Running with Haruki Murakami

I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s new memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. Ever since I got back from Japan in 2002, I’ve been reading his novels – they tend to be full of mysterious, quasi-supernatural surprises, but still grounded in humdrum reality. This was the first memoir that he’s written – it’s about his life as a long distance runner (he’s run 25 marathons), and what he’s learned from running, and how running has helped him improve his writing (and vice versa).

My wife and I recently started running as well, so I felt particularly motivated to read this book.

murakami book image

I must say, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the book as much if I wasn’t already a Haruki Murakami fan. It’s a rather quiet, unobtrusive book – and only 193 pages. I sometimes found myself wishing for him to share more details and delve deeper into the ideas he was discussing. But it was very satisfying for me to learn more about one of my favorite authors and just hang out with him for a few hours while he shared some of the values and dedication and life lessons that he’s gained from running.

One of the points that I liked: Haruki said that as a writer, he feels that his lifestyle is inherently unhealthy – he feels that the act of writing in itself causes a person to build up a kind of spiritual “toxin” in their system. (I can relate to this – sometimes after I’ve spent a day writing, alone with my thoughts, I feel drained, and slightly crazed.) Haruki feels that running is the ideal exercise to squeeze this toxin out of your system – it refreshes your spirit and enables you to rejoin the world.

Ever since my wife and I started running earlier this spring (which was also the time when my freelance writing business started to grow), I’ve noticed that writing and running both require the same kind of mental stamina. It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other, breaking down long distances (or long projects) into more manageable pieces, and instilling the right kind of discipline and focus to complete the run (or the writing). When we first started running, we could only do two or three minutes at a time – tonight we ran for seven minutes at a time, for a total of 21 minutes of running (with three 3-minute walks in between). It’s the same kind of mental attitude to write a long assignment or run a long distance – I now feel that I could take on a writing project of almost any length, and soon, I’ll be able to run a lot farther than I thought was possible two months ago.

Haruki Murakami says that when he dies, he wants his tombstone to say, “At least he never walked.” He’s 60 years old now, and I hope he’ll be around (and writing) for many years to come.

The Best Days of My Life (So Far)

I recently turned 30. There’s no denying that it’s a milestone of sorts, and it’s prompted me to think back on some of the great life experiences that have brought me to this point.

So here is a list of some of the best days of my first thirty years, in no particular order:

