The New York Times Book Review
Room for Improvement: A Life in Sportby John Casey
From the author of the novel Spartina, which won the National Book Award and has established itself as a modern classic, comes a collection of essays that describe with tenderhearted candor and humor a lifetime’s worth of addiction. No, not an addiction to booze or drugs, but an addiction to a more natural gratification: the joy of sport, exercise, and the sheer elation of being ready and willing to say yes to a challenge. Want to run a marathon? OK. Climb Mount Katahdin? Sure! How about canoeing the entire length of the Delaware River? Why not?
Spanning more than fifty years of ambitious and sometimes peculiar endeavors, these essays take us along on some of Casey’s greatest adventures: a twenty-six-day Outward Bound course in Maine during the dead of winter; being pinned by a two-hundred-pound judo instructor whose words, “Come on, white boy. Don’t give up,” encourage at least one more attempt at escape; leading a lost couple on a yacht through the rocky waterways of Narragansett Bay by a simple rowboat; and completing—on his seventieth birthday—a 70K marathon of his own devising that included rowing, bicycling, skating, Rollerblading, and finally, trotting the dog out for a mile.
Be it a preoccupation with health, vanity, or just an indomitably playful sense of adventure, John Casey’s Room for Improvement is a joyful self-portrait of a writer who loves going to extremes, just to find out what it’s like once he gets there.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times Book Review
"He's a damned good writer . . . How many professor types do you reckon would tackle a 50-mile run along the Adirondack Trail or an 11-day winter-survival course in Main that included two nights along in a makeshift cave?" —Wall Street Journal
"There's a lot of humor in these essays, most of it good-naturedly aimed at Casey himself. But he's serious, too. Casey doesn't scold those of us who aren't as physically active as we used to be; rather, he entices us to consider getting moving again, preferably outside." —The Boston Globe
"Room for Improvement is a marvel of closely observed mostly outdoor sport, much of it alarmingly strenuous, but colored throughout by infectious exuberance and tolerance for discomfort. With genteel detachment well to the rear, Casey brings us point blank to the levels of sporting commitment that rise to illumination." —Thomas McGuane
"In these empirical and informative essays, John Casey writes with the 'savor of attentiveness' about those peaks in cardiovascular exercise when we feel transformed—about being, as he puts it, 'encased in the rhythm of what I was doing.' Casey has walked, run, rowed, paddled, and cross-country skied. Not unlike those sports, these connected essays flow into one another, and they reflect more than an author's willingness to suffer 'a ruffled minor vanity'; not unlike the over-seventy athlete he is, John Casey's writing is exemplary and tireless." —John Irving
An author/lit professor/exercise fanatic chronicles his lifelong pursuit of endurance sports and survival training.
Marathons, cross-country skiing races, endurance hikes, epic rowing junkets, wilderness survival trips—National Book Award winner Casey (English/Univ. of Virginia; Compass Rose, 2010, etc.) has led a vigorous life worth writing about, and he does so in a muscular prose worthy of his manly pursuits. That's not to say, however, that the narrative is driven by a testosterone-fueled need to prove athletic excellence or dominion over nature. Instead the author attempts to re-create on paper the mind-numbing cold of a snowy night spent huddled in a self-made shelter, the strange weightlessness of a long-distance run and the hand-shredding and leg-shaking fatigue brought on by hours of rowing. For all of the vivid descriptions, however, there is an analytical distance, the requisite probe for meaning engendered by the mind of a writer and teacher—not so much in the acknowledgement of the therapeutic power of exercise as a balm against divorce-induced depression, but rather in the effort to contextualize the intensely personal yet still communal Outward Bound experience, or to describe the kinship and camaraderie of like-minded individuals engaged in the same quest for something beyond health, vanity, endorphins or competition. Age becomes a more prominent theme as the essays progress, with the author concocting increasingly elaborate exercise routines to commemorate his birthdays. Casey shows evident pride as he details his continued achievements, but the same outward self-assessment that pervades the collection remains, a balance between acknowledging the passing of years while striving to avoid being controlled by them.
Occasionally self-indulgent, but the collection's rustic charm and indomitable spirit transcend its flaws.
