Whether you’re cross-training, nursing a sports injury, or just love the water, swimming is always a solid option. It tends to drop off the radar once the weather turns cooler, but for my money that’s the best time to start up. Indoor swimming during the cold months puts me in mind of all those great moments when you’ve been shut up inside someplace that’s gone overboard on the heat—a stuffy lecture hall, a smelly gym—and at last you burst out into the cold air. For a brief time, it doesn’t register as cold at all, only as a bracing and welcome change. So it is when you’ve been swimming: your hair is wet, your lungs are stung by chlorine and exertion, and the sharp edge of the air takes you by surprise.
I sing in praise of indoor swimming because I recently discovered one of Pittsburgh’s real municipal treasures, the Oliver Bath House on the South Side of the city. The city has a quite good pool system, with most of the pools open during the summer only. But only the Oliver Bath House remains open through the fall and winter months. So far, it’s been a great experience. I’m lucky in that I work only about a mile from the Bath House, and can get there by 5:30 p.m., a few seconds before the bulk of the post-work rush, thus allowing myself about 20-25 minutes of lap-swimming. The pool is well-maintained, if a little small, the staff are friendly, and there’s a general willingness among the patrons to share lanes when things do get a bit more crowded.
The best part, though, is the price. It costs $4 to go for the day, $3 for a child’s pass. But a season pass costs an adult only $30. I was genuinely surprised, upon signing up, to find that “season” doesn’t mean the fall, or even fall and winter, but that my pass will cover me all the way to June. That is the kind of steal that makes me proud to be a Pittsburgher, and to pay the taxes that make such a thing possible.
Tomorrow will mark one month to the Philadelphia Marathon. This past Sunday, I completed a 16-mile run and felt surprisingly, almost weirdly, good afterwards. (I usually feel zonked out, a bit nauseated, and go to bed pretty early after these runs. Only some mild zonked-outness occurred this time.)
Pretty soon, I am going to transition into carbo-loading most of the time, as well as officially banning beer from my diet. (Circumstances have happily conspired to keep me from drinking more than one or two per week.) On the whole, I’m happy with my progress and feel good about the race in Philly. I am also upbeat about the fact that it probably won’t rain the entire time, as it did during the Pittsburgh Marathon.
One point of concern has been a lack of training to go faster for longer. I’m following this Runner’s World plan, which in fairness is for beginners. If you look along the “Tuesday” column, where most of the shorter runs are, you’ll notice that a lot of attention is given to increasing your “TUT”—that is, “total uphill time.” I think that aspect of the training has helped, but I worry that it’s beside the point for a course as flat as Philly’s, and that I may have been better served by doing tempo runs—i.e., doing some or all of a run at a faster-than-comfortable pace. There are some of those on the schedule I’m following (marked “AI”—“aerobic intervals”), but I wish there were more.
Obviously, it’s on me to take it up a notch or jump up to a non-beginner marathon plan. In that vein, I plan, during my nine-mile Thursday run tomorrow, to try doing intervals of three miles at marathon pace, with a brief jogging intermission between each.
I have the uneasy feeling that I am entering into the dangerous and seductive next level of running; that it is not as difficult to finish a marathon as it is to improve one’s time; and that, in general, doing a long run is not the important thing so much as keeping your motor going, pumping your arms and challenging yourself to keep the pace up. I am comforting myself that these are lifelong-struggle types of issues, not to be resolved in the next month.
And anyway I am confident of improving upon my first marathon time, four hours and fourteen seconds. My primary goal is to crack four hours. How feasible that goal is will probably be answered, in part, by how much tomorrow’s run kicks my ass.
I’m passing along a friend’s appeal for help finishing up a pretty alarming short-film project. The subject matter is “snakeheads”: Chinese smugglers who sneak Chinese people, many of them children, into the United States. Once here, the smuggled people—“walking merchandise,” which is the film’s title—are often saddled with enormous debt that they’re then compelled to work off.
