Goodbye My Love

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I said goodbye to an old lover today. She’s three and a half billion years old, give or take. Which is, I suppose, why the wife doesn’t mind.

She used to be a volcano. You can tell by her shape. She is a hill, and she looks like all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stylized drawings of hills, especially the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo had his big adventure.

Melibokus
Melibokus from the southwest (Image: Mapio)

She is the hill where I run, once a week when the weather is good, once a month when it is not. I’ve climbed the equivalent of five Everests on her.

Her name is improbable. In fact, if you know any Latin, it is impossible. Melibokus. No name for a lady ends in –us. But there it is. The Germans took to calling her Mälchen, which also fails to do her justice. It’s frusty somehow.

What binds me to her? The usual for old lovers–it’s physical. I come to call and she is there. She has vineyard hips that shine gold in the autumn sunlight. Above she is all old-growth deciduous, dark emerald. Two castles guard her treasures, flags still flying. Her leaves glow lime green in the springtime against the black mud trails and the dun mulch of a hundred winters. There are lava rocks lying around from when she spewed them out, way back when.

There is, in reality, nothing spectacular about Melibokus. She looks like a dozen other hills around her, but slightly taller. She is topped by two big, ugly communications towers and a small, windowless building fenced off with barbed wire. Its stenciled building number looks American GI and so inspires rumors of a secret listening station.

Like I said, I run on Melibokus. I have probably logged 500 kilometers on her since I’ve lived here. I feel the free feelings she offers, and I think about whatever comes up. Usually it’s something I have read and how it applies to my life. It’s a very selfish time.

Looking back, after so many years of being together, I can grasp what was magical between us. I spent hours and hours toiling my way to her top, having what psychologists blithely call a “peak experience.” What was it all about? Why was the simple, sweaty act of running up a mid-sized hill in the middle of Germany so absorbing? It was this: As I was running, Melibokus was all the while playing an exceedingly good trick on me. For 10 years she made me feel I was not aging at all, when in fact when I stopped recently to look around, I could see I had aged at exactly the rate everyone else was. Still, I had those 10 years. If you can find someone who works that kind of magic on you, hold on to it while it lasts.

She was, like I said, always channeling people for me–Hume, Kant, Russell, occasionally even Heidegger and Kierkegaard. For old time’s sake, I should write down the last person she summoned. It was Martin Amis, the English novelist. For anyone of my generation and of my general mold, Amis is tops. He wrote about the insanity of wanting money, the everyday horrors of religious fanaticism, and the unpleasant habits of dictators. (He is still writing, but I think even he would say his best days are behind him.)

Anyway, the last time I turned toward the top of Melibokus and let my mind wander, what came to me was Amis’s remark in an interview that the most rewarding part of his life, despite his immense literary success, had been his “bourgeois” pleasures. This was his snooty way of saying “wife and kids.”

Well, I thought, as I chugged along, that is really something. A guy becomes a modern-day Thackeray, is flown on lear jets to world capitals to talk about books, and he says the best part of the whole thing was his family.

I feel like Amis’s observation expressed a truth that has saved me a lot of trouble. Something like 99.9 percent of humans aren’t set up to become artists, or geniuses of any kind. Amis actually made all the sacrifices necessary to become a genius, which mostly consisted in neglecting his family to tend some inner flame, and then on the other side of all those sacrifices he says family was the best part anyway. It’s striking.

I imagined how my life would have gone had I tried too hard to be an artist–still might go if I got some harebrained idea–rather than getting a job and having a family. Thanks to what Amis said to me in 2018, I felt like a guy who had made all the right choices since 2002, when I met my wife, or possibly since 1999, when I stopped trying to be a genius. It was a huge relief, knowing I hadn’t run other people’s dreams into the ground just so I could go on a vision quest or something stupid like that. Amis was right: family life was much better than any other ideal I might have pursued.

Maybe those communications towers pulled in Amis’s thoughts for me, and all the other people’s thoughts. Bless them, if they did.

I am all done with you now, Melibokus. We had our last tryst this morning. My job made me move, so I won’t see you anymore. I won’t get up at 03:30 on a June morning and start up through your forests as the early summer dawn breaks so I can be done before it gets really hot.

I’m not sure what I will do with my Sunday mornings now, but you will go on as you always have. I will think of you and the nice trick you played on me. You will take other lovers, which is comforting in a way. You will continue to exist, long after quiet returns and there are no more creeping things that creep upon the earth.

