Monthly Archives: October 2008

Older women who inspire me


Over 80, It’s Anyone’s Race

Joy Johnson, 81, aims to break six hours in New York Marathon; ‘I want to die running’

For Joy Johnson, winning her age group in last year’s ING New York City Marathon was bittersweet. First place was nice, but her time had slipped to seven hours.

“This year I cranked up the training,” says Ms. Johnson, a silver-haired, 81-year-old former Minnesota farm girl from San Jose, Calif., competing in her 21st consecutive New York City Marathon. “I want to die running. That’s my goal.”

Never mind the Kenyans who will battle through Central Park early Sunday afternoon and break the tape of the New York City Marathon in roughly two hours. The most intriguing competition among the 39,000-plus runners should come four hours later in the women’s 80-90-year-old division, the oldest group of women competing this year.

Ms. Johnson will try to hold off four others in the race, including Bertha McGruder, who is in the 80-90 division for the first time after completing last year’s race in six hours, 15 minutes, good for third place among 75-79-year-old women.

Ms. Johnson will face four other competitors over 80, including Bertha McGruder who finished the 2007 race in six hours, 15 minutes.

Bring it on, says Ms. Johnson. “I have my stronger leg muscles now,” she says, placing her hands just above her knees. “I can feel it in my thighs.”

More older Americans are exercising regularly than ever. By 2010, a quarter of the U.S. population will be older than 55, and officials with Running USA say seniors represent the fastest-growing segment of the sport’s participants. Since 2003, the number of finishers 80 and above for all road races has risen 23% compared with 16% for all age groups.

Still, Ms. Johnson headlines a tiny segment in road racing’s most grueling mass event. Just 26 runners over 80 registered for this year’s race, including just three women other than Ms. Johnson and Ms. McGruder, none of whom are expected to win the division.

If history is a guide, roughly six hours after she crosses the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, Ms. Johnson will trot across the finish line hoping to grab the piece of Tiffany’s crystal awarded to the male and female winner in each age group.

It’s a goal Ms. Johnson has been working towards for months. Throughout the summer she ran 50 to 55 miles each week instead of 30 to 35. She ran hills and bleachers at the local high-school football field, and she worked to build up her core strength at a running camp in Minnesota.

The hard work has paid off. Four weeks ago, Ms. Johnson finished the Twin Cities Marathon in six hours, six minutes and 48 seconds, nearly an hour faster than her time in New York last year. Since 1997, she has won her age group in New York five times, finished second on five other occasions and came in third once.

Winning her division once more won’t be easy, though. Ms. McGruder, who declined to be interviewed for this story, ran the race in five hours, 56 minutes in 2005 and has not finished below third in her age group since 2002….

Strangely, other than the occasional game of tag with her five brothers and sisters on the family farm in Waconia, Minn., Ms. Johnson never ran growing up. The only hint of the sport was the verse from the Book of Isaiah on the kitchen wall. “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Imaginative Decision Making

“It seems that to find the real path we have to go off the path we are on now, even for an instant, and earn the privilege of losing our way. As the path fades, we are forced to take a good look at the life in which we actually find ourselves. For many professionals in the corporate world, going off the path may simply mean approaching work in a more contemplative way, that is, to meditate on work’s problems as much with the heart as with the mind. This is not to give up our responsibilities and the need to get a job done on time, but to see things from a radical perspective. Imaginative decision-making means being able to step out of the process at hand and see it with fresh, leisurely eyes. Equally so for the life of the imagination.”

— David Whyte, The Heart Aroused

Daughter of slave votes for Obama

Another elder Obama voter!

Daughter of slave votes for Obama

Amanda Jones, 109, the daughter of a man born into slavery, has lived a life long enough to touch three centuries. And after voting consistently as a Democrat for 70 years, she has voted early for the country’s first black presidential nominee.

The middle child of 13, Jones, who is African American, is part of a family that has lived in Republican-leaning Bastrop County for five generations. The family has remained a fixture in Cedar Creek and other parts of the county, even when its members had to eat at segregated barbecue dives and walk through the back door while white customers walked through the front, said Amanda Jones’ 68-year-old daughter, Joyce Jones.

