My run with Jonathan

December 19, 2009

I haven’t met a lot of people  impressed by the fact that I bumped into Jonathan Richman while out on a lunch hour run in Burlington maybe ten years ago. A brush with fame story loses some luster when you need to explain the identity of the famous person. There’s a temptation to say, oh, never mind. But if you understand a bit about Jonathan, his music, and his own relationship to the arts of covering ground, then, well… maybe you’ll be mildly impressed.

So, a word about Jonathan. First, the sub-title of the blog—”When you run for love, not because you oughta”—is a line from his song “That Summer Feeling.” It’s classic Jonathan, a wistful revery about the months of summer vacation from school. The refrain: “That summer feeling’s gonna haunt you the rest of your life.”

Most of Jonathan’s songs are celebrations  of the love and beauty he finds in the mundane things of this world — from a yellow chewing gum wrapper on the sidewalk to the smell of an alley to the “sound of Oldsmobiles traveling from town to town.” Often childlike in outlook, always simple in structure. He reminds me of a statement in reference to the writer John Cheever — that he “writes like a man trying to cheer himself up.” Jonathan seems like a melancholy person at his core, maybe a little depressive, who has found this personal Prozac in the worldview he’s created through his music.

Does this all sound a bit precious? Believe me, I’ve got a Precious-o-meter that is calibrated very low, but Jonathan doesn’t make me gag. His songs are delivered with humor, but without irony, I think. I’ve seen him perform a bunch of times, and I’ve often stood in the front few rows with a smile on my face and a bit of bafflement in my head whether the guy on stage is a little touched or just playing a character that he’s found audiences will pay to see. After running with him for about 90 minutes, I came away convinced that the Jonathan persona is authentic.

Jonathan’s songs are all about singing praise to the things he loves, and often to a large extent, himself. The title of the album pictured above, “I, Jonathan” says a lot.  Walking and running get their due in lyrics like this one: “I just walk wherever I will/I love the world, so why stand still?/I don’t want automotive help, thanks/ I do fine just walkin’ by myself/Ain’t nothin’ between me and the ground/I just love to wander and walk around…”

So, it wasn’t a great surprise that Jonathan would be checking out Burlington on foot when he was in town for a show later in the evening. I was out on a lunch hour run with my friend Rick, heading along north Union, a few blocks from our office, when I looked across the street and recognized Jonathan.

We crossed over, said hi, said the dorky “you’re Jonathan Richman, I’m a big fan” sorts of things that make you cringe in memory. I asked him where he was heading on his run. Jonathan said, “It’s your town, you show me.”

So off we went. I tried to check what could have been a non-stop flow of questions and make up a route that would show off Burlington and cater to some of the things of the world that Jonathan loves. We went through some of the ragged, but soulful streets of the Old North End, made our way to the waterfront bikepath, and went up and through the woods around Rock Point. We talked about Jonathan’s move from Truckee, California in the Sierras back into the city in San Francisco. We talked about his song writing, the direct experience behind a recent song called “I was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” We talked about performing night after night, how he usually enjoyed it unless there was a show with an audience that was mostly guys. On-stage, Jonathan has a theatrical frown he often uses for dramatic or comic effect—furrowed brow, sad eyes. On the run, he also made that face when considering that male-centric crowd.  “No, no, then Jonathan’s very unhappy.”

After about a half-hour, Rick had to head back to the office for an appointment. Me, this was my chance to run with Jonathan and I decided the lunch hour could stretch as needed. Jonathan seemed like he could go for a long-time, but every now and then would say, “Uh-oh, Achilles!” then lie down on his back and put his legs in the air, kind of shaking them out. He said it helped with a chronic problem. I made some mention about being pretty inflexible, bent over to do my approximation of a toe touch. Jonathan made his sad face: “Oh, no, that’s not good.” He saw trouble ahead for me and suggested I should really work on that.

