Nov 30

On Terminators, Trump, and “The Guy” (3)

[Part One of this piece focused on the 2003 California Governor’s Recall and argued that Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected in large part due to his fame. Part Two connected Donald Trump to Schwarzenegger and examined the role of public persona in the 2016 Presidential campaigns. Part Three comes back around the the question of public persona and charisma via the concept of “The Guy,” and The West Wing.]

Martin Sheen as Jed Barlet standing at the podium with Presidential sealPart Three: “The Guy”

If for some voters the 2016 Presidential election came down to a kind of personality contest where the candidate that won was the candidate to whom the television-viewing audience could relate, how might we explain the last eight years?

It’s fair to say that we didn’t have a chance to form an emotional attachment to Barack Obama through the channels afforded by the entertainment industry before his Presidential campaign in 2008 (that would come later), but here’s where things get interesting. It’s not only about fame; it’s also about charisma: it’s about being able to galvanize a room of average people in the first few minutes of a stump speech. The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet could do it. Barack Obama can do that too. Those who hadn’t seen it before saw it in July of 2004 when he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic conventionand set the room, if not the whole of the Democratic party, on fire.

One of the overarching narratives of the sixth and penultimate season of The West Wing is the search for a presidential candidate to replace the beloved President Bartlet as he nears the end of his second term. The contenders include not one, but two Vice-Presidents and a dark-horse young congressman from Texas who was supposedly based on a certain young congressman from Illinois). The question was: “Who’s The Guy?” (And make no mistake, it’s always a guy, especially in 2004 when season 6 aired, but that’s another issue for another day).

The Guy is someone who not only can talk the talk and advocate for the party’s platform; The Guy is also someone who can charm a room, who can reach the public and relate to the average American. The Guy is not just smart in an academic sense, he’s also personable and charismatic. There’s a certain something about The Guy that even Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman, political kingmakers in the Sorkin universe, can’t put into words beyond the wonderfully indescript catchphrase, “The Guy” (or sometimes, “My Guy.”)

Even though Sorkin and other cast members of the show have claimed that President Barlett would endorse Hillary Clinton, I think it’s fairly obvious to point out that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was not The Guy. Neither, for that matter, was Bernie Sanders. Bernie might have been closer to the mark, but neither candidate read as Presidential in the way that Jed Bartlet or his successor Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, did. The Democrats needed to run Martin Sheen, or someone else much closer to Jed Bartlet. Someone worthy of the title The Guy. Donald Trump might seem to lack charisma in the traditional sense, he’s nothing if not an oversized personality who clearly knows how to connect to at least a certain demographic. And in 2016, that demographic turned out at the polls. Donald Trump as it turns out, was The Guy to the shock and dismay of many Americans.

Trump wasn’t The Guy because of anything that he said. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that Trump was The Guy in spite of everything that he saidAs Rolling Stone has recently pointed out, “we’re used to the idea that the things politicians say matter — but this year, Donald Trump proved the idea wrong. Nothing he said had any impact on his poll numbers, up to and including his belief that ‘I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.’”

While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the hate-speech of his campaign resonated with many of his followers across the United States, there are at least as many people or more claiming to have voted for him for other reasons: Washington is corrupt and Trump is an outsider. Or, they voted for him because they believe that he represents economic survival, if not prosperity. Or because they felt abandoned by the system, and Hillary Clinton represented the system. But an undercurrent to all of these aspirations for a Trump administration is the desire for the familiar, the desire for “You’re fired!”

Ultimately, party leadership on both sides seems to think that elections are about policy, about platform, about ideals and ideas and substance. For some of us, that’s true. In a perfect world, it might even be considered a universal truth. But as we were reminded on Election Day, some of us rather rudely, the world that we live in is not a perfect world.

What if what we’ve learned this week is not only that our country is more divided than we thought in certain unsettling ways, but also that many Americans don’t vote for policy or platform, or ideals, or substance? What if they’re voting for A Personality? What if they’ve been voting for personality all along? Or at least since John F. Kennedy?

It makes a certain kind of sense. It explains the appeal of George W. Bush, the multi-millionaire’s son who managed to convince a country that he was just a regular guy, someone they might want to hang out with around the fire pit, perhaps over beers and BBQ. It explains the appeal of Bill Clinton who broke out the shades and the sax on Arsenio Hall in 1992. It especially explains the appeal of Barack Obama, who The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2008 was “something rare and special, the heir to such charismatic predecessors as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.” It also explains the failure of Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom were very intelligent, highly qualified, and on paper, strong contenders for the Oval Office, but who could not connect to voters who weren’t already committed to voting along the Democratic party line. It explains the failure of John McCain and Mitt Romney as well.

In short, the way to beat Donald Trump wasn’t to be a better politician. It wasn’t to have more experience or more integrity. For many Americans on November 9th, 2016, those things didn’t matter. For them, the electoral process was not one based in logic, reason, policy, or substance. Instead it was based in emotion, and many voters on both sides don’t like politicians. Some are ambivalent while others actively despise the political establishment and everything for which it stands. The problem with Hillary wasn’t just that she’s a woman; it wasn’t just that she’s a Clinton; it wasn’t even that she’s a Democrat.The problem with Hillary Clinton is that the establishment counted on voters caring enough about policy and substance to override any and all of the other issues they might have with her candidacy. That is, the party leadership likes to think that electoral politics is about ideology above all else. But maybe we saw in November of 2016 is that for many voters, it wasn’t about ideology at all. It was about celebrity, pathos, and public persona.

If we take seriously the claims that many Trump voters are making about voting despite the ableism, anti-semitism, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia, and all the rest of the -isms in that “Basket of Deplorables,” granting that it might be a big if for some, the way to beat a Trump, the way to beat the character, the celebrity, is to run a better character, a bigger celebrity, or at the very least, someone to whom average Americans could relate, before they decided who to support. In short, the Democrats needed a Martin Sheen or a Jimmy Smits. They needed The Guy. We all did.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user François Pinchard]

Nov 30

On Terminators, Trump, & “The Guy” (2)

Part Two: Trump

[Part One ended with the rhetorical question, “What does the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election have to do with 2016? Both nothing and everything.” This next installment attempts to answer that question.]

Hillary Clinton seated on a plane, looking at her cellphone, wearing sunglasses.Donald Trump is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. As I watched the debates of the primary season, I found myself surprisingly wistful for the Guvenator. As I have mentioned, I did not vote for him, and neither was I a fan of his administration. And yet, compared to the recent round of Republican candidates, he suddenly seemed not so bad in retrospect. After all, if the Republic (of California) didn’t thrive under his leadership, it didn’t fall either. Trump seemed much more dangerous, and this was in the summer of 2015, when Megyn Kelly started bleeding. It was long before he made fun of a disabled journalist, before his clash with Khzir and Ghazala Khan, before the infamous “grab her by the pussy” tape . . .

Let me say this again: Donald Trump is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. But there is a common denominator. Trump, like Schwarzenegger, entered the race as an outsider: someone who was not part of the political establishment. He portrayed himself as someone who was not beholden to Washington (or Sacramento) special interests. Like Schwarzenegger, he was someone who would use his own funds to finance his campaign. And, again, he’s someone who is famous and not famous as a politician. Instead, both Trump and Schwarzenegger were famous because they were known quantities to average Americans who watch television and go to the movies. They’re entertainment. And they’re entertaining. And as UCLA professor Douglas Kellner has argued, “the boundary between politics and entertainment has been increasingly blurry since the O.J. Trial and the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal.