You can check out the trailer here. My friend Ethan’s appeal is below the fold, but donations are being solicited at Kickstarter. As the message says, this is “all-or-nothing fundraising”; if the goal of $10,000 isn’t met by November 8th, none of the pledged money actually goes to the film project.
Here debuts a new, marvelously simple blog feature, “Excerpts of the Week.” (Or “of the Day,” or “Month,” depending.) I’m terribly conscious that my take on whatever book I’m reading at the time is almost always “It’s really good” or some variation thereof. If I wanted to do book-blogging the right way, I’d take exhaustive notes and/or blog my profound insights as I had them. Seeing as how I don’t do either, a good halfway step would seem to be sharing portions of each book, the writing on which I’m basing my “It’s really good” judgment.
So, without further ado, the first installment. I’ve just started Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. So far, um, it’s quite excellent. Very funny, which I guess is what I’d heard about it, but still the funniness has surprised me. The best description I’ve come up with so far is that it’s a slightly drier version of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and perhaps more closely tethered to reality. Or at least, with characters who are less fully caricatures; there’s still a certain element of caricature in The Bushwhacked Piano. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, also comes to mind, although it’s written in a style that’s less fluid than Amis’s.
Anyway, two excerpts here. One that compelled me to laugh out loud, then return to the sentence to again laugh out loud, and then read it aloud to a friend: (By way of context, all you really need to know is that the main character, Nicholas Payne, is a bit of a cad.)
“Later, some entirely theoretical argument with the bartender ensued during which the bartender thrust his face over the bar at Payne to inquire how anybody was going to wage trench warfare on the moon when every time you took a step you jumped forty feet in the air” (27).
And the second excerpt, after Payne has tracked his beloved to the Montana ranch of her parents, the Fitzgeralds, who detest him:
“When sophisticated or wealthy women get angry, they attempt to make their faces look like skulls. Missus Fitzgerald did this and looked awfully like a jack-o-lantern. She was that fat” (107).
In both cases the humor is entirely unexpected, coming in at an oblique angle to the main thrust of the narrative. And both seem rooted in a kind of truth, if I can use that word: observations of people and the way they behave that ring true (at least to me). In the second excerpt the observation, about sophisticated women, is explicit.
In the first, the bartender’s behavior reads to me like a much broader characterization: of a certain kind of person who, during an absurd, hypothetical conversation, is too pedantic to let a piece of minutiae go. It’s a great piece of characterization of the bartender, and reminds me of a memorable craft tip I got once during graduate school: it really helps the overall work of fiction to occasionally imbue these sorts of non-essential characters—I could say here that the bartender, who isn’t given a name or a face, is making a “cameo”—with idiosyncratic and attention-grabbing traits. The idea is that the bartender’s trajectory only briefly crosses that of the main character, and to attribute to him these weirdly intense feelings about lunar warfare is to give the bartender a bright red flag whereby he announces that he has his own life, is on his own path, and in however brief or quiet a way he is not just a prop in the background of Nicholas Payne’s story. This sort of thing would get tiresome if repeated often—as tiresome as it is to be reminded, by strangers on the street, that they have their own deal and aren’t just extras in your movie—but every once in a while it serves to shine a light on the rich and textured “real world” of the piece of fiction.
Fascinating article at Boing Boing about the huge number of cemeteries in Pittsburgh—not the ones you see every couple of miles, in every corner of the city, but the very old ones that have been displaced and/or that are under your feet. (Or just under my feet, if you don’t live here.) Of special ghoulish interest is St. Anthony’s Chapel of Troy Hill, whose claim to fame is housing the most relics anywhere this side of the Vatican.
Pittsburghers, as much as residents of any city or nation, love touting the things about their home city that they see as special, singular, amazing. Sometimes, as with Pittsburghese or Primanti Brothers sandwiches, the things are dumb and overstated—seriously, it is a sandwich with french fries and cole slaw on top that’s likely to give you indigestion for the better part of a day. But oftentimes Pittsburghers’ claims are legit. This is one where Pittsburgh’s unique mix of topsy-turvy landscape and its rich history of immigrant communities, combine to make something pretty weird and amazing.