Some wisdom gained from years of running

Rudy Owens Running the Kendall Catwalk, 2011

Rudy Owens Running the Kendall Catwalk, 2011

I am a lifelong runner. I have been running regularly since I was 15 years old, only taking time off to recover from knee surgery when I was 22. I have literally run thousands and thousands of times, and covered tens of thousands of miles, in North America and abroad.

I love the activity and the way it gives me a clear head and improves my overall physical health. Few things in life give me greater satisfaction than a long run on a trail. Given the mileage I have literally put under my belt, I believe I have earned the right to offer some wisdom on the sport and also the fashion.

Remember, running is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The sale of footwear alone topped $3 billion in 2014, and clothing accessories remain a huge market. However, step into a running store now, and you are mostly surrounded by everything but the shoes—the shorts, the jackets, the shirts, the tights, the hydration systems, the high-tech food, the running belts, the electronics, the hats, and more.

Athleta appeals to the huge fashion segment of the running market with a colorful display of running gear, like these tights. Is it about fashion, function, or both?

Athleta appeals to the huge fashion segment of the running market with a colorful display of running gear, like these tights. Is it about fashion, function, or both?

Running is a fashion statement, a lifestyle, a social activity, a life philosophy, and a very competitive sport nationally and internationally.

Human nature and the work of clever marketers have transformed running into a fashion show, and millions of people have embraced the idea of “my run is a fashion runway.” These include behemoth sports companies like Nike and more niche companies like Athleta, which promotes a vision of unbelievably attractive, fit women as the standard, providing functional and fashionable gear that far exceeds anything designed for men.

Athleta and the Impossibly Beautiful Runners in their Stylish Running Clothes

Athleta brand favors the use of impossibly beautiful female runners in their stylish running clothes

These developments are fine, but it can be funny at times to see how this plays out if those embracing fashion do not honor the sport.

ASICS GEL-Kayano 2006

The ASICS GEL-Kayano 2006 was perhaps one of the greatest running shoes ever, and then Asics stopped making shoes as good shortly after. Why?

I steer to the “functionality” camp. I also have developed some firm ideas on products that improve the experience and those that can make some practitioners look, well, silly. The silliest runner I think is one who does not know he or she looks silly, but then again silly is in the eye of the beholder. It is sort of an Emperor’s New Clothes test: it is obvious but maybe everyone but an innocent child is afraid to speak about it.

Because the United States is a fashion free county (something I rejoice at given the alternatives), you have the right to look the way you want. Yet, others also have the right to comment on how you look and this beloved form of exercise.

So here are a few of my pearls of wisdom. Remember, I at least have practiced the craft long enough to know a few things about function. I simply have not embraced fashion, unless and only if it first provides function.

  • Gel Kayanos from 2005-2007 where the BEST running shoes ever made. Period.
  • For guys, shorts that have thigh-length liners are always better–less chafing, and you look less like a dork.

    I say to guys, really? You like to wear these? Your run, your show.

    I say to guys, really? You like to wear these? Your run, your show.

  • Tiny shorts on guys look really really stupid. What are they thinking? (Note, these seem to be favored by many competitive endurance runners, so there clearly is a functional value by those who do the sport most competitively.)
  • Compression socks that cover the calves have zero credibility of improving performance according to science. It is fashion. I am not impressed, but your target may thinks it is cool.
  • Waist bands that can fit your wallet and keys and maybe some goober snack are da bomb.
  • A fanny pack that fits a 1/2 liter bottle and some snacks and possibly another layer are a runners best friend in any weather.
  • It is best to bring that extra layer, or two, in foul weather. They tie easily around your waist.
  • Always carry ID when you run. You never know when you might slip, get hit by a car, or run into a bear.
  • I am totally fine with running tights, for women. They look great. I still laugh when I see guys in tights. Sorry, it is just who I am. And the more colorful the tights, the better, for women. Women always have better fashion than men. I for one would like some cooler designs for jackets and shirts for men.

    If you dress like this when its freezing, what are you proving to your audience? I am not sure.

    If you dress like this when it is freezing, what are you proving to your audience? I am not sure.

  • Running with practically no clothes in really cold weather proves nothing. But it is a free country. You can look silly if you want.
  • For super cold conditions, nothing beats XC Sport Hill winter skiing/running pants. Mine are 10 years old and I still use them all the time.

Old Greenlandic wisdom on young, unwise children

sealskintent

Traditional seal skin tent on display in Sisimiut.

For three summers in a row, I visited Greenland. I was completely enamored with the place, its people, its natural history, and the wisdom of its long-time Greenlandic residents.