Even if voters didn’t sit through a single one of Schwarzenegger’s THIRTY FOUR movies (plus a couple shorts, a couple TV cameos, and a video game, but who’s counting?), they knew who he was and what he was about, or at least what they thought he was about. He was the Terminator, the solution to higher taxes and what appeared to be an economy in crisis, who would ride into Sacramento in his Hummer and bid “Hasta la vista, baby!” to the unpopular Gray Davis and then “rescue California.” Similarly, even those who didn’t watch a single episode of The Apprentice, Celebrity or otherwise, knew “You’re FIRED!” And this signature phrase went on to become the punchline of stump speeches, various campaign t-shirts, bumper stickers, and memes aimed at Obama, HillaryCongress, the middle class, and countless others . . .

There have been dozens of think-pieces trying to explain how Trump won the Presidency. Some say that it’s because he managed to tap into the hidden currents of racism and sexism and xenohobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia . . . that have long been unacknowledged in these United States. Others say that it’s because he’s anti-establishment. Still more people blame various groups, particularly white women, for voting against their own self interest in service to internalized misogyny. Many of these claims ring true to me.

But there’s another reason that Trump was able to win: the Democrats ran the wrong candidate. No, NOT BERNIE SANDERS. I return to my original point: the Democrats should have run Martin Sheen.

To clarify: I like Hillary Clinton. I voted for Hillary Clinton. Twice. But I have long suspected that she was the wrong candidate to win this particular race, just as I thought that John Kerry was the wrong candidate in 2004 (and voted for him anyway) and Al Gore was the wrong candidate in 2000 (and voted for him anyway). Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate to win the 2016 race. The only way to beat a character is to run a better character. Hillary Clinton is many things, but she is not a character at all, let alone a better one.

When I say that Hillary Clinton is not a “better character,” I am not saying that she is unqualified. To the contrary, I agree with President Obama, who said that “there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” Even Bill Weld, the vice-president candidate of one of her opponents seems to have agreed. But neither she nor Bernie (nor any of the other Democrats who vied for the ticket) could ultimately compete with Trump because for a wide swath of the electorate, at best qualifications don’t matter. At worst, qualifications are a disadvantage when running against a character, whether that character is a Schwarzenegger or a Trump.

You might be thinking that Hillary does, in fact, have a public persona, and if you are thinking this, you are correct. But Hillary’s public persona is the wrong kind of public persona for this contest. Hillary is famous for a long career in public service. She’s famous for standing by her husband in the wake of a sex scandal. She’s famous putting her shoulder to the grindstone and for doing the work, whether that work was as a Senator for the state of New York or as the Secretary of State. She is not famous for seeking the limelight or cultivating a celebrity fanbase. For some of us, these traits are admirable. But some of us was not enough this time.

The problem is that none of the things for which Hillary is best known allowed the American public to see what she’s actually like as a human being. Take for example one of the most iconic Hillary Clinton images of the campaign, the one that went viral as the meme “Texts from Hillary.” The image is one of illegibility. Her face is deadpan, almost expressionless; she’s not only looking down at a phone, the screen of which we can’t see, but she’s also wearing sunglasses. This is an image of inaccessibility. I suspect that some Americans would have responded better to Hillary Clinton had she been more demonstrative of affect, if she would just smile more (of course, when she did, she was told that she smiled too much). But this conundrum is not simply about Hillary’s smile (or lack thereof); it’s about the fact that much of the public don’t feel like they can relate to her.

Of course, the fact that Trump has starred in his own reality show for fourteen seasons doesn’t actually give the American public a glimpse of what he’s really like either, but it does us give the semblance of getting to know him. And that matters. It matters a lot, as it turns out. Even if we grant that the majority of the American television-viewing public can distinguish between reality television and actual reality in 2016, the point is this: the distinction isn’t important. The fact that The Real World, American Ninja Warrior, or The Real Housewives of Wherever are scripted, edited, and shaped into particular storylines gamed to appeal to viewers is not news. And it doesn’t matter.

Reality TV might be a guilty pleasure for much of the American public, but guilty or not, it is a pleasure. Many Americans love these shows, and we often feel like we know the people whom we watch week in and week out. We form emotional attachments to them. Maybe not deep emotional attachments, but emotional attachments nevertheless. We get upset when our favorites get voted off the island, out of the Big Brother house, or fail to advance to the next round of Dancing With the Stars. Despite thirty years of public life and service, the American public never had much of a chance to form such an attachment to Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders or John Kerry or Al Gore. . . ). This lack of connection would become a real problem.

To be continued.

[Texts From Hillary meme generator image]

Nov 30

On Terminators and Trump and “The Guy” (1)

[What follows is a three-part piece that explores the effect of celebrity on American electoral politics in the 21st century. Part One examines the 2003 California Recall election. Part Two segues from the Terminator to Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential contest. Finally, Part Three connects 2016 to previous Presidential elections via Martin Sheen and The West Wing.]

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator double image with red and blue ghosting

Part I: “The Terminator”

We’ve seen a lot of expressions of surprise since the morning of November 10, 2016, which saw Donald Trump proclaimed the 45th President-elect of the United States of America. Many Americans did not take Trump’s campaign seriously or consider him a viable Presidential candidate even after he won the nomination of the Republican party. More than one of my friends went so far as to champion him in various versions of parody, reasoning that there was “no way that he would ever get elected.” And then he did.

Few people saw this coming, but filmmaker Michael Moore was among the prescient. In his post, “Five Reasons Trump Will Win,” Moore refers to what he calls “The Jesse Ventura effect.” He argues that people will vote for Trump for the same reason that many of them voted for Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the former professional wrestler with the World Wrestling Federation, who served as governor of Minnesota from 1998–2003: “because they can,” as “a good practical joke on a sick political system.”

Moore was not wrong. But he’s also not entirely correct. He overlooks another key element that made Ventura a lock for the Minnesota governorship: fame. Ventura, like Trump, was a larger than life persona, one who was best known for head butts and body slams. In short, to retain the Presidency in 2016, the Democrats needed to run not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders but a personality of their own, someone like Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen is Presidential material; after all, he played one on TV. What is more, he didn’t just play a President, he played one of the most popular fictional Presidents of our time: he played Josiah (Jed) Bartlet on The West Wing from 1999–2006. For many of us, the boundaries between fact and fiction are porous ones. Many Americans loved Jed Barlet the character, and many Americans would vote for Martin Sheen, the man.

It’s absurd. It’s cynical. It’s true.

This has happened before, or at least a version of it has happened before, and not just with Jesse Ventura. It was July of 2003, and I was still a graduate student. At the time, I was in England as part of a study-abroad course. I remember sitting in a hotel lobby in Stratford-Upon-Avon with a group of undergraduates, and we had all just learned that Arnold Schwarzenegger had declared his intention to run for the governorship of California on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I very clearly remember saying to these students, “That’s it. He’s our next governor.” They didn’t believe me. I didn’t want to believe me either, but somehow I knew it would happen. I can’t explain it; it wasn’t logic or reason; it was visceral. Call it intuition. Call it a gut feeling. Call it cynicism.

Let me be clear: this revelation was before any of us knew that the governor’s seat was even really in play. The possibility of a recall had been getting a lot of media attention, but it was far from a certainty. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure that I was against the recall. I know that I did not want Schwarzenegger to be our next governor, and I did not vote for him later that year. But I suspected that when faced with the chance to vote for Schwarzenegger, many voters wouldn’t care about the policies. They wouldn’t care about the candidates’ platforms. They wouldn’t care about party affiliation. They would care that they could shake the hand of a movie star or get his autograph or even just see him out in public on the campaign trail. In short, they would vote for him because he’s famous, and vote for him they did.