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Read an Excerpt
Before I’d ever seen a cross-country ski I used to have a recurring dream. I was on some other planet. I slipped out of a dark city, through a gap in the force field, and into a meadow. My body was changing mysteriously. It was dawn. The sky was apple-green; the air felt like a silk shirt. I had to go somewhere far away. My body was changing so that I would be able to. It grew longer and lighter. I began to run, easily but with an astonishingly powerful spring. Air came into my lungs not only through my mouth but directly through the skin of my chest. It was like slaking a deep thirst. I came to a hill. I feared that would be the end of the magic, but the new power just coiled up tighter. It made me laugh. I breasted the hill and kept on, absorbing the silver air and discharging energy downward through my calves and forward from my brow and eyes. I was acutely conscious of the trees and rocks and the air and light, and how my motion was in rhythm with them. The purpose of the journey and what lay beyond the next hill changed from dream to dream, but the original sense of my body in motion was constant and recurring.
When I finally learned how to cross-country ski, I realized these dreams had been a foretaste of sensations obtainable here and now. It wasn’t like that at first, of course, nor is it like that every day now. But every so often I’m shot through with everything the dream foretold.
If you’ve ever had an affection for a canoe or a slender rowboat, taken pleasure in the elegance of the lines, the neat slice of the bow, the clean tuck of the stern, and felt a seed of superstition that a boat like that is sensate and likes moving through the water, then you may find a particular joy in cross-country skiing: once you begin to get the motion right, the kicking and gliding and riding the driving ski with your body weight floating over it, you may find that you have swallowed your boat whole, that you are your boat moving across a lake of still air and snow.
But even the first awkward runs can have grace. The first cross-country skis I got were sturdy wide clodhoppers, not the fragile and elegant ones I have now. I was living in Iowa, where there are still strips of virgin forest by rivers and among the few hard-to-till hills and gullies. I used to bundle up and shuffle along through an oak forest, innocent of technique and wax but happy to wander alone, puffing up clouds in the motionless subzero air. The third time I went out in this forest there was a foot of snow and more falling. I jogged and poled my way along an old logging road. I reached the top of a rise and started sliding down the other side, making no more noise than a sailboat slipping through flat water.
A red fox, beautifully furred, was sitting on a stump beside the road. His tail was wrapped around his hip and across his forepaws. I could see the particular hairs of his coat. He looked at me curiously as I drifted toward him. He wasn’t alarmed, I think because I wasn’t making any of the moves I should have been to be advancing on him. I slid closer, and he hopped down like a cat from a sofa. About ten yards in front of me. He loped down the road—fairly casually, considering he sank in the snow up to his shoulders at each bound. I tagged along, sliding downhill after him. After a hundred yards the fox glanced around. He looked concerned that I was still with him. He upped the pace. I poled a bit and scrunched down. He glanced around again, more puzzled than alarmed. He stepped to the side of the road and let me pass by. Our eyes met. The fox pricked his ears, but there was no noise. I ghosted on down the rest of the hill, my head turned back to watch him. He came into the middle of the road and watched me, his head cocked to one side.
Skin divers tell me that they are objects of curiosity to the fish down in that silent world.
There are still patches of dream landscape to glide into quietly: a coral reef, woods muffled in a foot of snow and more falling.
The next winter we were in Rhode Island in the cold stone cot- tage near Matunuck on the edge of a six- or seven-square-mile wedge of eerie second-growth woods (pine and rhododendron gone wild). The interior of the woods was dotted with glacial ponds and a few empty summerhouses. The only resemblance to Iowa was the snow, but that was wetter and coarser. But once I discovered klister waxes I was released into another winter solitude, richer for a forgotten graveyard and dilapi- dated stone sheep pens inaccessible to summer people because of the brambles and bull briar now snowed over. In November, before the snow, I’d got lost in these woods and spent part of a chilly night curled up in wet leaves. After it snowed, however,
I could go anywhere and be able to get home by following my tracks. I used to glide by the graveyard at dusk, the light more of a glow rising from the snow than falling from the sky. An owl sometimes followed me, winging from tree to tree, hoping to catch whatever rodent life I might scare up from underneath the snow. Once a partridge burst out of a drift at my feet, leaving a vapor trail of snow crystals hanging in front of me.
After a cold spell I was able to ski on Potter Pond, one of a series of salt ponds along the South County coast. The ice, covered with snow, was solid right up to where a narrow gut let the tide in crossways near the southern end. There the ice was suddenly cut off in a mile-long stroke as though by one slice of a knife. Going out at dusk again, I could glide right to the edge of the ice and stand quietly within twenty yards of Canada geese and black ducks paddling around in the dark seawater.
