Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where's M.A.?

I was happily one of 15,000 people on Thanksgiving morning in Manchester, CT, participating in a 74-year-old tradition of running 4.7 miles to usher in the holiday season.

The Manchester Road Race started in 1927 when the captain of the Manchester High School cross-country team was sad that his track season was over in early November, and thought it would be fun if there were a Thanksgiving Day cross-country race for the town. The Manchester recreation director got on board and then the town government, and so a tradition was started.

Today it’s competitors and customs. Generations of families run together, and there’s a contingent of imaginative costumes, including: blue bodied smurfs; suit and sunglassed Blues Brothers; an entire Thanksgiving dinner; a running Christmas tree; and several different groups of men in Hawaiian hulu outfits. Townspeople line most of the route, cheering people on, some blaring some inspiring music, which really does help. Various homegrown bands play for the crowd: rock bands play some mean Leonard Skynard and the Stones; there was a brass quintet; an accordion band; and the St. Patrick's bagpipe band from Glastonbury. The whole atmosphere is incredibly festive.

I was happy with my 63 minutes finish time for 4.7 miles. I had to power-walk up the big hill, but since I’ve been power walking in NY a lot longer than I’ve been trying to run, I didn’t fall too far behind in time.


Manchester, Then & Now
I wasn’t familiar with Manchester before my friends invited me along. I learned it was the site of the first successful professional silk mill in the US, founded by Ralph, Ward, and Frank Cheney in 1838. With the success of Cheney silks, Manchester grew into a quintessential company town. The town has preserved the remnants of the dynasty’s homes and mills, and its archives are an important source of knowledge for the mill production work of New England.

The family ran the company until they were bought out by JP Stevens in 1954. The town never recovered its company town prosperity and it has suffered in the recnt economic downturns. It is sprinkled with antique stores, and I guess it sees some business from the NY to Boston “antique-ing” seekers.

The race begins with the "Star Spangled-Banner," and after “on your marks, get set, go” is proclaimed, the race kicks off to a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” followed by Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

Somewhere amid all this ceremony I heard the announcer say something like “let us remember our neighbors,” and he read a fairly long list of names.

And then a chill went down my spine. I remembered. Manchester. There was a shooting in Manchester in August. A worker at a beer distributor was accused of stealing, and was asked by his boss to resign or be fired. After viewing videotape surveillance they had of him stealing from his route, he signed a resignation. He then asked to go get a drink of water, and he picked up 2 guns he had brought with him in his lunch pail. He shot eight people, and then himself. He had complained to his mother and girlfriend of racist treatment from his employers, though he had never filed a complaint with the union.

The announcer was reading the names of the those who were shot dead. Standing amid 15,000 people it was a poignant reminder how much our lives are affected by our neighbors. There are times when we celebrate together, sometimes even in running shoes. But the fabric of individual life and collective society is always very, very fragile.

Update 11/29: Turns out that Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King was at the race too. Here's his account (h/t my brother):

A good time was had by all at the 74th annual Manchester (Conn.) Road Race in central Connecticut Thanksgiving morning. What a slice of Americana. Ran in memory of my late brother Bob with his widow, Caroline; visiting daughters Laura and Mary Beth; nephew Evan and niece Laila, Bob and Caroline's children; along with their teammates from the South Windsor (Conn.) High cross-country team ... all in bright green "Bob's Team'' T-shirts designed by Laila. A great morning, though it was 29 degrees at the start of the race.