It wasn’t all about the celebrity. The California gubernatorial recall was a grassroots effort that began just a few months into just-elected Gray Davis’s term, and there were several other high-profile candidates that were all vying for the seat including then Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, Arianna Huffington (of The Huffington Post), Gary Coleman (Diff’rent Strokes), and Larry Flynt (Hustler). According to various sources, a total of 135 candidates qualified for the ballot. Several prominent candidates, Huffington among them withdrew from the race before election day. On that day, the ballot had two questions:

  1. Whether the current governor, Gray Davis, should be recalled;
  2. Who should replace Davis if the majority of voters supported the recall.

UCLA diploma with Schwarzeneggar's signatureIn the end, over 55% of voters supported the recall, and of the 135 potential replacements, Schwarzenegger won decisively. 49% of voters cast their ballot for the Terminator: almost 3,750,000 votes. This number was higher than the next five candidates combined. Thanks to those voters, I have his signature on my doctoral diploma (and no, it’s not a realsignature; it’s a facsimile).

Am I saying that Schwarzenegger was a bad candidate? That his policies or platform were ill-conceived? I’m not. Others have.

What I’m saying is that for a larger percentage of the voting public, Schwarzenegger’s platform was irrelevant. It didn’t matter. At all.

What mattered was his image. As it so happened, Schwarzenegger’s brand of stardom is action hero. In 2003, Schwarzenegger was the Terminator(twice). He was Commando. He was Predator. He was Conan (the BarbarianAND the Destroyer). He was Total Recall. He was The Running Man. He was The Last Action Hero. He was also Kindergarten Cop, one of the Twins, and Dave as well as dozens of other characters. In short, he was not just famous, he was a big time MOVIE STAR. And he could have run on a platform of marshmallows and unicorns or one of one of kale and crocodiles. It didn’t matter. People wanted to get rid of the sitting governor, and of over a hundred choices, they voted overwhelmingly for the one who was the most famous, the most familiar. It wasn’t even close.

What does the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election have to do with 2016? Both nothing and everything.

To be continued in Parts Two, “Trump,” and Three “The Guy” . . .

[Creative Commons licensed image “Terminator – Arnold Schwarzeneger – anaglyph” by Flickr user cobravictor]; Photograph of the University of California diploma courtesy of the author.]

Nov 19

On Author Interviews: Masks, Unmaskings, & Masquerades

Blue masquerade mask with sequins and feather trim

[What follows is my contribution to a really fun roundtable discussion organized by Sam Cohen and Greg Erickson which focuses on artist interviews as a vehicle for cultural production. The other panelists were Greg Erickson, Jonathan Lethem, Eugen Vydrin, and Carolyn Kellogg.]

In my remarks for this roundtable, I’m going to talk about two, or rather three, different writers and the way that their author interviews have shaped the consumption and reception of their work. I’ll start with the Fitzgeralds, F. Scott and Zelda, and then I’ll zoom forward almost a century to talk about Elena Ferrante. I hope to make a few connections between them, despite the widely disparate chronology and nationality.

As most you know, F. Scott Fitzgerald burst onto the literary scene out of nowhere (or rather, out of St. Paul Minnesota via Princeton University) in 1921 with the publication of This Side of Paradise, The novel turned him into an overnight success, won him back his golden girl, Zelda Sayre, a Southern belle who had broken up with him the previous year due in part to financial concerns. Over the next decade, Fitzgerald would continue on to become one of the most highly paid short story writers of his day, at his height collecting $4000 per story from outlets such as the Saturday Evening Post (that’s almost $55,000 today). He was crowned the voice of his generation, and both he and Zelda were inextricably associated with the Roaring Twenties, also christened “The Jazz Age,” which also happened to be title of one of his early collections of stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. In addition to dozens upon dozens of short stories, Fitzgerald wrote three additional novels and left a fourth unfinished at the time of his death. Each novel after TSoP performed less well than the previous. Fitzgerald, who wanted nothing so much as to be taken seriously as a novelist, died thinking of himself as an abject failure.

According to Matthew Bruccoli, one of the founding fathers of Fitzgerald scholarship, one of the prime reasons for this lack of critical respect was Fitzgerald’s abysmal performances in early author interviews: “He had a poor sense of public relations and provided interviewers with the opportunity to trivialize him . . . he didn’t know the rules.” Bruccoli argues that Hemingway, who did know the rules was treated with respect, while Fitzgerald was treated with condescension. he also points out that seven of Fitzgerald’s interviews, five of which were given before 1924, had the word “Flapper” in the title. As a result of the association with these free-spirited modern women, or as Broccoli phrases it, the “promiscuous application of the term Flapper,” Fitzgerald was seen as the embodiment of the times: a rebellious playboy associated with dissolution and dissipation rather than, again in Broccoli’s words, “one of the best American writers who ever lived or the author of one of the greatest novels in the English language.”

I want to think about these author interviews differently. Instead of seeing them as PR debacles, as failures, I want to suggest that they are deliberate performances that not only enact the very characteristics Fitzgerald dramatizes in his fiction but also do interesting work to confuse our assumptions about authorial self-fashioning. Over the course of his career, Fitzgerald draws upon his life experiences (and that of his wife’s), but he does not do so simply as thinly veiled autobiography but rather the explore the boundaries between fact and fiction, life and art.

Over the course of his career, Fitzgerald gave thirty-seven interviews. These ran in the popular press, both magazines and newspapers. Unlike his contemporaries Hemingway and Faulkner (& Ferrante for that matter), he was never featured in serious literary outlets like The Paris Review.

Zelda too participated in the self-fashioning effort alongside her husband. An aspiring writer and artist herself, she wrote several short pieces for various magazines that were published under a byline shared with her husband (having his name attached guaranteed more money), which further played into the performance.

In one of the earliest interviews, Fitzgerald explains, “I married the heroine of my stories. I would not be interested in any other sort of woman.” On another later occasion, he muses “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda isn’t a character that I created myself.”

Zelda too participated in the self-fashioning effort alongside her husband. An aspiring writer and artist herself, she wrote several short pieces for various magazines that were published under a byline shared with her husband (having his name attached guaranteed more money). These further played into the performance. For example, in a review of The Beautiful and Damned, she wrote, “It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited sound to me vaguely familiar.” Elsewhere in the review, she portrays herself as a hedonistic and materialistic flapper: precisely the kind of character one might find in her husband’s fiction. Placing herself or at least her words, inside her husband’s fictional world, she too plays along with the self-fashioning that her husband has engaged in his interviews. 

Why does this matter? It encourages readers to conflate fiction and fact, writer and character, and it changes our understanding of what it means to be an author. It erases the expectation of distance and disbelief, one of the foundational characteristic of fiction, after all. Further, if you believe Bruccoli (or even if you don’t), it has direct implications on the reception of the work both at the time of its publication and in the present day. The vast majority of Fitzgerald scholarship serves to perpetuate the couple’s personae as the riotous, rebellious and ultimately tragic embodiments of their time.

Skipping ahead to the present day, one might see a similar kind of conflation of life and art with the work of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Ferrante, who has authored six novels, including the four volume Neapolitan series, which are about two young women, one of whom happens to be a writer named Elena. The catch is this: the authorial Elena Ferrante doesn’t exist. Or rather, she is a pseudonymic stand-in for the books’ author, who has chosen to embrace privacy and anonymity and not reveal herself beyond the Ferrante construct that she has created.

Since 2015, when she first began to grant interviews, Ferrante has written and spoken extensively about the importance of privacy to her creative process and the work itself. In an interview with the Guardian, she explains that it allows her “to concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.”

But she is also conscious of the dissonance that her anonymity has created for readers, who value the subject position of author: “the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works.”

