Jul 17

Richmond: Week 3, On the Road

white number 3 against teal backgroundNone of the miles I ran this week were in South Carolina. Even so, some of them were hot and humid AF. 9 of them were in the rain, which was more fun than maybe it sounds.

I was traveling this week, so I spent a few days in Ocean City, MD and a few days in Pittsburgh, PA. I really like to run when I’m in new places. Pittsburgh is not a new place–I grew up here, mostly–but I’d never visited Ocean City before, and I’d never run on a boardwalk before.

I didn’t like the boardwalk as much as I thought I might. Part of this was because it was crowded with lots of walkers and people on bikes and bike-like vehicles that had multiple rows of seating and were wide enough for 2 or 3 people to sit side by side. Part of this was exposure–there was no shade on the boardwalk. At all. Which meant that even with the breeze, it was hot. Part of this was the smooth surface of the boards themselves, which often felt like they might need another nail or two to stay in place. The boards weren’t slippery, but they sort of seemed like they might be. But The ocean makes up for a multitude of minor complaints. Or, as I like to say, water makes everything better.

Sometimes that water is the ocean. Sometimes it’s a lake (Hi North Park!). Sometimes, less commonly so, it’s from the sky. Thursday was rainy. That meant I was even more soggy than usual. And it meant no music or audiobooks, since I left the waterproof iPod in Spartanburg. So the only sounds I heard were the squishing of my shoes. And by the time I had finished my run, they were *really* squishy. Two more trips to North Park were more dry and more crowded, especially on Saturday morning.

I’m kind of proud of myself for venturing off the beaten path, or rather onto a different beaten path on Sunday for my long run (I tend to be a creature of habit when it comes to my running routes). I decided to go to Millville and run the Riverfront trail, which would take me along the Monongahela (I think) river past PNC park and Heinz field and provide me with some really great views of downtown Pittsburgh, Point State Park, and the Duquesne Incline. It also gave me less spectacular views of the old jail. But flat and pretty much a straight out and back, so a really nice alternative to the Lake loop.

M: 8

T: 7 w/ 6 strides

W: Off

R: 9 w/ 6 strides

F: 6.5

S: 6.5

S: 11. Feeling it in the knees and left hip. Not sure what that’s about but I am looking forward to getting back to yoga next week. Was okay on Monday.


116 Days until Richmond.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Monceau]


Jul 10

Richmond: Week 2

Number 2 painted in yellow with white outline on navy background

Another hot one with a few complications and improvisations due to the 4th of July holiday, which annoyingly fell on a Tuesday.

I generally think that I’m in very good shape. Or at least I thought I was in good shape. And then I went hiking/trail running with a group of ultra runners. I like to spend time on trails, but let me be clear: I am a road runner. When I get off the pavement and on to a trail, I slow down. A lot. Especially if the trail is technical. And though I’m currently training for a marathon, ultra running (technically anything longer than a marathon, whether it’s 50K or 100 miles counts as an ultra marathon) is an entirely different thing.

I originally planned to use my rest day (Wednesdays for the foreseeable future) early to go on a hike/run on the 4th of July. My friends picked me up at 6:45AM. I was ready for a hike, so I had my hydration pack loaded down with extra food, and I was wearing a short sleeve shirt even though it was going to be a hot and humid day. I learned in the car that there would probably be some running, “but not too much because the trails are just not runnable in many places”–this didn’t comfort me). Had I know going in that everyone else was thinking of this as a run, I would have worn a tank rather than a tee, and I would have lightened my pack.

We got to Table Rock State Park (the SC version) a little before 8, and there we met up with a few more friends. We hit the trail at approximately 8:30. And up we went. There wasn’t much running because we were climbing. And climbing. I will climb all day, but I felt it in my quads early on, which surprised me a little. I haven’t done much hiking lately–none at all since Phoenix in January, and it was a challenge. But we made it to the top in decent time, and I held my own. The views were extraordinary. We hung out for a while refueling and enjoying the scenery.Table Rock summit overlooking lake and forest w/ hikers sitting.

