Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Re-reading after 45 years

Zen and motorcycles stoked the imaginations of many people in the 1970s. Transcendental meditation and eastern religions were growing in popularity in the West in the 1970s and images of Peter Fonda riding a Harley Davidson in the movie Easy Rider released in 1969 were still fresh. Add “art” to the words Zen and motorcycles and the lure of a title like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was almost irresistible. The book, published in 1974, became a best seller after getting rejected by over 100 publishers. But unlike many bestsellers which were popular with adults, this book resonated with teens as well. I was one of them.

I remember picking up and putting down the thick paperback again and again, trying to get through the dense sections on philosophy. The small subtitle of the book is after all An Inquiry Into Values. And I remember talking about the book with friends in high school, everyone claiming to have read it through. Now after close to 45 years and finally reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from front to back including author Robert Pirsig’s forward written for the book’s 25th anniversary and an updated afterward, I now question exactly how many of my peers really read the entire tome back in high school. Yet, even what I did read back then was enough to have an impact on me so much so that I copied a famous line from the book and pinned it on the cork bulletin board that hung above my desk in my red carpeted bedroom. I stared at it interminably while trying to do homework: “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good-Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

Two other quotes were pinned on either side of this one: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know’ from the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats and from midway through Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air’.

I was a wannabe romantic, apparently, and a double wannabe philosopher but not enough to get through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the first time. Though as Vladimir Nabokov has written, “One cannot read a book, one can only reread it”. I didn’t fully read it the first time and therefore did not completely reread it the second time either. But, I definitely had the experience of wrestling with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on two occasions and ultimately confronted the author’s challenge both times -How can we embrace ‘quality’ in the quotidien tasks that glue together our everyday lives and ultimately, how can we live a “quality” life? It was a heavy question when I was a teenager and it remains a heavy question today.

Pirsig attempts to answer this question by showing how his thorough qualitative understanding of the nuances of maintaining and repairing his motorcycle allow him to not only maintain his cycle in superior condition but enjoy the process since he understands why he is doing what he is doing. In contrast, his friend and travel partner recounted in the first section of the book is not interested in motorcycle maintenance and as Pirsig sees it, is not only missing out on a quality experience but is also compromising the care of his bike.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is many books in one and the sections about motorcycle maintenance are only one portion sprinkled throughout. It is also a travelogue about the narrator, really the author himself, and the motorcycle trip he took with his 11 year old son Chris sitting in back of him riding from the Midwest to Bozeman, Montana and on to California. He describes the scenery, the sensation of being on a motorcycle with no separation between you and where you are. He describes the people they meet and the places they stop. Chief among both of those are his return to Bozeman, Montana where he taught rhetoric and tried to teach about ‘quality’ and his visit with a former colleague with whom he shared his tortured early academic career as he began his struggle with his inquiry into values.

It is a story of a father trying to connect with his son through an adventure, something I relate to with my own sons. In Pirsig’s case however, Chris as a young child had seen the beginning of his father’s mental breakdown, the worsening of it and his father’s subsequent hospitalization. During this trip the narrator tries to repair the rip in Chris’s memory of his father by riding together, revisiting places of their family’s life together in Bozeman although many of the memories are tinged with sadness.

It is also a story of the author performing a post mortem analysis of the self he believes he buried after his psychiatric in-patient treatment which began while he was a graduate student. It is apparent throughout the book however that the narrator’s former self who he refers to in the third person as Phaedrus, is alive and well. The name Phaedrus is taken from Plato’s dialogue of the same name about rhetoric and other topics between Socrates and Phaedrus.

At its core, however, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a philosophical treatise on ‘quality’ and ‘value’ as they inform a well lived life. Ironically however, the narrator maintains that quality can not be defined, can not be easily described, yet to live without it is to live without meaning. But quality can be apprehended almost everywhere he implies repeatedly including, for example, in a metal screw that is now stuck and holding up a motorcycle repair. A seemingly low value screw is now worth the entire value of the bike, he explains. Until he understands how the screw functions and how to remove it he is grounded. And he is grounded until he better understands and truly appreciates this sheet metal screw. The key is to focus on the moment regardless of how small the moment seems:

“The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less that the totality of everything there is”.

I still do not claim to understand the long sections on philosophy that occupy especially the fourth and final section of the book but I do understand and empathize with the narrator’s struggle for meaning even in the day to day. Ultimately ‘quality’ is connected to ‘virtue’ and ‘excellence’ as a triumvirate of ideals that all necessarily must co-exist:

Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue”. But arete. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality…The rain lifted enough so that we can see the horizon now, a sharp line demarking the light grey of the sky and the darker grey of the water.”