In fact, it is precisely the absence of the author, the “real” author of Ferrante’s works generated such ill will that earlier this year, an Italian journalist wrote an international exposé “unmasking” Elena Ferrante, revealing, a woman whom he has claimed is the real person behind the pseudonym. The “unmasking” has generated a great deal of controversy, mostly centered on whether he should or shouldn’t have outed her (or tried to), but I’m less interested in the question of outing than I am in the use of the verb “unmask,” which presupposes a kind of authenticity and stable identity that had been hidden or disguised. The journalist who performed the unmasking did so,by examining the details of the novels against the details of various women’s lives in and around Naples, Italy. He also examines financial records to account for various sources of income, which might have been derived from book sales.

At the heart of the controversy is a violation of the contract between author and audience that is based in assumptions about the relationship between life and art: namely that the life which finds its way into the art is genuine, is true.

Ferrite seems to have anticipated this sense of betrayal in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald: 

The entire history of literature has at its core the problem of truth. And so it’s fairly normal that autobiography is viewed as though it has the greatest guarantee of truth. In fact, it’s not like this. If the daughter of a missionary doesn’t have the skill to tell a story, if she doesn’t know how to charge every word with energy, her story will sound more false than had it been written by a banker. The truth of fiction, in short, is directly proportional to the quality of the writing and it has nothing to do with autobiographical truth, which, at the very most, has the role of raw material, like marble for a statue.

The greatest sin that Ferrante committed, according to the journalist at the center of the unmasking scandal was that the woman behind the novels was nothing like the authorial persona she had created mostly conducted online or over the telephone). The autobiographical nature of these novels was in fact, not autobiographical at all. This is a violation, a betrayal. In other words, she dared to treat the act of authorship as yet another creative exercise, a performance, a masquerade.

To close and make a couple of connections:

Authorial interviews participate in the construction of an authorial self, and readers have certain expectations for this authorial self: it needs to be authentic and genuine. It needs to be grounded in truth and gravitas. There needs to be a sense of transparency between the authorial personae and the work that they produce. Violating these expectations results in a lack of critical respect in the best case. The worst case can become a kind of witch hunt such as the one unleashed on Elena Ferrante. And yet, for some writers, maybe many of them, self-presentation such as we see in author interviews is yet another kind of authorship, another kind of self-fashioning, another act of creativity, another performance. Or as Jonathan Lethem has pointed out, another visit with Mark Twain rather than Samuel Clemens.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Kira Okamoto]

Nov 13

On Safety Pins and Slactivism (and Facebook Birthdays)

closed safety pin casting shadow against a wooden surfaceI posted a link to a think piece on Facebook last night. I’ve been posting lots of links to think pieces on Facebook in the last week or so. This one seems to have struck a nerve, both on my wall and on many others. It’s titled “Your Safety Pins Are Not Enough” and was written by a woman named Lara Witt. I don’t know Lara Witt, but I think that she makes an important point. Namely, that the sudden appearance of safety pins as a sign of allyship and solidarity in the face of Trump’s election isn’t enough.

In the last several days, a lot of Americans have been afraid, uncertain, anxious, fearful, frustrated, outraged, sorrowful . . . I myself have felt all of these things and more. I have felt guilt. I have felt failure. I have wondered about many things. What if I had made phone calls? What if I had donated a little more to campaigns? What if I had spoken out more and/or more often? What if. . .

I know that there are hundreds and thousands of others feeling these things too. I see it all over my Twitter feed. It has taken over my Facebook timeline. Membership in groups like Pantsuit Nation, nation, regional, local has swelled and choked platforms with strangleholds because moderators couldn’t process requests, both to join and to post, fast enough to keep up with the demand.

In what are to many dark days, outpourings of solidarity and support are beacons of hope, clichéd though it might sound. The safety-pin is one such beacon. Or at least it has the potential to be such a beacon. But it also has the potential to be something else. It has the potential to be an empty symbol, but it also has the potential to be harmful.

How can something so benign do harm?

Here’s an analogy, and it’s going to seem a little out there at first, but bear with me. The analogy is this: the Facebook Birthday announcement.

On its face, the Facebook Birthday notifier (FBBN) feature seems great. It reminds of our friends birthdays, and it tells of about birthdays that we might not even have known. It makes it easy to spread a little bit of happiness to a lot of people in less than a minute. It leads to the well-wishing from hundreds of one’s closest friends. Who doesn’t love happy messages from hundreds of their closest friends, especially on their birthday?

I’ll tell you who: me.

Right about now, if you know me, you are thinking that this proclamation confirms my reign as the Queen of the World of Hypocrisy. And you’re not entirely wrong. I’ve had an unwritten rant about the FBBN for years now, and I had even taken my birthday off of the FB radar this year. And then I caved. I broke up with my boyfriend two days before my birthday, and in the aftermath, I felt anxious and isolated. I let myself be talked into turning the FBBN on at the eleventh hour, literally sometime after 11:00PM on the eve of the birthday. And not even twenty-four hours later, I got my hundreds of well-wishes. And they really did make me feel better in ways that I couldn’t begin to articulate.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is this. Setting aside my own emotional tailspin of a train wreck this year, the FBBN has led to decimation of friendship. That’s a provocative claim, intentionally so. But there’s truth to it. It’s not just about the birthday notifier; Facebook itself is implicated as well, but the birthday notifier is the epitome of this problem. In short, the FBBN has reduced us and our friendships to the lowest common denominator. We used to talk on the telephone and write emails that were substantive instead of perfunctory. We used to drop by to see one another if too much time had passed. We used to send greeting cards if not flowers or packages. Nowadays, we type “Happy Birthday!” onto a FB page and don’t give it another thought. Or if we want to make an effort, we might find an image online to paste on to the wall. Or if we want to make an effort, maybe we send an Amazon gift card if the person is really important. We generally do not call or even text (special shout out to the handful of people who I am not related to who texted or called me on my birthday this year–you are all rock stars in my world, and I’m not kidding even a little). In short, we have become lazy friends.

Let me clarify that not all friendships are equal. It would be weird for many of my FB friends to call or text me on my birthday. And it would be weird for me to cal or text many, maybe even most of them on theirs. Many of my FB friends don’t have the number to call (or text) even if they felt so moved. But plenty do and choose not to. And that’s a choice, a valid one. I’m not complaining about the choice. I’m pointing out the effect of the choice, which is a leveling one. More specifically, FB levels us all down to the lowest common denominator when it comes to friendship. The lowest common denominator isn’t even a bad thing in and of itself. The reason I haven’t jumped ship from FB despite several points of consideration over the last decade is because these relationships do matter. In fact, they matter a lot. They have value to me. But I also recognize that the quality of some of my friendships has suffered, and it’s not FB’s fault. It’s our fault. We let “likes,” and more recently, “loves,” “wows,” angry faces, tear-strewn faces, and laughing faces stand in for genuine interactions. We do this a lot. And setting aside the algorithmic implications of these clicks for their effects on our timelines, the response click, be it like or something else, serves as the friendship equivalent to saccharine or aspartame (or insert the artificial sweetener of your choice here). It gives us the flavor without the calories. If gives us the result without the effort. We feel connected, and we are to an extent, but the connections are all often leveled down. There is often a hollowness at the core. Not in every click on every page, but it happens. We don’t even have to read the status update or the linked articles to respond to them. We can validate or be validated with the click of button. No further engagement is required. This is often a version of slactivism. It’s often a token gesture that doesn’t lead to further engagement or meaningful interaction.

I worry that the safety-pin will be a similar gesture. The intentions are good just as the intentions of the FB birthday wish are good. I believe both of these things. But I worry that the gesture will become hollow. I worry that it will serve as a panacea. I worry that it will function to bring us all again to the lowest common denominator without us even realizing that we’re on the escalator down.

I’m not saying that we should abandon the safety-pin. I recognize the utility of the symbol for those who feel vulnerable or at risk as well as for those who want to make visible their solidarity. These are good things. But alone they are insufficient. A symbol only means something if there is something behind it. And many marginalized people have expressed skepticism over the safety-pin. See, for example, the Twitter feeds of @absurdistwordsVann Newark III, Alex Blank Millard, and @KristineWyllys.

