One of my favorite writers has always been David Halberstam, the legendary New York Times journalist who spent years reporting from places as far-flung as the Congo, Poland and Vietnam, where his reporting on the war in the early 1960s would lead to his career-defining 1972 book The Best and The Brightest.
He was kind of a mentor-from-afar for me when I was a new reporter just starting out in journalism after I graduated from college, though of course he couldn’t have known. I tried to model my writing on his — though that ended up being a taller order than I imagined!
(I got to meet him once, when he visited Atlanta on a tour to promote his 1999 book The Children, about the early civil rights movement in Nashville. I’ll never forget how kindly he treated a woman whose toddler clearly didn’t want to be there — “she’s talking a lot more sense than I probably am!” he told her, laughing.)
Though he’s known for his weightier books on politics, business and war, I’ve always loved his lighter efforts like Summer of ’49 and October 1964, which chronicle the changes in mid-century America through the prism of baseball.
I especially loved Summer of ’49 because it helped me learn the history of the game (I was only then starting to love) by bouncing back and forth between the intimate stories of players now in the Hall of Fame and the fans who followed them.
One of those was a boy named Joseph Lelyveld, who was a sixth-grader living in New York City when New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio — he of the famed 56-game hitting streak — was at the peak of his athletic powers:
“He had become interested in baseball in 1946 when his family had moved to New York from the Midwest. Lonely and unsure of himself, in a new school where the kids seemed to be much tougher, he found order and symmetry in the universe of baseball as he did not in the world around him. Besides, not very far from where he lived was Yankee Stadium. His father, a prominent rabbi in the civil rights movement, was certainly not a fan. His parents tolerated his obsession, but did not encourage it. They hoped he would grow out of it.”
The line Halberstam writes next, however, is the one that really caught my eye:
“Technically his favorite player was DiMaggio, the greatest of Yankee stars, but DiMaggio was a god, far too great to identify with.”
“Far too great to identify with.” That’s such an interesting phrase. Why would someone we choose to look up to as a hero be someone we couldn’t identify with?
What I think Halberstam is getting at is that we need to take care when we choose our heroes, and not just because they’re susceptible to falling from grace in ways we’re all familiar with. Rather, it’s because who we choose to look up to shapes not only how we view them, but how we view ourselves.
If we choose a hero whose accomplishments are so stratospheric as to be beyond even imagining, it’s easier than we think to aspire to things that aren’t right for us — which can all too easily lead us to beat ourselves up when we don’t measure up.
That’s why I try to keep in mind the story of Goldilocks when I’m planning out my own goals for my running — and aim for things that aren’t too easy, but aren’t too hard either.
Running with friends who are much faster than you can be enjoyable for a little while, a little like playing tennis with a far more skilled partner. But it won’t take long before you find yourself falling behind, or pushing yourself too hard to keep up.
But, running with someone or a group that’s just beyond where you are can be invigorating, as well as a distance that’s just beyond where you’ve run before. That’s what gives me a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, as it’s something I can build on and use to reach even a little further the next time I go out there.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — I have young children, so I’ve read all seven books! — Professor Dumbledore sees Harry spending long amounts of time gazing into a mirror that reflects back your deepest desire.
In the mirror, an orphaned Harry sees a vision of his parents, which draws him back again and again to stare into it. After seeing Harry yet again in front of the mirror, Dumbledore tells him not to return, and that he intends to move it somewhere it won’t be found again.
When Harry asks why, Dumbledore replies: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” — meaning, that we can’t forever lose ourselves in what might have been in the past (or what could be in the future), because it pulls us away from living in the here and now.
That’s where I’m trying to root myself, the here and now. And to build on that a little more each day.
I hope you are well and about to go out and have a great run this Sunday morning — as always, keep in touch and let me know how your run goes out there, and what challenges you have in store.
Great running reads
On Running. You’ll want to settle in for all 3,000-plus words of this essay/meditation on running, in which the author Larissa Pham tries to figure out exactly what she’s pursuing when she runs — something, or nothing? It’s hard to do justice to it in such a brief description, but I’d love to hear your thoughts when you’re done.
“None of it felt good, but after a while, it started to feel like nothing. It was this nothing I was after — the moment where the noise of my brain cut out and I crested onto that smooth, high plane of emptiness, empty of feeling, empty of thought, my body churning out its own high.”
🎧 Hear Larissa Pham expand on “On Running” in this great interview with Radio Browser.
Can Exercise Make You More Creative? Does sending all that extra blood rushing through our brain’s blood vessels stir us to think differently? It certainly seems to help you produce more brain cells, which scientists found helped rodents perform better on thinking tests (even for the elderly test subjects). We have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions just yet, Gretchen Reynolds writes, but “the results do intimate that active imaginations start with active lives.”
“The most active of the volunteers proved to be also the most creative, especially if they often walked or otherwise exercised moderately.”
What Runner’s High Actually Feels Like. We talked about this in our Friday discussion, and then I happened to come across this piece from Elemental, which interviews everyone from Olympic runner Alexi Pappas to people whose names you’d never recognize. Really interesting to hear the interviewees verbalize what is, in the end, knowable only to the person who experiences it.
“You know that feeling after a long, dark cry, where suddenly you can see again and feel as though you shed a good 10 pounds of baggage? Runner’s high is simultaneous with personal growth and strengthening the mind, and all by choice.”
Covid Absolutism. This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about these past several months, especially after we’ve heard news like the University of California-Berkeley (where my niece attends college) banning students from outdoor exercise, even solitary outdoor exercise. Telling people they can’t even go for a run is likely to be far more counterproductive than we realize, researchers who spent their careers studying other infectious diseases (like HIV) tell the Times.
“People do not have unlimited energy, so we should ask them to be vigilant where it matters most.”
A nature break
One of my favorite winter scenes from the closing moments of CBS Sunday Morning, captured in Idaho’s Boise National Forest.
Words to run by
“Anyone who thinks he's too small to make a difference has never been bit by a mosquito.”
— Jeannette Walls