Pirsig intersperses his discussions of philosophy, what he calls his “Chattaquas,” with his narrative, describing the cross country trip on motorcycle, or, as the story progresses, with his reminisces on his time as a graduate student of philosophy getting closer and closer to his psychiatric crisis fueled by his relentless pursuit of how to understand the meaning of a quality life and how to live one. And he brings the reader along as he moves toward a resolution not only with his former self and his son but with his own philosophical quest which reaches back to antiquity and extends forward into the final pages of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There are very few books I have reread from my youth. And if Nabokov is correct, than by his definition, there are very few books that I have indeed read. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a literary touchstone in the 1970s. I did not fully understand it then, though aspects of it spoke to me even as a teen. Upon re-reading however, the philosophical questions the book poses feel more familiar though still challenging to fully comprehend. The elements that weave throughout Pirsig’s novel written so many decades ago, however, of Zen, of the implied freedom of a motorcycle trip, the notion of a healing cross country trip with a son, the thought of a multi year intellectual journey to more fully apprehend how to live the best life-these ideas resonate with me now in ways my teenager self could never have imagined. Perhaps I should follow Nabokov’s advice and find more books to re-read, but, of course, only books of quality.

Howard E. Friedman

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Karl Meltzer: a remarkable journey

A second attempt by ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek to set a new speed record on the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail in under 40 days, presents a good opportunity to talk about Karl Meltzer. Meltzer, a legendary ultra-marathon runner himself, was helping support his friend Scott Jurek in this latest attempt. The pace and terrain of this north to south attempt proved too much for Jurek who was forced to pull out after 7 days this August 2021 due to a muscle tear in his thigh. Jurek is well known for dominating the world of ultra-marathons through most the 2000s, and for his role in the book Born to Run and as the author of his own books, Eat & Run and North. The latter book is about his AT record set in 2015.

But to me the unsung hero here is Karl Meltzer. He agreed to support, or ‘crew’, for Jurek, an unglamorous but quite important job. Not only are the two men long standing friends, but Meltzer was selected no doubt for his knowledge of the AT, having set a southbound speed record himself in 2016, and because of his own ultra-marathon bona fides. Meltzer has been running trail races of 100 miles and WINNING, for over 23 straight years! Think about that: this man has been running 100 mile trail races on often technically difficult terrain competitively, and placing first, from his early 30s clear through into his 50s. It is an astounding testament to his running ability, competitiveness, drive and determination and all that in a sport which is a brutally demanding individual endeavor.

Karl Meltzer won his first ultra when he placed first in 1998 in the Wasatch 100. And while other ultra marathon runners compete for six or seven years in a row and than move on to coaching and writing books, Meltzer never stopped running and competing at the 100 mile distance. He has run ultra marathons every year for the past 23 years. In October 2020, Meltzer placed first in the No Business 100. And while he is no longer winning at the most competitive marquis races like the well known Western States, he is still out there on the starting line, competing and winning in a sport where the runner is on his or her own, running through the day and night on single track forest and mountain terrain.

I honestly do not remember how I first became aware of Karl Meltzer. To my knowledge he has not written a book about his running career. He is a sponsored athlete however and has a pair of shoes named for him, the Hoka One One Speedgoats, a plush trail running shoe. He is also sponsored by Red Bull and has a short documentary out about himself. But for whatever reason, his name is not as well know as other running legends, like Scott Jurek or Killian Jornet or in more recent times, like the marathon phenomenon Elihud Kipchoge. And I take nothing away from any of these outstanding athletes or anyone else at the top of their game. Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon may remain an unbreakable unofficial record. But will Mr. Kipchoge still be running competitively when he is 50? Will Killian Jornet? Will Scott Jurek return to the ultra-marathon circuit?

We all like winners. We like to read about them, emulate them, wear the shoes they wear when they win their races and eat the foods they eat. But we also like youth and change and newness and therefore yesterday’s winners are rarely who we cheer for today. But some winners are so remarkably talented that their greatness must be acknowledged. I do not know what if any races Mr. Meltzer has planned for this year or beyond. But based simply on his over two decade history of consistent 100 mile ultra-marathon starts and wins I believe it is undeniable that Karl Meltzer ranks as one of the most accomplished athletes we have ever seen.

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Howard E. Friedman

A Review: First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human, by Jeremy DeSilva

by Howard E. Friedman

“What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening?”

Ever since Sophocles wrote this riddle for the Sphinx to pose to Oedipus around 429 BCE the answer to the clever riddle has been tinged with a sad reality:we humans who begin life crawling “on four feet” before we advance to “two in the afternoon”, can expect infirmity and a cane to walk on “three in the evening” if we are lucky enough to live into old age. To Jeremy DeSilva, paleoanthropologist and expert on foot and leg bones, the fact that we are so vulnerable is in fact one of the reasons that we upright walking humans are so interdependent on one another. Four legged animals can still get around well enough if they lose a leg. Not so for us bipedal humans. Even a minor foot injury can disrupt daily activities and losing a leg can forever change a person’s life. As a podiatrist, I have seen this time and again.

