crunch gelato for a while.

Other events: The dishwasher developed (at some point, we’re not sure when) a small leak that eventually ate through the basement ceiling. Lucky for us, it has been far easier to fix than we ever anticipated. And I have more editing projects, though less urgent than the one I handed in last week.

Finally, NaNoWriMo ended and I lost, having written just under 25K words in the month of November. People actually ask with some frequency if I do NaNo, and I hate having to admit that I have won once in the ten years or something I’ve been doing it. Come to think of it, I may have cheated that year and worked on a novel-in-progress. So that would be possibly zero times I have managed to write a novel in a month. And I am an actual legit published author! So congrats to those who won, and for those who didn’t–you can still be writers, it’s okay. (Side note: I see that suddenly GUD is apparently gearing up to publish their Spring 2014 issue sometime…maybe in early 2015 by the look of their last blog entry? Given that their last published issue was actually the one I was in, if they manage to pull off another issue I will be able to feel like I didn’t have a hand in killing them somehow. So, um, good luck, guys?)

(Side side note: Despite having actually been published by GUD and having signed a contract with them and everything, I actually have almost no idea who works there, with whom I corresponded, the behind-the-scenes processes, none of that. I corresponded primarily with someone who I somewhat believed was using a pseudonym, and xe was not especially verbose or interested in offering explanations. Oh well.)

I’m still trying to come up with time to think semi-rationally about what to run next year. I have been mostly thinking of 10K to half marathon-length races, because I would like to see if I can improve my speed and maybe even place at the half marathon distance (the only distance from 5K to 50K that I have never placed in the top five at). Or I could go crazy and do a 100K or something. I have heard there’s a plan for a 100K on 50 miles per week, which is basically what I do now. But I’d guess it wants at least a few runs in the 25 to 30 mile range before the race, and I don’t think I can handle that without injury right now. So maybe shorter races it is. Or maybe it’s time to overcome my fear of open water swimming and my crappy biking and do a real non-pool swim tri, since my oly this summer went quite well. Or maybe a couple of duathlons? There are too many choices. I’m going to go sleep on it.

Let’s file Em oi! #403 under BF575 S75 L86 2014, for Psychology–Affection. Feeling. Emotion–Emotion–Special forms of emotion, etc., A-Z–Stress. Don’t ask me what “special forms of emotion” are; sometimes LC speaks to us in mysterious ways. Em oi! #49 can be filed under G557 L86 2007 (since it never got an LCC number originally, I hadn’t started library school yet when it was drawn!), which stands for Geography (general)–Mysterious disappearances, triangles of death, etc.–General works. That is a much more imaginative tag than I gave LCC credit for; I have underestimated them and for that I am sorry.

Em oi! #402: Why-fi

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This made more sense about three weeks ago when I had a dream about Doctor Who and woke up wanting to draw Matt Smith’s face. He has such a weird face, don’t you think?

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I was going to write more about Doctor Who, but I don’t really have that much more to say. I used to watch it and talk about it with my dad. Now I can’t. Sometime I’ll go back to watching it though. I miss it. Also there is a lot more to say about the specters of British Imperialism and White Man’s Burden and the question of sexuality and modern life that the show raises, but I don’t really have time/energy to subject it to that kind of critique. Please feel free to click here to visit the Postmodernism Generator and come up with your own critique.

Anyway, I have still been really busy with work, which is why it took me three weeks to draw/ink this damn thing. I have a work cycle that goes like this:

  1. “I’m bored. I’m depressed. I need more work.”
  2. Get some work. Hey, this is exciting.
  3. Wow, this is a lot of work. I am tired and kind of burned out. I wish this project would finish.
  4. Gee, I’m bored. (Return to step 1).

Right now I’m in step 3, and have been pretty much since I sketched this comic on the 24th. That’s why I haven’t had much time to write about the Tyranena Beer Run half marathon, which I did on November 11th. So if you’ll sit back, I’ll give you a very brief sketch of what happened.

