Sunday, 31 March 2013

It's science

Hypothesis: The ”Fight fire with fire” method works on my troubled leg.
Previous empirical evidence: My leg felt fine the day after I put it through a torturous 23 km long run. I ran the first 30 km of an ultra with an injured, really painful knee, whereupon the injury promptly disappeared out of my life.
Experiment: The goal with today's experiment was to see how far I could run before my leg started complaining. Also, to see how it felt afterwards.
Results: As long as I stayed on flat ground and avoided hills, the leg was happy. It's a bit stiff now afterwards but it's an ache that resembles sore muscles more than it does injury.

Hypothesis: More is better. More would not make my runner's knee worse (Many runners' famous last words before he or she gets injured: ”21,5 km is good but 22 is even better”).
Previous empirical evidence: All previous evidence suggested that more is not, in fact, better when it comes to runner's knee. Even if the knee doesn't get worse following the run, the sensation during the run gets gradually worse.
Experiment: Push myself a few kilometres further even though my knee started bothering me after only 17 km.
Results: Stiff knee.

Hypothesis: The marathon I have my eye on at the end of April is a flat one, therefore I could run it if I take proper care of my runner's knee from now until then.
Previous empirical evidence: Neither bargaining or praying has helped an injury heal faster before.
Experiment: Stretching, rehab exercises, and alternative training as much as possible in the 3 weeks leading up to the marathon. Short runs in VFF. Then enter the marathon a day or two before the race if all feels fine.
Results: Stay tuned.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Green plastic grass

The piste machines got replaced by great yellow tractors carrying big chunks of frozen snow and laying them in a heap, revealing a green plastic football field. The year's Nordic skiing competitions that kept us company every weekend came to an end last Sunday, and with them the skiing season drew its last breath, inhaling skiers and exhaling joggers. A passionate spring sun, eager to wake nature up with a warm kiss and turn barren ground into fertile flowers and naked branches into haute couture, melts the snow. But, when night comes and the cold returns, the water turns into ice, and winter makes a last effort to resist the onslaught of bird song and sunburned cheeks.

And me. I am lost, standing on my one good leg, balancing precariously on the ledge between white and green. My heart is indifferent to the change of season this year. It loves spring, but it loves the white winter of the North, too. But my body wishes that the winter would stick around a couple of weeks longer. My feet want to find their way back to the soft trails of last autumn, but my knee cannot follow. So it tries to ski instead. Skiing is not as demanding for it. Skiing works. Please, let it be winter until the injury heals.

I tried to run with AIK last Saturday, a 23 km run. I couldn't decide until the last minute if I was going to attempt a run or not. What finally made up my mind for me was the wonderful weather. I had to get out, I had to try. It went well for the first 6 kilometres. Then, it went worse. I describe it as a knee problem, but both the backside of my thigh and my calf are involved. They weren't happy with all the uphill running. Downhill, it felt better, and I thought I would make it the rest of the way home without any more pain, but then my runner's knee decided to join us. Despite having the opportunity to stop running and get a lift home a couple of times, I marched on, pig-headedly. In the end, I told the others to go on without me and stopped to stretch. It helped; I could continue running after a while and made it home.

The aftermath was not as great as I had feared. Whatever leg muscle is injured felt inflamed the rest of the day, and I had some difficulty bending it, but the next day it was as pain-free as it had been the day before the run. I went skiing, breaking my distance record and making some progress technique-wise, which gave me hope that I would be able to maintain my level of fitness until my leg got better.

Now, snow is turning into ice. Ice is not as soft as snow. I went skiing yesterday, wisely avoiding the hilly terrain in the forest and sticking to the flat surfaces around the camping area. I had thought I'd practice switching from one track to the other, a balance exercise that, if done right, could do wonders for my confidence and skill level. Then, failing spectacularly at doing the exercise right and while I was trying to place my skis into the tracks, I fell. My knee hit the hard ice. I took a minute to rest right there on the ground, wincing and swearing.

It is probably nothing serious, just a bruised knee. But it is a reminder that spring is coming, and I am not ready for it.

