Running in the Wake

1. When I started running, I was stately, yes, but too plump, and I took to the roads in the morning to take in the crisp air and give myself a bit more margin of error to drink beer.  About half a decade later -- a year ago now -- I found myself waving goodbye to my wife on a chilly, wet October morning as she drove out of the empty parking lot of Mount Vernon, once George Washington’s estate on the banks of the gray Potomac River, back to our warm home, 19 miles away, and our kitchen, and two cats, myself left with just a bag of water on my back, an MP3 recording of an Irishman reading seeming gibberish for 35 hours -- i.e., James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness dirge Finnegans Wake -- and a GPS watch to track it all.  And, of course, space-age sprays and pastes slathered on my peaks and valleys to prevent chafing. I was training to run my first marathon -- 37 and falling apart, bald and still too fat in most places, but human adaptability is a glorious thing, and somehow after training all of the hot summer it seemed the old meat machine would be able to finish the race.  Knock on wood.  Trust your training.  Never trust a fart.  Etc.  I’d made it through the acute brutalities of a DC summer (85% humidity at 5:45 am, and hot) with just one long run left.  After this last monster, the worst that remained would somehow be just a non-issue 12 miler, then taper taper taper (for non-runners: heal up) and ta da, the race, and then done.  I would get my body back, and my weekends, and my mornings. Forget the aches and the pains and the miles.  The time commitment alone was real and grueling: Almost three hours of weekday mornings spent running before work, and then a long run on Sunday of another two and a half to three hours. A month or so into the 18-week grind, though, I found that the gift of this training was the gift of reading.  Hours and hours of long runs, just get those miles in, and after a while music is too complicated, the rhythms -- too often the slightest bit off -- make feet fall wrong.  So: audiobooks.  That summer I “read” better and more by listening than I had been able to in years.  As a younger man I had swallowed whole catalogues of author after author.  Since 2004 or so, though, I hardly read a book or two a year. I'll spare you and myself the excuses -- this problem (like so many other things) was my failing and not the world’s.  But eight miles on a Wednesday morning, or a Sunday 15...that's real time, for real “reading,” available nowhere else in my life.  And God bless it.  Over the course of the summer I “read” story after story from a Haruki Murakami collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and all of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and a good lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. So back to that Mount Vernon parking lot morning.  I had reached the emotional (if not literal) end of my training.  One more long run and I‘d be done.  All that would be left would be to stay loose and rest up for the marathon.  But things had gone too well, and I wanted more.  The running books I’d read said not to push past 20 miles in your training runs, certainly not for your first marathon.  The reason: there’s no gain to be found in pushing into or through the awful last six miles, where your body and soul leave you with nothing but the one, two of foot in front of foot dragged by acid-soaked muscles and the thought that there is beer and something else at the end but I forget what.  For the sake of your emotional wellbeing, just do that once.  Save that unique joy for race day. Like I said, I felt things had gone too well.  So, for this last run, I wanted to up the mental game somehow, maybe simulate the brutality of the last six miles without running them.  What better way to test my fortitude than by hammering my head with the legendarily impenetrable Irish jibberish of Finnegans Wake?  If I can run 20 yammering nonsensical miles, then an extra six with folks cheering most of the way instead: easy, right?  Maybe easier. It seemed a good morning for my project, I thought, as my wife and I drove to Mount Vernon, cold and gray and wet.  Irish weather, maybe, myself having never seen Dublin.  And, frankly, good running weather too.  Better a chill and a wind you can fight with the fire inside than the crushing of the sun and heat. I stepped out of the car into the dreary Mount Vernon parking lot and put on the silly safety-vest-looking backpack full of water.  My wife took the wheel and drove quietly out of the parking lot, a full and sane day ahead of her.  I waved to the tail-lights as they dimmed in the mist and, trotting off towards home, I pressed play. The running was fine and predictable, the first couple miles just working through the accumulated tightness of the preceding months and past each joint’s initial grumbles.  The book pushed quickly through the first page or two that had punished me repeatedly for daring to start reading it a couple times over the years.  As the minutes passed, a sort of awareness of scene filtered through the earbuds, if only barely.  Early on, for example, a museum guide walked us (the readers) through what must have been pages of exhibits of I'm not quite sure why it mattered.  For example: “This is the flag of the Prooshi-                                                                   11 ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of        12 the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang       13 the flag of the Prooshious.?” This is Derek’s sullen resignation. But then we moved on through the miles, the book and I, past the museum, and... Not as bad as I thought.  Somehow, easier?  Easier even than a narrative book?  I'll admit there were times over the hundreds of miles this summer when I was not laserbeam focused on the intricacies of Murakami’s blind willow dream, or, in Flamethrowers, the Moto Valero slipping turning tumbling across the salt flats, or men of various ages, nationalities, and levels of familial relation leering at Franzen’s Pip.  Moments when I’d catch and hold an image then let it envelop me as my feet kept hitting ground, caught frozen smiling in the wave before it broke and rolled back, my attention and any context washed away with it.  