  • Weather: It was cold. At first it was sunny, and I unfortunately left my sunglasses in the car. Then it got cloudy again, because this is Wisconsin and we wouldn’t want you to have enough sunlight to feel happy or anything.
  • Traffic: I picked up my friend Kristi and we drove to Lake Mills together. The Beltline was bumper to bumper for several miles (and maybe 30 minutes) because…a crew was painting stripes on the road? On a Saturday morning? For real? But although we were slightly late and the pre-race email said packet pickup ends at 11, they still gave us our packets at 11:05 or something. Very nice.
  • Everyone lined up and we took off. The picture below shows a map, but basically we ran around the lake. The first half (mostly roads) had a few good hills; the second half (mostly trails in the limestone sense, not single-track) was flat and had the kind of scenery describable as scenic. Had the race been held two or three weeks earlier, the leaves would have been amazing.tyranena
  • After the race, there was much food. I had a root beer, which was reasonably good; I heard the beer-beer was great, but I had to drive back to Madison to finish making challah for a relative’s 50th birthday party.
  • I ran in all of my layers because it was cold, and so I froze and shivershivershivered after the race for 45 minutes while I chatted with folks. I also just got a new coffee maker and have consequently been hitting the sauce pretty hard during the week, and by the time I got home I had six kinds of caffeine withdrawal headache going on. Super not awesome.
  • Speaking of chatting, everyone goes to this race. I saw a ton of Madisonians, and also got to meet up with Sheila, aka Crackhead, whose excellent triathlon blog I have been following for lo these many years. Or a while, at least. She was super fun and exciting to talk to. It’s nice to not be the craziest person in the room. “Oh, you haven’t done a 50-miler yet?” is not a typical reaction to my running CV. Also, check it out, I made her race report!
  • Finally, the race. I took off at the gun, and later met up with Kristi a little after mile 2. We ran the rest together, clocking a lot of sub-9 miles. We kept saying, “We should slow down!” but then we didn’t. It was windy, but at least part of the time we got a tail wind (not at the end, though. Ugh.). I finished in 1:53:13, my fastest half this year. (My other half was a trail race, so it’s not that shocking. But still, my goal was to go under 2 hours, so 1:53 is great!)
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Kristi and me, post-race.

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Sheila and me.

My next race is the Berbee Derby, also known as the local turkey trot. And after that, I’m not racing again until 2015! Yikes. It’s starting to be time to think about what I would like to sign up for next year, and to be honest I’m not sure. I have a sort of half-serious goal of trying to figure out how to run a marathon without running over 18 miles in practice, but beyond that…don’t get injured is pretty much my only major rule at the moment.

Okay, wrap it up. Let’s file this comic under PN1992.8 S35 L86 2014, for Drama–Broadcasting–Television broadcasts–Special topics–Other special topics, A-Z–Science fiction. It may or may not surprise you to know that the LCC doesn’t have a subject heading for hipsters. Apparently they are insufficiently documented.

Em oi! #401: The Worst Flight Ever

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This is a record of our flight from ORD to SLC. O’Hare, or O’Hara as the locals call it, is a giant zoo of an airport at the best of times, but the day we were there it was even more kerfuckened than usual because of lingering issues from a guy’s attempted suicide in the traffic control area. Basically, all flights into and out of the Midwest were last week being directed by air traffic control in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and I think Indiana. Something like that. Maybe they still are. When we flew home last Saturday, our flight was delayed in part I think because of the same air traffic control problem, and the flight didn’t even go through ORD.

This flight in particular was especially bad because first I was starving and then I started getting a migraine. I think I mentioned this in passing in my race report last Monday, but I didn’t really figure out that I had a migraine until we got to the B&B and I had lain down on the bed for a while. When I got up, my vision was all blurry, a classic migraine prodrome symptom. (Why was I getting it after I’d already had a headache and nausea for a good long time? I don’t know.) If it has never happened to you, count yourself lucky. I will just say it is a very weird sensation. I have bad eyesight (you might notice I draw myself with glasses), but it doesn’t exactly feel like eyestrain, and when I put my glasses on, it was still there. It’s pretty freaky. Not quite as weird as a scotoma (or scintillating scotoma, which has happened to people in my family before but I don’t think has ever happened to me).[1]

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I have no idea if I’m sleeping here or just trying not to vomit. Whee, I never thought I would write that sentence.

So this flight though. Not only was it two hours delayed, not only was there some pointless bureaucratic reshuffling of luggage (luggage in the cabin counts as passenger weight apparently, so they don’t have to add more gas or whatever), but it was the single most uncomfortable plane either of us had ever been on (I think it was a Canadair regional jet, flown by some company d/b/a United). And then I became intensely nauseated. In this photo B took, you can see me in my stupor. And maybe you can see how uncomfortable the seats look.