And then the nightmare began. I am a weirdo who prefers the uphill to the downhill. Up is a matter of grit & tenacity. I’ve got those down pat. Down is about letting go. I kinda suck at that in general, though I’m working on it. This downhill was really steep, and I was extra nervous. And my quads started to shake early on though I couldn’t say whether this was nerves or fatigue or probably both. I also probably wasn’t taking in enough calories because I got dropped by the group early on, and while that would normally annoy me, it wouldn’t bring me to the brink of desolation and despair that I visited that day. It was made worse by the fact that two times that I did manage to catch up with everyone, as soon as I got there, they all started off again. No rest for the weary (me!). Eventually, Jenny came back for me, and when given the choice between the shorter or the longer way back, my friends opted for the shorter way. I felt kinda bad that I was costing them a few miles, but they insisted, and I wasn’t going to complain. One friend decided to run down, and the other and I picked our way down the increasingly crowded trail.

It was a fun morning mostly. And a much better workout than I had anticipated. My hips are still feeling the love. Or if it’s not love, they were feeling something. But the hike took a lot more out of me than I had expected, so I didn’t run on Wednesday. And the rest of the week continued the improvisations a bit as I moved my Sunday long run to Friday and split it into two sessions.


M: Easy 8 (originally slated for T)

T: Table Rock Hike 7.5 miles; 2350 ft climbing

W: Off

R: 8 w/ strides (and Ben! for the middle 4)

F: 6 early at Duncan Park; 5 later on the Rail Trail.

S: Easy 7 at Duncan Park.

S: Easy 6 on the Boardwalk.

Other observations: Trying to be better about keeping the easy runs easy. I did this fairly well except when I ran with Ben, who pushed my easy pace a little bit. Heat & humidity acclimation is still a work in progress. I’m in slightly cooler temperatures next week, so hopefully there won’t be too much backsliding.

I’ve been better this week about the foam rolling and stretching. My hips, which actually woke me up a couple times this week, have made that not optional. Cut back a little on the core work, but I need to get back there. Something is better than nothing.Still struggling with nutrition and hydration, mostly as a result of the heat.

123 days until Richmond.


 [Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Leo Reynolds]

Jul 02

One Down (A Richmond Training Report)

Sign with #1 posted on treeI wrote earlier this week about beginning my training cycle for the Richmond marathon. I’ve now managed to survive the first of 20 weeks and run a total of 42.8 miles over the course of 6 days.

42 miles is a little less than an average week for me in 2017, but it’s not bad for the summer time. I was running 50+ mile weeks in March and April, which is a world apart from July.

I tend to run hot. That means I’m usually the woman you seeing running in shorts and a t-shirt in 40 degree weather. Running hot is not a problem when it’s 40 degrees outside. Or 30. Or 20. Or . . . But it’s not 40 degrees out these days. Or 50. Or 60. I usually run in the morning, so the temperatures are relatively lower (and by “relatively lower,” I mean 70s), but the downside to the cooler temperatures is correspondingly higher humidity (90% or more). I’ve been experimenting a bit this summer, trying to find the sweet spot where the humidity is dropping and the temperature is rising but not yet too high to try to get the “best” of both worlds, but let’s be clear: when I say “best” here, what I really mean is “least worst.” Because there is no such thing as actual best during the South Carolina summer.

The week went relatively well. I was kind of dreading it because I’m still getting adjusted to running in the heat. Conventional wisdom suggests that acclimation takes 2-3 weeks. The more that you can stand without overdoing it, the faster the adjustment, but it’s a fine line to walk. Either way, by July, I should be good to go, but I spent a week in British Columbia where it was humid but cooler out while I was running, and then I took a week off, which put me pretty much back at the beginning having to go through acclimation all over again. I am now 2 weeks in, and I’m expecting to need a 3rd to get fully adjusted. And the kicker is this: while the adjustment period SUCKS, once you’ve made it through, summer running is still really difficult. It simply sucks less. 

