Monthly Archives: September 2011

Deerfoot

On Wednesdays, I’ll be reprinting posts from my old blog, Joe Felso

I’m a fan of backwater sports history—the stories of figures who held only momentary prominence and slid into footnotes. Their exploits aren’t important or consequential or influential or curious enough to make the hall of fame mainstream, and so they trickle along unnoticed.

In the age of the internet, however, their records don’t disappear entirely. Googling finds them waiting. Such is the case with Lewis “Deerfoot” Bennett, a Seneca Native American born in 1830.

Presently Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie holds the record for the greatest distance traveled in one hour (21,285 meters or 13.23 miles), but, as amazing as that record is, it doesn’t erase the achievements of the great one-hour runners of the past, especially Deerfoot.

In the 19th century, when distance running was known as “pedestrianism,” it was more an excuse to gamble than a sport, and professional distance runners would make an audacious claim—”I can run 11 miles in an hour”—and then, one Sunday afternoon or Monday night, try it. As many as 30, 000 spectators might show up to watch them take on other runners and make good on their assertions.

Records of these contests go as far back as 1690, but, in the mid-19th century they stirred public imagination and interest. A British promoter and former runner, George Martin, brought four runners to the U.S. in 1861, and in New York State, he encountered Deerfoot, a local challenger who nearly defeated one of his stars. Internet history records only one of Deerfoot’s races before then, a five-mile completed in 25 minutes at the Erie Fair in 1856, when he was 26. He won $50.

Martin, who must have known talent, invited Deerfoot to England to race the prominent “pedestrianists” of the day. Over the next 20 months, Deerfoot ran 130 events in 87 weeks—or a competition every four or five days. He lost his first race and his last, but between the two, he never lost.

Some stories describe Deerfoot as humble and reserved, but photographs and accounts of the day show him bare-chested and wearing only a breechcloth and a feather in his headband. They also describe him unleashing loud war-whoops during his runs and sometimes scuffling with spectators before and after races. Running spikes were available then, but Deerfoot turned them down in favor of moccasins.

And his running style was unconventional. Two runners who held the records for running 10 miles in the 1750s had died shortly afterward, and distance running in Europe had become a contest of conservation and control. Deerfoot changed that. Peter Lovesey quotes a news story about Martin’s 1861 tour:

The difference between the gaits of the white and the red man was very marked, the former going with an easy cat-like step, and the latter with the peculiar “lope” and side-swing of shoulder and head that any prairie traveler has remarked among the runners of the western tribes.

Deerfoot’s form, however was only part of a do or die approach. He threw frequent surges into his races, daring the British runners to match pace. Once in the lead, he sometimes slowed enough to allow them to regain contact and then threw in another burst to put them away.

Some of the information I’ve found says that Deerfoot never trained, that the secret to his triumphant tour was that he raced into shape, but I’m skeptical. We find some strange comfort in calling athletes—especially non-white athletes—”naturals,” but Deerfoot’s records are too formidable to arise from running every Monday night.

In 1863, Deerfoot ran 11 miles 790 yards in one hour in January, then 11 miles 880 yards in 59:44 in February. He might have had a new one-hour record at that point, but, since the bet was over running 10.5 miles under an hour, he let the last 16 seconds go. When you consider what conditions might have been like at that time of year, these performances are remarkable, but his most astounding race came in April, against William Lang. With a 100 yard handicap, Lang held Deerfoot off for a full ten miles, when Deerfoot finally pulled even at 51:26, the fastest ten mile time at that point. At the end of an hour, Lang beat Deerfoot by half a yard, but Deerfoot’s race, measuring 100 yards longer than Lang’s, was 11 miles, 970 yards, a new one-hour record. That run marked his last race in England.

Though two professional runners in the 1890s reputedly broke Deerfoot’s one hour record, the first time a runner broke it officially was 41 years later in 1904 when Alf Shrub—using a strategy very like Deerfoot’s—ran 167 yards further.

I don’t mean to denigrate Haile Gebrselassie. He is one of my running heroes, notwithstanding his withdrawal from the Berlin marathon that Ethiopian Patrick Makau won last weekend in a new record 2:03:38, but when you consider the improvement in equipment, in running surfaces, and in training methods, Deerfoot is certainly the finest distance runner this country has produced and perhaps one of the finest in history.

Deerfoot died in 1897, and, searching the web, I could only find record of one race during all that time—one in Cleveland in 1869 when Deerfoot, then 39, defeated a visiting British pedestrianist in a five-mile race. Despite giving the rest of the field a quarter mile lead, he won in 24:15, 45 seconds faster than his first recorded race when he was 26.

As any runner knows, you can’t do that without training.