Also I think I should add that Daniel and Claire are actually quite attractive, contrary to how I’ve drawn them here. They deserve better than my artistic skills, frankly. Sorry guys.

Anyway, I think I have written a lot about running races, but very little about recovering from them. That’s mostly because recovery is the boring part, but perhaps you have never run thirty miles and would like to know what it is like. Here is a brief overview of my week.

  1. Sunday: I slept late. I was not intensely hungry directly after waking up (somewhat unusual). I was in pain (mostly quads–surprisingly my bad foot was fine). A long time ago when I did my first marathon, my friend Ray[2] told me to go down stairs backwards after. I couldn’t do that this time–I could barely go down stairs at all, eventually adopting a method of bracing my back against the railing/wall and sort of sliding down sideways. When not standing upright though, I felt very good. We lifted weights in the afternoon.
  2. Monday: I swam 2000 yards in the morning, trying not to kick. Tasks like standing up and sitting down were still quite difficult, arm-supported activities, but at least I could go down stairs backwards. We lifted in the afternoon.
  3. Tuesday: I ellipticaled for 40 minutes, then lifted weights. My legs felt sore but decent. I was still swinging my hips weirdly to go down stairs, but I was going down forwards again. When walking the dogs, I tried to jog a little and my legs wouldn’t do it.
  4. Wednesday: 30 minutes of elliptical followed by 40 minutes of swimming. My evening workout was replaced by watching B run on a dreadmill at a running store for half an hour. Oh well, I was pretty cold and tired all day. My legs felt practically normal again and energetic, with only a few moments where I stumbled because my quads sort of seized up.
  5. Thursday: I ran 7.4 miles, including two miles at an 8-9 minute pace (trying to get a 1st on Strava for a particular route, haha). My left quad was slightly more sore than my right quad, but on the whole legs felt relatively normal. Later we lifted (deadlifts and leg press, ow, I went light) and I ran with B for 5 minutes on the track before aikido.
  6. Friday: Woke up feeling tired and didn’t swim, but in the late afternoon did 20 min of elliptical and 5 of running on the track with B. Legs (hamstrings and glutes especially) sore from yesterday, but now feeling good and eagerly anticipating hitting the trails tomorrow. Bonus story: When I was getting my flu shot today, the pharmacist lady felt my deltoid and said, “Wow, you’re strong!” I was all like, “Oh, thanks, I lift weights.” So definitely get your flu shot–CVS is apparently offering a free ego boost to go with.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to do about 10 on the trails, and then possibly hit a local 15K on Sunday, schedule permitting. My hope is that my foot will hold up and I’ll be discharged from PT on Monday, and then this whole incident will just be “Remember that weird time Em accidentally got PF but ran a 50K anyway?”

So this comic–I’ll point out that in the fifth panel, I’m sitting behind Walter Benjamin, who previously appeared in Em oi! #372, one of my favorites. We’ll file this one under PN6231.A445 L86 2014, for Collections of general literature–Wit and humor–Collections on special topics, A-Z–Air travel.


[1] I don’t really get migraines much anymore, though I did in my early twenties (I think running has somewhat changed my system). Back then, I used to get abdominal migraine, with a main prodrome symptom of sensitivity to touch…which, the best I can explain it is “You are suddenly totally aware of all of the clothing you are wearing and how it is pressing on your body.” Yeah.

[2] Ray has been in a couple of comics, but I can’t find them. Perhaps they are no longer online. But at least one of them is still up on my mom’s fridge.

Antelope Island 50K

The top of the Hill on 1st (1st and Aish) in SLC

The top of the Hill on 1st (1st and Aish) in SLC

Ok, now that I’m back in Madison and have slept some (a lot), let me see if I can talk about the Antelope Island 50K in a brief yet entertaining manner.antelope island

First things first: Where is Antelope Island? It’s the largest island in the Great Salt Lake of Utah, so specifically it is about 46 miles from my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Salt Lake City. When B and I decided to go out to Utah for a fall visit, I noticed that this race happened to be right around the time we were going out and arranged our travel schedule to coincide. So I didn’t OFFICIALLY travel out there for the race, I just happened to be in the area and the race was happening. (I have a personal rule that I don’t travel more than an hour from home for a race unless it’s a super awesome race.)