Is walking on two legs then really such a good idea after all? First Steps grapples with this question as well as issues related to the history of bipedal ambulation, tracking its origins in the fossil record, probing how walking upright has affected us as individuals, as communities and and a species.

Professor DeSilva, who studies ancient hominin foot and leg bones around the world and teaches at Dartmouth University, begins by questioning the value of walking by noting that the fastest humans are still so much slower than many four legged mammals. (“Hominin” refers to those species related to or close to humans”. ) Walking on two legs then is not a speed advantage and it is even less energy efficient than the gait of certain long legged mammals. While there is no definitive answer, DeSilva mentions the most common suggestions: walking on two legs freed up our hands to carry food or children or throw objects like rocks as weapons or use tools like sticks for digging up roots. But as an anthropologist, DeSilva cannot accept a theory without proof. And therefore he takes his readers around the world to learn first-hand from the most important fossils found so far that yield some clues as to when and where we Homo sapiens began our upright walking journey. It is these up close and personal visits to famous anthropological sits where First Steps is strongest.

First stop is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to see and hold the 3.18 million years old bones of the oldest most complete skeleton of an upright walking hominin, a female named Lucy. DeSilva writes tenderly about this ancient being, stating that if he had a time travel ticket he would “go to Ethiopia and spend the day with Lucy…to see how she moved, to measure every detail of her walk…”. Both Lucy’s pelvic, ankle and foot bones are consistent with upright walking. Her ankle bones are a similar to modern Homo sapien bones and her toes bones “were long and slightly curved, they had an upward tilt, indicating that she pushed off the ground with her toes like a human does while walking,” DeSilva writes. While Lucy’s knee was crushed when it was found, a fossilized knee found nearby of a similar age had an angulation of the end of the femur, called the bi-condylar angle, that is only found in bipedal walkers. Of particular interest to anthropologists however, is that while Lucy’s skeleton supports the fact that she walked upright, her skull size is still associated with a quite small brain. This is evidence, DeSilva writes, that walking on two legs preceded the large brain size we find in modern humans. And therefore, he concludes, “Lucy is the starting point for all we think we know about human evolution.”

To DeSilva’s credit a one-page very understandable evolutionary tree is printed at the front of the book for easy reference. Lucy, an Austrolapithicus afarensis, is on a limb that branches off of the main trunk that ultimately leads to Homo sapiens. Before and after that branch are other hominins with names less familiar such as Sahelanthropus, Ardipithecus and closer in time to us, Homo naledi, Denisovans and Neandertals. Branching off the main trunk toward the beginning of evolutionary time are chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.

But fossilized bones can only tell part of the story. Footprints are the image that is worth a thousand words.

In June 2019 DeSilva together with a colleague and a team of students discovered a hominin foot print in the Laetoli region of Tanzania near the Olduvai Gorge, a site famous for discoveries made by Mary Leakey in 1976. Other human like footprints had been found nearby and these newest footprints were further evidence of a bipedal gait now dating back over 3 million years. Heel toe. Heel toe. Some of the footprints found at Laetoli are of what appears to be a group of both adults and children walking together. It is tantalizing to imagine a family walking together millions of years ago like families still do today.

In the first half of First Steps, DeSilva details the hardware of walking, the ancient foot and leg bones and other skeletal modifications we have that facilitate walking on two feet. In the second half of the book, he writes about the software of bipedality and here he relies on various behavioral experts and other scientists. He begins this section looking at how babies learn to walk and the cultural variability around the world of what we consider a normal age to begin walking. In Western countries we expect toddlers to begin walking somewhere around 12-15 month or even a bit later. The Ache peoples, indigenous to Paraguay, carry their infants for the first two years and the children do not begin walking until that time. In contrast, in parts of Kenya and Uganda, DeSilva writes, infants begin walking around 9 months, due in part to their diligent mothers and grandmothers who massage the infants legs to help “improve motor coordination and strength”, he writes.

Prior to walking however, we need to be born and for that we need to be able to pass through the limited space available in the birth canal, itself limited by shape of the pelvis. Since human women are bipedal, the size of the pelvis has to be not so large as to impede normal walking yet large enough to facilitate birth. Four-legged animals do not have this restriction. Since the appearance of an influential article in Scientific American in 1960, anthropologists have posited that the fetus had to be born undeveloped enough that the large brain size could still fit through the pelvis, creating evolutionary pressure to favor smaller newborns and the women who gave birth to them. And furthermore, women with wider hips were thought to require greater amounts of energy when walking and certainly when running due to their anatomy. This theory though has been disproven thanks to a nearly complete pelvis found in Kebara Cave in Israel, a Neanderthal skeleton dated to about 60,000 years ago. The large size of the hip did not support a compromised gait, according to Cara Wall-Scheffler of the University of Cambridge, who studied the pelvis. Separately she noted that women of the Hazda hunter gatherer tribe walk about 6 miles a day. How could they do that with an inefficient gait she wondered? She ultimately proved that the energy required for a woman to carry a baby sized object is reduced in women with wide hips who can carry the child on the side of their body, resting it on the hip bone. Furthermore, the wide hips allow women who typically have shorter legs than men to have a longer stride. Further disproving the notion that women’s wide hips impair their gait, DeSilva cites the increasing frequency with which women continue to beat men in ultramarathons like in the 135 mile Badwater race through Death Valley and the 240 mile Moab ultramarathon. Women with wide hips, it turns out, can give birth and run fast for long distances.