  • The Day I met my Wife: Every romantic relationship is a kind of miracle. I sometimes think back on the years when I was single, and I remember thinking, “I’m never going to find someone,” and then one day, somehow, I did. I think about that sometimes – my wife and I have been married for three years, we’ve known each other for five years, and I still sometimes marvel at how unlikely it is that we ever managed to find each other. I’m very grateful to have her in my life.
  • Our Wedding Day: There’s a whole industry devoted to planning weddings, and you can read countless books and articles that tell marrying couples (mainly the brides) how to fret about the details, how to navigate the family conflicts and hurt feelings, etc., etc., but what no one ever tells you is how FUN the day will be. I really enjoyed our wedding day – that maybe sounds banal, but it’s true. I remember we got to a point all of sudden where all the stress and details and “is the caterer going to get here on time” and “is the cake going to be frosted correctly” all just dissolved away, and my bride and I were left to go through the journey of the event itself. It was truly an honor to look out at all the rows of friends and family who had traveled so far to be with us for the special day – that exact group of people will never again be together at the same place and time; it was a singular gathering of our closest loved ones.
  • The Day our Baby was Born: What a day. What a night. Our baby was born at 7:08 p.m., and I sent an e-mail to friends and family later that night saying, “My heart is full of gladness tonight – we are witnesses to the miracle of life, we are connected to all human kind.” All the old cliches applied in full force. We were connected that night to every other new parent who has ever held a new baby in their arms, across the globe, down through the centuries. It was a profound and moving experience.
  • Our Baby’s First Birthday: When our baby turned 1, it was a cause for a big celebration. I was so grateful that we’d managed to make it through a full year – changing diapers, wiping up spit-up, living on one income. So many things that I had worried about had turned out to be better and easier than I had expected. It was a beautiful spring day, we grilled chicken breasts and had chicken tacos and homemade cupcakes and limeade, and all three of our baby’s grandparents, two great-grandmothers, and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins were with us to celebrate at our house. It was just a perfect day, and I was so grateful for all of it.
  • My First Day in Paris: I visited Paris for the first time with my friend Fabrice – we took the train from Cologne to Paris, passing through Brussels. All of the standard compliments about Paris fit – it’s the City of Light, it’s the city of romance, the whole city makes you feel like you’re living in an Impressionist painting. I’ve been back two times – once by myself (again to visit Fabrice) and once with my wife (before we were married). I don’t speak French and I may never manage to learn, but I hope to make a few more visits to Paris during my life.
  • My first night in Japan: It’s been almost eight years since I arrived in Japan for a year on the JET Program. I still remember that first night so vividly – the neon lights of Shinjuku were bright as day; I could see my shadow on the pavement. The crowds were so vast; an ocean of humanity. Tokyo is the most populous city on Earth; I remember feeling that just by being there, I had drawn closer to the very pulse of the world. I was out of my mind with jet lag and could barely speak a word of Japanese, but  my life had never felt so completely my own – I was on a grand adventure in an undiscovered country.
  • My last day of high school: I still remember how good it felt to finish high school – not the graduation day itself, which was anti-climactic, but the last day of school; the last day of waiting for a bell to ring to grant permission to move to the next class, the last day of school lunch, the last day of risking detention for being late to an 8:05 class (I was often late – I’ve never been a morning person and I served several detentions, even as a senior honors student). Finishing high school felt like being paroled from prison – it was a day that I had hoped for and anticipated for so long, and finally it had arrived. It was the end of the petty tyranny of teachers and administrators, the end of the various indignities of being a high school student, the end of having to ask permission to use the restroom, the end of an age when you were always under someone’s supervision and control. Just being able to drive myself to Burger King felt like the pinnacle of freedom. My classmates and I were jubilant as we walked out of school that day – there were back slaps, fist pumps and chest bumps; my friend Trent was chomping on a cigar that he had managed to smuggle into school for the occasion. The last day of high school was definitely the greatest day of my life that I had experienced to that point so far. Of course, thinking back on it now, 12 years later, high school takes on more of a sheen of innocence; there are many worse things than to be a high school student in a house full of brothers and sisters, with good friends, with parents who love you.
  • College graduation: I always tell people, “I’m really glad I went to Rice, and I was really glad when it was over.” College graduation was a bittersweet but happy day for me; for most of my life growing up, I had really looked forward to college and now that it was ending I wasn’t sure what was going to come next. I knew that I was going to miss my college friends (and I did – for years) and thought that I would miss certain aspects of the college lifestyle, but my overwhelming feeling was that I was glad to be done and ready to move on to some other way of living. I have yet to experience anything in my working career that has been as challenging (some might say “punishing”) as what I went through as an undergraduate at Rice University. (Maybe I haven’t been working hard enough in my career.) Rice University was a crucible. It truly forced me to focus on the academic subjects that I did best in and cared about the most; despite years of accolades in high school, and a respectable two years at Iowa State, it turns out that I really wasn’t that great of a student at Rice. I didn’t graduate with honors or anything; I was just glad to have gotten my 120 credit hours and finished my single major in History (it seemed like everyone at Rice had at least two majors, usually in wildly different subjects – Biology and Sociology, for example). If our son wants to go to Rice someday, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it – not that we’ll be able to afford it anyway. (By the time our son is ready to go to college, private university tuition will probably cost $500,000 per year – and entry-level jobs will probably still pay about what they do today. But that’s a subject for another day.)
  • Random Others: Some of the best days of my life haven’t been the big milestones, they’ve been the quiet little days along the way, the ones you might not even notice at the time. I remember thinking on the 4th of July this year, sitting on my parents’ deck, eating some fantastic homemade potato salad, “is this going to turn out to be one of the best days of my life?” Driving home on dark Iowa highways, watching the fireflies flashing by at 60 miles an hour, playing guitar with my brothers on Christmas Eve, walking in the park with my wife, holding my hands out to catch the outstretched arms of our toddling baby boy – this is what the best days are made of. I’ve had a beautiful life – and there is still much to look forward to.