Running for Your Life: Marathons and War

Not so long ago I wrote about Tony Judt (1948-2010) who coined the phrase the crappy generation, whose members “grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, either economic nor political.”

I had Judt in mind when I was talking to my friend J last month over cocktails. When J and I get together for Hendricks martinis and dinner on the side, we often talk about running.

One thought I had during out last session was that as a member of the crappy generation I had no mass, or national, war to occupy my body and mind. So, as a way to compensate for this deficiency (after all, we are talking “crappy” here), I run marathons.

How are marathons like wars? As a group, we marathoners struggle and suffer through months of basic training to bring ourselves up to the standards of road “combat,” which is running continually for 26.2 miles. Out there on the course, we urge each other forward, like mates in the trenches. We understand, as best we can, the common enemy (especially at mile sixteen or mile twenty when we are convinced that we have nothing left.) Along the course, the civilians cheer as if to the soldiers on march to harbor and their troop ships, saying reassuring war-years-like things: “Looking great!” “We’re proud of you!” “You’re all so amazing!”

At the end of race, we have a memory and a medal to show to those at home. And, after our marathoning days are over, we put the medal in a drawer for safekeeping. When we take it out we will handle it carefully and memories of our own sacrifice and those who shared it will come flooding back.

There will be no marathon cenotaphs, no memorials built for the nameless marathoner. It is, I’m sure you agree, better that way.

Next: Running for Your Life: Baseball, Hockey and a Birthday!

Running for Your Life: If the Greats Were With Us Thursday

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) grew up breathing the air of southern Georgian Bay as I did a half-century later. In Canada, Thomson is known as the Great Outdoor painter who got away, the northern magus, the promise of a singular vision at a time when the nation itself hadn’t fully formed. His sudden, mysterious death by drowning occurred as the Great War was raging in Europe, when Canada was earning its stripes as an independent country, removed from England and distinct from the United States in the increasingly modern world.

This founding artistic father of Canada has always been a kind of spiritual brother to me … So, in some respects, this great is always with me. Here’s a sample meditation:

"It’s not like we have many letters from Tom Thomson. Not like Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) a generation before, a loner of an entirely different type, Vincent, whose shouts and sighs and embitterments seem mixed in the thick paint itself and is why I can stand before the paintings of his later years, or the other that started the thrall, “The Potato Eaters,” and if I’m still enough I can shut out the phone-snappers and loud, hard-of-hearing visitors, the ghouls who step right in front of me.

With Tom, you have to fill in the blanks. His paintings, say “West Wind” or “Jack Pine,” don’t shout or even mutter. They are like the place of his birth, Owen Sound, and the bush beyond, the bird-wing and tree-crack, the crunch of dry, hard leaves underfoot – and when Tom could he’d seek out the muddy shores and hear the sound of the loose suck with each step of his bone-dry hunting boots, think of the men at war.

Even in the trenches of Passchendaele, the Canadians don’t shout or mutter or cry of their lot. Tom didn’t go to war and at no point in his few letters and cards home and to friends does he say why. The papers, of course, wrote of nothing else. With photos too. So when he sought out the mud it was to pay homage to his fellow Canadians, those who didn’t rule men but felt the pull of the factory, the farm, the mine and, for Tom, the fishing hole. When he paints the browns, dull grays when the scene demanded something brighter, blame the war. What drove him even deeper into himself, brought a darkness to light."

Next: Running for Your Life: Marathons and War

Running for Your Life: Nobel Peace Prize Candidate Couple That You Should Know About

Their names are Christopher and Regina Catrambone, two thirtysomethings who live in Malta, who founded the dark niche of all niches in today’s grave new world: a war-zone insurance company, Tangiers International, that provides kidnapping, terrorism and death and injury coverage to journalists and military contractors.

They also have been in the forefront – before the headlines of the past several months – of a consciousness-raising high-energy civilian approach to the migrants-at-sea crisis in the Mediterranean.

You might miss their story. I would have, if not for a random reading of Outside magazine. Typically, the magazine is not for me. Too much about mountain climbing, extreme sports, pricey and wonky gadgets that, if anyone has read even a shred of this blog will know I don’t cotton to the high falutin when it comes to exercise or fitness.