So this week’s mantra was “Embrace the suck.” Pull on the shoes, fill up the water bottle, and get out the door. This time last year, I was struggling with shin splints, and they were terrible. I don’t think I would even let myself admit just how bad they were at the time, but they were bad enough that every single step was painful. Every step. This struggle is not that struggle, and for that fact, I am grateful. Running is hard right now, but it’s a different kind of hard. It’s a hard that is psychological rather than physical. Fall marathons, I’m told, are forged in summer training. Summer training is tough, and it requires a kind of mental fortitude that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But so too do marathons, so summer training provides ample opportunity to practice.

Here’s the breakdown of my week:

  • M: 6 with strides (6). Can I tell you just how much I did NOT want to do strides on Monday? A lot. It was hard enough to get out the door and then to add 15 second pick-ups into the mix? Ugh. Core, hips, etc.
  • T: Regular 6. I was happy about this one because NO STRIDES. Tuesdays are going to be hard soon enough, so I welcomed the easy one. More core.
  • W: Off!
  • R: 6 w/ strides. Again. Which turned out to be 7.5. Guess I felt okay since I did a mile and a half extra.
  • F: 6 easy. Overcast and a little drizzle at the end. I swear it started legit raining as soon as I was in the door. Core, hips, etc.
  • S: 6 easy. 79 on the thermometer, but felt like 91 according to Accuweather. No wonder I felt like my face was melting. Got cal-called by a guy in a minivan about a mile from home. No idea what that was about–minivan?! And not even the driver or front seat passenger but dude leaning out of a middle window. I was too confused by the whole thing to even think about a reaction (though my standard response is to pretend I didn’t hear and ignore).
  • Sun: 10. Oof. I just kept chugging along.

My struggle this week, in addition to the weather, was running slowly. That might sound counter-intuitive, but as hard as it can be to run fast, it’s just as hard to run slow. Or maybe for me it’s even harder? I have a shiny new Garmin with a wrist-based heart monitor, and it confirmed something that I have long suspected: I run most of my training runs too fast. So my goal this week was to keep the easy runs super easy. I was aiming to run 9 minute miles or more. I came close with averages of 8:50s a few times, but never managed to get my overall average pace down to where I was hoping that it would be.

Other observations:

  • I need to do better with my diet (less carbs, more plants)
  • I need to hydrate even more so I splurged on La Croix at the store this week for variety’s sake. It seems to help.
  • Went through two audiobooks (The Secret Place, which was a reread, and Children of Time). If you have suggestions for compelling novels, especially murder mysteries, please share!
  • Finally, I think 6 miles is my least favorite workout distance. I have a great 5 mile route but 6 is either a little to long or a little too short.

All in all, a good week. One down; nineteen to go.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Dave McLear]


Jun 26

And Away We Go! Or, Marathon Four: Richmond (November 2017)

Snowy egret taking off against green lake

I started training for my fourth marathon this morning. I usually don’t write about my marathons until they’re over. Partly, this is because as much as I love running and training for races, I know that it’s not very interesting to anyone who isn’t me or isn’t also training for a marathon.

But the bigger reason that I’m reluctant to talk about them publicly is fear. Specifically, fear of failure. My goal for marathon 4 is an audacious one. I like to think that I don’t care what people think, but I’m human. I care. Sometimes more than others. I don’t want to look stupid by putting my big, scary goal out into the world and failing to achieve it.

But I’m trying to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable; I’m trying to take risks. I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is and talk about hard things like fear and failure. Here it is: I’ve been flirting with the idea of a fourth marathon since the beginning of 2017. 2016 started out with such promise: I had a great training cycle to prepare for marathon 3, Los Angeles. Despite my preparation, that race didn’t go so well. I had a  great day at the 2016 Bridge Run in April, but sometime in June, my shin splints came back, and the second half of the year was marked by disruption and injury. I ended up scrapping several races as a result, including what I had hoped would be my fourth marathon, CIM. Those last few months, the races I didn’t run combined with the disaster that was Los Angeles somehow wormed their way inside my head when I wasn’t looking and worked themselves into a kind of psychic Boogeyman who fed on doubt and fear and imposter syndrome and insecurity.