DeSilva explores the uniqueness of individual human gait and interviews some of the researchers who are developing software for gait recognition. Professor Oscar Costilla-Reyes of MIT, for example, has developed an algorithm to identify people with over 99% percent accuracy by analyzing their footprints. And while gait analysis as a means to identify individuals may be too expensive or difficult for governments to implement, subtle changes in an individuals gait can indicate neurological changes signaling for example, dementia or Alzheimer’s. Intriguing as well is research by professors Ari Zivotovsky and Jeffrey Hausdorff in Israel who showed that middle school girls when walking together synchronize their gaits and do so even more when they hold hands!

In the final chapters of Foot Steps, DeSilva explores just how walking benefits us physically and mentally. He cites research that a daily walk can reduce the chance of developing breast cancer, possibly by reducing estrogen concentration in the blood. And he cites evidence that a daily walk of 30 minutes can lower the risk of coronary artery disease by 18 percent, writing that “coronary artery disease is all but unheard of among hunter-gatherers”. DeSilva further cites research that correlates increased daily walking to improved health in a group of 17,000 women with an average age of 72. The women who walked at least 4,400 steps a day had lower mortality than women who took 2,700 steps a day. And health benefits climbed as women walked even more. Walking has a long history of improving cognition too as DeSilva lists famous writers who took daily walks to help their creative process. It worked for William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau among others. Brain MRI studies back up these findings. In one study, regions of the brain associated with creative thinking showed an increase in connectivity in the people who walked regularly. Another MRI study showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus in people who walked regularly compared to those who did not. The hippocampus is involved with learning and memory.

Of course, the news is not all good for us bipedal humans. Ask anyone who has torn their ACL ligament in the knee, had a total knee replacement, ankle fusion or sprained their ankle badly. The last injury is uniquely human as our primate cousins do not even have the anterior talo-fibular ligament which is the one we usually tear. Overall, however, Dr. DeSilva concludes, “The advantages of bipedal locomotion obviously outweigh the cost. Otherwise we would have gone extinct long ago.” But since we are among the few species that walk upright, “what tipped the scales toward survival rather than extinction”, he asks?

To answer that question DeSilva returns to the hardware of walking on two feet, a fossilized tibia from the Lake Turkana region of northern Kenya, dated to 1.9 million years ago. The tibia shows a healed fracture in an adult hominin. The fact that this ancient hominin survived strongly suggests, DeSilva writes, that her community supported her quite literally while she convalesced. And other ancient fossils also show healed fractures from serious injuries suggesting that this was not an isolated event. Having only one good leg to stand on made a limping individual dependent on other community members, and it seems their fellows rose to the occasion. While DeSilva argues that empathy was a prerequisite for our social species to develop as it did, as “the last bipedal ape on Earth” he writes, we should embrace “our capacity for empathy, tolerance and cooperation” and appreciate how those human attributes are intertwined with our most basic activity, walking on two feet.

Howard E. Friedman

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Elevating Fungus:‘Entangled Life, How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures’

A Review: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House 2020

The northeastern United States is now covered in a blanket of snow. Under the snow is a layer of frozen grass. Under the grass is a layer of dirt and within the dirt is a network of roots supporting the grass and surrounding plants and trees. And intertwined within the vast number of roots is an endless network of gossamer thin fibrils connecting root to root and one tree to the next, built by the true unsung hero of the world’s terrestrial ecosystem: fungus.

Yes, fungus.

Emerging research has shown that our forests are supported by a large underground mycelial entanglement of fungal fibrils that enable trees to communicate with one another, shifting molecular resources from tree to tree as needed and serving as a communication network to help one tree alert another of impending danger.

Merlin Sheldrake in his first book, ‘Entangled Life, How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures’, is an ideal guide to the world of fungi. “For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by fungi and the transformations they provoke,” Sheldrake writes, “A solid log becomes soil, a lump of dough rises into bread, a mushroom erupts overnight-but how?”, he continues. Sheldrake studied plant science as an undergraduate student at Cambridge and received a PhD studying the interaction of fungal filaments (mycorrhizal relationships), going on to study thousands of soil samples to study their DNA among other research projects.