For at least a decade, Amanda Jones worked as a maid for $20 a month, Joyce Jones said. She was a housewife for 72 years and helped her now-deceased husband, C.L. Jones, manage a store.

Amanda Jones, a delicate, thin woman wearing golden-rimmed glasses, giggled as the family discussed this year’s presidential election. She is too weak to go the polls, so two of her 10 children — Eloise Baker, 75, and Joyce Jones — helped her fill out a mail-in ballot for Barack Obama, Baker said. “I feel good about voting for him,” Amanda Jones said.

Jones’ father herded sheep as a slave until he was 12, according to the family, and once he was freed, he was a farmer who raised cows, hogs and turkeys on land he owned. Her mother was born right after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Joyce Jones said. The family owned more than 100 acres of land in Cedar Creek at one point, she said.

Amanda Jones’ father urged her to exercise her right to vote, despite discriminatory practices at the polls and poll taxes meant to keep black and poor people from voting. Those practices were outlawed for federal elections with the 24th Amendment in 1964, but not for state and local races in Texas until 1966.

Amanda Jones says she cast her first presidential vote for Franklin Roosevelt, but she doesn’t recall which of his four terms that was. When she did vote, she paid a poll tax, her daughters said. That she is able, for the first time, to vote for a black presidential nominee for free fills her with joy, Jones said.

One of Amanda Jones’ 33 grandchildren, Brenda Baker, 44, said the family is moved by the election’s significance to the matriarch.

“It’s awesome to me that we have such a pillar of our family still with us,” Baker said. “It’s awesome to see what she’s done, and all her hard work, and to see that she may be able to see the results of all that hard work” if Obama is elected, she said.

Jones lives in a small gray house with white trim just off Texas 21. These days, a curious white kitten and a sleepy old black dog guard the house. Inside are photographs and relics of a long, full life, including a letter from then-Gov. George Bush in 1998 commemorating her 100th birthday. A black-and-white picture of her in a long flapper-style dress was taken between 1912 and 1918 — no one can remember the exact year, Baker said with a chuckle.

Jones is part of a small percentage of active voters above the age of 100 in the state — and the country.

Sister Cecilia Gaudette, a 106-year-old nun born in New Hampshire but living in Rome, made recent national headlines as the nation’s oldest voter. But if Texas records are any indication, that’s hard to validate.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Ashley Burton said Texas can’t confirm whether Jones is the state’s oldest active voter because there is too much voter information to sort through. At the county level, there are other challenges. An election official in Hays County said its records are not searchable by age, and Bastrop County elections administrator Nora Cano said that some counties automatically list voters who were born before the turn of the 20th century with birth dates of January 1900.

The oldest active voter in Travis County is 105, officials said, and in Williamson County the oldest is 106 — making Jones the oldest-known active voter in Central Texas.

Making it to see the election results on Nov. 5 is important, but Jones is resting up for another milestone: her 110th birthday in December. “God has been good to me,” she said.

The San Andreas Fault of the Americal Soul

From “The Heart Aroused”, by David Whyte:

“But what is soul, and what is meant by the preservation of the soul? By definition, soul evades the cage of definition. It is the indefinable essence of a person’s spirit and being. It can never be touched and yet the merest hint of its absence causes immediate distress. In a work situation, its lack can be sensed intuitively, though a person may, at the same moment, be powerless to know what has caused the loss. It may be the transfer of a well-loved colleague to another department, a change of rooms to a less appealing office, or, more seriously, the inner intuitions of a path not taken. Though the Oxford English Dictionary’s lofty attempt at soul is the principle of life in man or animals, depth-psychologist James Hillman describes it in far more eloquent terms in his provocative book of selected writings, A Blue Fire:

To understand soul we cannot turn to science for a description. Its meaning is best given by its context…words long associated with the soul amplify it further: mind, spirit, heart, life, warmth, humanness, personality, individuality, intentionality, essence, innermost purpose, emotion, quality, virtue, morality, sin, wisdom, death, God. A soul is said to be “troubled,” “old,” “disembodied,” “immortal,” “lost,” “innocent,” “inspired.” Eyes are said to be “soulless” by showing no mercy. The soul has been imaged as…given by God and thus divine, as conscience, as a multiplicity and as a unity in diversity, as a harmony, as a fluid, as fire, as dynamic energy, and so on…the search for the soul leads always into the “depths.”