Cannonball read #10: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I picked up this book after seeing it on several Top-100 lists of Science fiction books. People discussing the book on online forums talked about how it had affected them profoundly. So, naturally, I expected a lot from it.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a 30-odd year old man with the mental capacity of a little child. Growing up, all Charlie had ever wanted was to become smart and have friends. Then, one day, he's given the chance to participate in an experiment, an operation that's only been performed on a mouse before -the titular Algernon-, which, if all goes well, will turn him into a genius. Sure enough, through Charlie's written reports, we witness his transformation from a likeable, mentally handicapped person to someone whose intelligence surpasses even that of the people who designed the experiment.

The story is told from Charlie's perspective, through his accounts of everyday life, as they become more and more complicated, more and more grammatically correct. As Charlie becomes smarter, his language changes, and with it the way he perceives himself and his surroundings. He starts noticing things about the people in his life that he had neither noticed or comprehended before. He starts making connections and remembering significant events in his life, which in turn changes his attitude towards the world.

Keyes created an original story about a subject that is today as relevant as ever: knowledge, intelligence and the status they have in society. Some of the words he uses are so politically incorrect today (for example, moron or retarded) but we have to remember that Flowers for Algernon was written in 1966: indeed, despite the language that he uses, he means no offence. He has nothing but affection for mentally disabled people, whom he sees as small children, people, worthy of our respect.

This book should have become a favourite of mine, seeing as its subject matter (social inequalities, the human brain etc) is one that I am very interested in. The promise many reviews made that it would touch me deeply resonated with me on some level, and I expected some emotional devastation that never came. Instead, I cringed at how insufferable Intelligent Charlie was. I found the glorification of intelligence at the core of this book to be at odds with what the author also seemed to be saying, which is that terrible things only become terrible if we're smart enough to understand that they are so. Charlie went through his childhood afraid at times, but always with a warm smile on his face, laughing along when his friends laughed at him. Keyes seemed to imply that with knowledge and intelligence comes misery (and he mentions Plato's Cave a couple of times) at the same time as he has his main character desperate to become intelligent. I am not sure if that was Keyes' intention, but the message his book seems to send is that life is terrible no matter if you're smart or dumb – you just don't know it if you're dumb. You have to either choose to have friends and think you're happy, or be smart – never both. I am oversimplifying here, of course, and picking out only one of the themes in the book, but it was a theme that was quite central to the story and which I felt was something of a false dilemma. And maybe that is why the book failed to affect me as deeply as all the online reviews suggested it would: I had trouble believing that the only possible outcome of becoming smart is that you become depressed and arrogant.

Overall, the book has many good points (originality, accurate portrayal of the way the human brain works, the author's intention to show the reader that mentally disabled people deserve our respect) but it failed to have an emotional impact (maybe because it was preaching to the choir). It certainly made me think about the human condition, though.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Cannonball Read #9: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Rarely does a book leave me so ambivalent as to whether I liked it or not. Sure, I kept turning the pages to find out what happens next; sure, I thought it was well-written; sure, the story was original. But. There is a but. Let's start from the beginning.

Gone girl is the story of a married couple, Nick and Amy, whose love story started as most love stories do: everything was great, everything clicked, and everything was magical (especially against a New York background). But then Nick and Amy get married and move to Missouri to look after Nick's dying mother. Things start falling apart. And then things turn ugly. Amy suddenly goes missing and everyone seems to think Nick killed her. The evidence suggests that these suspicions might be true.

This is a story narrated by both Nick and Amy. Nick gets a chapter, then Amy gets hers, and so on. Nick tells his side of the story as it unfolds, whereas we get to read about Amy through her diary pages, which she wrote before she went missing. Immediately we are presented with two very different sides to the same story. Both two halves of this couple are hard to like: Nick is carrying a lot of hatred and anger, and you know he's hiding something. Amy is just irritating. I wasn't rooting for either one of them. And that was the ”but” I mentioned earlier.