Or the realities of the run took over: when stop lights or carb packets or blessed cold water was king, the audiobooks slipped to Charlie Brown teacher sounds and rhythm in the background.  But here was a book that was all a waterfall of images sound and rhythm and yes on some level so much more, but on a run it could be just sound and rhythm, and if you catch a bit in English here and there all the better.  And if not, it just enveloped me as I swerved along that last long run by the river, beating the bending path back to my castle. Other than the museum guide, the first surprise of Finnegan’s Wake to wash over me was the rap music.  Multiple times in first five miles (at my pace, the first hour of the book) I found myself thinking back to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious.  And I could swear that Joyce namechecked at least a couple lyricists in the first 100 pages: Black Thought, and Meth.  I was surprised somehow to not hear the names Raekwon or Ghostface Killah, even though the book’s random access style shares more DNA with the Chef and Ghost than with Method Man.  But one does not get greedy when writing a paragraph about anachronistic name dropping.  Run on. In college I read Ulysses with and for and because of the secondary texts and concordances and the desk and time big enough to hold it all.  Peek under the page and see the scaffolding made of strings.  Pull a string and pull into your lap The Odyssey or Shakespeare or the intricacies of then-contemporary Irish politics.  Delight in the architecture and in your own appetite for a “difficult” book.  Impress your friends and wow (bookish) lovers.  On the run two decades later, however, my ears were just big enough to hold the dance of syllables, if that, but in that: liberation.  I could not be expected to figure it out.  And to be clear, I didn’t.  No place for concordance here.  No strings or scaffolding. Here’s what happened (I think) in what my MP3s call the first 100 pages or so: the world was created, as were people, as was Dublin.  People had a lot of sex.  People did a lot of drinking, and got drunk.   At least one person, and likely more, peed, seemingly (hopefully) outdoors.  I’m pretty sure I may have secreted to the bushes myself in the course of those pages.  Men stood trial for their offenses. Maybe the peeing was the offense, or one of them, or maybe not.  I faced no censure myself for peeing into the bushes.  Not even a judging glance. And a few miles on, after the rap, there were other echoes, this time literary.  First, of Joyce. There was a cyclops in Ulysses and a guy named Bloom, and both, or the sound of both, in the Wake.  And did I hear Dedalus?  Like Ulysses’s Bloom, another Joyce avatar.  But then echoes of other books, as I passed other stretches I’d run before training for this race.  Here, on this stretch of path near the parkway, was where Pip rode the bus out to see her mother, and here next to the airport I remember the dinner where it became clear that Valero’s mother in Flamethrowers was truly awful.  And later on, foot after foot, echoes too outside of the other books even, because here on this bridge earlier in the summer it was too hot and my water ran out in 87 degrees and I started to get deep chills in the beating summer sun, which I’m not a doctor but I took to be a bad sign.  Hard not to flash on that. Exactly halfway through, a pub.  “Stop,” the sirens wail. Many miles on, deeper echoes too of my life before all that.  I grew up here and once back up over the bridge into the city I’m seeing that little stage near the Washington Monument where I swear I conducted a marriage of two women in front of thousands of people before a Fugazi concert in 1995.  So many Fourth of July chaos evenings chasing explosions of fireworks friends and beer.  The parades and inaugurations I cheered or screamed at (W. Bush and Obama, both -- just align my reactions with yours, and read on).  All of this, and every heaving sweating awful summer run coming back with every step across DC soil.  So deep in, but almost home.  Riding the rhythm of the Wake but long past the words. And then, the gutpunch realization that I owed the gods 20 miles but home was just over 19 from where I started.  With three miles left the legs were tightening, and the red light stops more frequent, and with the tank so low how to push on when home was just a left turn away?  But one of the few things I think I remember from Ulysses and The Odyssey is that one is not home until it is earned, that physical proximity was not enough and it was the extra that makes it real.  So once at my house, 19.4 miles from Mount Vernon, and .2 from a ferociously needed shower, I kept on straight and not left, looping the park by my house in a stumble, and pushing a bit more, to get somehow to 20 miles, legs barely there, stopping immediately once the last decimal turned, and wow. done.  and stop this Irish mumbling, phone.  I want my brain back.  Just a block or two to the door.  My wife had mentioned breakfast of bacon and fruit, even though it was past noon.  And there was leftover pizza as well.  And there, my door, my house.  Home. I stumbled to the door, legs aching but still my heart was going like mad.  My wife opened the door, and I saw the bacon and pineapple and pizza warming in the oven, and she asked me would I go clean up while she poured me a beer and yes I said yes I will Yes. 2. And that was last year.  I ran the race, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, and finished, although I was not fast.  My wife made signs and popped up five places along the way and passed me a dry pair of socks halfway through.  They were magic, those socks, and now I know to pack a pair or two for this year.  As I finish writing this, I’m wrapping up training for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon.  One 20-mile training run down, and the second this weekend.  I ran the first with a friend.  I may run the second with Joyce again for old times’ sake.  My wife and I have (lovingly and amicably) separated, and my training runs now also echo the many morning miles we had shared over the last few years.  And I cannot wait for it all to be over, the training, and then for it all, next year, to begin again just right where it left off. Image Credit: Flickr/daniMU.