We flew in Tuesday afternoon. I had originally planned to run Tuesday and Thursday this past week as the last bit of my taper, but then I was up in the night Monday night/Tuesday morning with. . . something. Was it food poisoning? A norovirus? Only her intestines know for sure. At any rate, things sure weren’t 100 percent when I got up Tuesday morning and I didn’t go for a run, and I even told B that if I still felt super crappy come Saturday I was going to cancel the race. My conditioned waxed and waned throughout the day (including a long stopover at O’Hare), and by the time we arrived I had a pretty intense migraine (complete with nausea, light sensitivity, and blurry vision). Bodes ill. But Wednesday morning when I got up I was fine. In fact I felt so much better than I had in twenty-four hours that I was positively jubilant. Daniel and I went for a run around SLC’s Liberty Park in the afternoon, and I felt pretty good. My foot gave me some trouble on the last part of the run, especially going up the hill from State to A on 1st Street, but the view is so rewarding I couldn’t complain. Then I had two full days of rest, which I knew would make both my foot and my PT happy.

Pre-Race Selfie

Pre-Race Selfie

Saturday morning, I woke up at 5:50, a full forty minutes before Daniel and Claire were coming to pick me up, so that I could eat and also reconsider my life choices. I was suddenly very nervous, in a way that I seldom am before races anymore. I felt a little crappy (too much wine the night before? Too little water?), I was nervous about the course and elevation, and I just kept thinking I should call Daniel and tell him not to come and crawl back into bed with B. I could go for a run later, maybe even go up to Sugar House Park and do twenty miles, and. . . but I didn’t follow through on any of this. I kissed B goodbye and went down and got in the car.

By the time we got to Antelope Island I was feeling better, physically anyway. When I got out of the car to check in, I heard gunshots in the distance. The women working assured me that it was just hunting and “not on the island, we hope.” They also said, “Don’t bother the buffalo and they won’t bother you.” Ok, good to know.[1]

Sunrise

Sunrise

My Lovely Hosts, Daniel and Claire

My Lovely Hosts, Daniel and Claire

Daniel and Claire dropped me off at the starting line just as the sun was beginning to climb over the mountains and paint the sky pink. It was beautiful—and cold. I told them to come back in not less than five and a half hours and thanked them again for their tolerance of my weird hobby. Then I had to take off my sweatshirt and go wait around for the race to get started. The RD announced a last-minute course change owing to mud that took the course from 31 miles down to about 30. I stood in line to use the port-o-potty behind a guy who had his arm in a really complicated sling owing to some sort of surgery (he was still running, which made me feel possibly a bit better). Then a few minutes later, we were off.

The First Climb

The First Climb

Starting Line to the First Aid Station (Mile 5.8)

The race started with about half a mile or so of flat on a gravel access road of some sort. We went along a fence until we came to a break and turned onto a dirt trail that took us in slow switchbacks up the foothills of the mountain (I think the main mountain is Frary Peak, but I’m not totally sure that was the one we were running around, so you’ll have to just guess at the geography). We were at times running east, into the sunrise, which was very pretty but made it hard to see the trail. Luckily, the trail here wasn’t very technical, with only occasional rocks to dodge. There were a lot of false summits—I would look up the trail, thinking that just beyond the coming ridge things must flatten or even descend—only to find when I arrived that the trail continued up. Luckily the hill was quite gentle, so the continuous trekking didn’t bother me and I kept up a pretty steady pace between 10:30-12:00 min/mi. After mile three, the trail turned downward (and west) and suddenly I was skimming along, taking in all these breathtaking vistas I hadn’t had a chance to look at before. Oh, wait, the breathtaking part—that was the altitude. And sure enough, after two miles of lovely downhill, the path turned sharply upward and we hiked it in to the first aid station. I arrived right around the one hour mark.

I wasn’t too concerned about calories so early in the race, but I knew I couldn’t fall behind, especially with the comparatively long distances between aid stations (most were five to six miles apart). I think I had a Fig Newton and a couple of potato chips. Then I was off again. I actually made it through a bit faster than several women, some of whom I would leapfrog with for much of the rest of the race.

Mountains at the Beginning of the Course

Mountains at the Beginning of the Course

Mile 5.8 to the Second Aid Station (Mile 14)

elevation

Elevation Profile. Click to Embiggen.