Perhaps it was Flynn's intention to create such unsympathetic characters. In fact, I am pretty sure it was. Yet, as I was reading the book, I felt repulsed by them. It was kind of like looking at a car accident. You know it's nasty, but you can't help rubbernecking. I suppose it is human nature, this morbid curiosity: to try and find out what goes on in the mind of seriously disturbed people. So, despite my repulsion, I have to hand it to Flynn for creating such believably sick people. No matter how twisted the situation she described, I never doubted it could happen.

The fact that I found most characters in the book revolting, with no redeeming features to speak of, stopped me from giving this book a better score. Maybe that's not being an objective critic, but I never claimed to be one. I like some redemption in my books. A glimpse of hope. A happy ending. But then again, I can appreciate the dark humour (it's not funny but it is amusing, in a crazy way) that is lying under the surface of this book. So I'll just say: read it. Make up your own mind. Because, even if you hate the characters, their portrayal, the story and the writing will make it worth your while.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Letting go

Someone is dusting the whole town with glitter. It floats lazily down from an almost cloudless sky, catching the sunlight and sending it off again to coat our hearts with magic. I watch it through the living room window with eyes wide open, feeling like a little kid at Christmas Eve who's just seen Santa climb down the chimney.

J and I have just come back from an 11 km long ski session. It was cloudy when we started, a weak kind of cloudy that hangs so low in the sky that it almost becomes mist, the kind that lets the sun shine through. Up on the Vitberget mountain, up top where I've never been before on a pair of skis, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in a bubble. But it is an eerily beautiful bubble.

I struggle to move uphill, struggle to brake downhill. I fall a few times. I'm on a more advanced ski track, me, a beginner, who can hardly plough and who can definitely not turn if the tracks are broken. But it's ok. I'm doing this. It's worth it, if only for the surroundings.

The reason I'm skiing on a Saturday instead of getting in my long run will probably come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading the blog for a while: I'm injured. It started by me getting some runner's knee signals a few weeks ago, and then my calf got all jealous that my knee was getting so much attention and stabbed itself with a knife half way into an interval training session. The next day I could neither bend the leg or extend it completely. I could hardly walk.

To this day, this is an injury that I haven't been able to find any information on, as it is almost impossible to find the source of the pain (between the calf and the back of the knee. Or maybe the back side of the thigh. No swelling. No bruising.). It's been getting better, but the single attempt I made at running (5 km last Saturday) resulted in it getting slightly worse again. So I don't run. I ski instead. And I change my plans. No Lapland Ultra for me. No race-specific training. I need to find my way back to running just for fun, running according to what I feel like on that particular day. And that's ok, too. With work and other obligations demanding more and more of my energy and time, I simply don't have the strength to commit to the enormous amount of training Lapland Ultra requires.

I am at peace with this decision. It feels right.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Cannonball Read #8: Wool by Hugh Howey

Good books suck. They keep you reading, dying to find out what happens next, but the more you read, the closer to the end of the journey you get. And when you finally reach the end, you wish you had taken a little more time to look around, listen to the bird song and smell the flowers, that you had made the journey longer somehow.

Hugh Howey's Wool is such a book. The blurb on the back cover of the book claims it is a science fiction book, but if I had to describe it I would probably say it was a dystopian fantasy set in the future. At the core of the story is our heroine, Juliette. Juliette has just become the new sheriff for the top levels of an underground, 130 level deep silo, which is the home of a whole society. These people have lived there for ages and know no other truth than the silo around them. The only thing they know about the outside world is that it is dangerous, the air filled with toxic fumes. They also know that they can get sent out there to ”clean” (that is, die) if they break the rules.

Then Juliette, a strong, curious woman, starts asking the wrong kinds of questions which lands her in all sorts of trouble. To reveal anything more about the plot would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that there is never a dull moment. The story is excellently paced, keeping you on the edge of your seat, yet without rushing the plot forward. And, if you are so inclined, it can get you thinking about the power (and dangers) of knowledge.

My only -minor- complaint about this book was that...