Entangled Life takes readers on a veritable tour round the planet and beyond of the world of fungi, including a description of their ability to survive a round trip to outer space. Sheldrake describes in vivid detail how fungi are “decomposers” whether that be of wood, rock or an organism such as the carpenter ant. The fungus Ophiocordyceps camponoti-nidulantis routinely infects the ants but from the inside out. The picture of the infected ant with white fungus growing out of its body is memorable, trust me. 

The book opens as the author tags along with a professional truffle hunter and his truffle smelling dog in the hill country of Bologna, Italy searching for Tuber magnatum, white truffles . Sheldrake focuses on the truffles, translated in many languages he says as “testicles,” in part because of their rarefied role in the culinary world, partly because of their exorbitant cost and partly because, well, they are just really interesting as a fungus. Researchers have puzzled as to how the truffles communicate their smell from below ground and have suggested it is due at least partly to the odiferous molecule they contain, methyl sulfide. Sheldrake shares scientific detail without overwhelming the reader, sprinkling chemical or latin names as flavoring, like grated truffles, to season the main dish, the story of how intrinsic fungi of all types are to our world.

One chapter focuses on psilocybin, or, what is known in the category of mind bending drugs as a ‘magic mushroom’. In this case, it actually is a mushroom and Sheldrake traces psilocybin’s history from its use in the coronation of the Aztec emperor in 1486 up to 2016 when both Johns Hopkins and New York University separately studied the drug as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Scientists are still not completely sure how mushrooms affect our brain chemistry. As enthusiastic as Sheldrake is for each impressive property of fungi whether it be their ability to create an odor or alter consciousness, he focuses much of his attention explaining how fungi create expansive webs of interactions linking one organism to another and another.

The heart of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter that challenges us to compare the world wide web we know as the internet to the interconnected subterranean network of fungal fibers which shuttle valuable resources from tree root to tree root, a network now referred to by the popular media as the wood wide web. Mycorrhizal networks can shuttle carbon and sugars between the roots of different trees and even serve as “highways for bacteria to migrate around the obstacle course of the soil” Sheldrake writes. The comparisons to the internet are striking and Entangled Life cites research showing the interconnectedness between a stand of Douglas fir trees studied in one small forest plot. The larger trees in the forest plot had more underground fungal connections than younger smaller trees, just as select pages on the web are immensely more connected than other pages. Developing the theme of connectedness further, the author goes on to cite additional research which draws comparisons between fungal networks and neural networks in the human brain.

Not all scientists agree that the wood wide web is crucial to ecological life and in true scientific method Sheldrake is careful to cite dissenting opinions about its actual importance for survival of a forest ecosystem. He steers clear of over simplification of a topic that continues to yield new findings. Yet while it is clear that the author believes the hidden world of fungal filaments has an important story to tell, he remains objective about the questions that remain to be proved. 

“How best to think about mycorrhizal networks then? Are we dealing with a super organism? A metropolis? A living Internet? Nursery School for trees?….All are problematic.”

In additional pages and chapters the author describes the symbiotic world of fungi and bacteria, new research about the multi faceted world of lichens which include at least a fungus and an algae and he dives into the world of fermentation including his experiences making his own mead and other fermented foods. And the book contains amazing color plates of fungi in various forms and magnifications. Each page of Entangled Life shares a cornucopia of information about fungi, almost making the point itself that fungi are indeed dynamic and beckon study and not merely inanimate sessile objects to be only either ignored or eaten. Overall, Sheldrake elucidates the world of not only fungi and their connectedness but indeed awakens the reader to the “polyphonic swarms of plants, fungi and bacteria that make up our homes and our worlds.”

Howard E Friedman

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The smallest blessings

The eve of another new year on the Jewish calendar is hours away, a time that beckons one to look forward in hope and prayer for health, happiness and prosperity and to look back at what one can improve upon. Judaism often goes big and the new year blessings are one example. Just this morning however, I was reminded that it’s okay and maybe desirable when wishing for the future, to go small.

I was leaving a store in an industrial area and was taken aback to see a man on a corner near the main street sitting in a wheel chair with a hand written sign. He must have driven there. There are no homes nearby and no bus service that I’ve seen. The man has no legs, neither a right nor a left. He was smiling and his face looked happy and healthy. This was not a homeless man but probably a veteran I considered who was very healthy with two legs until he was not.

His sign said “Be happy, you’re alive. Jesus loves you”. I could quibble with the end of his message but I can not argue with his premise. I froze, locked eyes with him, smiled and he smiled back and waved. I wanted to rush out and speak to him but traffic was building behind me. He was a man with a message important any day but resonant on the eve of Rosh HaShana. As I drove away I wondered about the days after he lost his legs and whether he had a positive outlook from the beginning of his tragedy when the doctors delivered the terrible news or whether he grew into his happiness with years of therapy, battling anger and depression.

