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Five

OCTOBER 3, 2005 • CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS

Even If I Had a Long Ponytail Back Then

In the Boston area every summer there are a few days so unpleasant you feel like cursing everything in sight. If you can get through those, though, it’s not bad the rest of the time. The rich escape the heat by going to Vermont or Cape Cod, which leaves the city nice and empty. The trees that line the walking path along the river provide plenty of cool shade, and Harvard and Boston University students are always out on the glittering river practicing for a regatta. Young girls in revealing bikinis are sunbathing on beach towels, listening to their Walkmen or iPods. An ice cream van stops and sets up shop. Someone’s playing a guitar, an old Neil Young tune, and a long-haired dog is single-mindedly chasing a Frisbee. A Democrat psychiatrist (at least that’s who I imagine he is) drives along the river road in a russet-colored Saab convertible.

The special New England fall—short and lovely—fades in and out, and finally settles in. Little by little the deep, overwhelming green that surrounds us gives way to a faint yellow. By the time I need to wear sweatpants over my running shorts, dead leaves are swirling in the wind and acorns are hitting the asphalt with a hard, dry crack. Industrious squirrels are running around like crazy trying to gather up enough provisions to last them through the winter.

Once Halloween is over, winter, like some capable tax collector, sets in, concisely and silently. Before I realize it the river is covered in thick ice and the boats have disappeared. If you wanted to, you could walk across the river to the other side. The trees are barren of leaves, and the thin branches scrape against each other in the wind, rattling like dried-up bones. Way up in the trees you can catch a glimpse of squirrels’ nests. The squirrels must be fast asleep inside, dreaming. Flocks of geese fly down from Canada, reminding me that it’s even colder north of here. The wind blowing across the river is as cold and sharp as a newly honed hatchet. The days get shorter and shorter, the clouds thicker.

We runners wear gloves, wool caps pulled down to our ears, and face masks. Still, our fingertips freeze and our earlobes sting. If it’s just the cold wind, that’s all right. If we think we can put up with it, somehow we can. The fatal blow comes when there’s a snowstorm. During the night the snow freezes into giant slippery mounds of ice, making the roads impassable. So we give up on running and instead try to keep in shape by swimming in indoor pools, pedaling away on those worthless bicycling machines, waiting for spring to come.

The river I’m talking about is the Charles River. People enjoy being around the river. Some take leisurely walks, walk their dogs, or bicycle or jog, while others enjoy rollerblading. (How such a dangerous pastime can be enjoyable, I frankly can’t fathom.) As if pulled in by a magnet, people gather on the banks of the river.

Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings. For human beings might be a bit of a generalization—but I do know it’s important for one person: me. If I go for a time without seeing water, I feel like something’s slowly draining out of me. It’s probably like the feeling a music lover has when, for whatever reason, he’s separated from music for a long time. The fact that I was raised near the sea might have something to do with it.

The surface of the water changes from day to day: the color, the shape of the waves, the speed of the current. Each season brings distinct changes to the plants and animals that surround the river. Clouds of all sizes show up and move on, and the surface of the river, lit by the sun, reflects these white shapes as they come and go, sometimes faithfully, sometimes distortedly. Whenever the seasons change, the direction of the wind fluctuates like someone threw a switch. And runners can detect each notch in the seasonal shift in the feel of the wind against our skin, its smell and direction. In the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature. I’m just a replaceable natural phenomenon, like the water in the river that flows under the bridge toward the sea.

In March the hard snow finally melts, and after the uncomfortable slush following the thaw has dried—around the time people start to remove their heavy coats and head out to the Charles River, where the cherry blossoms along the riverside will soon appear—I begin to feel like the stage is set, finally, because the Boston Marathon is just around the corner.

Right now, though, it’s just the beginning of October. It’s starting to feel a bit too cold to run in a tank top, but still too early to wear a long-sleeved shirt. It’s just over a month until the New York City Marathon. About time I cut back on the mileage and get rid of the exhaustion I’ve built up. Time to start tapering off. No matter how far I run from now on, it won’t help me in the race. In fact, it might actually hurt my chances.

Looking back at my running log, I think I’ve been able to prepare for the race at a decent pace:

June

156 miles

July

186 miles

August

217 miles

September

186 miles

The log forms a nice pyramid. The weekly distance averages out in June to thirty-six miles, then forty-three miles, then fifty, then back to forty-three. I expect that October will be about the same as June, roughly thirty-six miles per week.

I also bought some new Mizuno running shoes. At City Sports in Cambridge I tried on all kinds of models, but ended up buying the same Mizunos I’ve been practicing in. They’re light, and the cushioning of the sole is a little hard. As always, they take a while to get used to. I like the fact that this brand of shoes doesn’t have any extra bells and whistles. This is just my personal preference, nothing more. Each person has his own likes. Once when I had a chance to talk with a sales rep from Mizuno, he admitted, “Our shoes are kind of plain and don’t stand out. We stand by our quality, but they aren’t that attractive.” I know what he’s trying to say. They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal. (The Subaru of the shoe world, in other words.) Yet the soles of these shoes have a solid, reliable feel as you run. In my experience they’re excellent partners to accompany you through twenty-six miles. The quality of shoes has gone way up in recent years, so shoes of a certain price, no matter what the maker, won’t be all that much different. Still, runners sense small details that set one shoe off from another, and are always looking for this psychological edge.