Goodbye, my love. I will forget you, slowly I hope, but I will write you as often as I can.

Advertisements

Running Zermatt

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Well, I did it. On my fifth try, I finally made it to the starting line–and the finish line–of the Zermatt Ultramarathon. Here’s photographic proof:

HD Finish Line Closeup

The ultra is easily one of the most spectacular courses in the world, starting in the alpine village of Sankt Niklaus (1,116m), paralleling the glacier-fed Vispa River southward through Zermatt village, and then chugging straight up to Europe’s highest rail station, at Gornergrat. Gornergrat is a kind of moonscape at 3,089m above sea level, staring directly across the Vispa valley at the north face of the Matterhorn. You feel pretty tiny up there.

If you’re a runner and you’ve ever seen that view, you immediately think: bucket list; this is something I have to do before I die. And so it was for me. Eventually.

A friend put the Zermatt bug in my ear about about 10 years ago. He was fresh back from finishing it and probably noticed from my treadmill work that I also had a thing for hill running. At the time, though, my knees were bad, and running Zermatt was only an abstract wish. My “runs” mostly consisted of isolated 10k hobbles between bouts of runner’s knee that could last weeks at a time.

Over the next few years, though, my knees improved, and the idea started to take hold that I just might make it to Zermatt. The first time I tried to go, in 2013, my training program took me till sometime in May, when my knees blew out. Zermatt happens in early July. So it goes.

Well, Zermatt is a long game, I told myself, and that is what I would play. I regrouped and made a training plan for the next year. Again, the knees blew out, although this time they lasted till June. Progress.

A friend of mine recently gave me the perfect phrases for what Zermatt would become for me over the years. It was my “Murphy,” a special place I really wanted to reach but which was fenced off by chronically bad luck. All of my efforts to get there were (again his phrase) “needlessly fraught.”

In 2015 I had to write Zermatt off entirely. My back, which had bothered me for years, needed a disc replacement. So I got one, on the week of the race, as it turned out. I was flat on my back in the hospital when the starting gun fired.

I only got back to running in January of the next year. It was a slow trudge back to fitness, and I just didn’t have the stength to train for Zermatt in time. (I tried a challenging race later in the season, which had its own Murphy-like qualities–another story, which I have alread set down.)

2017 looked like my year. Both kness were great, and by April I was turning in strong training runs on big hills. I felt confident in my endurance, and so I started to do some strength- and speed work. One Tuesday in late April I fiinished a 10k speed/hill workout on the treadmill feeling pretty good but with just a little mystery tightness near the top of my quad. Two days later I couldn’t run at all, and a week later an MRI solved the mystery of the tightness. It was a torn muscle, and I was out for the next six months.

By this time in my Zermatt “career,” I felt like a Zen master who spends hundreds of hours making an intricate sand sculpture and then teaches himself detachment by sweeping it all away. Except I never quite finished the sculpture; it just kept getting swept away right before it was done.

I already had money down on my family’s reservations in Zermatt that year, and so we went anyway, for a mountain getaway. We watched the runners and felt the excitement of the event, which is a big production. It takes more than a thousand volunteers to pull the Zermatt Marathon off. The main point of the trip seemed to be teaching my kids that it was okay to have long-term goals even if they kept eluding you.

This year I made a concession to caution and told myself, no speedwork. If I made it through the early spring of my training plan without injuries, I promised I would just keep plodding and not get greedy about my finishing time.

It worked, for the most part. Murphy certainly did his best to scotch this year, and he kept me guessing right up till the end, but luck and caution won out, just barely.

Mirroring my year in 2017, I was feeling strong right through late April. Then a strain (or tear?) in my right calf had to be nursed. I didn’t run for a whole month, which was galling. May is beautiful in Germany; plus it is just the time you really want to be feeling your game if you are going to show up for Zermatt. Instead, I was waiting and just holding on. The calf strain could have easily cost me the race (again), but luckily I was able to keep up some cross-training throughout May. The the spin bike, the stairmaster and elliptical trainer became my special friends. It wasn’t fun, but it kept me in the game.

From my town, I can see the big hill where I do my long training runs. It looms dark emerald on the horizon. I spent the whole month of May wondering if I was going to get back on it, which meant, in effect, wondering if I was going to make it to Zermatt. You can ride like the devil, but you can’t get there on the spin bike. Miles must be trod, on God’s green earth.