Right now, many of us are grasping at anything that we can do to provide support and show that we do not approve of the election results, the hate crimes, the harassment . . . In short, many of us feel an acute sense of discomfort. This is a good thing. This is a hard thing. This is a necessary thing. Discomfort is a necessary precursor to change of any kind. I worry that many will use the safety-pin as a way to feel less discomfort without doing the work that substantive change requires. We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily. We need to feel uncomfortable right now. We need to sit with these fears and this uncertainty and the discomfort of everything that has happened in the United States, not just since November 9, 2016, but also in the days and weeks and months that led up to it. We have an opportunity here; in fact, we have several opportunities. We see demonstrations of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia . . . we see swastikas and Confederate flags and celebrations of sexual assault. Our resistance to such hate can start with a safety-pin. It can start with offering allyship and consolation and sympathy. But it must not end there. We cannot allow it to stand in for other more meaningful actions whether those actions involve public protests or demonstrations, donations to various organizations, or smaller gestures of solidarity as simple as a conversation or even a hello.

I also worry that the safety-pin might serve to foreclose potential opportunities for connection. Here, I’m thinking specifically of conversations with people who might be less aware of certain kinds of oppression or less sensitive to them. Put another way, while the safety-pin might well serve as a welcome sign for certain forms of interaction, it might serve as a warning against others, driving oppression once again underground, rendering it invisible, but not actually solving the problem. We need to actually solve the problems. Or at the very least, we need to actually try. It’s not enough to click a response on social media and go back to our regular lives. Many, many Americans do not have that luxury.

Wear the pin, or don’t wear the pin. But if you choose to wear it, be ready to put your time, your energy, your money behind it. As Alex Millard has tweeted, “Now is not the time for quiet gestures of allyship. . . Safety pins are like “liking” a tweet. It’s not about bad intentions, it’s just the very least you could do.” The house is on fire. In fact, the entire neighborhood is on fire. For many Americans, it will keep burning for at least 4 years.

 

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Linus Bohman]

Nov 01

On Ropes Courses & Platforms

Ropes course participant being harnessedI’ve been thinking about ropes courses lately. Not ropes courses in general, but the high ropes course that I’ve had occasion to do a couple of times with groups of incoming first-year students in 2010 and 2011. I like to think that I’m not afraid of many things, but I am afraid of heights. The idea of me completing either a 20 or a 40 foot ropes course is, on the face of it, patently absurd. And yet, it was part of the weekend. I could have made excuses, but it was important to me to try to overcome my fear. I knew that many of the young women on the trip were also afraid, and if they could try, so could I.

The deal with the ropes course is this: there were two options, the 20 foot option and the 40 foot option. The 20 ft option has the fact that it’s “only” twenty feet off the ground going for it. But the obstacles are more technical and challenging. The 40 ft course is higher but the obstacles are supposed to be easier. I can’t speak to the latter because I never tried the 40 ft course. 20 feet might not sound like a lot, but it was plenty (for me). Whichever course a participant chooses, she ends up at a small open platform 40 feet in the air (if you opt for the lower course, you climb up the side of the tower at the end to reach the top of the platform). The image above is me on that platform. Seeing it again, I’m struck by two things: one, it doesn’t seem that high (thanks to the miracle of the zoom lens); two, that platform is *really* small! In my memory, it’s not that small. In any case, once you’re up there, one of the course monitors hooks your safety harness to a heavy steel cable. They tell you that this cable is responsible for catching and stopping fighter jets on aircraft carriers so you are perfectly safe. They tell you that all you have to do is scoot yourself off the edge of the platform and that the cable will catch you, and you will swing out over the ground, eventually coming to a stop where other monitors will help you down when the swinging has slowed.

In theory, this sounds easy. Just let go. Jump. Or rather, scoot. But when you are up there, this thing that sounds so easy is anything but. And there’s a trick. Of course there’s a trick. The trick is this: the longer you sit there thinking about the jump, the harder the jump becomes.

I recently found myself sitting atop another platform, a figurative one this time. As it turns out, I’ve been sitting there for a long time. Years. I just didn’t realize it until a few weeks ago. And what’s a girl to do when she finds herself sitting atop a platform? The only thing she can: jump. Or rather scoot. I could paint this as a courageous launch. A triumphant leap. A glorious swan dive. But none of those things would be true. If anything, it sometimes feels like a timid scootch and sometimes like a spectacular belly flop.

Mostly, it feels like an extended free fall.

Extended perhaps because the longer one delays discomfort, the more discomfort compounds itself, not unlike interest on a credit card? It’s a theory . . .

All of this to say that I’ve recently ventured into the discomfort zone for the first time in a long while. I did so with deliberation despite the fear I felt. Because once you’re on the platform, you have to jump. Or at least, I have to jump. There is another option, which is to concede defeat and climb back down the tower. But I’ve never been one to concede to fear, and I’m not about to start now. In my better moments, I like to think that there’s something admirable about this, something brave. But mostly, I feel guilty about being up there for such a long time in the first place.

It’s surprising to me how difficult it can be to be uncomfortable. I knew this in the abstract, but I thought I had made my peace with discomfort. I mean, I moved across time zones, three of them, twice. Both times solo save for the assistance of my brother, who drove with me to Los Angeles and then back again to South Carolina. Both times moving towards a new chapter and so many elements of the unknown that it could be overwhelming to think about. And both times, the change was hard, but once I found my footing, I was fine, often better than fine.

Plus, I run. A lot. And one of the tricks to running longer distances is to accept discomfort. Not every step all the time (that, we call being injured, which I’ve also got some experience with), but as a regular occurrence that shows up and keeps pace from time to time. To run long distances, you have to learn to embrace the suck. And I think I’m pretty good at this when it comes to physical discomfort. As it turns out, I have some work to do with other kinds of discomfort.

So this fall looks nothing like it was supposed to. I expected it to be a struggle, but I expected those struggles to come from work, where I’ve taken on additional tasks to cover for a colleague while she’s enjoying some much deserved time away. As it turns out, that part has been relatively easy. The struggle has come from unexpected places, one of these more than the other. I had previously written about the shin splint that might compromise my attempt at marathon 4. Well, that happened. I haven’t run in almost a month except for a single mile at the end of the Spinx marathon. My shin is finally feeling normal again, and I’ve started to cross-train in an attempt to regain fitness before starting back to the run in the next week or so.

The less expected source is the dissolution of a long-term relationship, the end of which came at a strange confluence of factors: learning about several friends who’ve been going through break-ups of their own; the onset of another birthday, which seems to occasion introspection as I have more of them; and a literal wake-up call from an old friend. All of these things combined to galvanize the vague sense of discontentment that I’d been trying to ignore for a long time.

I write this in an attempt to process it. But not only to process,for I have a journal for processing that exists off the internet. More than just processing, this is an attempt to hold myself open, accountable and to offer an explanation in case I’ve seemed somewhat off of late. Finally, it’s an attempt at authenticity. To refuse the pressure which tells us that we must always seem happy and together and fine. To put out into the universe that things are challenging for me these days. These are challenges that I’m handling, sometimes better than others. I’ve lost weight. My sleep patterns have been in a state of disarray for the better part of a month. So far, I’ve managed to keep most of the metaphorical plates spinning, but I feel it catching up to me. My appetite is returning, and I’m sleeping better, not great but better. I’m also starting to feel the accumulation of fatigue and exhaustion. In the first weeks, I felt a relentless need to maintain forward motion. So, amongst other things, I refinished my porch. I had an almost frenetic energy about me that felt at times as if it were set on a hair-trigger. And at times, it was. My sense of balance and equilibrium are returning, but they’re not yet fully present.

