daily preciousness

Friday, February 23, 2001

jogging in spring

Someone asked me the other day why I like to jog. It was difficult to put into words why I do it. So I sat down over zucchini bread and an au lait to explain my addiction. Let me share a few of the sensations of the experience.

My white sneakered feet hammer away at the rippled pavement below me. I am skimming above the ground in an unintentional imitation of a beautiful brown pelican. The bird is just a few inches above the water, deftly dodging the cypress knees that seem to bob near the shore of the University Lake.

It's my thrice-weekly day of jogging. It's like a religious act for me. Once again, I sacrifice an hour, some perspiration and a few thousand calories for the chance to achieve a few moments of endorphin-fed bliss.

And, I beg the gods of physiology for their continued favor. I race along a footpath, lined every 30 feet with antique lamps. The shore of the lake is thick with elephant ear sized lily pads. There are crickets and frogs croaking. Once in a while, I'll see a yellow-toothed nutria (a Louisiana swamp rat) or a turtle sunning itself.

I pass by overweight single women, walking in polyester tandem. To me, they look like secretaries. (There names are probably Kathy with a "K" and Cathy with a "C.") The women laugh a lot and are likely gossiping about real and imagined office scandals too racy for water cooler communication.

Another regular cast member during my jog is the man who's had a breathing hole put in his throat. I've nicknamed him squeaky, because you can hear the piercing whistle of his throat hole from a distance of about 20 yards (even above my operatic earphone music!). It sounds like sonar pings performed on a piccolo.

Then, there are the ubiquitous soccer moms. In packs of three or four, they take up half the road. They are pushing their infants in modern three-wheeled prams. These vehicles come loaded with moon roofs, racing stripes, shocks and, of course, padded grips for Mom's delicate hands. I imagine them discussing lemon icebox pie recipes and one-upping each other with baby stories. "My Alexander just changed channels the other day when he sat on the remote control. Harold and I were watching Bravo and Lexy switched it to the Independent Film Channel -- we think he'll grow up to be the next Bertolucci!"

But I can't hear a word that they're saying. They pass by me with their designer sunshades. They are a blur of forest greens and dark purples. I keep my eyes on the ground 5-10 feet ahead of me. I am in a world geography composed of my own breathing, surrounded by sounds of my body.

There is the thunder-in-the-distance sound of my footfalls They vary from 100-120 beats per minute. They form tiny storms, smashing against the road below.

My breathing is a hissing of air through nostrils, a whisper of spent vapor blowing out of my mouth. I exhale, my lips shaped like an umlaut, puffing out carbon dioxide. These are the steadily shifting gusts of the jogging Jeffreyverse.

Little streams of perspiration form on my brow, salty and stinging my eyes. If I'm forgetful enough to put gel in my hair the morning of a run, I get a sticky , gelly, messy forehead, too. (Even my little world has its pollution problems, I suppose.)

There are also seismic events. From time to time, I can hear the popping of knees or wrists. Thankfully, they're not that common. These are distracting and annoying -- reminders of the mortality of my inner world.

Above the background sounds of my body, I listen to a selection of pieces by Paul Schwartz. His music is a marriage of the classical and the electronic. When I can spare the extra breath, I hum to his "Ave Maria."

Ave Maria

It's melodic enough to distract me from exhaustion yet rhythmic enough to increase my energy level.

And there are moments of ecstasy in his music... moments of brilliance when the simple regularity of my pace combine with the blood red of the sunset reflecting in moving tesselations on the surface of the water. It is during these moments of clarity where the natural beauty and the lovely music make it all worthwhile.

My aesthetic sense can't help but appreciate watching cherry blossoms bursting into bright red mushrooms of color. As I jog past these springtime wonders, I crane my neck like a child on a train, passing by the blinking lights of a crossing. But my joy is more unencumbered. I simply appreciate the surroundings as I bound by, through and around them. It's inspiring to be exhausted and yet full of wonder by such simple joys.

The blissful simplicity of my exhaustion reminds me of the lyrics of one of Schwartz's recent pieces. It's a reworking of an old Shaker hymn:

"When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend and we shan't be ashamed.

To turn, to turn will be a delight,

'Til by turning, turning,

We come 'round right."

The song is a motivation to rid oneself of all externals, to focus on the utter perfection of the present moment. The ultimate reward for this Buddhist-like bliss is, of course, only fully realized "when we find ourselves in the place 'just right...' 'twill be in the valley of love and light."

On one level, I am astounded by this philosophy being promoted by such a religion. It's all very Buddhist-sounding to me. But the Shaker spirit is appropriate for jogging. I mean, these are the people who would gather to celebrate God with such fervor that their bodies would actually go into fits of shaking during their ceremonies. As a former raver, I have to respect that kind of spirit.

Recently, I've stopped jogging 1/3 the way around the lake and then circling back. I have started jogging the entire 4-mile loop. It winds gracefully around the lakefront. I have wonderful views of the state capitol building and the Mississippi River bridge at sunset. And the fraternity brothers toss their footballs over my head when I pass by their house. The Sigma Nu house is always engaged in a testosterone fest -- balls flying every which a way.

Towards the end of my run, I come across the maids as they leave the grand mansion-like homes of the sorority girls. The little coffee-colored maids walk to the old Cadillacs and wipe off their hands dismissively.

Soon, I'm back to my car. My hands are inevitably weak from the run, so steering requires more effort and care than usual. (Fine motor control, no pun intended, is virtually impossible for me, after an hour of jogging.)

All in all, it's a pleasure to go on these springtime jogs around the lake. The little muscle pains the day after and the sweat-stained socks are a small price to pay for the overall well-being and sense of accomplishment I get from a run. And the moments of transcendence that I achieve during a particularly good run are worth all the trouble.


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