Matt Taibbi’s Class Warfare is Truthy and Depressing

In his new book, Griftopia, Matt Taibbi tries to portray America as a thieve's paradise, where foreign and domestic moneyed interests fleece the rest of us in the open and we are powerless to resist.  Taibbi covers politics and, more recently, the financial crisis for Rolling Stone, and Griftopia is primarily a compilation of his recent feature stories.  It’s an entertaining but ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying read, long on adjectives and invective but sorely lacking depth of analysis or reporting.  Ultimately, Taibbi undermines himself: his assertions of fact, even regarding core points, often are colored past reality and occasionally are simply, provably wrong, discrediting the wild-eyed conclusions he reaches based on them. Prior to the financial crisis, some of Taibbi’s best-known work, collected in previous books, involved politics and campaigns.  This work, in tone as much as subject matter, implicitly invokes that of Hunter S. Thompson, who famously covered politics for Rolling Stone during the Nixon years, although Taibbi’s book on the 2004 campaign, Spanking the Donkey, pales in comparison to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, probably the high point of Thompson’s career.  Thompson’s stories often were filled with foul-mouthed, fractured and impossibly weird or vile allegations regarding its subjects, expanding or exploding reality to reflect some otherwise-inaccessible greater Truth.  There doesn’t seem to be any greater Truth beyond the paranoia of Taibbi’s furious language, but in these Glenn Beck and Stephen Colbert days, what does it matter?  Fear sells. The emotional core of the book lies in a rant that closes a chapter describing the creation and progression of the mortgage crisis: At the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, … the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy. We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country -- and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one. But we didn't do that, and we didn't spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we’re no good any more at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We're shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing. What are we good at? Robbing what's left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer. Well, if he’s right, then America is truly Fucked.  Time to hit the road, bub.  Luckily for us, however, Taibbi is dead wrong about the $13 trillion figure, and, as a result, America may not be hopeless after all. Sure, it’s been reported that the total potential cost of the bailouts is $12.8 trillion, true, but the crucial word there is “potential.”  $12.8 trillion is the potential total cost if every dollar the government pledged or loaned were actually paid out and never paid back. But that's not what's happening.  Much of the money loaned already has been repaid, and on some of the constituent “bailouts,” the government actually may make a profit.  And, likewise, much of the money used to guarantee assets will never be tapped.  This is a good thing for America.  And it’s also a distinction that a professional reporter who has been knee-deep in the financial crisis should have recognized before proclaiming the moral bankruptcy of the country.  It would be a devastating passage if it weren’t fundamentally untrue. Look, I agree with Taibbi, at least in spirit, on some issues he raises, but if you're going to be caustic and depressing and a brutal buzzkill I think you have a responsibility to make sure your facts are correct, especially a fact that forms the crux of both the chapter it ends and of the central depressing accusations of the entire book.  And because the subjects Taibbi covers – securitized mortgage instruments, the commodity markets, etc., -- are hyper-complex, I had trouble putting any faith in Taibbi’s understanding and descriptions of the details once I noticed that he whiffed on a few of those that I already understood. Taibbi carries his populist flag throughout the book, and in the final chapter acknowledges proudly that class warfare is one of his goals while asserting that those who panned his Goldman Sachs article were with Them in this great battle, and not Us, claiming that the criticisms of his piece amounted to nothing more than a defense of “class privilege.”  Like so much else in Griftopia, this is fun and entertaining, sure, but lazy.  