All in all, it’s been a time of upheaval and change and disquiet. These are hard things. They were and are necessary things–I truly believe this–but they are hard things. I keep saying that it’s a work in progress. Both parts of this are true, and both parts are equally important. There has been progress. There will continue to be progress. But there is also a lot of work involved, and this work is not easy. I think of it as a kind of emotional heavy lifting. Not unlike physical heavy lifting, to engage the process is to get stronger, but gains in strength can only come from breaking the muscle fibers down and forcing them to repair and rebuild. There is soreness and stiffness involved, and sometimes these sneak up on you, catching you unaware: usually small, incidental movements that trigger a hidden piece that had been overlooked. The good news is that if you keep doing the work, the work gets easier. And it has. And it will.

And I’m really looking forward to the off-season.

 

 

Aug 02

A Gut Check?

Dirt path along the top of Ireland's  Cliffs of Moher

Yesterday was the first day of the rest of my life.

Not really.

Yesterday was, however, the first day of my next training cycle in which I gun for the California International Marathon on December 4. I’m distinctly unsure about this race. Partly because I have a nagging shin splint that has been hanging around for the better part of the summer. Part of it, probably, has to do with the fact that my marathons have gotten worse and worse each time I have run them. The goal here is to try to unpack both of these pieces of luggage because I don’t really want to carry them around for the next several months.

The shin splint. Some of you probably know this (all three people who are probably reading this–Hi Mom & Dad! Hi George!) A shin splint is a generic term that means “something is wrong in the area between my knee and my ankle on the inside of my leg. It can be a bone issue. It can be a muscle issue, or it can be the connective tissue of tendons and ligaments in that general area. I’m fairly certain that my issue is the latter. I took 2 weeks off in July to help it settle down. It’s definitely better than it was. But I’m not sure that it’s better enough to withstand what I plan to throw at it over the next 18 weeks.

But here’s the rub. Much of this can be psychosomatic. Which is to say, the act of fussing about a thing, worrying about a thing, can cause that thing to manifest. I have a history of hyper-vigilance. I also have a history of shin splints. So I’m trying my best not to psych myself out of my running and into another round of shin splints before the end of week one. I’m trying my best to trust my coach and myself and not take myself out of the game before it even starts.

Here’s the tricky part. Ad this isn’t probably news to anyone who knows me. I’m a big fan of improvement, and I’m pretty good at getting better at things. I really don’t like getting worse at them. Herein is the struggle and the humble pie part of the marathon. The marathon doesn’t care about my ego. It doesn’t care about my vanity. It definitely doesn’t care about my fear of failure or decline. My first marathon was my best marathon. My second was slower, but I cut myself slack on that because to finish it at all, less than a year after a stress fracture is something of which I’m proud. My third. Roadkill. There are reasons for it that all boil down to a confluence of bad luck and bad choices with the result of everything that could go wrong  actually going wrong. Except this: I didn’t face plant on the course. So what happens if the fourth marathon is worse still? Or what if I don’t even get that far because the shin splint flairs up again mid-cycle? I guess I have to just wait and see what this path holds. Waiting and seeing is another thing that I’m not too fond of, but I’m learning that it has its merits.

So now it’s time to try again. And I’m not 100%. A conservative guess might put me at 85%? But I’m going to try and go through this cycle and make it to Sacramento. I’ve got some other races that I am looking forward to this fall: the Myrtle Beach Mini in October and the Tryon Half in November. Plus Bird Camp. So here we go.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Olivier Bruchez]

May 30

In Memoriam: Tom Finn

Arlington Cemetery, flags in.Today is Memorial Day. Amidst the Facebook posts about barbecues and cookouts, picnics and family gatherings, I’ve encountered few reminders of the sorrow and grief inherent in the occasion. As I ran around Spartanburg this morning, I observed a few flags posted in yards or hung in tribute from different porches. But more than those displays of patriotism, I observed a lot of people out and about, smiling and enjoying the sunshine. It created a profound sense of cognitive dissonance and, if I’m honest, both frustration and guilt.

I’ve spent a good part of today thinking about those soldiers who were killed in combat but also about those who sometimes fall through the cracks. Those whose loss does not fit neatly in to the categories that our nation and its military have for its veterans. These days, we sometimes call them “Wounded Warriors”: veterans who are seriously injured in service, some of whom can reintegrate into their former lives, many of whom cannot.

My uncle Tom is one of those fallen soldiers.

Thomas Calvert Finn was born November 27,1946. He served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. While overseas,  just shy of his 24th birthday, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Some of the websites I have visited in my attempt to learn about him list that date, November 24, 1970, as a “date of loss.” It wasn’t, technically speaking. My uncle lived for another nineteen years. And yet, in other respects, the kind of respects that matter, November 24, 1970 is accurate. It is the date that he was lost. The man who returned home was disabled both physically and mentally and spent the rest of his life in an assisted living facility. He died on July 3, 1999. His name was added to the Vietnam Memorial on May 28, 2001.

In my mind, there are two different men in the space where my uncle Tom should be.

There is the official Thomas Calvert Finn, 1st Lieutenant 2nd grade 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, “Garryowen.” This Thomas Calvert Finn is the one I have been able to recover through research online. He enlisted in 1968. He attended Fort Dix, Fort Benning, and Fort Bragg. He was trained as a paratrooper. He was deployed to Vietnam in 1970. The 1st Battalion, at least according to Wikipedia, was an air-mobile unit thanks to Bell HU-1 Iroquois helicopters, or “Hueys,” equipped with the latest weapons: M16s, rocket launchers, and whatever else they could carry. According to GlobalSecurity.org, “the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry participated in 16 campaigns in Vietnam: Defense, Counteroffensive, Counteroffensive Phase II, Counteroffensive Phase III, Tet Counteroffensive, Counteroffensive Phase IV, Counteroffensive Phase V, Counteroffensive Phase VI, Tet 69/Counteroffensive, Summer-Fall 1969, Winter-Spring 1970, Sanctuary Counteroffensive, Counteroffensive Phase VII, Consolidation I, Consolidation II, and Cease-Fire.” Some of their actions have been dramatized by the book and film, We Were Soldiers. (Those events happened in 1965; well before my uncle was in country).

Here is where things get a bit tricky. Thomas Calvert Finn was not injured in combat. He was injured in an accident, a “non-combat” injury. According to togetherwestand.com, he was “injured when a case of C-Rations fell on him.” C-Rations, in case you didn’t know, were the meals issued to troops while in combat. He was sent home to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. He received a Bronze Star with V for Valor and a Purple Heart. Eventually, he was transferred to an assisted care facility, first in Pennsylvania, then to Florida where my grandparents lived.

I never knew Thomas Calvert Finn. His injury happened almost two years before I was born.

I only ever knew my uncle Tom, and I’m not sure that I ever really knew him either. My childhood memories are foggy at best. I knew that when we visited my grandparents, we would usually also go to visit my uncle. As a little girl, I didn’t like these visits. I didn’t understand them. I remember being shy. I remember being overwhelmed by strangers–mostly elderly residents of the nursing home–who wanted to see me, wanted to touch me, pat me on the head or squeeze my hand. I remember a hospital smell. I remember a strange man who was confined to a bed or a wheelchair, who never knew me or my brother. Who would recognize my mom, his sister, and always ask her, “Who are these kids?” She would answer, “These are my kids, Erin and Patrick.” His reply, “Bullshit!”  Except he couldn’t speak very clearly, a result of the brain damage that he had suffered. I remember being confused by this answer. I didn’t understand that he couldn’t form new memories or that his memory of my mom was of a woman who was much younger, newly married and yet without children. I remember that we would often take him a chocolate milkshake from McDonalds–he liked those–and that sometimes we would play cards, or my mom or grandfather would play cards. We would sometimes take him outside if it was a nice day. I remember being relieved when it was time to leave.