It’s time to show him the door. It’s past time.

2017 has been a good year for running so far. I’ve hit new personal bests in both the half-marathon (first in Phoenix and again in Columbia) and the 10K (at the Bridge Run). I’m not injured, and my running is feeling pretty good these days (or as good as is possible in the South Carolina summer!).

So after a lot of back and forth, I finally registered for the Richmond Marathon. I am gunning for another personal best. In theory, this shouldn’t be hard. My current marathon best is from 2014. It was my first marathon, and it was on a notoriously difficult course. The second try in Paris was less than a year after my stress fracture, so it’s a minor miracle that I finished at all, let alone with a respectable time. Marathon 3 was going to be my redemption, the one where I finally earned my BQ* and proved to everyone what I was truly capable of. Or at least that was the secret narrative I had constructed for myself ahead of time. And it was a failure. A big one. Not only did I miss my Boston time by a half-hour, but I also ran slower than I had off the broken foot. It was devastating.

I have learned from all of these experiences. Mostly, I have learned that the marathon doesn’t care about redemption or narratives of any kind. I’ve learned that the only person I need to prove anything to is me, and I do that every time I lace up, not only on race day. I’ve learned that the marathon gives us 26 miles to make mistakes, but it also gives us 26 miles of opportunity and twenty-six miles to just run and not worry about whatever else is happening in the world around us on both the macro- and the micro-levels.

I’m going to Richmond in November. I have twenty weeks that started today to get myself ready. When I get there, I’m going to run my best, whatever that means on that day. I hope that it means I can nail my goal time. If it doesn’t, I hope it’s still good enough to qualify for Boston in 2019. If it’s not, I hope to finish smiling with my Oiselle Volée friends and teammates. If I can do that, there is no such thing as failure. One of the reasons I chose Richmond is because a big group of some of my favorite running friends will be there running or cheering (or both!). Even if my race is a disaster, and I want to be clear that I do not expect that it will be, but even if the worst happens, I will be with friends who understand the Run Love, both its peaks and its valleys. So whatever happens, even if I fail to reach my A and B goals, even if I fail at C, it will be a good weekend with good friends.

I’m already on my way.


*BQ, also known as Boston Qualifying time, is runner slang for the finishing time that a runner must achieve in order to register for the Boston Marathon, which is the oldest and one of the most famous marathons in the world. It is the only one which requires participants to qualify by time (runners can avoid the qualification requirement if they agree to run for one of the race’s charity partners; this option requires the runner to raise a certain amount of money for the charity in exchange for the race spot). But here’s the hitch: achieving the BQ time isn’t a guarantee of being able to run the marathon. If the number of BQ runners is greater than the field size for qualified athletes, then those who are the fastest among the pool of applicants in their age and gender group will be accepted. Last year, runners hd to be 2 minutes and 9 seconds faster than the published BQ time. In 2016, it was 2:28.

[Creative Commons licensed image “SNOWY EGReET” by Flickr user cuatrok77]









Jun 09

2017 Revisited.

Heron in Oak BayIn the beginning of 2017, I set myself some goals. I hadn’t looked back at them in a while, maybe not since writing that post six months ago.

How am I doing at the half-way point?

The big goal–the public writing goal–has been a failure. I’ve journaled A LOT. In fact, I’ve filled up another two Moleskine books, but I’ve let this space languish. I lost momentum in Cuba in part because I got sick (as it turns out, writing and barfing are not good multi-task partners), and in part because I was mostly offline while traveling since wifi connectivity was scarce and everything else was really expensive.

The rest of my goals have been more successful. I’ve been consistent with yoga and core-work, though I could be better wth the latter. I could be better with my diet–particularly the vegetables, and if I do go for another marathon, I’m going to have to make some changes. I probably should anyway. I’m getting away with things right now, but I need to consume more plants.