Had Taibbi’s article been about “class privilege” and seriously wrestled with the structure and institutions of the American economy that led to the problems he identified, it explicitly or implicitly would have suggested solutions.  Instead, Taibbi aims for the fattened ducks operating the levers of power rather than the levers themselves: he seems quite proud, for example, of publicly calling Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein a “motherfucker.” Griftopia portrays America as a ghetto being looted by evil drug lords, but a simpler explanation of the financial crisis, to me at least, seems to be the economics of laziness and arrogance.  Laziness in entering a trade that is working (here, seemingly safe mortgage bonds) not because it makes sense but because it is easy and arrogance in assuming that you will know precisely when to get out.  And the evidence from the last bubble (and the tech bubble before that) seems to be that as good as these Wall Street folks may have been at riding a massive wave to shore, few knew how to pull off before the wave broke. On Griftopia’s back cover, Taibbi’s publishers praise him via pull quote as supplanting Michael Lewis as the “King Writer of Wall Street.”  Not so fast.  Lewis’s most recent book, The Big Short, walks the reader through the last few years of economic crisis with a level head and enough detail to allow a reader to understand how decisions that almost brought down the world could have seemed so common sense at the time to those who made them.  Lewis’s book handles the complexity of the financial world with both grace and precision.  Taibbi’s approach is closer to a drunken swagger: seemingly smooth, but not necessarily precise. To be fair, Griftopia and The Big Short serve different audiences.  Taibbi’s book will be of greatest utility to those who know exactly what they think but aren’t quite sure why.  Lewis’s book well serves everyone else. Bonus Link: Stockholm Syndrome: Two Books on High Finance

On Garner’s Usage: In Praise of Exacting Prose

Derek Teslik is still in his 20s for 15 more days and lives in Washington, DC.A few weeks ago Max posted about the "rules of writing." About a week later, Garth revisited David Foster Wallace's essay "Up, Simba!" which was published in the 2005 essay collection Consider the Lobster. "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage," another Wallace essay from the same collection, reviews Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, or at least begins to, before veering into autobiography and the politics of grammar nerds. The crux of the essay, which DFW helpfully announces as such, is that Garner manages to transcend 40 years of infighting in the grammar world by being subtly persuasive rather than overly accepting or overbearingly authoritarian. I'll spare you the extrapolation of this crux onto today's political landscape; for that you can go here and draw your own parallels.I had encountered Garner's work previously without realizing it: Garner is the modern editor of Black's Law Dictionary, required buying, if not reading, for every incoming law student. I entered law school in 2004 after a mostly unsuccessful attempt to become the next Russell Simmons, and dutifully purchased Black's upon arrival. Over the ensuing years, I consulted the book when necessary but gave it little consideration until reading Wallace's essay. To be honest, I have given it little consideration since, but I have spent hours reading, for pleasure and for justification, Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage and his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.When I arrived for my first day of law firm work this last September, I was surprised to find the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage on my desk already, next to a few pencils and a legal citation manual. Garner believes that the best lawyers don't write in legalese but in exacting English. I held out hope that first day that the lawyers for whom I'd work would understand this, and for the most part they have. A few so fear splitting any verb phrases that they instead twist their sentences into awkward ambiguous messes. Garner describes this practice, and the refusal to ever split an infinitive, as superstition. I don't think I'll be able to pry these older lawyers out of their comfortable superstitions, but thanks to Garner I can take their "corrections" to my writing with quiet grace knowing that I'm right. Wallace nails in his essay the reasons why Garner's dictionaries are so entertaining and so effective. All I mean to do here is second the endorsement.