By the time I was old enough to understand or appreciate, our family had moved north, so visits to Florida were expensive and infrequent.

I’m sorry that those are the only memories I have of my uncle Tom. I grieve that for all practical purposes, he was gone before I was born. I feel guilty about the way my younger self resented those visits and I wish I had known how difficult they must have been for my mom and my grandparents. I feel guilty about how glad I always was to leave and how I never wanted to go in the first place. I wish I had the chance to meet Tom as he was before his deployment. Apparently, my brother looks like him. I wonder if they were alike in other ways as well. I wonder what he would have done with his life. What kind of job he would have had. Whether he would have gotten married, had kids. Bought the car that he had apparently been saving for while he was in the army. . .

My uncle’s name was added to the Vietnam Memorial in 2001, almost three years after his death, over thirty years after his injury. Members of my family traveled to DC for the ceremony, though I, still in grad school and living in California on a shoestring, was not among them. CNN covered the ceremony. I’ve seen a photograph of his name, and here’s a virtual rubbing of Panel W6, line 89. Thomas C Finn

On this Memorial Day, I remember him and all those who died in service or as the result of their service to our military. I hope that those who are grieving today find some measure of peace.

 

[Creative Commons license image “Flags In” by Flickr user The U.S. Army]

Feb 15

Roadkill. Or, Marathon #3: Los Angeles

I usually like to include an image to set the tone for the post, but it seemed rather inappropriate to go looking for the kinds of pictures that this post would require: road kill, wreckage, breakdown . . . So no picture.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: yesterday was not my day. Pretty much everything that could go wrong did.

But let me back up. I registered for the LA Marathon last March, during a brief pre-registration period that immediately followed the 2015 race. I watched that race on TV, and I felt an immense wave of homesickness. Plus, the Olympic Trials were the day before! So that settled it. And I’d been looking forward to the race ever since.

My training for officially began in the last week of September, and it went really well. I only modified two workouts, taking them to the elliptical because one of my knees felt a little more sore than is usual. I wanted to head off any potential problems at the pass, and that seemed to do the trick. I killed all the speed and tempo sessions, and I felt strong and fit heading into the taper. I had a few niggles, but nothing that I was worried about. All signs pointed to a major personal best and a potential BQ. Instead, I ended up with a personal worst and a lot of lessons learned.

In retrospect, there were a few things that I could have done better in the build up. Primarily, I should have stuck to my paces, especially in the speed and tempos sessions. I ran my paces or faster. The result of that was that when the rubber met the road, I had a hard time finding my pace by feel and had to rely heavily on my watch. I also used music for my longer intervals and tempos. Music definitely makes these workouts (and pretty much all the others) more fun, but I relied on it too much, and when I decided at the last minute to race without it, I struggled to run by feel alone.

As race day grew near, another factor entered the mix: the weather. All fall I had been expecting a rainy race day because signs pointed to an El Nino year, and El Nino in Southern California means rain. But instead, the weather gods called for sun, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but they also called for unseasonably warm weather, which is a bad thing for a marathon. It’s especially a bad thing when the weather in South Carolina has been unseasonably COLD. It was 19 degrees on Wednesday during my run. It was 75 on Friday. My coach and I discussed adjusting my pacing for the heat. We also entertained the possibility of running the race as a training run and pushing my Race Day back a few weeks. Ultimately, I decided that the risk of injury in running two marathons in a month was too high for me given my history of other injuries. So we decided that I would aim for a time 5 minutes slower than we originally planned.

Race weekend was amazing, but again, I made a few tactical errors. I made a point of drinking a lot of water and Nuun (my electrolyte drink of choice) from the moment my plane touched down in LA, but I could have eaten more, especially on Saturday. Speaking of Saturday, I went to the LA marathon expo early Saturday AM. That was fun, especially because I ran into a couple of my teammates on the way there, and we all went in together.

After the expo, we went to meet up with our teammates at the designated cheer spot (AKA Cowbell corner though it was not so much a corner as a whole city block–80+ awesome Oiselle teammates!). We had a great spot between miles 5 and 6 of the loop that the runners would have to complete 4 times including the last mile or so of the race. We were there by 9:30, which gave us almost an hour until the women’s start. I had been sure to wear sunscreen, and I had my American Runner hat, my “Go Fast Take Chances” tee, and my American flag socks. I was also wearing my birkenstocks, because I was running a marathon the next day, so even though I looked a bit like a fashion victim, Birki’s and flag socks, yes. The Trials race was awesome. It was truly phenomenal to see so many world-class athletes laying it all on the line to chase their dreams. BUT. It was hot. And standing on the pavement for several hours in the sun was not awesome for my pre-marathon legs. That took more out of me than I thought, but I didn’t know it until I started the race. I also needed to eat more on Saturday. I should have had a bigger breakfast and probably could have eaten more for dinner.

I didn’t get much sleep the night before the race–only 4 hours, but the real problem was that this was the third of three nights where I didn’t get enough sleep. I had to get up really early Thursday to get to the airport, and then I didn’t sleep well that night either thanks to jet lag. Plus, it was an exciting weekend. I didn’t feel especially nervous for the race, but I was definitely keyed up getting to meet so many people that I admire from the running world.

Race morning came early–I had set my alarm for 4, but I woke up about 3:45. I ate my usual pre-race Mojo Bar, had coffee and tea, and got ready to head out. I was breaking a couple of rules in my race-day kit. One of these was fine. The other not so much. Since the forecast was calling for heat, I decided that I would abandon the outfit I had planned to wear, which was my Oiselle singlet, Roga shorts, and a belt. I knew that the heat would be a factor, so I decided to wear my new Oiselle 3/4 top and a different pair of shorts. I hadn’t planned to race in just a bra top, and I’d not gotten the chance to run in it AT ALL, let alone for a long run, but I decided that chafing would be better than melting. And I also decided to ditch the belt since anything touching my skin would make me sweat more. I applied my SPF, my anti-chafe (side note: 2Toms wipes are awesome for destination races!), and then threw on a long sleeve tee to wear until it was time to run since it was a bit chilly at 5AM.

The other rule breaker, that seemed like less of a risk, was my shoes. I’ve been running in Brooks Transcend 2s for the majority of my training cycle, and I currently have 3 pairs in various stages of mileage. I brought the pairs with the lowest miles with me to LA planning to wear the ones in the middle. But I’ve had a bit of inflammation in the ball of my right foot for the last couple of weeks, and the newest pair felt better on that foot. I had wore them probably 4 times plus some general walking around. And I assumed they were good. They probably were for shorter races. But I learned the hard way that they were not ready for a marathon. More on that to follow.

Dressed and ready to go, I met my teammate in the lobby, and together we walked to the shuttle. She had grabbed a banana for me the day before, so I ate that while we waited for the shuttle, and we were off to Dodger Stadium. We had opted for the Pre-Race Hospitality package, which meant separate porta-potties with shorter lines, a tent with water, gatorade, Clif bars, and bananas, and a separate gear drop. Also we got fancy LA Marathon water bottles, but I forgot to put mine in my gear bag. I ate another banana and a pack of Sport Beans before we went to the start, Michelle dropped off our bags while I held our spot in the porta-let line for one final pit stop, and then we walked over to the start area. She and I were in different corrals, so we went our separate ways at that point.