He reminded me of a patient I was asked to see in the hospital, a large man, paralyzed from the neck down, breathing through a permanent tracheostomy. That man, in middle age, had also been able-bodied until he was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. He lay there and breathed and spoke a bit. He wanted to give me encouragement. He recited the final sentence in the final chapter in the book of Psalms, “Let all that breathe praise the Lord, Hallelujah” and he shared the Talmudic explication: Praise God and be grateful for every breath you take.

It takes a man who lost all his abilities save the ability to breathe to proselytize about the gift of breath. It takes a man who lost his legs to proselytize about the gift of life. It takes someone who has healed in some fashion after suffering a searing personal tragedy or an unthinkable loss to look around with a sense of awe at what remains.

“Be happy. You’re alive”.

There exist rare moments in our busy lives when that slimmest glimmer of light cracks through the thick wall that separates reality and hope, where the mundane and holy bump against each other in the darkness and where the person we are and the person we can be come so close to each other they can almost kiss one another. But never do. These are the moments when for the briefest moment we appreciate just being alive.

One of my sons was out for a walk this week in a forested area and met a seasoned birder. She was spending the morning peering into the trees. It is the fall migration of warblers, the small colorful songbirds that fly thousands of miles back and forth. The birder had binoculars. He didn’t. It is Corona times so not the time to ask to borrow a stranger’s binoculars. He strained to see the warblers with his naked eyes and decided to return soon with his own binoculars. He will need them to see these birds that are quite small, what the woman called “our tiny travelers”. When you begin to celebrate just being alive, seeing a “tiny traveler” is a moment of pure joy.

While in these Corona times we need to hope and pray for health for ourselves and for peoples around the globe, we hopefully can also learn to appreciate and find deep joy from the uncelebrated moments of life, a painless footstep, an easy breath or a chance encounter with a tiny traveler.

Howard E. Friedman

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“Born to Run” Running Strong After a Decade

“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.

First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.

And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run! 

“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.

McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours.  During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.

But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.

And that was just chapter one.

“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.

Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.

The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.

Tarahumara men running. credit:https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/skeleton

Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool. 

As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.

The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.

“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.

Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.

While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.

Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written  went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.

Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”.  Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.

And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.

Howard E. Friedman

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What the 1812 Overture can us teach about Coronavirus

I cued up ‘Classical Essentials’ on Spotify to help while away an hour exercising indoors during another day of the Corona Virus Pandemic of 2020 Great Lockdown. The complete 15 minute Overture of 1812 resonated as it led me musically through a dark period of history over two centuries old.

The piece by Tchaikovsky starts slowly and humbly enough, almost dirge like, evoking the tortuous pain of forgotten soldiers dead and dying on a battlefield of long ago. What was the Franco-Russian War of 1812 (this overture is not about an American-British war which also occurred in 1812)? I struggled to remember even the most salient facts about a war so popularized in our cannon of classical music, yet so forgotten among the many other calamities that waft over our history like smoke from smoldering embers.

Two minutes into the Overture, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky picks up the meter of the piece and adds in brass and louder wood winds to take us back in time to the battlefield before all went to hell. You can almost feel the soldiers running for position, taking aim and firing, but within less than two minutes the dirge tone returns albeit briefly before it gives way to one of the popular themes you will instantly recognize. The gaiety of the light motif is almost jarring; it mocks the death and destruction of war itself.

The triumphal theme plays over and over again. If we hear it enough perhaps we will believe it.

Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the Overture of 1812 in 1880, years after the Battle of Borodino, Napolean’s campaign against the Russians to capture Moscow.  While the French troops succeeded in reaching the treasured Russian city, they ultimately could not hold it and retreated to devastating consequences. The battle resulted in over 70,000 casualties by many estimates and included direct wounds of war as well as slow death from infection, starvation and cold exposure.

Tchaikovsky captures the urgency and adrenaline of war and at six minutes cymbals clang over the recurring theme now played by the horns. At seven minutes you might begin to think all is well at what sounds like a Sunday picnic, mellifluous strings playing long whole notes in wavy measures and than in a slow reduction, only the tone of a single reed instrument is left until it fades away.

The pace quickens at 12 minutes and begins a steady march toward a stunning conclusion. At 13 minutes a series of arpeggios begins and than repeats again and again for almost 40 seconds until the cymbals and bells break through in ever increasingly ebullient tones. In the final seconds of the Overture, a full on explosion of sound breaks out with triumphant horns and percussion leading to the final trumpet blasts that end the piece.

Ironically, the war of Borodino was a disaster for both Napoleon’s soldiers and the Russians. Tens of thousands of young men lost their lives, were wounded or maimed and the arcs of so many lives were thrown asunder, plans delayed or never resurrected, dreams of men shattered.