I’ve lost sight of the goal that is most important to me: “Cultivate discomfort and change as opportunities for growth. Reject the false security of inertia & stasis.” I’ve been doing it, and particularly since the semester has ended and the summer has begun, I’ve felt discomfort, but I’ve lost sight of the growth potential and the emphasis on cultivation. I write this from a place of change and discomfort amidst familiarity and routine both literally and figuratively. The contradictions are wearing on me, the continuous negotiations of boundaries take energy, lots of it as it turns out. I’m sure that there must be some wonderfully protracted German word for this, but it eludes me. In American, I suppose it would be called something like “adulting.”

My running continues to go well. I feel lucky to have enjoyed a good spell of late (how much I wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed “a good run” but I can’t bring myself to say that except parenthetically. It’s both too punny, and I’m too superstitious). I’ve set not one but two PR’s in the half-marathon, coming down over 2 minutes from early 2014 as well as additional PRs in the 10k (Cooper Bridge Run) and the 15k (Biltmore). Part of me wonders what I could do if I ran a 10k or a 15k that weren’t so’ hilly.

I’m contemplating another marathon, but something is keeping me from pulling the trigger. Not something–let’s call it by its name: Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of injury. Fear of committing to a Big, Scary Goal. I need to remember that I have really loved marathon training when I’ve done it before. Even when it was hard, even when it hurt (and the training cycle for Paris hurt All The Time)–I loved it. And it’s really not all that different from the running that I’m doing now: the weekly mileage is in the same range, and I’ve done the workouts before, though some of them have been more recent than others. So maybe it’s time to #WomanUp, to be brave again, to go wheels up again, to go for the so-far elusive BQ standard.

I think you should just go for it


Jan 03

2017 Goals

Putting these out into the world to make myself accountable.

  1. Run. Follow the plan. Stop adding extra on purpose, recognizing that this is one of the ways that you get yourself into trouble. Listen to yourself. Pay attention to the niggles and be honest about what is uncomfortable and what is something more. Pay attention, but don’t only pay attention. Back off when you know you should in order to keep something small from becoming something not-small.
  2. Keep at the core & the hips & the stability. You know this matters. You know this helps. Get off the couch and get on the mat. Just do it. For at least 10 minutes, 3 times a week. More is better, but something is better than nothing.
  3. Embrace the veggies.
  4. Write something. Write 52 things, more specifically. Make them public. They can be connected or they can be separate. They can be academic or they can be personal. But write at least one public thing per week.
  5. Read more women and POC.
  6. Small acts of resistance. Be present. Be engaged. Show up. Keep showing up. Tell the truth, even if it’s hard.
  7. Openness. Even if, especially if, it’s hard.
  8. Keep journaling. Even when you feel like you have nothing to say, you have something to say. And it’s important to keep this line of communication, examination, introspection open. See above.
  9. Yoga. Once a week unless traveling.
  10. Cultivate discomfort and change as opportunities for growth. Reject the false security of inertia & stasis. (This last borrowed from Sarah Lesko). #WheelsUp

Dec 28

My Year of Running: 2016

Pasadena corridor with illuminated lanterns.

If the week goes as planned, I will have run about 1600 miles in 2016. And while that might sound like a lot, it’s less than I was shooting for this year, by a little over 400 miles.  I took ten entire weeks off: two of those weeks were planned; eight of them were attempts to get past a nagging injury. But the thing that I am most proud of this year is not a particular race or result or the total number of miles that I will have accumulated. What I am most proud of this year is that every time I took a hit, and I took several–one literal–I got back up and kept going.

I have run six races (the LA Marathon, the Cooper River Bridge Run 10K, The Biltmore 15K, the BMW 2 miler, The Turkey Trot 8K, The SPACE 5K) and DNS’ed five of them (The Smoky Mountain Relay, The Scream! half, The Myrtle Beach mini, The Tryon Half, CIM).

I’ve gotten to meet several of my Oiselle Volée teammates in Los Angeles, at Bird Camp, and at several meet-ups in North & South Carolina (Biltmore, Myrtle Beach, Greenville, Spartanburg . . . .)