I lined up at the front of my corral, within sight of the 3:45 pace group, which was my newly adjusted target. I found a couple other teammates to wait with, and we chatted a bit before setting off for the race. My first mile was slow for my goal, but the pace group was right there, so I thought, okay. I had set my watch to tick off half-mile splits instead of miles so I could better track my timing. After the first mile, I was seeing splits that were faster than the 3:45 end goal and was moderately concerned about this (red flag 1), but I felt mostly okay. My legs started to feel heavy early. Very early (red flag 2). And then we got to the first uphill, and it was really hard (red flag 3). Once the uphill ended, I caught my breath and felt a bit better. I’m not sure I could have taken that hill without being winded no matter how slowly I went, but I should have slowed down.

I was carrying a throwaway bottle with Nuun, and even with my own bottle, I still took Gatorade and water at all the aid stations. In fact, at mile 5, I ducked into a portalet for another pit stop–figured I would rather err on the side of excess on a day like that. But the aid stations were plentiful and well-stocked with both fluids and volunteers, so I made a point of drinking water and gatorade at every one, and I also grabbed water to pour on my head and body to try to stay cool.

HIGHLIGHT: Seeing my friends Matthew & Megan around mile 6! It was really early in the morning for non-runners, and I was so excited that they came out to see me! I was a little worried that we would miss each other since I wasn’t sure how crowded the course was, but I saw them and ran over to hug them both (it only occurred to me afterwards that they might have preferred not to be hugged by a wet runner . . . sorry M & M!

Legs continued to feel heavy. I told myself that I had trained for this, that I was ready for this. But I was a little worried that I was feeling heavy legs so early on.

And then a new sensation–the bottom of my left foot started to feel fiery (another red flag). Not good. It was the start of a blister. And I was a few miles from the half. I could keep running, but this added to the discomfort factor in a big way. Get to the Sunset Strip. You’ll feel better on the Sunset Strip because you’ll be on your home turf. And mentally, I did feel better, I was very cool to run down the middle of the Strip. It was also very cool to run down my old street and down the middle of Santa Monica Blvd., if only for a few hundred meters. By the time we headed down Doheney, I started to think, just get to mile 18; there will be Oiselle teammates at mile 18, but that was 3 miles way. On a regular day, 3 miles is no big deal, but it felt far on that day. I continued to tell myself “I am awesome. I am awesome.” even though I didn’t feel awesome. In fact, I felt pretty much the exact opposite of awesome. I knew that I was going to positive split, which bummed me out, so at this point I was just trying to hold on and keep running (red flag #TooManyToCountAtThisPoint).

Finally I made it to mile 18, and I saw my teammates, some of whom I had met earlier in the weekend, thankfully. I say thankfully, because when I saw them, I burst into tears (I am not usually a crier). They were awesome and really helped me to regroup psychologically. After a few minutes, I was on my way. My quads and IT bands were on fire and the blister really hurt. So much so that I started to think that I should stop at a med tent if I saw one (I didn’t). I started to walk through the aid stations, and at that point, it was all I could do to keep moving forward, whether running or walking. Walking was less painful, but the sun was now a factor, and I could feel the it on the back of my neck; I felt myself getting burned, and I definitely didn’t want to be out there in the sun for however long it would take me to walk the rest of the way to the finish. At one point in Westwood, heading under the 405, one of my calves started to cramp a little, and I both wanted to laugh and cry. What else could the universe throw at me?? It wasn’t a big cramp though, and it passed quickly (not to return).

So I walked and ran as best I could for the final stretch. By this point, my system was starting to go haywire across the board. If I had a dashboard, there would have been all kinds of blinking red, orange, and yellow lights. Emotionally and psychologically, I was running on empty. Here is where having music might have helped. Might have distracted me from myself. Physically, in addition to the problems with my screaming quads and IT bands and the blister, I started to have a hard time getting fluids in and was feeling pretty queasy, though I forced myself to drink at least one cup at every aid station and I continued to pour water on my head, though it felt much colder and usually resulted in a sharp gasp. When we got close to the beach, suddenly we were in the marine layer, and it turned cold and damp. This was both welcome and unwelcome since I was drenched at this point, and I started to feel cold. I managed to run the last mile and a half to the finish though I really, really, REALLY wanted to walk.

 

A few parting thoughts:

  • Overall, the race course was well managed. Fantastic crowd support from pretty much beginning to end. Aid stations were plentiful and well-staffed with lots of volunteers and plenty of supplies.
  • I completely underestimated the difficulty of the course.
  • I also had a overall different strategy of trying to run even splits. I am a slow starter. I know this about myself. I should not have tried to run even splits.I think the 3:45 was probably a little ambitious overall, but trying to start at 3:45 was a mistake. I need to build into the plan at least a few slow miles.
  • I am very sore on the day after, but I’m not injured and learned a lot from this race. It wasn’t the day I imagined for myself or even close, but it was still worthwhile and I’m glad I finished.

 

 

 

 

Nov 28

Books For Which I Am Thankful

Image of bookshelves on left and right with light shining in the center

I came across one of those listicles this morning where 12 authors gave thanks for a book and really liked that idea a lot, but I couldn’t come up with just one book. The more I thought about it, the more books I came up with, some for personal reasons; others have been important professionally. But the thing is, when you are a professional reader, which I am, that line between the personal and the profession often blurs.

In any event, I decided to make a list of my own.

The Waste Land (T. S. Eliot) It’s hard to overestimate the effect that Eliot’s poem has had on my life. I can remember being introduced to it as an undergraduate. I was taking an honors seminar on Noise (the title was more interesting than that, but I don’t remember exactly what it was). The class was exploring different ways to think about noise and sound and meaning. As a music major, this interested me. Little did I know that classically trained music major me was about to have her neatly logical world spun off (the course would also introduce me to literary theory for the first time). We talked about post-modernism and jazz and somewhere in there, The Waste Land fit in. I didn’t understand much of it. I didn’t really understand much of anything in that class, as it turned out, but I really liked the discussions just the same. In many ways, my life has been a series of returns to The Waste Land. I encountered it again in graduate school at Penn State with a professor who would become my mentor and close friend, and then again when I got to UCLA and was asked to be the graduate research assistant for another professor, who would ultimately become my advisor, Michael North. That project was the Norton Critical Edition of Eliot’s poem. Perhaps it was only fitting then that The Waste Land would be the subject of the first chapter of my dissertation, and it’s a poem that I enjoy teaching whenever I get the opportunity. I still don’t understand all of it. But then, I’m pretty sure that understanding all of it is beside the point.

Paterson (William Carlos Williams) Another poem that has opened doors for me both personally and professionally. I encountered this poem for the first time in grad school. I was sitting in on a class on the Modernist Long Poem with my director–mostly because I figured that if I didn’t, I’d never make it all the way through The Cantos on my own. My dissertation was imploding, which is to say that many of the primary texts I had planned to write about became less relevant, the more I wrote about The Waste Land. I remember going to a meeting with my advisor during the weeks that we were reading Williams, and I remember him saying to me in that meeting, “You know, maybe you should write about Williams.” I had been thinking the same thing but in a much more vague and unspecific way, and when he mentioned Williams, it was as if I had been expecting it all along. As a result, I not only wrote about Williams for my dissertation, but I also went to my first Williams conference and met several people who would become both good friends and important mentors. It also would lead eventually to a run of MLA panels and service for the Williams Society.

House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) When I was asked to switch TA assignments right before the term began, I had never heard of any of the novels on the syllabus, but I really liked the professor (Kate Hayles), and I didn’t mind the last minute shuffle. Little did I know that HoL, would not only become one of my “Desert Island Novels,” but that it would become a cornerstone in my teaching career. Part noir, part Gen-X angst-fest, part theoretical engagement, part mind-fuck, this book is one that readers either love or hate. You can guess which camp I fall into.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) One of my most favorite novels of all time.

Pretty much everything that Stephen King has written though some more than others. Especially, 11/22/63, Revival, It, and everything to do with The Dark Tower including The Talisman, and Salem’s Lot.

 

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Longborough Library]

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