This was one of those leisure 4.8-milers, even with a mile-long winding hill early in the race, with 15 bands playing by the side of the Manchester roadways, and some of the most incredible costumes. Eight guys streamed past at one point in little loincloths and native-American feathers around their heads, wearing nothing else but running shoes. As one of the rock bands played "Fortunate Son'' on a lawn 1.5 miles into it, a guy dressed as one of the Hanson brothers from "Slapshot'' danced on the lawn with a woman dressed from head to toe as a bright red lobster. And so it went. Never had more fun running a race, even though I finished around 11,000th out of 15,000. At least I edged out 90-year-old Betty Hutchinson. Now that would have been embarrassing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Counting My Blessings



Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I'll be running in the 4K Manchester Road Race this year. It's quite the tradition in Connecticut. Here are some wise words from Mr. Irving Berlin:

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tumblring Back At You

I'd like to call your attention to a tumblr of the finest order: "This isn't happiness™" by the talented Peteski. His tumblr is a dazzling, poignant, sexy, beautiful, dark collection of photographs that has an enormous following. Peteski describes his work as "an art scrapbook of links more than images, Rated PG-13. Most images seen here have been retouched or manipulated by me for propaganda purposes."

From time to time Peteski links to one of my posts, and he did so last week in the most artful way. He had posted this very "descriptive" photo for Veterans Day, and linked to my post for the day, looking at the fictional character Lord Peter Wimsey whose shell shock is worked into the plot of the mystery. I didn't notice the quiet statement about war in the photo at first, which is part of its power.

Then Peteski recaptioned the photo on his site using a quote from the Wimsey book. And that caption was just perfect for that photo: the soldiers are clearly WWI, from Lord Peter's war, and the character is speaking to Wimsey in such understatement: "What's the damn good of it, Wimsey?" Peteski has an excellent ear as well as eye.

Go enjoy his amazing curated vision of the world. Regardless of his own site subhead, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honoring Those Who Served . . . and Lived

Veterans Day is our national complement to Memorial Day, when we honor those who went into the jaws of hell and came back. For Great Britain and the Commonwealth, November 11 is their Memorial Day, their time to honor the dead, anchored as it is on Armistice Day, when the war to end all wars ended and the modern world began.

For we Yanks, HBO has a new documentary tonight called Wartorn: 1861 to 2010, executive produced by James Gandolfini. Reviewed by Edward Copeland here.

It’s an important story that looks at our returning veterans today, and since the Civl War, and sees what kind of challenges they bring back with them from the battlefields, from witnessing the very worst that humans can do to humans. One challenge is continuing trauma. From the HBO website:

“Civil War doctors called it hysteria, melancholia, and insanity. During the First World War it was known as shell shock. By World War ll, it became battle fatigue. Today, it is clinically knows as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a crippling anxiety that results from exposure to life-threatening situations such as combat.”

Popular culture has captured some of this truth, including William Wyler’s 1946
The Best Years of Our Lives. When Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell return home from the “popular war” they each struggle with nightmares and alcohol.

The Shell Shocked Lord Peter
An early mainstream depiction of shell shock was from Dorothy L. Sayers and her creation Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is seen as a foolish ass in some ways, but we learn that he was severely injured by artillery fire near Caudry, France, and suffered a complete breakdown when he was demobbed. The foolish demeanor is his way of coping with the shell shock.

In Whose Body, the first Wimsey novel, his overwork leads him to hallucinate he is back in the trenches. Luckily his manservant Bunter is nearby:

"Put that light out, damn you!" said Wimsey. "Listen—-over there-—listen—can't you hear it?"

"It's nothing, my lord," said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; "it's all right, you get to bed quick and I'll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you're all shivering—you've been sitting up too late."

"Hush! no, no—it's the water," said Lord Peter with chattering teeth, "it's up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can't you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they're mining us—but I don't know where—I can't hear—I can't. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it . . . Listen! Oh, my God! I can't hear—I can't hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can't they stop the guns?"

"Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no—it's all right, Major—don't you worry."

"But I hear it," protested Peter.

"So do I," said Mr. Bunter stoutly; "very good hearing, too, my lord. That's our own sappers at work in the communication trench. Don't you fret about that, sir."

Lord Peter grasped his wrist with a feverish hand.

"Our own sappers," he said; "sure of that?"

"To be sure they will," said Mr. Bunter, "and very nice, too. You just come and lay down a bit, sir—they've come to take over this section."

"You're sure it's safe to leave it?" said Lord Peter.