A Year in Reading: Derek Teslik

My longtime friend and former roommate Derek Teslik is the guy who got me into blogging. He was once an avid blogger himself but has long since left the fold, and believe me, the blogging world is less for it. Luckily he has consented to send me a once yearly post from his undisclosed location:The Psychic Soviet by Ian Svenonius. The former frontman of Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up, now singer for Weird War (aka The Scene Creamers), finally delivers a theoretical tome to back up the agitative manifestos he places in his liner notes. Svenonius, who I have called the "kool keith of indie rock," expounds on some of the great questions of rock and roll (e.g. Beatles or Stones?) while drenching the whole thing in pseudo-socialist theory and protecting the pocket-sized book from beer and sweat stains with a handsome pink plastic cover.State of Denial by Bob Woodward. The most influential largely-unread-but-published book of the year. Woodward's modern history provided the nation with the Geraldo-in-the-Superdome moment of the Iraq war, allowing the nation to come out and say what they knew in their guts but tried to hide in their brain. Because the most damning revelations of the book (the Bush inner circle was dismissive of the al-Qaida threat in the months before 9-11, etc.) had long been lunatic fringe allegations, they were dismissed as "old news" and somehow didn't have the staying power and impact they should have. But the book's publication shifted the American psyche on the war. Proof? After it's publication, even Chris Matthews grew a pair, at least on the subject of the war. I only read the first fifth or so, but MAN, is Rumsfeld a dick!Stephen Colbert's Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure by Stephen Colbert. This unpublished work has already spawned a cartoon series and a late night talk show. From the galleys I've had a chance to read, it's a real page turner! Colbert picks up the pace a bit after the darker Alpha Squad 6: Death Be-comes Her, Or Does It?, returning to what fans of the series love the most - sex and gut-gripping fantasaction. This will make many best-of-2007 lists as well.If I Did It by O.J. Simpson. State of Denial for the Dr. Phil set. And Chris Rock called it years ago.Thanks Derek!

A Year in Reading: Winning the War on Christmas

My old friend Derek and I used to trade books back and forth in high school, and we spent many hours lurking in used book stores looking for collections of Richard Brautigan poetry and other such things. Several years later, we were roommates in Los Angeles, and one day he showed me his "blog." I thought it was a silly hobby and resolved not to be interested, but the seed had been planted and soon The Millions was born. Derek's in law school now and his blog is mostly defunct and spammy comments litter the posts, but I've been urging him to free up his schedule for another blogging endeavor. In the mean time, he graciously offered up his books for the year.I haven't had time to actually finish a book this year, between school and work and baseball, but as my exams have approached, I've read about half of Spanking the Donkey, Matt Taibbi's book about the 2004 presidential campaign. My feelings about the book are mixed: on the one hand, Taibbi is ripping off a lot of Hunter S. Thompson's schtick, for example when he tried to interview a former ONDCP guy in a viking costume with a head full of acid; on the other hand, is that such a bad thing?, and this approach can bring out truths about the people and the process that more imbedded journalists will miss.A head nod, also, to Man in Black, Johnny Cash's first autobiography, on the occassion of the release of a romantic comedy about his life.The best book of next year will be the Washington Post's Nationals beat writer Barry Svrluga's take on the Nats' first season, National Pastime, due in March. Pre-Order today!!!Spend liberally, dear readers, and with your resolve maybe America can win the War on Christmas after all.Best, D. Howard Teslik