Tentatively, I did get back to that hill. I put in 20k the last day of May. I did some rough math in my head as I was finishing that run and figured I needed to step up each long session by 8k a week if I was going to peak on schedule, two weeks before Zermatt.

This I did, turning in successively longer runs and finally a decent 44k run on the 24th of June with lots of climb. But Murphy wasn’t done with me yet. Less than halfway through the run, I felt a tightness and then a distinct pain in my left calf, same place the right one had bothered me before. Godammit-motherfucking-sonofabitch, I thought placidly as I decided to keep going. Am I really sweeping away this sand painting again?

One of the cardinal rules of running is never continue if you feel more pain than the usual discomfomfort of exertion. You’re going to do more harm than good. The calf pain made me mad, though, and I decided to break the rule. If I didn’t finish the run, my Zermatt dream was going to be over one way or another. Quitting at 16k would have left me without a sufficient peak training run, and grinding the damn calf injury into a torn muscle was going to end my whole season. Seeing no real choice, and feeling spiteful at the frailty of my own body, I decided to go with option two.

Foolish? Oh, my, yes. But this is probably the right place to point out that 2018 was going to be my last shot at Zermatt ever. The Army, after employing me for 18 years in Europe, was sending me home to the States. The orders were already written, 20 copies of them printed out and sitting in a stack on my desk. Sure, we’d come back to visit Europe and drink coffee, but I knew I would never lace up my shoes for a serious mountain run this side of the Atlantic again. I tried not to get emotional about it, but it really was a do-or-die scenario.

Somehow, pushing my lame calf on the long run didn’t result in catastrophe. The day after, it was stiff and sore but not completely done in, as I thought it might be. I took heart, telling myself I would ice it, rest it and just go back to cross training for the last two weeks, which were supposed to be easier anyway.

This I did, and after a few days I could ride the spin bike without pain and walk without a limp. I dared not run; all i could do was hope the calf was healing as I was idling away my peak fitness.

But with 10 days to go, Murphy re-made his acquaintance. I guess I should have been expecting him. I drank a recovery shake after a two-hour session on the spin bike, and then I had some pizza at home with the kids. This combination produced a violent misadventure in my stomach that laid me out in incapacitating pain. I kept telling myself that whatever bad things are happening in the stomach have to cycle through in four or five hours, but this proved not to be the case. At hour seven I asked Bibi to take me to the clinic for a possible alien-removal procedure.

Apparently the decision to go to the clinic cured me. I felt better as soon as I got there. The doc gave me the once over, ruled out the worst, and sent me on my way with the usual advice about taking it easy. Sure, I thought, I would just take it easy.

If you are still reading, you are showing me more patience than I deserve as I bring this story to the Zermatt starting line, where you already know it is going to end anyway. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say at the end of all his speeches, thank you for your attention.

But there’s more. Recovered from the world’s worst upset stomach, I ventured forth exactly one week before the race to put in a cool 7k tuneup run through the local woods. The purpose of this run, if you are peaking for an ultramarathon, is just to hear your engine purr. You’re supposed to come off it without a sweat, full of steady confidence. I had to stop my run at 4k. My left calf was still hurting. A week to go, and I couldn’t eke out one tenth of the race distance, on a flat course.

There it was. It was not necessarily the end of my race, but it was the big, fat question mark that would hover over the starting line. And so, when I took my place in Sankt Niklaus on race day, I had no idea how things would turn out. Would my calf start hurting ridiculously early and make me drop out before the race really began? Probably. Maybe. I didn’t know.

Would my fitness have declined too much from sitting out the last 10 days of training? From substituting too much gym time for real trail running? Again, I didn’t know.

Kierkegaard said we live life forward, and we only understand it in retrospect. This is a radical insight. It means we don’t fully understand anything as we are doing it. We just give it our best shot, not knowing if we are sufficiently prepared or if we are even in the right place, aimed in the right direction. Something may come along and erase your sand painting in an instant. Or you might finish it and have it turn out beautiful. It seems impossible to live in the space in between those possibilities, but that’s where we must live. That’s where I was when the starting gun went off.

What Can Happen Here

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This will be short, I promise.

In 1998 the University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty predicted the rise of the current nationalist-populist mob in America. He wrote about it succinctly in his book Achieving Our Country.