I read every book about Greenland I could get my hands on during that time, from 1998 to 2000. One was Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos. The collection of stories covers the Danish explorer’s times in Greenland starting in the early 1900s. He lived among the native Greenlanders, married a local woman, and became an observer of their culture, even with infrequent heavy Western filters.

I wrote down a quote I read from this book when I was in Greenland. It provides a perspective from his Greenlandic mother-in-law, who helped him understand why the elders did not yell at the children for damaging their seal-skin pants while sliding on rocks.

twogirlskid

A mother and her young son share a fun moment on a ferry in southwest Greenland.

Yes, but you see, nobody can help thinking by seeing this foolishness, children ruin things without giving it a thought, they have no cares. But every day of their lives they become wiser and wiser. Soon the time will come when they will never do that sort of thing. They will remember their unnecessary wear on their pants and regret it. Everyone must rejoice by recalling that we start out as thoughtless children, but with every day the good sense increases in us. At last we become old and sage. Just imagine if it were the other way around, so that we were born clever and economical, and our wisdom decreased with time. Then misfortune would dwell with people! Therefore, it is joyful to watch children’s careless play.

After three decades, and there was nothing

We all die some day. I too will pass away, and I hope my wishes are honored, and my ashes are scattered when I do.

I recently visited the tombstone of a man who died three decades ago and who I never really knew. It was the first time I stood over his bones.

He impacted my life and that of my family in ways that I never could control as a kid, but what I could do was determine how I wanted to live my life at a very, very young age.

I also  decided that I would not carry a name given that did not reflect who I was in any way, and instead I would choose my own name, which honored my past and ancestors.

Others will judge how well I succeeded in being better than the family name on this headstone. I have worked at this for decades, and every day I ask myself, how am I doing? Am I living the life I intended to live and not making the mistakes I have seen around me? No one will ever really understand this quest but me, and there will be no rewards for this quest, for that is called living your life.

I also continue to be questioned by many who will never understand why I made my choices to not bear this name when I part from this life to whatever awaits us all. I am comfortable with that. I have been questioned for decades about my choices, and anything worth doing will upset people who do not have the imagination to comprehend a world they do not live or understand.

The Man of Steel, an adult adoptee’s journey of discovery

I recently watched the 2013 blockbuster based on the prototypical American comic superhero, Superman, called Man of Steel. I was not expecting much. I hoped for mindless Hollywood entertainment.

This film adaptation of the 1930s original comic-book character took a new direction with a very overt narrative, amid the buildings falling down and space ships blowing up. In this rebooted franchise, the Superman tale is told as a story of a man’s—or rather, a Kryptonian’s—search for his identity.

Super Adoptee, Superman

Superman, the adult adoptee on interplanetary steroids–beloved and feared by many.

The Man of Steel relies on one of the oldest mythological stories of human civilization, that of a hero’s search for himself by finding out his “true lineage.” This is the arc of great stories, from Moses to King Arthur. The Man of Steel also includes other classic mythological storytelling tropes, such as confronting a nemesis, the inevitable conflict, and the return from the journey as a hero. In this case, the hero happens to be born of one family and sent across the galaxy to be raised by another family in Kansas. He then must spend years figuring out who he really is.

The Haywood Tapestries show King Arthur, a famous adoptee of noble lineage, like Moses, the greatest adoptee of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Haywood Tapestries show King Arthur, a famous adoptee of noble lineage, like Moses, the greatest adoptee of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The hero’s journey

Minus the over-the-top special effects battles, this film is a basic tale a self-discovery. The most compelling moments in the film involve conversations the young Clark Kent has with his “adopted” father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner. They discuss their ambiguous relations as non-biological father and adopted son. That tension bursts in a scene where the older Clark tells his father and mother, “You’re not my real parents.” Right on cue, following that conversation, Costner’s character dies in a tornado.

The adult Clark is left adrift not knowing who to call his parents or how to identify with his biological roots or his adoptive roots. So, the journey begins, and he wanders from the Bering Sea to the Canadian Arctic.

Clark Kent and Father in Superman Film

In this scene form the Warner Bros. film the Man of Steel, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent talks to the younger Clark Kent, his adopted son from an alien race from the planet Krypton

This cinematic rendering of this rite of passage is nearly identical to what an adopted adult goes through when they have to decide for themselves if they wish to find out their history and biological roots, or accept the decisions institutions and others made for them.

A not-so-super real-life journey by adoptees

The actors who decided those adoptees’ fates are usually shielded by archaic adoption laws and the intransigent bureaucracies who supported the millions of adoptions, as was the case in the United States between the 1940s and 1970s. This adult adoptee decision is never easy, and is often costly. It can be very divisive and unpopular. Such a decision can forever change family relations and be condemned by people who know nothing about this desire to find the truth. It is at its core Superman’s tale.