I’m going to break these new shoes in, now that I have only a month left before the race.

Fatigue has built up after all this training, and I can’t seem to run very fast. As I’m leisurely jogging along the Charles River, girls who look to be new Harvard freshmen keep on passing me. Most of these girls are small, slim, have on maroon Harvard-logo outfits, blond hair in a ponytail, and brand-new iPods, and they run like the wind. You can definitely feel a sort of aggressive challenge emanating from them. They seem to be used to passing people, and probably not used to being passed. They all look so bright, so healthy, attractive, and serious, brimming with self-confidence. With their long strides and strong, sharp kicks, it’s easy to see that they’re typical mid-distance runners, unsuited for long-distance running. They’re more mentally cut out for brief runs at high speed.

Compared to them I’m pretty used to losing. There are plenty of things in this world that are way beyond me, plenty of opponents I can never beat. Not to brag, but these girls probably don’t know as much as I do about pain. And, quite naturally, there might not be a need for them to know it. These random thoughts come to me as I watch their proud ponytails swinging back and forth, their aggressive strides. Keeping to my own leisurely pace, I continue my run down along the Charles.

Have I ever had such luminous days in my own life? Perhaps a few. But even if I had a long ponytail back then, I doubt if it would have swung so proudly as these girls’ ponytails do. And my legs wouldn’t have kicked the ground as cleanly and as powerfully as theirs. Maybe that’s only to be expected. These girls are, after all, brand-new students at the one and only Harvard University.

Still, it’s pretty wonderful to watch these pretty girls run. As I do, I’m struck by an obvious thought: One generation takes over from the next. This is how things are handed over in this world, so I don’t feel so bad if they pass me. These girls have their own pace, their own sense of time. And I have my own pace, my own sense of time. The two are completely different, but that’s the way it should be.

As I run in the morning along the river I often see the same people at the same time. One is a short Indian woman out for a stroll. She’s in her sixties, I imagine, has elegant features, and is always impeccably dressed. Strangely—though maybe it’s not so strange after all—she wears a different outfit every day. One time she had on an elegant sari, another time an oversize sweatshirt with a university’s name on it. If memory serves, I’ve never seen her wearing the same outfit twice. Waiting to see what clothes she has on is one of the small pleasures of each early-morning run.

Another person I see every day is a large old Caucasian man who walks briskly with a big black brace attached to his right leg. Perhaps this was the result of some serious injury. That black brace, as far as I know, has been on for four months. What in the world happened to his leg? Whatever it is, it doesn’t slow him down, and he walks at a good clip. He listens to music with some oversized headphones and silently and quickly walks down the riverside path.

Yesterday I listened to the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet as I ran. That funky “Hoo hoo” chorus in “Sympathy for the Devil” is the perfect accompaniment to running. The day before that I listened to Eric Clapton’s Reptile. I love these albums. There’s something about them that gets to me, and I never get tired of listening to them—Reptile, especially. Nothing beats listening to Reptile on a brisk morning run. It’s not too brash or contrived. It has this steady rhythm and entirely natural melody. My mind gets quietly swept into the music, and my feet run in time to the beat. Sometimes, mixed in with the music coming through my headphones, I hear someone calling out, “On your left!” And a racing bike whips by, passing me on the left.

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While I was running, some other thoughts on writing novels came to me. Sometimes people will ask me this: “You live such a healthy life every day, Mr. Murakami, so don’t you think you’ll one day find yourself unable to write novels anymore?” People don’t say this much when I’m abroad, but a lot of people in Japan seem to hold the view that writing novels is an unhealthy activity, that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write. There’s a widely held view that by living an unhealthy lifestyle a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value. This idea has taken shape over a long period of time. Movies and TV dramas perpetuate this stereotypical—or, to put a positive spin on it, legendary—figure of the artist.

Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. (Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison—this might be something similar to what I’m getting at.) No matter how you spin it, this isn’t a healthy activity.

So from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antisocial. I’ll admit this. This is why among writers and other artists there are quite a few whose real lives are decadent or who pretend to be antisocial. I can understand this. Or, rather, I don’t necessarily deny this phenomenon.

But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within. Do this, and we can more efficiently dispose of even stronger toxins. In other words, we can create even more powerful narratives to deal with these. But you need a great deal of energy to create an immune system and maintain it over a long period. You have to find that energy somewhere, and where else to find it but in our own basic physical being?

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not arguing that this is the only correct path that writers should take. Just as there are lots of types of literature, there are many types of writers, each with his own worldview. What they deal with is different, as are their goals. So there’s no such thing as one right way for novelists. This goes without saying. But, frankly, if I want to write a large-scale work, increasing my strength and stamina is a must, and I believe this is something worth doing, or at least that doing it is much better than not. This is a trite observation, but as they say: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth giving it your best—or in some cases beyond your best.