As I left the first aid station, the staff said that there was a nice bit of downhill ahead, “About a mile of downhill.” And it was very nice, good enough to hit a 9:40 split. I started thinking about how fast I was going to finish—maybe I would hit a 5:15:xx and be lounging around when everyone came to get me. Then suddenly, in one of those weird moments you seem to encounter in the mountains where the ground tells you something your eyes/inner ear don’t necessarily get, I went around a corner and the trail turned sharply upward. The rest of this section was largely not nice; it included steep climbs (about 1,700 feet over seven miles, with over 600 feet of that in the last mile alone); downhills too rocky to run; sections of trail ankle-deep in sand or shifting, golf ball-sized gravel; sections covered with rocks the size of bricks I was not nimble enough to bound between; and of course absolutely no shade. I began to run low on water and at times felt a bit dizzy, but there was really nothing to do but keep going to get to the next aid station. Luckily, I was able to sort of tuck into my brain (I thought about a lot of rather silly things, like the book I have been editing) and keep going. Each time my watch buzzed, I felt a bit surprised that another mile had passed. My splits during this section ranged from 9:21 (the downhill) to 22:42 (the last 600 feet of climb and a stop at the aid station to pull a rock out of my shoe).

It was very nice to get to the aid station and eat some potato chips and potato dipped in salt and refill my water. I also got to blow my nose, which was nice. My nose always runs when I’m out, er, running, and I’d neglected to bring any tissues.

Mile 14 to the Third Aid Station (Mile 20ish)

At the mile 14 aid station, I heard one of the guys say that the next aid station was five miles away. I was excited to leave—both because I had told B I would try to text him around mile 15,[2] and because mile 19 seemed very achievable and also very close to the finish (at the time I thought it was only ten miles out). Also, at this point the trail turned downward again, and we got to give back all that vertical gain. I ran for a while with a woman from Layton, UT, who mentioned that she had never done a 50K before and had trained only to sixteen miles as a long run! She left me behind when I once again couldn’t navigate the rocky descents fast enough. I also found that whenever I tried to accelerate a lot, I developed a stitch in my ribs (the altitude? Pushing too hard?) and I just couldn’t keep up. I had been gunning to finish strong, maybe even top three in my age group, but I realized at this point that I was going to have to just run my own race and finish when I finished.

That is the dao of the trail, I guess.

Mountains, near the End of the Course

Mountains, near the End of the Course

During this section, I came down around a bend and looked up to see two buffalo standing in a field. They were maybe a hundred and fifty feet from me, without any sort of protective fence between us. Wow. So I stopped and took a picture. They were unimpressed.

No Fence

No Fence

After the buffalo, the trail eventually narrowed and went into this area along the western side of the island where there were a lot of plants very close to the trail that were dry and kind of spikey, perfect for scraping the fuck out of my legs. Seriously, plants, what did I ever do to you? I was bleeding in half a dozen places by the end of the race, not fun. The best cut was right on my right ankle, perfect for accidentally kicking with my left foot (I am not graceful), and then good for a quarter mile of pain.

Eventually I reached the aid station and dumped some water over my head, which made me feel better. But I was tired after all the up and down of the first twenty miles, and pretty much ready to be done.

The Two Close-Together Aid Stations (Mile 20 to Mile 24ish)

This was the section where the bargaining began. I was feeling pretty woobly from the heat, so although the course was pretty flat, I started to walk. For a while, my right hip flexor was cramping up. But I knew I was so far from the finish line that I couldn’t just walk until I felt totally better, because I would never feel better until I could stop running and I would never get to the finish line walking. So I started to make deals with myself—run for half a mile, then you can walk for .05 miles. Repeat. Although my times were a pretty steady 11:30 min/mi during this section, and I felt really pretty terrible, I kept passing people, so either I wasn’t the only one having a bad time of it or I managed to out-strategize a lot of people.

The fourth aid station was over a ridge near mile 24. I had been planning to walk, but I crested the ridge and saw it, so I kept running. Yay, more water dumped over my head. (Sadly, none of the aid stations had ice.) Yay, more potato chips.

Mile 24 to the Finish

Leaving the mile 24 aid station, I was relatively sure I had five miles to go. The aid station personnel thought the distance was more like six to seven. They also thought that there was a water-only aid station between them and the finish, though this turned out not to be true. I continued my run/walk strategy for a while here, crossing the 26.2 mark in 5:21:43 (a personal not best) and picking off several more people. Despite my slow speed, I was making progress. The course at this point was very boring—lots of scrubland, the salt lake kind of in the distance, no real change in altitude from mile to mile, nothing to focus on but the passing of a few trees and rocks and the odd pile of ossified buffalo droppings.