Yet time does march on. That is one irrefutable fact of our fragile lives. And time will march straight through the Great Pandemic of 2020 which unfortunately will leave some lives broken and some lives lost. But like the Battle of Borodino retold through the Overture of 1812, our resolve as individuals, families, communities, towns, cities and countries will be recorded in the annals of history yet to be written. Hopefully our epic battle will not only be successful but remembered with jubilation and ultimately come to illuminate the best of what humanity can achieve when we come together to care about each other.

Howard E. Friedman

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The crepuscular trail: A last flash of light

Neither “sunset” nor “twilight” adequately describes the crepuscular time of day, that time when the sun has dropped below the horizon but still sends forth just enough of a glow to make your way home. In this dimming light one can just discern the path, but can not see what lives in the shadows.

The only true light to be seen in this liminal twilight zone is the flashing abdomen of the firefly, Photuris lucicrescens.  I spotted my first firefly this summer just a few days ago. In the ebbing light the number of people outside was inversely proportional to the number of flashing, flying insectivorous abdomens. Almost no people. Lots of fireflies. They flash near eye level, staying close to the path or hovering over the grass where they can be spotted, staying out of the dense woods or thickets.

I immersed myself in the twilight several times this week. The first was in a swamp rehabilitated with hiking paths surrounded by phragmites and weeping willows, while dozens and dozens of fireflies lit up the trail like silent fireworks, no two flashes in the same location. The second time was in an urban park which hugs a tributary of the Hackensack River, with fields of yellow trefoils, butterfly weed, lavender clovers, daisies and purple asters, the petal colors all a shade darker in the low quality light. And the third time, tonight, during a run around the neighborhood, crossing through another park, the looming oaks blocking the day’s last rays of light. The bright green of the leaves faded to dark as the twilight zone drew closer to night absolute, shifting from lime green to emerald to hunter green, and finally to a deep brown-green, barely green at all.

We humans have traditionally not embraced this transitional period of dusk. When kids still played outside, the specter of  the coming dark could send kids racing home as the sun set. We are not totally comfortable with this dim light of twilight, unlike the fireflies and other crepuscular creatures such as skunks and deer. This time is their time, the low-quality light the time when they shine.

We on the other hand struggle to make sense of what is neither day nor night, our eyes struggle to adjust, our pupils open at full bore yet not open enough. And religions that base their calendar on the sun and the moon struggle to categorize this ambiguous time as well. If the holy day is slated to begin at nightfall, an indeterminate time is of no help. If a fast from food and drink is decreed to end at nightfall, an approximate time is not helpful. When does one end and the other begin?

In the Jewish religion much is discussed about twilight and dawn in painstaking attempts to delineate one day from the next, night from day and day from night. When can you begin praying? By what hour must you finish? Precisely when must all work cease for the Sabbath?

But all is not knowable. There is no precise moment when the illuminated day time sky morphs into night, just as there is no exact moment when a child becomes an adult. And  twilight will never resolve into nighttime with clarity. We must do the best we can to make sense of dusk and remember that at least some species flourish in the haze of the dimming light. The fireflies are one species that have adapted to use this period to search for a mate and live to illuminate another fading twilight with a final flash of light.

Howard E. Friedman

(written but not published, June 17, 2015)

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‘Walking to Listen’: a well written cross country quest for meaning.

9781632867001Walking to Listen: 4,000 miles across America one story at a time, by Andrew Forsthoefel (Bloomsbury Press 2017)

Who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Rogers, a  73 year old cowboy and preacher in Melrose, New Mexico has plenty of advice for living to whomever may listen. Author Andrew Forsthoefel met Rogers during his walk across America.

“And time goes by like, like cross ties on a railroad track just chh, chh, chh, chh. These days are gone. So while you got it, use it. Your mind. Your strength. Your agility. Use it.”

But you and I would never ever cross paths with Otho if it were not for first time author Andrew Forsthoefel who met and recorded dozens and dozens of conversations like this one with Mr. Rogers during a 4,000 mile cross country ‘Walking to Listen‘ journey in 2011. Forsthoefel began his odyssey about 6 months after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in environmental studies and just after getting fired as a deck hand on a lobster boat.

“A week after I got fired I hatched a desperate plan. I started wondering what it would be like to walk out my back door and just keep going.”

Though unemployed and basically directionless, Forsthoefel’s plan to walk across America does not come across as a desperate plan by a desperate man. Rather, it seems like the inspired idea of a new college graduate who lives life seriously and thoughtfully with enough empathy to imbue his trek with a noble theme boldly written and hanging from a sign on his backpack: Walking to Listen.

Andrew Forsthoefel started honing his listening skills as a college senior interviewing people about what it means to “come of age”. His walk was just an extension-an 11 month extension of that deeply seated need to listen and learn from whomever he could.

