Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

Over the holidays I read Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston trilogy, having been tipped off to the novels by my summer’s reading of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill and the strong endorsement of the previously unknown literary gem as one of the most beloved and high-impact pieces published between the two world wars. I’ve known about Sassoon since college when I read Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory as well as Robert Grave’s autobiography, Goodbye to all That.

Siegfried Sassoon was one of a select group of young English poets who  went to war spouting the florid language of Kipling and Tennyson and returned (if they survived) utterly gutted by the horror of mechanized war. Sassoon survived. So did Graves. But others, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen did not.

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In these centennial anniversary years of the Great War, I realize how deficient the literature I’ve found has served the experience compared to the masterpieces that came out of World War II such as James Jones’ The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Sure, there is All Quiet on the Western Front and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun but until I read Sassoon’s trilogy I hadn’t fully grasped the hellishness of France and the trenches. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August are an excellent historical introduction to the causa belli but in sum I guess the best literature about the First World War was indeed the war poetry.

Sassoon was raised by a spinster aunt in Kent’s Weald, the iconic southeastern rolling landscape that personifies the English cliche. Fussell, in his introduction to Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man rightfully points out Sassoon’s intense love affair with the landscape of Kent and his almost erotic evocation of a pre-war life spent playing cricket on village greens and learning how to ride with the fox hunt through coverts and over the fences of the local farms. Sassoon, who dropped out of Cambridge without completing a degree, had just enough of an inheritance to be idle and spend his days riding horses and getting fitted with new boots and pink hunting coats. The three books are a barely fictionalized autobiography.

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Sassoon ends the first volume — Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man — when he volunteers for the infantry as a junior officer. The second volume, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is set in the trenches of northern France and tells the story of his acts of reckless heroism, where he decided that rather than give into the fear and horror he would affect an insouciance that led his soldiers to nickname him “Mad Jack” and regard him as a good luck officer willing to take chances rather than cower in a trench.

Sassoon was wounding and returned to England, was decorated as a hero, returned, was wounded again, and during his convalescence decided to publish a protest against the war with the support of the pacifist mathematician Bertrand Russell.

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

“On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.”

Sassoon sent that declaration to his commanding officer, threw his Military Cross medal into the Mersey River, and waited for a reaction. The reaction from the army was more genteel embarrassment for Sassoon than outrage. Before he could be tried for treason a friend intervened and declared Siegfried was unhinged and needed to be committed to an asylum. Sassoon was packed off to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the pioneering genius in the treatment of shell shock as PTSD was known at the time. Through his work with Rivers, Sassoon came to the conclusion that the only rational decision he could make was to ask for a return to the front lines of the war, and so he was returned to the front for a third time, an experience covered in the final volume of the trilogy: Sherston’s Progress which was published in 1936, completed the series that began in 1928.

These books were beloved at the time of their publication and it surprises me they aren’t still read or better known in the U.S.. In my estimation the first volume is my favorite because of its amazing affection for the culture that existed before the war. I’ve read that Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is a similar expression of deep love for “the shire,” that bucolic country life of England that looms so large in my American mind as the “British Cliche” but which evidently did exist and lives on in the writings of Sassoon and others.

 

Digressive Discursions

It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.

But I digress.

Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:

“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”

Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR“Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.

After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids.  The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written  — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.

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In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume.  Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click.  So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more.  Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.

My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext —  links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….

Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences.  Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.

Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly.  The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.

“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”

Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.

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Here’s the text as it is formatted online:

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And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:

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For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Maechatfieldnchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.

I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.

What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places.  I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.

Peter Matthiessen

He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.

Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.

I’ve blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends’ hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.

Here’s what I wrote on Amazon:

“For nearly twenty years I’ve been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as “Bloody Watson” and “Emperor Watson” for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen’s masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise ….

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson’s death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing — and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson’s sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius’ quest is a reminder to the reader — this is a true story. Matthiessen’s research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson’s lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.”

Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

– Sterling Hayden

The Recent Reading List

William Boyd is one of those English novelists who seems to simmer under the surface of fame and motors along an acquired taste and favorite of readers who love great writing. I was introduced to him by Charles Dubow (who’s first novel, Indiscretion, is to be published next month) in the 1990s when we were colleagues at Forbes.com and ever since I’ve pressed Boyd’s novels onto my friends who appreciate the good stuff.

Boyd sets his books in the past — he seems most comfortable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — and his protagonists, generally Englishmen, are wonderfully vivid characters, artists and dreamers beset by the world.

His latest, which I am still reading, is Waiting for Sunrise, set in Vienna before World War One. a story of a young man seeking “the talking cure” for his inability to achieve an orgasm.

The first Boyd novel I read, one that remains one of my favorites, is The New Confessionsthe story of John James Todd, survivor of the trenches of France, cameraman, silent film director and auteur, who sets out to audaciously film Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions”. From WWI to Hollywood, it remains the best novel about cinema I have read.