Occasionally, though, Outside will surprise you. With articles like this one by Joshua Hammer, whose “The Bad-Ass Librarians to Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts,” will be published by Simon and Schuster next April. See this link:

Chris, of Louisiana, and Regina, of Italy, might not have everyday routines like you and me. They live millionaire lives on an island in the Mediterranean. But they couldn’t stand by and watch as the crisis worsened in those waters. The Catrambones should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize because they answered the call, the one we all feel when we see the pictures on television and ask how in the world can we ever get ahead of this crisis, or even make a little bit of a difference. I mean it’s all in the article, including their self-financed 131-foot rescue vessel MV Phoenix, but here, to me, is the moment of truth. From whence Nobel Peace Prizes are born:

One day near Lampedusa, an Italian island south of Malta that has become a  purgatory for tens of thousands of migrants, Regina was sunning on the top deck  [of their yacht] when she noticed a winter jacket bobbing in the water. The Catrambones asked their captain, Marco Cauchi, a search and rescue commander moonlighting from the Armed Forces of Malta, about the incongruous piece of clothing. It was, he replied, almost certainly the jacket of a refugee. Cauchi told them how, during one military rescue, he’d watched a migrant sink beneath the waves a few feet from him. “There were 29 people on this boat that capsized, and most could not swim,” he told them. “I saw those big eyes open, and I saw him go down so fast. I couldn’t reach him. It stayed with me always.”

 As Hammer tells the story, the Catrambones refused to look back. They jumped on board and since that day in July 2013 have worked to save thousands upon thousands of these desperate souls. These are the kinds of actions that should be more widely known. A Nobel Peace Prize, an evening’s visit with Stephen Colbert. Couldn’t we just dream of a world in which “Keeping Up With the Catrambones” was must-watch television?

Next: Running for Your Life: Marathons and War

Running for Your Life: If the Greats Were With Us Thursday

A little while ago I wrote about Roberto Clemente, my favorite baseball hero, in this space. Today, let’s honor someone I never saw play: Satchel Paige.

First off, folks like me, who carry the idea of being an athlete into their silver years, admire Satchel Paige for being the oldest major league rookie (42) while playing for the Cleveland Indians. He played in the pros until he was 47.

But here, I want to write about these lines that are attributed to Paige:

Work like you don’t need the money.
Love like you’ve never been hurt.
Dance like nobody’s watching.

These words come to mind because of something that happened about five years ago. Like we’ve done for years in our married life, M and I went for a morning walk. She was glum, upset about the lack of progress she was making in her writing. Many years before, K, our daughter, had printed these lines, with a credit to Satchel Paige, on a bulletin board in her bedroom.

It was in the spirit of Satchel Paige’s quote that I said to M, if it’s possible, why don’t you try to write stories from the place of excitement and wonder that you did when your first stories appeared years ago. She took my advice to heart and did just that with the superfine result that Narrative magazine would soon publish her story “Standards”, an MM classic, if you ask me. And she has not looked back since.

M got word of acceptance from Narrative on Yom Kippur, and this week, ironically, I too was rewarded on the Day of Atonement with some perseverance of my own, with after years of false starts and promises surrounding work short and long, fiction and non-, I received word that a story of mine has been accepted for publication at a journal that deserves the respect that it has among writers. Today I’m feeling as M did when “Standards” was taken, not looking back on what has been.

So do what Satchel says. You can't go wrong.

Next: Running for Your Life: Nobel Peace Prize Candidate Couple That You Should Know About

Running for Your Life: Power of Tides

A simple idea came to me recently. M and I were enjoying the hospitality of our friends who own a second home on Fire Island. Life on Fire Island, no more than a giant sandbar of scrub trees and marsh off the Long Island shore, is by definition relaxed. There are no cars. No roadways. Big tire wagons and balloon wheel bikes account for non-pedestrian traffic. Speed limit signs say 8 MPH.

It is a strange and hypnotic stasis here, day after day in the summer, I imagine, really felt it on Sept. 12 as we strolled along Holly Walk to the Atlantic Ocean side. Here are several simple cottages, vintage-looking, with wide open doors and windows, there is nothing about these places that would suggest that any time had passed from the days they were built after the Great Hurricane of 1938. God, do you feel it. The people here move about, manage their time in leisure like their family members have been doing for decades.

Like the tides. People here are but organic matter, not cement or mortar, we yield. And if the dominant presence is the tides then they will hold sway on all the living things touched and held by them. We cannot do otherwise. That is the why of these people coming back season after season.

Which reminds me of a story by Alastair MacLeod, “The Road to Rankin’s Point” How touching are they – grandmother and beloved grandson. There are the precious few who allow in the other (tides) to a place where it becomes something more than we can know, and is given voice. How we interpret that voice is up to us.

Next: Running for Your Life: If the Greats Were With Us Thursday