While baseball fans debate the best pitcher and football fans argue over the top ten wide receivers, I will quietly hold onto Deerfoot, my backwater great. If you are interested in learning more, a book by Rob Hadgraft, Deerfoot: Athletics’ Noble Savage can tell you more. In the meantime, it’s consoling to think his legend trickles through the web, assuring him a measure of the immortality he deserves.

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Filed under Deerfoot, Essays, Running, Thoughts, Tributes

Not So Funny, Really

My trouble with comedy began with Leave It To Beaver. Or, maybe I should say that’s when my trouble with a particular kind of comedy began, the sort that places The Beave and Whitey, through a series of increasingly terrible decisions, into an oversized cup atop a billboard advertizing coffee. Other people must find it funny seeing characters misstep their way into seemingly irretrievable territory—the laugh tracks suggest so—but I have to watch from the kitchen, peeking around the door frame, hands to my face, allowing myself only what’s visible between my fingers.

I can’t bear Meet the Parents. Occasionally when I’m wandering through the channels looking for a movie to re-watch, I’ll catch a speedo-ed Ben Stiller slamming a volleyball into the face of his sister-in-law to be, and I retreat faster than someone accidentally opening the bathroom door on their aged aunt. One Christmas, my son gave me a copy of The Hangover, and I watched it once, certain he meant it as a gift to himself, a great chance to revel in my torture.

When I explain my trouble, friends tell me I take these movies too seriously. “It’s just a story,” they say, “you of all people should know everything will be okay in end.” Maybe, but meanwhile my white-hot empathy presents one half of the instinctive fight or flight response.

My memory is too full of wincing moments already. Sometimes, just idly considering my past I’ll recall the humiliation of saying “tippy-toes” when, the teacher reminded me, second graders say “tiptoe,” or reaching into my seventh grade desk, pulling out a girls’ gym uniform, holding it over my head and saying, “Whose is this?” into the sudden silence before class, or having a college professor complete his classroom critique of my essay with the statement, “None of which would be terrible if the author had recognized the poem was called ‘O Western Wind’ and not ‘A Wind from the West’.” Then there are the letters I should have answered, the appointments I missed, and every simple mistake with disproportionate consequences.

These events are minor compared to suddenly being caught nude outside your hotel room or having to hide in the ferns as your boss puts on women’s lingerie. An audience is supposed to delight in absurdity, laughing at how very unlikely—and funny—for events to come to this. But the comedy seems real. I feel characters’ dejection edging into shame, the guilt they own even without knowing the crime, and the inescapability of being cosmically shat upon. Things can go that wrong.

Comedy always has a victim. Pursue any jest far enough and you will find someone diminished. Too often that someone is me, or me by proxy, which is close enough.

Some say the catharsis of tragedy relies on looking at the tragic hero and realizing, at least to some degree, the hero could be you, but I’m never Macbeth or Oedipus or Lear or Hamlet. I’m The Beave, awaiting rescue from myself.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Ego, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Work for a Reason

Growing up, I sometimes tried to supplement my allowance with contract work for my parents. If they provided materials, I would wash the windows, paint the porch, clean up the yard, or do nearly anything that needed doing. My price would be a flat fee based on who knows what. The time allotted to the task would be who knows how long. Completion time: to be announced. But at the end of my task, my father often refused to pay what he promised.

“David, you haven’t finished,” he’d say.

“You asked me to clean the garage. Isn’t it clean?”

“Most of it is, but you left cobwebs in the window sills and in the corners near the ceiling and floor.”

“But you didn’t tell me that was part of the job.”

“I shouldn’t have to tell you… part of the job is knowing what the job is.”

Though I’d go on to complete my father’s work order according to his unspecified specifications, I resented these conversations. I regarded them as puppy training, my nose pushed into my mess.

Now—of course—I’m my father. At least a third of my students’ questions amount to, “Exactly what do we have to do again?” I hear myself say, “If I tell you everything you have to do, how will you learn to figure out what needs to be done?”

In other words, “Part of the job is knowing what the job is.”

When I cleaned the garage or painted the porch I wanted to be finished and paid. Satisfaction was hardly my top desire, and I imagine it is the same with some of my students. I ought to understand. Whether I specify nothing or everything, the task remains arbitrary. It’s my job, not theirs.

Yet I’m quixotic enough to hope for transcendence. “This time,” I think, “they will take the task as their own and show me how resourceful and diligent they can be.” I think, “This time they will surprise me. In a good way.”

At one of the first department meetings of the year, as we were grousing about an “initiative” we needed to fulfill and talking ourselves toward resignation, one of my colleagues shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, they call it ‘work’ for a reason.”