Entering the “depths” and entering a corporate workplace are rarely seen in the same light. Looking over the vast amount of management literature, very few authors are willing to take the soul seriously in the workplace. The soul’s needs in the workplace have long been ignored, partly because the path the soul takes to fulfill its destiny seems troublesomely unique to each person and refuses to be quantified in a way that satisfies our need to plan everything in advance.

The Heart Aroused will look at the link between soul and creativity, success and failure, efficiency and malaise at work, but it sets as its benchmark not the fiscal success of the work or the corporation (though this certainly can be good for the soul), but the journey and experience of the human spirit and its repressed but unflagging desire to find a home in the world. It is written not only to meet the ancient human longing for meaning in work, but also in celebration of the natural human irreverence for work’s authoritarian, all-encompassing dominance of our present existence.

Preservation of the soul means the preservation at work of humanity and sanity (with all the well-loved insanities that human sanity requires). Preservation of the soul means the palpable presence of some sacred otherness in our labors, whatever language we may use for that otherness: God, the universe, destiny, life, or love. Preservation of the soul means allowing for fiery initiations that our surface personalities, calculating for a brilliant career, would rather do without.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko says:

Sorrow happens, hardship happens,
the hell with it, who never knew
the price of happiness, will not be happy

(Trans. Peter Levi)

Preservation of the soul means giving up our wish, in the scheduled workplace, for immunity from the unscheduled meeting with sorrow and hardship. It means learning the price of happiness. Preservation of the soul means refusing to relinquish the body and its sensual appreciation of texture, color, multiplicity, pain, and joy. Above all, preserving the soul means preserving a desire to live a life a man or woman can truly call their own.

For consultants and management gurus, the soul is a slippery customer. On the one hand it may be dismissed completely. Many trainers and consultants maintain that the soul belongs at home or in church. But with little understanding of the essential link between the soul life and the creative gifts of their employees, hardheaded businesses listening so carefully to their hardheaded consultants may go the way of the incredibly hardheaded dinosaurs. For all their emphasis on the bottom line, they are adrift from the very engine at the center of a person’s creative application to work, they cultivate a workforce unable to respond with personal artistry to the confusion of global market change.

On the other hand, many progressive management gurus ask that the person’s soul life be included fully in their work but imagine that the vast, hidden Dionysian underworld of the soul erupting into everyday work life can only be positive. The darker side of human energy is very often sanitized and explained away as the product of bad work environments. Change the environment, they say, and all good things will fall into place, but this displays an untested middle class faith in the innate goodness of humanity that is only partially true, one doomed to fail when faced with the terrifying necessity of the soul to break, if necessary, every taboo, and wend its vital way onward, irrespective of family, corporation, deadline, or career.

This book does not offer easy answers as to the way that home life and work life, career and creativity, soul life and seniority, can be brought together. What it does do is chart a veritable San Andreas Fault in the modern American psyche: the personality’s wish to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that may be. It offers the poet’s perspective on the way men and women throughout history have lived triumphantly or tragically through both their daily work and their life’s work. For the personality, bankruptcy or failure may be a disaster, for the soul it may be grist for its strangely joyful mill and a condition it has been secretly engineering for years.

I use poetry to chart this difficult fault line in the human psyche not because the fault line is vague and woolly, but because, like human nature, it is dramatic and multidimensional, yet strangely precise. No language matches good poetry in its precision about the human drama. “My heart rouses,” says William Carlos Williams (generously giving me, by way of Dana Gioia’s article, the title of this book) “thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men.”

nani o nomimasu ka?


I have a new favorite nom….

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