Monday, April 27, 2015

Somehow Lacking the Fire

On Saturday I found myself in the last quarter mile of a five-kilometer race, maybe twenty yards behind a remarkably small young girl, who just then slowed to a walk. I told her that she should get going, that she shouldn't let her grandpa beat her, and she returned to a run and maintained her lead through the finish line. It was only later that I thought it interesting that I should have told her to get going rather than run on by--not that there ever would have been much glory in outrunning someone who isn't yet twelve.

In my late twenties I ran a good deal, generally entering a couple of marathons and a couple of shorter races every year. Usually I had a time in mind for the distance, and usually that time proved to be more or less correct. That part remains the same; I had a time in mind for the five kilometers and finished fairly close to it; that the time would have embarrassed me in my twenties is true but not relevant. But as I recall, I had a system that worked for me back then: run very hard until I felt terrible, then slow up so that I just felt very bad. On Saturday I didn't quite do that. I don't think I train enough to be able to do it, and I'm not sure that it would be good for someone my age.

Well, I enjoyed myself and some of my registration fee went to a good cause. It was a good Saturday morning.

Friday, April 24, 2015

It Will but it Doesn't

Most springs since I have lived in this area, there has been a day in early spring when I have gone running and  found myself thinking, In July or August this will feel refreshing. The corollary of course is, But right now I'm uncomfortable. Last Saturday was one of those days.

The day's high temperature was about 80 F and the humidity was low. However, the trees looked to me to be maybe a quarter in leaf, so the shade was sparse, even where soon it will be dense. At Sheridan Circle I looked around to pick which side of Massachusetts Avenue to take up the hill, and conclude that it didn't matter. Nor did it seem to, for I saw no more shade on the side where I ddin't run than on the side where I did.

The humidity was low enough that I got home with a mostly dry shirt. Perhaps I gained a little in acclimation for the summer that is coming soon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Read Before

When our book club read A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, I told the neighbor who picked it that I had read the book before, as one of Malcolm Bradbury's novels, in which a civilized but ineffectual man ventures into the world of the less civilized but forceful. At the time, I had in mind Stepping Westward (with the less civilized being Americans) , though the only Bradbury I had recently read and which fit the pattern was Cuts, where a writer ventures into the world of made-for-TV movies.

Last week I found a copy of Rates of Exchange at Second Story Books. Partway through, I realized that I had read some of this novel thirty years ago. I may not have read it all, for I remembered only the concluding incident. It does not quite fit the pattern of A Hologram for the King, though it has some similarities: the ineffectual man in a  tougher society; the ineffectual man who is for some reason, not clear to the reader, curiously attractive to women; too much alcohol; cultural misunderstanding.

The original pattern for Rates of Exchange may be Candide. More recent example of the pattern would be Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall or Scoop, novels that take an innocent through all manner of incidents but leave him essentially unchanged--reading theology at Oxford or writing about the great crested grebe at Boot Magna. Bradbury's Angus Petworth loses in the concluding incident of the book, the one I had remembered, the main artifact his travel to Slaka has brought him. He is left like the man in The Third Policeman who must leave underground all of the remarkable goods he has acquired there. The protagonist of A Hologram for the King, Alan Klay, is changed--he is thinking of staying in Saudi Arabia.

And Eggers's Clay is more plausible as a man changing, for he has a history. Bradbury's Petworth has a CV, as authority on ESL and traveling expert for the British Council.  Yet there isn't much too it that we see: a lecture on English as a global language, a lecture on the uvular R, mentions of a wife back home with a handful of attributes. History intrudes more on A Hologram for the King,  the decline of American industry and the rise of Chinese. In Rates of Exchange there is a mention of a recent royal wedding, and the background of the Cold War; but that wedding left little impression on this American, and that phase of East-West relations could have been any time in two decades.

Having said that, I did enjoy Rates of Exchange. One of these days I will probably find a copy of Stepping Westward, read that again, and enjoy it. And whether or not I find and read The Russian Interpreter again, I will remember that it is by Michael Frayn, not Malcolm Bradbury.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Tidal Basin

From our office, one can walk down to the Tidal Basin, around it, and back in about an hour and twenty minutes. For many years, two or three of us have done so at least once when the cherry blossoms are near their peak. Today was the day for the 2015.

Last week, the blossoms were not quite all out, for one thing. For another, the middle and end of the week were damp and cool to cold. But today we had excellent weather, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with a blue sky and low humidity. The crowds had thinned some, I think; probably more tourists were here last week or the week before, when in many years the blossoms would have been out. But this year a cold late winter and early spring delayed the blossoms..

I noticed on the way one complication introduced by cell phones: the posture employed in taking a picture across the Tidal Basin is the same as that employed in taking a selfie against the background of cherry blossoms. One doesn't know whether the polite route is on the water side or the land side of the picture taker. We dodged many photographers, and I hoped interfered with only very few of their pictures.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

His World Fails Him

I noticed the other day in Sketches From a Life by George Kennan, a passage from 1959:
A man's life, I reflected, is too long a span today for the pace of change. If he lives more than a half century, his familiar world, the world of his youth, fails him like a horse dying under its rider, and he finds himself dealing with a new one which is not really his. A curious contradiction, this: that as medicine prolongs man's span of life, the headlong pace of technological change tends to deprive him, at an earlier age than was ever before the case, of the only world he understand and the only one to which he can be fully oriented. For it is only the world of one's youth, the nature of which is absorbed with that tremendous sensitivity and thirst for impression that only childhood and early youth provide--it is only this world that answers to the description. The Western world, at least, must today be populated in very great part by people  like myself who have outlived thier own intellectual and emotional environment, and who are old not only in the physical and emotional sense, but also in relation to the time.  We older people are the guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls--in a way part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it. We sometimes talk with the hotel staff. We are listened to with interest, amusement, or boredom, depending on the relevance of our words.
A look at the front matter showed that Kennan was then 54 or 55, a bit younger than I am now. It does not say that in a couple of years he would again be an ambassador, this time to Yugoslavia.

I don't think that the pace of change increased that substantially in the twentieth century. Think of the revolutions, not simply in government but in technology and thought, that an American born in 1795 or a Frenchman born in 1782 would have seen in seventy years. John Lukacs makes such a case in his Confessions of an Original Sinner:
Well before the Sixties I found that in the twentieth century--surely after 1945--we were living in a world of intellectual near-stagnation, that the movement of ideas had slowed down, something that Tocqueville observed and predicted in a chapter of Democracy in America with the title: "Why Great Revolutions Will Become Rare." What I saw in the Sixties was that the stagnation was now near-complete, with the pendulum moving back and forth without advancing at all--something that people  obsessed with superficial appearances (and with words such as "progressive" or "revolutionary") mistake entirely, unable as they are to distinguish between motion and direction, or between position and tendency, their very seeing and hearing having  been impaired by public spectacle and public noise.
As for the world I live in, I am used enough to being heard with amusement or boredom. I have to say that the the world that we live in remains largely understandable. Many of its features I would not have imagined, but I think that I understand the principles by which they developed, and see their seeds in an earlier time. Now, I never had at all the hand in my world that Kennan did in his, and so my loss of touch should be relatively the less. But I think he overstated the matter.