Best race experience: Tough call. Going to go with the LA Marathon even though it was also one of my worst race experiences. I had hoped to BQ at this race. Not only did I miss my BQ by a country mile, but I ran my slowest time of the three marathons I have run. But I learned a lot, and I know that my next marathon will be better. I’m not sure yet which marathon that will be.

Best run: I’ve had a lot of good ones since coming back from my injury. There’s nothing like being forced to step away from something to make the return extra sweet. I’m going to go with the 6 miles of trail I ran on Black Friday. I wasn’t sure I should go out to Croft. I hadn’t been out there in a really long time. I didn’t have anyone to go with me. I hadn’t tried to walk or run very far since my October hiatus. I had just raced the Turkey Trot harder than I had any business racing (SOCKS!) I was afraid of getting lost in the woods. . . But I decided to try. If it was terrible, it would be my secret. It wasn’t terrible. In fact, it was pretty awesome. I started running and felt really good, so I just kept going.

Worst runSaturday, May 7. I was running an easy 6. I ran two miles in one pair of shoes, and then I changed into a different pair for the final 4. I ran two miles out, and just about at the turn around point, I tripped. On the pavement, I think, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that I was running, and then I was flying, and then I was bleeding. I caught myself with my palms, but not before I face-planted, literally. I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood, and for a moment, I was afraid I had broken a tooth (this would not have been the first time, though the other time was when I was 12, and I fell off my bike). A passing pick-up truck slowed down to ask if I was okay. I thanked the driver and told her I was. I got up and checked my legs. I was much more concerned about being able to run than I was about my face. I was shaken up, but running seemed okay, so I ran the two miles home. When I got there, I cleaned out my scraped knee and tried to clean out my palms, which were full of cinders. I also tried to eat something since I hadn’t had breakfast before heading out. It was then that I realized that my jaw was out of alignment. This really freaked me out, so after calling my parents and talking to my uncle who is a doctor and happened to be visiting my parents, I went to the nearest Urgent Care. When I got there and went to check myself in, I couldn’t get my driver’s license out of my wallet (my hands were worse than I had initially thought), and I just started weeping. The staff there were really nice though I don’t think they believed me that I fell while running at first (I had changed my clothes and my shoes). They cleaned me up, x-rayed my jaw, which was swollen but not broken or dislocated, and bandaged my mangled hands. I looked like I had been punched in the face and couldn’t chew, type or do much else with my hands for a few days, but I didn’t miss any of my runs.

Best new piece of running gear: I’ve struggled to find my shoe since Nike changed my Holy Grail (the Lunar Eclipse 3). I’ve tried a lot of different options since the “update,” but none of them really worked for me until the Nike Lunar Odyssey. I think that this is the one. I hope. Honorable mentions: Oiselle Spandos base bra; Oiselle Holepunch Distance Shorts.

Best running advice you’ve received this year: Stop. Let yourself heal.

Most inspirational runner: MFing Kate Grace. Desi Linden, see below, is a close second.

Favorite picture from a run or race this year: See below. I got to meet one of my Run Heroes, two-time Olympic marathoner Desi Linden, in Los Angeles at the Hansons-Brooks party after a brutal marathon Trials race on 13 Feb. Me with Olympic marathoner Desi Linden

Race experience you would repeat in a heartbeat: The answer to this one depends on whether I could change anything. If I could change anything, I would repeat the Bridge Run. I think I could have run this one a little smarter than I did.

If you could sum up your year in a couple of words, what would they be? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.


Dec 27

“For Having Slept Much the Dead Have Grown Strong”: Emanuel Carnevali and William Carlos Williams

“For Having Slept Much the Dead Have Grown Strong”: Emanuel Carnevali and William Carlos Williams

The essay linked here was originally published in the William Carlos Williams Review vol. 30, No. 1-2, Spring-Fall 2013. 137-158.

Dec 27

Paterson: An Epic in Four or Five or Six Parts

“Paterson: An Epic in Four or Five or Six Parts”

The essay linked here was published in the Cambridge Companion to William Carlos Williams. Edited by Christopher MacGowan, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2016.


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]