As we ran past the Burlington High School track, I asked Jonathan how fast he thought he could run a quarter-mile. “I don’t know,” he said, “let’s find out.” So we got on the track, lined up next to each other, and I hit my watch. I ran it comfortably, just kind of pacing alongside Jonathan. We finished, winded. Jonathan quickly asked me the time. (I recall it was something like 78 seconds.) Furrowed brow, sad face: “That’s really slow isn’t it.” I said, no, it was ok. He asked me if I was running as fast as I could. I said, not really. Furrowed brow again, sad face turned to mad face. “Why did you do that? Maybe if you went faster I would go faster.” I said, uh, ok, do you want to do it again and I’ll run harder? He said, “Yeah.” Not many people in the world would agree to another hard quarter mile, but such is Jonathan’s lust for all the things of life. So I not only got to run with Jonathan, I got to do intervals with him. (For the record, I put a decent gap on Jonathan on the second quarter and I think he came in around 74 seconds. He was happier with his performance and the integrity of my effort.)

We jogged back down the bikepath to waterfront park where we parted ways. Jonathan told me there would be a couple of tickets at the door for us that night at Club Metronome.

Wikipedia covers Jonathan pretty well if you want to know more:


My special yellow friend

December 16, 2009

I’m beginning to worry that I have an inappropriate relationship with the little yellow man on Google Maps, that guy you click and drag to see Street View. We’re spending way too much time together.

In a week I’ll be visiting Rome with my family. From Rome we go to Paris; from Paris, to Newcastle, UK. For the past month or so I’ve been spending a good chunk of most evenings poring over guidebooks, reading up on the best neighborhoods to walk, wondering about running around Villa Borghese in Rome or the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, charting whether it would be too long to run from our hotel to the Appian Way.

I love to look over the veins of roads on a map, plot a route, plan a trip, imagining the contours of the countryside or the neighborhoods of a city. But the satellite option on Google maps, particularly the streetview function in which you can plunk the little yellow stick figure on  streets, swivel him, look up and down, walk him around and see a place block by block is something altogether different. Obviously, this is another thing from the paper Rand McNally you picked up at the gas station and could never quite fold crisply back together.

I first got drawn into the Google satellite maps to plot out distances of running routes in Burlington. Street view got its hooks in me when our daughter Grace went to Newcastle this semester. I could put myself on the ground where she was — walk out on the bridge over the Tyne, see her running route across the town moor, turn a corner by the soccer stadium and happen upon a restaurant called Chicken Cottage (O, to be in the Chicken Cottage when it’s packed with pink, damp, beery Geordies after a match!).

And yet… and yet… those damn “and yets” that signal this is in danger of taking a nosedive into a sort of Andy Rooney old-man gripe lamenting a changing age, a plea that something has been lost. Though I believe in my heart that Andy Rooney should have been taken out behind the CBS News barn and shot about fifteen years ago, I’m not above treading on his cranky turf and asking if excessive destination Googling is kind of like peeking at one’s Christmas presents. Is it skipping the novel and going straight to the movie? Is it killing the pleasure of  imagining a place, seeing it for yourself, then trying to hang on to the thread of what you imagined even when it’s been replaced by cruel reality?

Uh, maybe just a little bit. 

But, you know what, I’m not losing any sleep. Somehow I think that Rome and Paris are Christmas presents that would still deliver even if they were unwrapped the night before, played with, and carefully rewrapped. I doubt that I’ll walk down to the Colosseum on that first day, yawn, and say, “Seen it.”

The kiddie pool

December 11, 2009

For the past week my workout companions have been pre-schoolers and the elderly. I’ve been “running” in the program pool at the Y in hopes of speeding the healing of some unhappy muscle fibers/ligaments in my right foot, lingering dodgeball damage.

There are the inevitable questions with an injury. Is it ok if I run on it? Is it going to make it worse? Or, the refuge of the desperate—maybe running on it will help? Right. When that doesn’t work, you head for the pool.

Pool running goes like this. You strap on a blue floatation device, a thing with all the athletic dignity of water wings. You lower yourself gently into the deep end. You float around in circles and move your arms and legs like you’re running in place. You watch the clock.

Every bit as fun as it sounds.