In my case, I literally had to spend years, like Clark, on a pursuit that took me from state to state, bureaucracy to bureaucracy, until I finally solved the case and learned about the identity of my biological parents. I did not find a space ship buried in the Canadian ice like Clark, and my biological roots are not linked to Krypton. Nor did I meet my computer-generated father, Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe.

A scene from the Warner Bros. film, Man of Steel, showing Russell Crow as Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman.

A scene from the Warner Bros. film, Man of Steel, showing Russell Crow as Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman.

During their conversation, Crowe’s Jor-El tells Clark his “real name” is Kal-El. This is identical to what any adoptee experiences when he or she learns his or her “real name,” or the name at birth and on an original birth certificate. That document in most states is treated as a high-level state secret and never shared with adult adoptees unless they get waivers from surviving birth parents signed. This is the case with the state of Michigan for me, which still refuses to give me my original birth certificate, even though I have known my biological family history now for 26 years.

So Kal-El is also Clark Kent, much as I had another name for three and a half weeks until I was given a “new name.” It was a name I had until I changed it in 2009 to a name that incorporates parts of my birth and adoptive names.

In the fictional movie, Clark has all of his questions answered. His original Krypton father is a noble and great leader, as was his adoptive father, in Kansas. But in real life, how many people do you know have movie-style fathers? My biological father and my adoptive father clearly were not cut out for any story as formulaic as this film. They would never make it into a screenplay for the masses. I never had a conversation like our film hero did with his biological or adoptive fathers.

Finding your answers unleashes chaos, the not-so-subtle message of Superman

In the last act of the film, Superman is exposed as a space alien and chased by a rogue band of surviving criminals from Krypton, who force Superman to make a choice between his adoptive tribe or his biological tribe.

Superman must also tell his adoptive mother he found his “real parents,” watch her sadness, and then be redeemed for viewers by saving her life and calling her “my mother” while doing it. The rescue creates a comforting way we can have Superman be forgiven for being confused who is parents are or who is mother is, when such warm fuzzies may not be in abundance in the real world.

If you follow the narrative of the Man of Steel, these questions could lead you on a journey that threatens the very fate of the planet earth, or something equally dreaded.

If you follow the narrative of the Man of Steel, these questions could lead you on a journey that threatens the very fate of the planet earth, or something equally dreaded.

Ultimately, the film reveals that Superman’s activation of a beacon on the spaceship that he found brought the evil Kryptonites to earth, with the goal of total destruction of the planet. You cannot get more grandiose than the genocide of all of humanity as a penalty for discovering your identity and asking, who am I, and where did I come from. Once the chaos is unleashed by the bad invaders, only Superman, the misfit between both worlds and both families, can save the human race. That is a huge burden to lay on a guy who asked a very basic question.

In the end, Superman remains Clark Kent, not Kal-El. He retains his adoptive family loyalty. He will hide his biological self, except when needed, though he may never be trusted because he is “different.” He has solved his riddle, and the package is neatly tied as many Hollywood movies are.

Life does not follow this pattern. There are no heroic battles with invading aliens. Things are more messy.

But the journey of the real-life hero is no less epic than what the film Man of Steel shows. I  think the film resonated more deeply, more viscerally with those who have undertaken the quest of Clark/Kal-El/Superman. If you have never had to ask the question that confronted our hero, about who you are and where you came from, you may never understand his journey, and also the conflicts and rewards that must inevitably accompany such a quest.

‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck in my memory. It was not her story. Rather, it was the story of her husband’s father. Her husband is Jewish, and she is of Armenian descent. So both have a keen sense of history, and the consequences of history, including the crimes that occurred during war. So this is why I gave this story a lot of weight.

Her husband came from the city where I grew up, St. Louis. His father lived there most of his life. The father, I learned, was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Europe, with an armored division as it entered Germany in April 1945, just as the European conflict was ready to end.

The Tank Crew in the FIlm Fury

Above is a publicity shot of the WWII action film Fury, starring Brad Pitt (2014).

She told me about her father-in-law sharing war tales. They were not happy stories. There were stories of conflict and death. One story he shared was about his armored column’s capture of Nazi soldiers. The American soldiers chose not to take the surrendering soldiers into custody. Instead, they shot them down with their weapons, and kept their advance.

I had often wondered how much truth there was to that tale. I know war is pure hell, and soldiers on all sides do not allow their better angels to rule when their inner demons are unleashed in life and death combat. I just did not know what to think about U.S. GIs mowing down Nazis surrendering in the heat of battle.