* Spoilers! *

Because Howey wrote the book as a series, the protagonists of the first couple of books disappear pretty quickly, creating some confusion as to whom we are supposed to be following. But that is only really an issue for a small part of the book, and the rest of it more than makes up for this minor ”flaw”.

* /Spoilers *

At 540 pages, you would think that this omnibus edition would feel like a very long read, but it only left me wanting more. Thankfully, the follow-up to Wool, Shift, is due out soon. Until then, I will have to find some other book to satisfy my cerebral wanderlust.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Cannonball Read #07: Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti's book ”Full Frontal Feminism” attempts to disprove the claims made by various journalists (and others) that feminism is dead. These claims suggest that whatever feminism was out to achieve, has been achieved already and there is therefore no need for anyone to fight any more. They also suggest that young women nowadays are not interested in fighting any battles, and they definitely do not want to be called feminists, because that is supposedly an ugly word. 

The method Valenti uses to disprove these claims is to write about some of the issues that women still have to deal with today: lower wages, unrealistic beauty ideals, governments trying to control their bodies and more. It is a successful method in that it reminds the reader of just how much still needs to be fixed, just how unequal our society still is.

I consider myself a feminist. I believe that we have come a long way towards equality but we also still have a long way to go until men and women have equal rights and everyone is treated with respect. I also applaud Valenti for what she is is trying to do, which is to educate people about these issues. But this book irked me to no end. Valenti's constant use of profanity and meaningless exclamations, like ”Sweet, huh?”, ”Gross” and ”Ugh” made the book seem like it was written by a 14-year old, not by someone who has a Master's degree in women's studies. Maybe it was a tactic consciously employed by Valenti to reach younger women more easily (she mentions at some point that she thinks that feminism should be accessible to everyone, and I agree), but to me it felt like an attempt to come across as a cool person (and make feminism look cool at the same time). I found it grating and contra-productive. Feminism is, as she herself writes several times, pretty cool in itself. Then why try to adorn it with trinkets? Why cheapen it? Why distract from the message? The statistics she presents in the book are powerful enough on their own; I don't need Valenti to add a ”pretty scary stuff, huh” after she's told me how many women get raped by men they know in their own homes. I don't need her to take me by the hand and lead me to conclusions. I'm already ahead of her. She should give her readers some credit.

”Full frontal feminism” read like an introduction to all things feminist, trying to cover as many areas as possible without going into any of these areas in depth. If I hadn't already been a feminist, I think I would have trouble taking this book seriously. And, unfortunately, I doubt it would convert me to feminism, because of that. Does the book succeed in disproving the claims that feminism is dead? Yes, or at least it tells its readers why we shouldn't let it die, and for that it gets a couple of stars from me. But there are books out there that are way more thought out and well-written that do ten times as much for feminism as this book does.

Saturday, 2 March 2013


It's snowing horizontally outside. Some snowflakes are actually doing somersaults before gleefully whipping people across the face. Sadistic little monsters. The wind chill factor prognosis for the day was -16, so I dressed up warm before I headed out.

Last Wednesday it was a different matter:

Plus 7 degrees and a filthy soup consisting of wet snow and dirt. Still, I happily rolled up the cuffs of my tights and basked in what felt like spring sunshine.

When I started running just before 8 this morning, the wind was still but a gentle whisper. But by the time I had met up with AIK and we ran eastwards, it was howling like a wolf at the moon and throwing buckets of frozen snowflakes in our faces. But did I care? Did I feel sorry for myself? No. Because I was so, SO happy that my knee felt ok. Since the disastrous run last Saturday, it had been giving me warnings all week that not all is well in the kingdom of Shaman, and that if I didn't heed its warnings it might turn into an ugly, terrifying monster: a full-blown runner's knee.

Remember the last time I suffered from runner's knee? Not that long ago. Put an end to any serious running plans I might have been hatching last year. I thought it was a distant memory by now, yet here it was, showing up at my doorstep at 4 in the morning, drunk and wanting to hook up. I slammed the door in its face. Asked it to never call or try to see me again. Stretched it, massaged it, rested. But it's a persistent little stalker that knows no personal bounds.