Actually, taken in small doses, I’m trying to convince myself that I like a pool run. What’s to like? For one, there’s the program pool, not to be confused with the lap pool. The lap pool is where the real aquatic athletes go to swim. The water is cold, the lanes are long. The program pool is where classes like “Infant Splash Time!” and “Senior Limb Swing!” are held. The walls, tiled in shades of brown and buff, crowd close to the edge of the pool. There are a few tired gestures of decoration — a fake palm tree jammed up in a corner by the EXIT sign; preachy YMCA banners—Respect, Responsibility, Honesty, Caring; a bulletin board with colored construction paper stapled to it, faded and forgotten.  But for the most part, to their credit, the Y staff has been wise to leave the program pool to its authentic nature, which evokes a spa in Belgrade, Yugoslavia circa 1953.

Taken together, the entire event of a pool run at the Burlington Y offers the runner nursing an injury a balm to both body and soul. These are comforts to the afflicted—the water temperature like a nice bath, the happy youngsters and the chipper oldsters, the drowsy college student lifeguard watching over us all.

Water Wings, William Roberts, 1938

Singletrack table scraps

December 8, 2009

There is the singletrack celebrated in mountain bike magazines, epic stretches of once-in-a-lifetime trail twisting though forest and across alpine meadows in bloom. Then there is the singletrack we don’t view from afar in magazines but ride for ourselves, brief snatches of once-in-a-week trail through the shaggy margins of woods that persist in a small city. Riding the narrow hard-pack through a tangle of trees by the lake’s edge, floating through one graceful bend that I know well, this sixty meters of singletrack is about all I need.

Golf season

December 4, 2009

Late fall in Vermont, after the leaves have dropped and before the snow has fallen, is when golf courses are reclaimed by those who truly appreciate lushness underfoot and don’t roll over it in an electric cart. I’m claiming  some moral high ground—hey, there’s a surprise!—as I run up the fairway of the Burlington Country Club, my little dog bounding lawlessly alongside. 

Golf courses are made for running. If you’re running over it instead of searching for a ball buried in it, there’s nothing rough about the rough. The fairway is as gently rolling and obscenely smooth as a centerfold photo. (Apologies, that got a little Carl Spackler.) But I always respect the prim putting greens. Shallow experience as a kid hacking away with my Chi Chi Rodriguez 9-iron on a seedy little par 3 course informs me that a green is a sacred place not to be casually trodden upon. But a fairway? Yes… oh, hell yes.

But the part I love most about running on a golf course is the “power to the people” transgression in running freely across a place where others pay thousands to belong. A bent, snaggle-toothed serf slipping across the lord’s manor in the early morning light, a stolen chicken under my arm, I slip silently past the clubhouse with a wary eye, hoping they won’t release the hounds.

Hill runners in a flat land

December 3, 2009

One more thing on fell running and the great Joss Naylor, then I think I’ll be able to let it go. 

I mentioned in a previous post how my friend Ken and I went through a quick Naylor phase in high school after reading the Sports Illustrated article with this memorable quote, a sheep farmer’s simple definition of determination and discipline — “If I know I’ve got to shear 100 sheep in a day, then I shear 100 sheep.” Of course with Naylor and his multi-peak runs in the English Lake District on our minds, we’d be motivated to find some hills to run.

Problem was that East Central Illinois and the English Lake District don’t have a lot in common topographically. Our standard routes were out on the straight, flat farm roads where you could see the grain elevators of little towns like Savoy and Tolono miles and miles off in the distance.

 Since we couldn’t run over large obstacles such as mountains or even hills, we decided to jump over small ones. Our runs turned into long steeplechase-like workouts in which we capitalized on what our local landscape did have to offer — the huge campus of the University of Illinois, endless public areas with what seemed like a limitless array of things to jump over: benches, fences, hedges, statues, bike racks, stairs, fountains, concrete vents for the underground steam tunnels, chains intended to keep us off the grass. 

One of the epic jumps went off a brick wall into a six-foot drop at the football stadium. Another, over some hedges followed by a plummet past a row of windows at the College of Education. Ken was the greater daredevil, and it still makes me shudder a bit to think of a jump he did across a stairwell at the Foreign Language Building that had a drop that, well, would have been really painful. We hurdled twelve consecutive hedges by Gregory and Lincoln halls, a series that we dubbed, of course, “The Dirty Dozen.”

When I visit my family back in Champaign-Urbana and take runs around campus, I often look at those old obstacles… and think better of it. I’ll run a big hill in Vermont these days, but hopping a chain 18 inches off the ground just looks like trouble to a 49 year old.