Monthly Archives: August 2015

The two words that will stop me running

http://www.parkrun.com/

Running in Tokyo, 2014

In the beginning was the burn – and the burn was sore.

A sharp, annoying type of sore, which radiated through the joint of my left big toe. First I felt it while running, then while walking. Eventually I couldn’t shake it off, it stabbed at me as I lay in bed at night.

So what did I do?

I ignored it, at first. Until it got so bad that – in a chain reaction of injury that doctors warn about but those who know better, like me, disregard – it kicked off a bout of plantar fasciitis.

That was over two years ago. At the time I reckoned – as did my then physio – that I’d sprained my toe and that rest, stretching and incorporating some cycling, would be fix me.

It didn’t. After two years of stretching, bathing, ibuprofen, heat rubs and an increasing sense of annoyance, all the while running less and less, I found myself with a new physio and the same old pain.

This time the news wasn’t good. She didn’t need an X-ray to diagnose hallux limitus, a form of early onset arthritis which leads to (the far more debilitating) hallux rigidus (two words that may eventually stop me running). Fun fact: ‘hallux’ is Latin for big toe. Less fun fact: ‘limitus’ translates as ‘oh dear’. (‘Rigidus’ is unprintable.)

Now that we had a diagnosis for the sharp needle jolt through my joint we could go about trying to stop it. But hallux limitus goes beyond just physical discomfort.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle

As I started treatment I found (correction: I still find) myself looking at 40 and 50-something runners in the park now and thinking – jealously – how can you still do that?

Of course, they may ache too. They may, while lacing up, wince and curse God, or their antecedents, for handing them shaky knee joints, tight hamstrings or a weak left ankle. But still I look at their feet, particularly their big toes, enviously.

And so began the last six months – a period of painful massage, podiatrist appointments, endless fiddling with inserts and, finally, the arrival of spanking new orthotics.

This culminated in a command from my physio – no running for 10 days.

Did I feel better? Am I limiting the limitus? It’s too early to say. My mandated 10 day break ended this week with a meekly-jogged 5k.

Of course this is the point at which I feel duty bound to warn of the dangers of not seeking treatment quickly for running injuries, the benefits of rest and the advantages of gentle walks.

But I can’t. In the past 18 months I’ve been lucky enough to experience solitary, mind-clearing dawns break over some wonderful places – Tokyo, Bordeaux, London, New York City, even Galway – something I could never have experienced without running – or without feeling that old familiar burn.

Lesson learned? Not yet, I’m afraid.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999

guitar1

US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth. I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.

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Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of strolling home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye has become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”

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I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.

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In a station of the DART

tracxk‘Petals on a wet, black bough’ –

Autumn’s leaves down on the track.

If Ezra Pound returned, and stood on the platform at Killester,

What would appear?

Just the same,

Wet petals.

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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

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