Right around mile 27, and just before I was about to allow myself another walking break, I came up behind that woman from Layton again.

Remember her?

As I came up behind her, debating about whether to try to pass or to walk and let her get a lead again, she turned around and said the most magical words I could have heard: “I think I see it.” I was actually kind of unsure at this point what “it” was—the drink station? The finish line? Maitreya Buddha? But I actually did not care. She took off and I took off after her.

I was looking, but I could not for the longest time see whatever she had been referring to. Finally I saw a glint of light at the top of a hill—maybe light off a car’s windshield, but it could have been our destination. Layton and I had some discussion about how far we thought the race actually was. As she said she wasn’t sure if we were going twenty-nine or thirty miles, another woman came up behind us and remarked that she was still telling her friends she did a 50K. I said, “Of course!” We chatted for a brief bit, and then when the trail widened I sped up and passed both of them. For a while I thought we would stick together and finish the race, but they were slowing down, and I could smell the barn.

"SAY CHEESE"

“SAY CHEESE”

I reached the fence we’d run along at the very beginning and crossed though an open spot, only to face another climb. My watch suggests it was about 224 feet of elevation gain in a mile or so, I think about a 5.8 percent grade. I was kind of annoyed, but stumbled up it using a hike/run strategy. At the top, just by the turnoff for the half marathon course, was a herd of buffalo (on the other side of the fence this time). Wow! They seemed unimpressed to see yet another runner stumble past.

The road turned down for one final descent. There was a guy ahead of me in a yellow t-shirt, and I suddenly wanted to pick him off and add one last catch to my list, so I sped up as much as my incredibly tight quads would allow. Better yet, as I came within range of the finish, B, Daniel, and Claire were all standing there cheering me on! I crossed the finish line within a few seconds of the guy in yellow (I was so close to catching him!) and was awarded a coffee cup. I think I said something really intelligent to B, like, “They gave me a coffee cup!” Then I sat down for a while before I could fall over.

Final Tally

Some of My Cuts (and an Amazing Amount of Dirt)

Some of My Cuts (and an Amazing Amount of Dirt)

I finished 29.88 miles (according to my watch) in 6:04:24, a 12:12 min/mi pace. According to my watch, the course had just over 3,100 feet of elevation gain. The results at UltraSignUp.com are still somewhat preliminary as of this writing, but I am listed as 6th woman, 4th in my age group, and 22nd overall finisher. I learned that I should be careful of climate differences (WI had a cold snap, so it had been quite a long time since I’d run in warm weather), bring something to shade my head/neck from the sun (no trees), and give the elevation its due. I did a good job at staying on top of salt and calories all day, and I think my run/walk strategy was pretty successful, considering how many people I passed in the last ten miles.

My foot was actually totally fine though the race, giving me no more than passing discomfort. At some point my hip slipped out (my SI joint got stuck) and I finished with knee pain and lower back pain because of it, and I also totally blew up my quads, and my calves are hurting if I sit for too long, but other than that I feel remarkably good. My PT will be happy. The race was well-organized and enjoyable, the course a real challenge. I had a hell of a time.

A special thank you to Bryan, Daniel, and Claire, for not just making this madness possible but for supporting me through to the end. Having you guys there to cheer me on in the last moments was really amazing. Also special special thanks for helping me get a new Garmin last minute. It worked out really well and was super useful during the race.

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My Finish (Photo by Daniel)

Also I’m going to stick to half marathons for a while. Holy cow.


[1] When I was a kid, my parents used to stick me in the car and drive me out to Fermi Lab (the supercollider) to look at the buffalo (really, this was a method of making me fall asleep). The sign at Fermi Lab said, “Don’t try to cross this pasture unless you can do it in nine seconds, because the bull takes ten.” I have no recollection of how big the pasture was (though I do think I wanted to feed the buffalo Cheerios, as though they were ducks), but in my mind this means that buffalo are both fast and mean.

[2] Does that sound lame? It was an important psychological goal—during the last few miles of climb leading up to the mile 14 aid station, I was counting down—“Only three more miles before I get to text B.” The idea was to tell him my time at the halfway point to help better gauge the SLC crew’s departure to Antelope Island. Unfortunately I realized after the race that my text hadn’t gone through. Whomp whomp, sad tromboon.

Amazing Post-Race Liege Waffle at Bruges (SLC-Area Waffle Stand)

Amazing Post-Race Liege Waffle at Bruges (SLC-Area Waffle Stand)

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