So as we ran on, I kept listening for those warning signs, but apart from a couple of times when it felt like the knee had popped out of its joint, it kept quiet. I was so thankful to be logging some much needed kilometres. Then I left the others and turned south, because I had to pick up some contact lenses I had ordered. The wind had turned, so I had to meet it head on again, and it was now screaming hysterically, like a B-movie actress about to get murdered with a chainsaw. It was around this point when my knee woke up from its slumber and demanded to have a word with me. Apparently it didn't much like the soft surface that the blanket of fresh snow was creating on the pavements, because it made it feel like it had to work hard to stabilize the rest of my body.

I picked up my lenses, which proved to be entombed in an enormous box that could fit into my backpack about as easily as thirty obese elephants in a Mini. Had I been a human being gifted with the most basic level of intelligence, I would have taken the lenses out of the gigantic box and put them in my backpack, but my brain was obviously in denial and pretending it was on holiday in a much warmer, drier country, so I carried the box in my arms the rest of the way home. My knee didn't like that either. A couple of hundred meters from home, it decided that enough was enough and gave up.

I'm now spoiling it by giving it massage, stretching, icing and anti-inflammatory pills, the whole knee spa treatment. But it's so grumpy that I'm afraid it's going to take a while before it's willing to take me running again. I should have known. No way I can run 30 km and think it's going really well without some sort of backlash.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Cannonball read #06: Ready player one by Ernest Cline

I was too young to remember the eighties, but according to Ernest Cline they were a blast. Great movies, great music, great fashion and most importantly great games. Ready player one is an ode to the eighties, especially to the first computer and console games that became publicly available.

Wade is a teenager growing up in a dystopian future, where the only place to find solace and entertainment is the virtual world of OASIS. Real life is miserable: environmental pollution, energy crisis, poverty, you name it. When real life is so bleak, it is no wonder everyone wants to escape to the OASIS. And now there is an incentive to spend even more time in this virtual world. The creator of the OASIS (an eighties enthusiast) has died, and in his testament he has left everything he owns to the person who manages to find the Easter egg that he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS. Players have to follow the breadcrumbs of clues that he has left behind in order to find the egg and inherit everything. Wade is desperate to find the egg and change his life. But when so much money is at stake, finding the egg becomes a matter of life and death.

Although I became a teenager during the early nineties, a lot of the eighties' popular culture coloured my upbringing. The ATARI games, the John Hughes films, the Pink Floyd music were all part of my childhood and any references to them put a smile on my face, at least at first. Because there were a LOT of references, so many that the book almost reads like a catalogue of all things Cline considers cool. I found this problematic in the beginning of the book, before the real action begins. Later it is not as noticeable any more.

There were a couple of things that I found mildly distracting. First of all, I felt that the subject matter (the aforementioned ode to the eighties) was aimed towards those of us old enough (or curious enough) to have experienced or explored that decade's pop culture; however, the simple language this book was written in and the age of the protagonist suggest that Cline was hoping for a teenager/young adult audience, who (I am guessing) have little knowledge of the eighties. I am not sure what audience Cline wrote for, but if it was meant for us who belong in the first group, I would have wished for more nuanced writing and a more complex back story. I couldn't help wanting to find out more about the real world in Cline's book. It is suggested that Wade wants to escape it and spends all of his free time in the OASIS, but the motivation behind it is never explained in depth.

Second of all, there were many instances where there is no set-up for what is about to happen. Instead, things are explained after they have happened. Example: Wade has to fight an enemy. Only after the enemy is introduced do we get to find out that Wade just so happens to have an item in his inventory which allows him to annihilate his enemy. I realise that this is in line with the magical world in which all of this takes place, but at the same time it feels like a deus ex machina that appears a little too often to save the day: there is no real suspense and it feels like cheating. Moreover, it means that we don't always get to follow Wade as he solves the problems he comes across. We find out how he's done it only after he's solved them. It makes it hard to identify with him.

Minor annoyances aside, this book was an easy, quick, entertaining read, as long as you don't expect a literary masterpiece and just want to have a fun ride.