On Potter Pond part of the spell was skiing past the ghost of summer—boathouses, beached boats, and sections of dock. The neat gray-and-maroon or yellow-and-blue paint jobs, splotched with ice and blown snow, were all a shade more som- ber in the hard winter light.
On windy days I could take off my life jacket, hoist my parka on my ski poles, and sail downwind across the pond.
But to do it up right, you really have to go north. I began to intrude on friends in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Putney, Vermont. It was on one of these trips that I finally saw what real cross-country skiing is. Putney was a nest of good cross- country skiers, a number of them on the U.S. team. The Put- ney School kids were good too, since John Caldwell was the school coach as well as the Olympic coach at that time. There are miles and miles of trails laid out for training cross-country skiers—through birchwoods and pinewoods, hayfields, and apple orchards. It was in an apple orchard that I saw a skier skimming along, each stride extending his body easily and fluidly so that for a split second at the end of each kick his upper body seemed to be flying over his forward knee. This form of skiing is more graceful than skating (which it dis- tantly resembles), because the motions are larger and are con- centrated in straight lines. I wanted that motion; I could tell that it would feel good—even better than running or skating or rowing or swimming.
Unfortunately, the winter in Rhode Island turned to rain. I tried dreaming about how to do it right (which is how I learned to downhill-ski as a kid and, later, how to shoot pheas- ant. I’d try for a while, then watch it done right, then hook the two together in a dream lesson).
Having had an instructive dream or two, reread John Caldwell’s The New Cross-Country Ski Book, and jogged a bit, I entered the George Washington’s Birthday Race, a southern Vermont event. Eighteen kilometers (about eleven and a half miles) from Westminster West to Putney. A crowd of four hundred or so. One hundred seeded skiers (U.S. cross-country and biathlon team members as well as college racers) lined up ahead of the mob for the mass start. At the gun the crowd yelled a collective Comanche whoop and sprinted forward. Like the subway at rush hour but with everyone swinging ski poles. We swept up a hill, down again, funneled across a footbridge, and then up again. And up. I fell in behind a fellow who was striding along with style. Tried to catch his rhythm. By now the crowd was strung out in double file up and around the shoulder of a hill. It looked like a procession of medieval flagellants.
On and on. I saw, or rather dimly perceived through a pulsating pinkish haze, a sign beside the trail. The sign said “Kilometer 1.” I heard a far-off train whistle that turned out to be coming from my throat. But then, mysteriously, at kilo- meter four, it cleared up. I was skiing better than I ever had. There was a wide channel from my throat to the bottom of my lungs. The air tasted like sweet cold springwater. The birch trees were white again, the sky blue.
After the race (about an hour and a half for me) I stood for a while, bubbling with deep well-being. I felt like a potbelly stove—I was throwing off a shimmer of heat a foot in every direction. I skied back to the house where I was staying, two or three miles through the woods, still glowing with blood heat and drinking in gallons of air laced with pine trees and imminent snow.
Although it’s exciting to go to a big birthday party and have a number pinned on you and go sprinting off with a crowd and crash around the course faster than you normally would (or could), the keener and longer pleasures are solitary. There are, of course, bad days, both going out solo and going out racing. A bad day touring: packs of snowmobiles coming and going. Aside from their shrieking noise and their stink and juggernaut destruction of fences, saplings, and bird and animal life keeping warm under the snow, snowmobiles can wreck a trail for anything but another snowmobile. The engine heats up the snow. The snow refreezes into sheet ice. The next snowmobile along churns out ice chunks with its tank tread as though someone had stuck fifty cents in an ice machine. And it’s not just along a narrow swath on one side of the trail. Snowmo- biling for fun (I exclude practical use) is a herd sport, and snowmobile heaven is three abreast at full throttle. So you try to skate back home on the ice chunks, careen out of control, gouge your ski bottoms, hit a stone wall, and break a ski tip.
As for a bad day racing: even if you’ve got a piece of basic technique and some wind and muscle, there can still be a problem with snow and wax. When it’s cold it’s not too hard to recognize the snow type and the right basic wax. But when the snow gets wet and warm, it’s a mess. Even the Finnish and Swedish run out of words for it.