Current reading list

I’ve been juggling the usual reading list, relying primarily on my Google Nexus 7 tablet as my Kindle delivery device. Good tablet. I highly recommend it.

BurrI’ve never read any Gore Vidal, and on the occasion of his passing away earlier this year bought a paperback edition of Burr, his fictionalization of the life of Aaron Burr. Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in perhaps the most famous duel in history; was Jefferson’s vice-president, a hero of the Revolutionary War and, in Vidal’s portrayal, a licentious, thoughtful, and scheming political survivor whom history has tarred and feathered while deifying Hamilton. I recommend it.

Proud TowerIf I could write history I would want to write like Barbara Tuchman. Her Guns of August, and Distant Mirror are personal favorites. Taken in the same vein of other historical authors who manage to make history sing (e.g. David McCullough and William Manchester), Tuchman is the best. Proud Tower is a look at the decline of aristocratic power structures in the two decades before World War I – with exquisite cameos of the best and the brightest in Parliament, Congress, and even the anarchist bomb throwers that presage our modern terrorism crisis.

DeadheadNick Baumgartner at the New Yorker has written a great personal account of being a Deadhead, a compulsive collector of the band’s trove of user-shared bootleg taps of their shows, the fate of the band’s archive and where it stands today in a warehouse in Burbank California. Which reminds me to do something with the two cases of 90 minute Maxell cassettes sitting in my attic.

Readwrite on Outing Trolls: interesting piece in ReadWrite (where the Fake Steve Jobs, my buddy Dan Lyons is now editor in chief) on the use of social media to “out” trolls and racists.  I confess to being a fan of the troll subculture — finding some of the old USENET trolls to be among the more demented disruptors  and jokesters ever known. The rise of 4Chan, Reddit, etc. has given birth to an entirely weird subculture (my favorite being the SecondLife griefers “W-hat”). The example of the Tumblr blog devoted to outing adolescent racists who used Twitter and Facebook to express their ignorance after the recent election is depressing.

Relentlessly Self-Improving

I confess I haven’t rowed on the water once this calendar year. My only excuse is a shitty start to the season with the torn bicep back in January and the five months of rehab. Now it looks like that same arm has a “slap tear” at the top of the bicep, and that means some specific movements are both painful and very weak, including lifting the shell out of its rack and getting it over head.

The winter injury happened just in to time to knock me out of the 2012 CRASH-B sprints (the “world championships” of indoor/erg rowing) and I never got motivatedenough  to wake up extra-early for the calm water and portage my scull down Old Shore Road to the harbor.   Crossfit and the tedium of physical therapy had my full attention and now, with Thanksgiving holiday ahead, it’s time to start hyperfocusing on the indoor rowing season which traditionally begins for me with the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge (200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and ends with the Crash-B’s in February.

This is my last year in the 50-54 men’s heavyweight division. In 2011 I tanked after going out too fast from the start and bonked in the last 500 meters, blowing a nice pace and finishing 14th with a 6:39.9.  I had won the Cape Cod “championships” at the Cranberry Crunch the month before with a 6:42 and was all full of myself and cocky at the Crash-Bs and went out too fast. I learned my lesson and left the arena at Boston University determined to come back better in 2012. I signed up for Crossfit Cape Cod the next week and have been training with an eye towards getting faster on the erg.

Today I did my first 2,000 meter test to set the baseline for my training over the next three months leading up to the race on February 17.  I climbed on the erg, stripped off my shirt, set the monitor for a 2,000 meter piece and decided anything under 7 minutes would be a good place to start. I made it. Barely, with a 6:58.8.  That meant an average 500 meter pace of 1:44.7. Respectable, but a long way from where I need to be in 12 weeks. Ironically, focusing on Crossfit has made me slower on the erg — proof that randomizing my exercise the Crossfit way between metabolic and strength conditioning isn’t as effective as my tried-and-true model of putting in tons of meters and shifting to short sprint intervals as the races grow near.

I logged my time on Concept2’s online ranking page and now stand 39th out of 616 heavyweight men ages 50-59. The winning time in my division last year at the Crash-Bs was a 6:11.4. The world record is 6:07.7 set by Andy Ripley in 1998. The world record — period — for men is 5:36.6.

Breaking seven minutes is a great goal for any guy in good shape, but being the competitive egomaniac I am, of course I am going to obsess on the winning times in my division and have my eyes on the next age group’s record of 6:18 set by Harvard/Olympian legend Dick Cashin.    As for this year. I would dearly love to get under 6:30 in 12 weeks. That means shaving 30 seconds between now and then. It’s improbable, if not impossible, but it is at least aggressive. The question is how to develop a training plan that will get me there while allowing me to do the daily Crossfit workouts, and taper in time for the big event?

If I pull one 2K per week — say every Saturday. I should be shaving 3 seconds off every week if I want to break 6:30 on February 17.  I bet if I were to attack a test piece now with the same intensity a race requires — “emptying the tank” — and leaving nothing to spare at the end, I might get to 6:45 with a superhuman effort. The question is how shave the last 15 seconds knowing full well the law of diminishing returns that sets in as one gets closer to the goal.