I thought about that tale again while watching the 2014 film Fury, by writer and director David Ayer, starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a U.S. Sherman tank crew. In one scene, Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, leads a team of tanks and soldiers in an attack on a German position. They overcome the Germans, and in the final moments of victory, slaughter them in brutal fashion. This was far less brutal than the Nazi were everywhere, when they pillaged and committed war atrocities on an unimaginable scale, especially in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Brad Pitt as Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Above is a publicity shot from the WWII combat film Fury, with Brad Pitt.

One German soldier escapes the executions and is left at the mercy of the enraged American soldiers. Wardaddy picks out his newest team member, a teenager named Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) and forces him to shoot the surviving German soldier with a pistol. It is a painful scene, because the elder Wardaddy is initiating his new “son” into the art of death to make him ready for combat and a better team player.

The film captured a fair bit of critical acclaim for its gritty realism of combat in the claustrophobic conditions of these metal boxes that were no match for Nazi Panzers. I kept thinking about my friend’s father-in-law as a young man, faced with a choice of capturing the enemy or killing them, so they could achieve their objectives more quickly, with less risk to their side. I now believe everything I heard was true.

It was war, and the most brutal war in human history. This was how the war was won. Fury holds back nothing. It is worth watching to appreciate what happened day in and day out, from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Anzio to the Ardennes to the fall of Berlin. Mercy was in short supply, and a whole lot of killing happened to bring the horrible mess to an end—a mess started by the Nazis and carried to an extreme. As Wardaddy told Ellison, before he died, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

My favorite holiday, and for great reasons

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

Thanksgiving approaches. By far it always has been and remains my favorite holiday.

For me it is the most genuine of our American celebrations. Commercial interests have not transformed it into a crass, commoditized event, though they try their hardest the day after we gather to give thanks with food, friends, and family.

It is seasonally specific. Thanksgiving dinners celebrate the North American harvest season, and with that, all of our land’s lovely fall foods. There are squashes, sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, carrots, and cranberry sauce. These all taste better when blended and mixed on the plate with a big bird and gravy. Let’s not forget pumpkin and apple pie, layered with whip cream, and perhaps maybe wine or cider to add zest.

I have spent the last five Thanksgivings in Seattle with friends. It has always been a way I have let the world fall to the wayside, so I can focus on friendship, camaraderie, and celebrating all we have to give thanks for.

Two of those years were not my favorite periods, being back in graduate school and not feeling perfectly in tune with my program and the field I was studying at the time. I continue to live far from my family, so I have not been able to share it with them for decades, and during those two years, time with my family would have been nice. So for me, Thanksgiving has been about friends, actually for decades now.

Thanksgiving also celebrates a key moment in American history, marking the Union victories over the slave-holding Confederacy at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The holiday, despite what you may have learned from myth and school, was first declared by Abraham Lincoln in October 1863, a dark year in American history when it was not clear if we would survive the storm of violent civil conflict, slavery, and division. Lincoln’s speech is a good one, even if he may not have written the whole thing (I do not know for sure).

I also have memories every late November of losing a good friend just before Thanksgiving in 2008.

So at this time of year, particularly on this great holiday, I think of what is good in my life and the good people in my life. I hope you do too, if you find yourself in the United States, with a home over your head, and friends and family to help you remember what is truly important.

Memory’s slight of hand and time

When I was young, between my ninth and 12th years, I spent time in Huntington, West Virginia. It remains a poor place today, and it was a much, much poorer place back in the 1970s. I mean it was really dirt poor.

I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile.

I did. Despite the odds, I really did.

One of the memories from this dark time were days I and my sister were left entirely without supervision at this old-fashioned amusement park, just outside of Huntington, called Camden Park. It is an old-school park, with a haunted house, dodge-em bumper cars, a wooden roller coaster called the Big Dipper, and many other rides found in the non-franchise amusement parks that still labor on in an era of corporate amusement. (I always thought these rides would collapse because the place was so rickety.)

My father would drop me and my sister off in the morning, buy us an all-day ticket, and we’d have the Camden Park wrist band on our arms for the day. We were free to run around like bandits. I have no recollection what we ate, and no one at the park cared if two juveniles were without parental supervision for hours. Trust me, it was low-brow then, so no one really cared about such things.

I suppose this place had both a blessing and a curse. It gave me temporary freedom from time with my father. And then it forced the bitter reality to crash down when he came to pick us up, in ways I will never describe here.

I recently went back to Huntington to see what I could remember, four decades on. It is funny how memory works. It shuts down what you do not need to know. It leaves you with enough to keep you going. Yet I still remember this horrible clown and the ambivalence of both the freedom of escape and dreading of when that freedom always came to an end.

Most of all I am glad I do not remember much. That is the sleight of hand our minds can pull, because our minds are awfully powerful tools that get us where we need to go, when we need to get there.