One time I raced in the Putney relays. A team had lost a man, and I hopped in out of the crowd. The snow was slush. The cognoscenti were discussing what kind of slush it was and were blowtorching on the esoteric once-a-year waxes: hard yellow, silver klister, and mixed secret ingredients. I smeared on purple klister (all I had). The label was ambiguously translated: “For changing conditions.” I got to the starting line just in time for the gun. I was dead last out of the gate, last up the hill, and last into the woods. Every time I kicked, my ski slipped backward. By the time I’d done my six-and-a- quarter-mile leg I’d raised blisters on my hands from poling. My clothes were soaked with three pounds of sweat. No quitting, because it was a relay. Near the finish there was a crowd lining the track, coming to see the hotshots. I approached this gauntlet of shame with my eyes fixed straight ahead, my cheeks burning. I slithered and lurched toward the tag line. A man pulled his wife back from crossing the track. She: “Oh, I thought they’d gone by hours ago.”
How did I preen myself into this? The day before, I’d done the same distance in slightly moist snow with some speed and, I thought, some style. I’d kicked and glided along in happy solitude, almost catching up to my phantom vision of how it’s done.
I tag my man. Strip off racing bib. Pull hat low over eyes. Cringing. Not one of the club, after all.
It becomes funny after a half hour. Although I can still work up a blush. And sometimes a gritty little desire to find another race, get the right wax, and whip someone’s ass.
I’ll dry out my peacock tail feathers some other way. Maybe a race on a dry day. Maybe. But the immediate solution is to go up to Burke Mountain and cruise around the trails. A frozen crust, not the most pleasant condition. The skis clatter over ruts, and the downhills are faster than normal. I take sev- eral nosedives at tight corners. But the wax holds somewhat up the rises. I feel better already. Halfway along the five-mile trail I come out into an open field. Across a broad valley there is a vast threatening horizon. The wind (I learn later) is blowing at almost fifty miles an hour. I can see the snow squalls coming for miles. A couple blow close by, blotting out the pine trees. A squall hits directly, and for an instant I’m breathing snow. It passes, but there’s no more sun, no shadow. The sky is a milky glow, the same color as the crust. The perspective from my eyes to my ski tips is whited out. The air catches the sky and snow color. As I move along it’s like floating inside a pearl. A little frightening.
Next day I sign up for a lesson. For a balm. The instruc- tor is a young college racer. It’s a bad icy day, but we have a good time. We switch the lead back and forth going around a trail so I can watch him do it right and he can see what I’m doing wrong. He allows as how my stride is pretty good (the balm), but if I’m interested in doing any racing—he pauses; I say, “Well, maybe”—then there are a few things. How to keep driving over bumps, up the rises, around turns. Also, my poles are too long, inhibiting me from getting low enough to balance forward over the driving knee. Ah. All good things to learn. Not just for speed but for the feel of it. We agree to meet at the next George Washington’s Birthday Race.
Back home to South Newfane, Vermont, where we’ve mi-grated for this winter. I ski out late in the day on an easy flat trail that skirts a brook. The water runs black down the mid- dle, dark green against the thick ice along the bank, and occa- sionally boils up in pale-green-and-white haystacks. I push hard across an open field and glide in for a rest in the shelter of the woods. The sun is going down. Two miles from home, but I feel very good. The back of my sweater, my wool hat, and my mustache are coated with the white frost of my sweat and breath. It has been a great pleasure. I wonder for a minute if some of my pleasure is sharpened because I’m afraid that these woods and fields, which should outlast me, will not. Maybe. But I felt the colors and shapes of trees in winter, the snow, and the air carrying the hard taste of the cold long before I learned to put all that in frames. And I’m sure that very early on I wondered how to travel into winter, how to enter it so that it all closed around me.
I think again of skin diving and coral reefs. I pull the ice off my mustache and knock the frost off my hat. I start home in the half-light. Going back in the tracks I’ve made, I feel a spurt of energy. I begin to stretch out. I pick up the tempo, balanc- ing out over the driving ski. I feel myself catching the phan- tom in front of me. It feels like the old recurring dream—as if the silver air is coming through the skin of my chest and energy is uncoiling down through my legs at each stride.
Meet the Author
John Casey was born in 1939 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the University of Iowa. His novel Spartina won the National Book Award in 1989. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is professor of English literature at the University of Virginia.
From the Hardcover edition.
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