Expecting work to be more than work may be setting myself up for disappointment, but I think my colleague has it exactly wrong. They call it “work” because it has no reason. If I could convince students a task is worth doing—not for a grade or for college, not for freedom from grounding this weekend—maybe they would clean cobwebs from windowsills or give their essays better titles than “Catcher in the Rye Paper.”

Buckminster Fuller once said that he never thought about beauty when he was trying to work out a design or idea, but, “When I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it’s wrong.” You have to desire a beautiful solution to arrive at one.

When I return essays, I identify problems I encountered—common mechanical errors or frequently unsupported assertions or troublesome quotations that weren’t properly integrated. Most students take my instructions with patience and mute gratitude, listlessly copying pieces of advice into notebooks, resolving— even if half-heartedly—to return to them before the next paper. Occasionally, however, someone rallies the courage to ask, “Why didn’t you tell us this in the first place?”

My answer is, “Sometimes I have to see your work to know where you need help.”

It’s a necessary but inadequate response. I’m still looking for a more beautiful solution. Maybe I should be honest and say I had hoped they wouldn’t need reminding. But I’m beginning to think it’d be better to focus less on what’s missing in their work. I should help them think more about what they can do than what they must do.

What they really need is a reason to work. Though I sometimes forget, trying to inspire them is what this job is.

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Filed under Aging, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Laments, life, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

East on North

My neighbors are the cogs of an odd clock. Morning sets them going, and each leaps into a ballet already out of sync but appropriate to the day. Our regularly random stirrings mark more time elapsing, and we clock parts inch the sun higher.

On the way to work I pass the same woman walking the opposite direction. Depending on the moment we pass, her presence tells me I’m late, or that she is early, or that neither knows the true minute. We don’t speak, and it’s the same for all these faces moving like planets in idiosyncratic orbits. We pretend daily not to know one another, pretend our habits don’t overlap and that every morning is familiar. We live in déjà vu.

Beside the Walgreens, a man sits at the entrance to a parking lot, smokes, and yammers into the passing traffic. I never walk on that side and can’t hear what he says, but gyrations send cigarette smoke swirling into the morning sun.

Runners glide by, sliding like beads along a string toward the park and lake, as if they were moved and not moving.

On the steps of a fountain across from work, an elderly man dances shirt open to the music of a CD player he palms like a discus. He travels up and down levels, pausing to deliver lines and improvise choreography. When he gestures to heaven, a tennis ball-sized tumor shows under his right arm. Though every day he seems more emaciated, he never tires, his performance never slows. One morning a runner paused to talk to him, and he dipped in deep bow, sweeping his arm to gesture her on. Last Thursday, he wore just one shoe.

This time of year, the morning sun is low, and, traveling east, every figure ahead of me is a light-smudged shadow. I can’t open my eyes more than slits. We march into glare as if we were stepping into the mouth of a bright mine.

In the afternoon, I will walk west, into the sun again, eyes-lidded, tracing another circle, never exactly the same.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Urban Life, Work

Penitent

On those rare occasions my mother took me and my siblings to confession, we found a few penitents already kneeling in the unlit church, their heads bowed, their bony hands working rosary beads. I pictured them there always, whispering into the cool shadows between pews. They eluded trouble, I supposed, by filling time with penance.

But, even to an eleven year-old, their prayers seemed echoes without origin, born of causes so long silent their repetitions were fetish. Only their compulsion impressed me.

It never occurred to me they prayed for everyone.

I understand them better now. They invested in hope. They wanted to reach across life to death and redeem all the souls gone before them. They meant to steer the world from their knees.

Faith must be like laying bricks—you stack one on another and believe that, no matter how far away the end seems, each tiny addition brings you closer. But my understanding of faith goes only that far.

When I was growing up, my parents, my friends, my friend’s parents, and my parents’ friends lived in daily events. As long as no misfortune unsettled us, we watched this week’s sitcom episodes and made another trip to the grocery to buy what we lacked. We posted dentists’ appointments on the refrigerator. We never scheduled anything outside this life or really believed anything mystical needed space in it.

Most of the history I read in school pointed at past naïveté and disillusionment. Even accounts of the immediate past illuminated mistaken assumptions or baffling ignorance about what our ancestors might have known.

We lose so much that way. Most of all, we lose belief in anything beyond the present. The future may see us as just as misguided when, really, every age is vulnerable, every age is equally lost.

The penitents knew that. I see them still stationed in those pews, praying. Their lives spin in another world. In ours, we have few gyroscopes and little or no sense that right minds will right the planet. I am not religious and don’t believe Hail Marys could turn a hurricane, but I can’t help admiring penitents’ quiet faith. Maybe their whispers resonate with something greater.

Some echoes run longer than we know and hint at the power of what set them off. I don’t hear those echoes and sometimes wish I did.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Place, Recollection, Thoughts