Developing a training plan to get from here to there is not a simple matter of plotting a line from 7 minutes on November 15 to 6:30 on February 15 and hoping a miracle will happen somewhere along that line. It won’t. Physiological adaptation doesn’t work that way.

In fact, to be more geeky about it. The best way to look at the challenge is not by gross finishing time, but the specific pace that has to be maintained to get there. For that I turn to the Concept 2 online pace calculator. The rowing machine has a monitor that counts down the meters, notes the strokes per minute and most prominently displays a big bold number — the erg’s equivalent to the speedometer on a car — the current pace for 500 meters. In Saturday’s baseline piece, my average split was 1:44.7. I didn’t row a a flat 1:44.7 every one of the 200 or so strokes it took to tick off 2,000 meters. I started with a 1:33 and gradually degraded to as slow as a 1:50 at one point. Fortunately, the monitor also displays an estimated finish time that one can improve by pulling harder, so having sat down with a sub-7 minute performance as my goal, I was able to keep the predicted time under 7 minutes and not let things decline and get out of hand.

Split strategies are essential to a great 2,000 meter performance. Using the Concept2 calculator and entering in 2,000 meters as the distance and 6 minutes, 29.9 seconds as the goal. I hit pace and it tells me that I would have to maintain a 1:37.4 pace on every stroke. Alas, I am not a machine so I start strong, fade, and then comes back to sprint to the finish. Hence my splits are all over the place. The experts say the trick is to pull negative splits — meaning go progressively faster every 500 meters and not do a “fly and die” and rush out of the start and go like mad until something goes very wrong (which it always does in a fly or die situation). The discipline required, not to mention the conditioning, is massive.

As Mike Tyson said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” All of my pre-2k battle plans go out the window the second I start whipping myself back and forth trying to get the flywheel up to speed and realize the adrenaline is pushing me way too fast out of the blocks. After I settle down to my planned pace, and do my power-tens on the 500 meter marks, the dreaded visit to the pain cave begins about 750 meters or three minutes into the race, then comes what my friend Dr. Dan calls the “talk with Jesus” in the third quarter following the half-way point. All sorts of bad thoughts creep into the mind in during the 500 meters when the lactic acid is flaming, tunnel vision begins, and one’s head starts to roll around. This is when the debate between survival and simply continuing and just stopping and puking happens. In a boat you can’t stop. If you stop it is a disaster like an eight car rear end collision on a foggy highway. No one stops in a rowing race. It just can’t happen. Rowing is all about the inner debate between the survival part of the brain and the more noble “because it’s there” part. To hell with winning. The third quarter of a 2K race is about continuing. The last quarter is the realization that in 50 strokes the agony ends and the realization that anyone can do anything for two minutes.

I just need to figure out a practical path to get my numbers down in what should be an interesting test of the “quantified self.” It is a very profound psycho-physiological-spiritual question to ponder: if hope springs eternal as the cliche says, and if one is a “relentlessly self-improving” man (to quote Doctor Evil in Austin Powers), at what point does the aging ego accept the fate of all flesh and realize that the wheels have started to come off and indeed, as we age, the rower’s adage of “the older we get, the faster we were” is the bitter awful truth?

A 18-year old, prime-of-life specimen of immortal perfection can look at next year and rationally expect, with hard work, training, supplements, steroids, whatever …. to go faster. Athletes peak in their 30s. Most Olympians are in the 20s, some in their 30s, (depending on the sport of course. )The oldest successful Olympic rower is Sir Steve Redgrave, who won five gold medal in consecutive Olympics. He won his last in 2000 at the age of 38 and then retired, was knighted, and was the guy who ran the torch from the motorboat into the Olympic Stadium during London’s open ceremonies this past summer.

The best way to show the reverse parabola of progress would be to plot all the erg scores from the Crash-B’s against the age of the competitors. It would show a quick improvement from the teens up through the 30s, then a steep decline that accelerates through the 50s.   Masters rowers — 40 years and up– are  generally Type-A personalities, well funded, and obsessively competitive on and off the water.  I suspect not one of them accepts the truth that they are going to get slower next year, and most, like me, are throwing themselves into training plans, double-session workouts, expensive fish oil, post-workout protein supplements, weight regimens, and new boats (a new high end single scull costs well over $10,000 for 18′ and 35 pounds of carbon fiber). Speaking for myself — we’re fighting the clock.

To end this disquisition on age and improvement …. there is nothing like an ergometer to give one the naked lunch* truth that in the end, everybody has to slow down and stop some day. Eventually everybody runs out of water, has to check oars, and back down before slipping over the spillway and cascading, lifelessly over the foaming precipice. To that I call bullshit and hope to be the toothless cackling codger who walks out on the floor of the Agganis Arena in 2052 at the age of 94 and pulls a sub-ten minute piece and gives time and deterioration the middle finger.

*: defined by the William Burrough's novel Naked Lunch, where "Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.""