In a later novel, The Unpleasantness at the Belladonna Club, begins on Armistice Day, 1928, and the plot revolves around the fact that for the 2 minutes of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, nobody moves, so the killer can get to his target unseen.

It’s also notable for this exchange between Wimsey and Captain Fentiman from the war:

George: "I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ‘em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing? What’ll you have?”

Wimsey: “Dry Martini” Cheer up. All this Remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it won’t do to say so. . . .How are things going for you?

George: “Oh rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income-tax.”

* * * * *

What’s interesting about this is that Sayers is the early Christie. Her novels are murder mysteries, not Zola-like realistic drama. But her characters ring true in many ways, and such was the reality of the fate of the returning servicemen from World War 1.

It is sad and terrible and seemingly inevitable that a similar fate awaits some of our own service people. One tangible way to help is to contribute to Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and other such organizations that helps today’s veterans.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cross Currents on the Kindle

I’ve entered the world of digital ink, of whole libraries stored in a tablet the size of an old paperback book, torn down to the thickness of the cover with just a few pages.

My 6" screen Kindle just came today, so I’m still finding my way around. One surprise was the screen savers that appear when it goes to sleep: so far I’ve seen Jane Austen, Ralph Ellison, Virginia Wolf, and Jules Verne in classic line drawings. The most surprising was the medieval illuminated manuscript. A striking echo of the work of scribes, often monks, who spent their lives transcribing books by hand: “Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity, the entire literature of Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe.”

And so we of the electronic ink age stay connected to the history of literature. This advancement in technology is not meant to cut us off from the past.

I first started paying attention to this new device after reading Nicholson Baker’s “Annals of Reading” article in The New Yorker in August 2009. He was a skeptic all around: he didn’t like the name: “It was cute and sinister at the same time-—worse than Edsel, or Probe, or Microsoft’s Bob”; and he reacted to the $395 price: “Sure, the Kindle is expensive, but the expense is a way of buying into the total commitment.”

It’s much, much less of a commitment now, and I like the name. I never seriously considered the Sony Reader or the Nook (talk about a bad name).

Baker was ahead of the curve when he talks about reading books on his tiny iPod (these still being the days before the iPad).

“In print, The Lincoln Lawyer swept me up. At night, I switched over to the e-book version on the iPod ($7.99 from the Kindle Store), so that I could carry on in the dark. I began swiping the tiny iPod pages faster and faster.

"Then, out of a sense of duty, I forced myself to read the book on the physical Kindle 2. It was like going from a Mini Cooper to a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks.”

Ouch.

The Kindle is not illuminated, and the current version 3 doesn’t even have a brightness control for the screen, which is a huge design flaw. It is not a touchscreen, which for a woman whose first cell phone was an iPhone is a little frustrating to navigate.

And yet, I want my library to be separate from the universe that comes with the internet on an iPad. I’m happy that my liquid books have their own space, and in the modern age, they have their own gadget.


My First Kindle Book . . .


A modern rite of passage. What would my first download be?

When I saw it on a list of Top Kindle books, I knew it was the one:

Keith Richard’s Life.

I loved Tom Watson’s post about seeing Richards at the NYPL talking about his book. It sounded like a fascinating read, part cultural history, part dispatches from the drug wars, but it’s not the kind of book I want on my spatially challenged bookshelf. It's a perfect ebook.

I just started reading it, but something jumped out that totally grabbed me.

Keith has short summary blurbs at the start of each chapter:

“In which I am pulled over by the police officers in Arkansas during out 1975 U.S. tour and a standoff ensues”

“In which I go to art college, which is my guitar school”

That style is a loud echo of Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers and its sequel, Twenty Years After:

“In which M. Seguier, keeper of the seals, looks more than once for the bell”

“In which it is proved that in the most trying circumstances brave men never lose their courage, nor hungry ones their appetite”

Which isn’t surprising. Keith is a literate guy with a good ear, and The Three Musketeers is in the DNA of every generation of young boys. We have to give Mick D’Artagnan, but Keef is our Athos, from the hard drinking to the skill with the sword, I mean guitar.