To deal with something unhealthy, a person needs to be as healthy as possible. That’s my motto. In other words, an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body. This might sound paradoxical, but it’s something I’ve felt very keenly ever since I became a professional writer. The healthy and the unhealthy are not necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum. They don’t stand in opposition to each other, but rather complement each other, and in some cases even band together. Sure, many people who are on a healthy track in life think only of good health, while those who are getting unhealthy think only of that. But if you follow this sort of one-sided view, your life won’t be fruitful.

Some writers who in their youth wrote wonderful, beautiful, powerful works find that when they reach a certain age exhaustion suddenly takes over. The term literary burnout is quite apt here. Their later works may still be beautiful, and their exhaustion might impart its own special meaning, but it’s obvious these writers’ creative energy is in decline. This results, I believe, from their physical energy not being able to overcome the toxin they’re dealing with. The physical vitality that up till now was naturally able to overcome the toxin has passed its peak, and its effectiveness in their immune systems is gradually wearing off. When this happens it’s difficult for a writer to remain intuitively creative. The balance between imaginative power and the physical abilities that sustain it has crumbled. The writer is left employing the techniques and methods he has cultivated, using a kind of residual heat to mold something into what looks like a literary work—a restrained method that can’t be a very pleasant journey. Some writers take their own lives at this point, while others just give up writing and choose another path.

If possible, I’d like to avoid that kind of literary burnout. My idea of literature is something more spontaneous, more cohesive, something with a kind of natural, positive vitality. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.

Needless to say, someday you’re going to lose. Over time the body inevitably deteriorates. Sooner or later, it’s defeated and disappears. When the body disintegrates, the spirit also (most likely) is gone too. I’m well aware of that. However, I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point where my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin. That’s my aim as a novelist. And besides, at this point I don’t have the leisure to be burned out. Which is exactly why even though people say, “He’s no artist,” I keep on running.

On October 6 I’m giving a reading at MIT, and since I’ll have to speak in front of people, today as I ran I practiced the speech (not out loud, of course). When I do this, I don’t listen to music. I just whisper the English in my head.

When I’m in Japan I rarely have to speak in front of people. I don’t give any talks. In English, though, I’ve given a number of talks, and I expect that, if the opportunity arises, I’ll give more in the future. It’s strange, but when I have to speak in front of an audience, I find it more comfortable to use my far-from-perfect English than Japanese. I think this is because when I have to speak seriously about something in Japanese I’m overcome with the feeling of being swallowed up in a sea of words. There’s an infinite number of choices for me, infinite possibilities. As a writer, Japanese and I have a tight relationship. So if I’m going to speak in front of an undefined large group of people, I grow confused and frustrated when faced by that teeming ocean of words.

With Japanese, I want to cling, as much as I can, to the act of sitting alone at my desk and writing. On this home ground of writing I can catch hold of words and context effectively, just the way I want to, and turn them into something concrete. That’s my job, after all. But once I try to actually speak about things I was sure I’d pinned down, I feel very keenly that something—something very important—has spilled out and escaped. And I just can’t accept that sort of disorienting estrangement.

Once I try to put together a talk in a foreign language, though, inevitably my linguistic choices and possibilities are limited: much as I love reading books in English, speaking in English is definitely not my forte. But that makes me feel all the more comfortable giving a speech. I just think, It’s a foreign language, so what’re you going to do? This was a fascinating discovery for me. Naturally it takes a lot of time to prepare. Before I get up on stage I have to memorize a thirty- or forty-minute talk in English. If you just read a written speech as is, the whole thing will feel lifeless to the audience. I have to choose words that are easy to pronounce so people can understand me, and remember to get the audience to laugh to put them at ease. I have to convey to those listening a sense of who I am. Even if it’s just for a short time, I have to get the audience on my side if I want them to listen to me. And in order to do that, I have to practice the speech over and over, which takes a lot of effort. But there’s also the payoff that comes with a new challenge.

Running is a great activity to do while memorizing a speech. As, almost unconsciously, I move my legs, I line the words up in order in my mind. I measure the rhythm of the sentences, the way they’ll sound. With my mind elsewhere I’m able to run for a long while, keeping up a natural speed that doesn’t tire me out. Sometimes when I’m practicing a speech in my head, I catch myself making all kinds of gestures and facial expressions, and the people passing me from the opposite direction give me a weird look.

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Today as I was running I saw a plump Canada goose lying dead by the shore of the Charles. A dead squirrel, too, lying next to a tree. They both looked like they were fast asleep, but they were dead. Their expressions were calm, as if they’d accepted the end of life, as if they were finally liberated. Next to the boathouse by the river was a homeless man wearing layers of filthy clothes. He was pushing a shopping cart and belting out “America the Beautiful.” Whether he really meant it or was being deeply ironic, I couldn’t tell.

At any rate, the calendar has changed to October. Before I know it another month will be over. And a very harsh season is just around the corner.

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