Forsthoefel’s empathy for others, his ongoing struggle to find meaning in his own life together with his fluid, light and insightful prose are the three ingredients which make this debut work of non fiction so much more than just another cross country adventurer’s travelogue.

Indeed, Forsthoefel does not hover on the details of his backpacking gear (except for a jogging stroller he eventually used to transport his pack-he named the stroller Bob). He carried the essentials, mostly, a tent, clothes, food plus a mandolin. He camped wherever he could, often in people’s backyards with their permission and he bought food often in gas station mini marts. Frequently however, Forsthoefel found himself the guest of people he met on the way, people who opened their homes to put up and feed a complete stranger.

And it is the writing about the people he meets and how that experience shakes his consciousness where Forsthoefel’s prose shines the brightest. Many folks he met briefly and recorded them on his Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, like college seniors at Sweet Briar College in Virginia or a grandmother working at a gas station who also belongs to a nudist colony or an artist in Cerillos Hills, New Mexico recorded in her kitchen. But the author often spent several days with some of the people he met, people who took him in, fed him, showed him around their communities and shared their stories-of joy, of sadness, of dreams realized or broken and always, the simple day to day stories that begin to give some definition to what it means to be human.

Walking to Listen is poignantly written. In addition to short one page vignettes that separate chapters, Forsthoefel treats the reader to full course servings of some of his more memorable and life changing experiences. He spends pages sharing his experience as a white man walking through Montgomery, Alabama where he met and listened to the descendants of slaves. He recounts over several pages his walk into and out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, his memorable walk across Texas including a brief meeting with a former president and perhaps the longest section devoted to his time trekking through the Navajo nation reservations in Arizona.

Forsthoefel refers frequently, perhaps too often, to his two muses, Walt Whitman and Rainer Maria Rilke, quoting lines from Leaves of Grass and excerpting long paragraphs from Letters to a Young Poet, two books he carried on his walk. But even his frequent citations only underscore the young author’s fervent searching for a universal truth he hoped to find on his walk, an inner North Star he could use to navigate his life.

So who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Not the most memorable character Forsthoefel brings to light, Rogers’ sagacious advice none the less is just one reminder that everyone has something to offer if we only take the time to stop and listen.

Howard E. Friedman

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Karl Meltzer Crushes AT Record in Hoka Shoes: “My feet were money all the way”

The speed record for the fastest known time on the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail has been broken by ultra marathoner Karl Meltzer, who chopped an impressive 10 hours off the previous record for a supported thru-hike of the trail. He went through 19 different pairs of shoes during the 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes on the trail, according to crew chief Eric Belz, power hiking in more than twice as many pairs of shoes as the previous record holder.  Meltzer, who’s nickname is Speedgoat, wore only the Hoka One Speedgoat shoes and Drymax Speedgoat socks, two products named for himself. Crew chief Belz said on Facebook Live that the shoes were still in good condition even when the runner moved on to a new pair. Meltzer changed shoes as frequently as some  professional basketball players, Belz and Meltzer joked. Actually, even at that rate the new record holder wore his shoes for about 122 miles, more than the distance run in a basketball game but less than the 300 or so miles most runners get out of their shoes.


Karl Meltzer resting, elevating and icing his legs during his AT record hike.  Credit: atrun.redbull.com

Meltzer praised his shoes for having “grip like fly paper” but he heaped the real praise on his father for making sure the ultra runner took care of his feet every night. “My feet were money all the way” Meltzer said in a Facebook Live chat hosted after reaching the Appalachian Trail terminus in Springer, Georgia. He began his journey at the northern terminus on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Meltzer explained that he checked his feet every night and made sure his feet and lower legs were clean, even when he couldn’t shower for almost a month. “I had no blisters” Meltzer said, “Keeping your lower extremity good is really really important” he stressed during the on-line chat.

But neither shoes nor socks explain Meltzer’s string of ultra marathon victories or his newest record on the AT. The man is simply fast, strong and determined– this was his third attempt at breaking this record. Speedgoat is Meltzer’s nick name for good reason and now it is the trademarked business name for his line of product endorsements. He is one of the most if not the most successful ultra marathon runner ever. Sponsored by several companies most notably Red Bull he is also closely identified with the ultra cushioned shoes made by the up and coming shoe company Hoka One One and he has the eponymous Speedgoat model named for himself.

Until now the record for a supported thru hike of the AT was held by ultra marathoner and author Scott Jurek who hiked for 46 days. Jurek in turn bested the previous record by 3 hours set in 2011 by avid hiker, back packer, author and guide Jennifer Pharr Davis who shattered the previous record by 26 hours. Pharr Davis who hiked without major retail sponsorship wore Salomon Synapse Natural Motion boots, according to an interview that appeared in Backpacker magazine after her record. She still holds the woman’s supported record on the AT.

Howard E. Friedman

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