This is what he wrote:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

The first point I would like to make about about this passage is not an obvious one. It has to do with Rorty’s use of the word jocular, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but actually is. Whenever Trump or his trolls are caught calling for violence against the press or using racist or sexist stereotypes, their go-to defense is, “just kidding.” This is a clever move. It deflects guilt for what looks like bigotry and puts it on the offended party for being overly sensitive or “politically correct.” And it stakes out a broad scope for bringing back insults and retribution out against people who look or think differently than I do and are getting uppity.

Humor, even if disingenuous, is a powerful thing to have on your side. The mob knows this, or at least senses it, and advances its points accordingly–with funny memes. Nothing brings down a logical argument like a good derisive laugh.

Rorty
Richard Rorty

The second thing is that, even though Rorty was startlingly accurate his description of  the way nationalist-populism has arisen, he was wrong about the way nationalist-populists would use political power. They have not fomented a revolution, at least for now. Rather they are simply using all the ordinary political mechanisms that empowered formerly alienated minorites from the 1960s onward.

Much of what we gained in terms of civil rights, broadly construed, can be reversed simply by rolling back the same processes that led to them in the first place. Trump’s opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court justice is a clear indicator of this. I am not saying we’re headed for a reversal of, say the 13th Amendment, or that it will be easy to impose a robustly reactionary agenda on the state. But I am say that all the necessary tools are there, even without a revolution. Maybe dictatorship can’t happen here, but too much of the reactionary sadism that goes with it can.

Only Connect. But Also Create.

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I am all the time lecturing my kids. Like all fathers, I use my lectures to advance two themes:

  1. What makes the world go ’round, and
  2. How to be.

No wonder men feel like kings in their own homes. We might be louts and jackasses, but within our walls, we have carte blanche to speak, as Saul Bellow put it, the “highest human phrases.” It’s a wonder we ever go anywhere, out where we are just peasants.

My kids have absolutely all the stuff they want or need, which makes it hard for me to get my two main points across. Here are my two main points:

There are only two powers in the world worth having:

  1. The power to create things from your own mind, and
  2. The power to connect to other people.

Like all my ideas, I stole both of these. I don’t really recognize my own ideas until I see them written down in other people’s books. This probably comes from reading the Bible as a child, but I digress.

The first point I stole from Socrates, Milan Kundera, Walt Whitman, Slavoj Zizek and Kurt Vonnegut. Weird combination, I know. But they all say more or less the same thing: humans are happiest and most fulfilled when they are creating. To paraphrase Vonnegut, you are better off and more dignified as a human being if you are creating something even as humble as a crappy poem or simple electrical circuit than if you are grabbing stuff. Look how hard creative geniuses work. They don’t do it for the money. The mathematician Kurt Gödel only weighed 88 pounds when he died. He was on the verge of finishing the Incompleteness Theorem and he forgot to eat.

The second point I stole from Wittold Gombrowicz, Orhan Pamuk, James Baldwin and E.M. Forster. If Forster were alive today, he would be called a prissy little lefty fag, at least by some. I call him my moral muse and hero. He epigraphed his short novel Howard’s End with the (now) famous phrase, “Only connect,” and that’s pretty much him in a nutshell. He thought the strong should not bully the weak and everyone should spend more time thinking about the moral consequences of their actions. We only have 70-odd years of life, and Forster thought it would be a dreadful waste to spend that time not connecting to others who are in the same bind. We’re all on the clock. Better to face it together than alone.

e-m-forster
E.M. Forster: Only connect

Gombrowicz, Pamuk and Baldwin are a little more abstruse on this point, but they all champion it in some way. No man is an island, they say, so you might as well figure out how to love or at least value the people who help make you who you are. For Baldwin, this even meant finding a way to love your tormentors. They too “helped” make you who you are. Baldwin would also be called a fag by some today, but I digress. He is a moral giant, and it’s a good thing he’s dead because we don’t deserve him anymore.

Why am I jotting these thoughts down? Because I just read an outline of Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have Or To Be, and I realized that I had stolen my whole moral scheme–points one and two–from him. So it goes.

Believe it or not, tycoons and politicians will actually try to convince you that having more stuff is the key to being happy. Go to Walmart, they say. Find an attractive piece of crap offered at a rockbottom price thanks to offshoring, slave labor and other production efficiencies. You’ll feel better.

Bellow, Socrates, Kundera, Whitman, Zizek, Vonnegut, Gombrowicz, Pamuk, Baldwin, Forster and Fromm all say, in very pretty ways, fuck that. You are much, much better than that. You are not meant to consume. You are meant to create and connect.

At least that’s what I’m all the time telling my kids.