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Soup of This Day #44: Wandering Over The Hills Unseen Or Is It a Dream?

August 2, 2011

Combine Harvester in Iowa
A combine harvester. It has lots of sharp things. Don’t mix it with alcohol or let Jack Lemmon drive – Photo: TigerPaw2154, 2006. TigerPaw2154 has no affiliation with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I go through some 30 or 40 sets of traffic lights on my daily commute to and from work. I mostly go through them on autopilot but there is 1 set that I stopped at this morning that got me thinking and subsequently has me confused.

The set comes a scant 50m after another and it exists purely as a pedestrian crossing. It seems to be rarely used and I don’t have to stop there that often but when it is in play, like this morning, it really hassles my flow. To be fair, my flow this morning consisted of me singing an Art Garfunkel ballad about rabbits so not exactly rally driving there. Nonetheless, while I waited for a guy who appeared to be Jack Lemmon to cross the road I got to pondering the existence of those lights and stuff that is illogical in general.

On the western side of the pedestrian crossing is a shop that appears to be selling farm machinery. In the middle of the city. On the eastern side is a drive-through bottle shop. Ok. Putting aside the irony of a pedestrian crossing to a drive-through there is a wider issue here. You see, Jack Lemmon has just bought himself some farming gear and now he’s heading for the bottleo:

‘You know what? I reckon a carton of James Squire Pils will really light my fires ahead of me using this heavy and complicated mechanised thresher with it’s wickedly sharp blades.’

Jack Lemmon could pull that off you know and he would totally drink James Squire Pils. Except he’s dead.

For everyone who is not Jack Lemmon and if you’re alive then that’s you, the traffic lights make little sense. There is no good reason for them to be. Let’s now widen this out a little. Sport in general has good reasoning behind it. Take the Modern Pentathalon:

Invented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin it’s designed to replicate the experience of a 19th century cavalry trooper behind enemy lines. He (or indeed she as of 2000) must ride an unfamiliar horse, shoot a pistol, fence a duel, swim and run. The great Colquhoun Grant would have loved it, knocking all of that off before breakfast, leaving the rest of the day free for sending devil-may-care messages to Wellington while entertaining the ladies of Paris. A jolly splendid lark, eh what?

The marathon too has it’s roots in a reason of sorts. According to a legend that has found it’s accepted form in a Robert Browning poem, after the Battle of Marathon, Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Grecian win to the Assembly. Before dropping dead. He probably should have taken a chariot but his alleged feat was the inspiration for the first marathon race of the modern Olympics, held in 1896. The distance of 42.2km was derived from a rough approximation of the distance Pheidippides ran. Apparently in the nude according to a painting I just saw. That’s some streak.

Here is a wonderful photo taken during that 1st modern marathon:

This also appears to be the origin of the phrase ‘run like you stole something’ because these guys have definitely nicked some loot and are on the lam. Either way the event was won by Spiridon “Spiros” Louis, who was apparently a Greek water carrier. He did the race in a very creditable 2:58 and what appears to be baggy pants.

Oh, don’t be misled, sports that make sense can have moments of irrationality. This morning the Red Sox were 5-7 with the Indians at Fenway. John Lackey had copped for 5 (unsurprising) and Daniel Bard for 2 (surprising) and the Sox were in a jam, down by 2 with 1 out and 1 on 1st. Strangely Tito turned to Randy Williams and his 9+ ERA. Logically he coughed up another run. Illogically his ERA improved to sub-9, possibly because Bard got tagged with the run. The Red Sox finished with 6 runs, including a Scutaro RBI single, an Ellsbury RBI double, a Youk RBI triple, a Crawf solo shot and a Salty 2 run bomb. The Indians finished with 9 runs.

Swimming, like baseball is at least in part, common sense – Freestyle, or front crawl as it is technically named is reasonable. You get in the water and you go as fast as you can. You can use it for racing but also for crossing rivers when the French catch on to your ruse de guerre or a Parisian husband gets home a bit early on account of a bonus revolutionary day off. Breaststroke I can make a case for too – It’s a very efficient style and perfect for long swims or ones where you need to conserve energy.

Backstroke though, has some question marks. You’re aiming to swim not-as-fast backwards with the real risk that you will lose count of strokes and scone yourself on a wall, riverbank, boat or passing whale. We don’t celebrate running backwards in the Olympics yet we do revere the equivalent in the water.

Where we can drown.

Butterfly stroke? Nope, lost me again. Butterfly only really kicked off in the 1930’s and get this – The butterfly arm movement was developed independently of the dolphin kick. It’s technically devilish and only almost as fast as freestyle. Surf lifesavers do use a variant for traversing the shallow water on the way to the break, replacing the dolphin kick with a standing dive, and an Englishwoman recently raised money for charity by butterflying around Manhattan (in the water, although on land would have been more impressive) but neither is a strong enough reason to include the stroke in to the Olympics. I can’t imagine the 19th century cavalry trooper porpoising his way to freedom across the Seine. Fierljeppen would surely be more his style.

There are other sports where all reason seems a little skewed if there at all. Rhythmic gymnastics I’m looking at you. I get that she’s demonstrating agility, strength, poise and… …I was going to add ‘purpose’ but just what is the thinking behind hurling a hula hoop into the air before catching it on your foot after a backwards-half-inverted-wachowski-sextuple-axle-nose-pike?

I made that last bit up but the ancient Greeks would probably be confused by it all anyway.

Likewise, it’s hard to see Pheidippides endorsing racewalking. This is the athletic sport where the aim is to walk as fast as possible without running. It’s easy to picture him running (naked if that’s your thing) alongside modern competitors and screaming, ‘Run for fuck sake. It’s FASTER!’ As an aside racewalking was born out of long walking events of the 19th century which were part of a popular trend known as Pedestrianism. Pedestrians started this post so maybe that’s a good place to wind it up

That traffic light set, the butterfly stroke, racewalking and Randy Williams as relief make little or no sense. They are however more than balanced by Art Garfunkel, Jack Lemmon, Red Sox bats and Greeks who run like they’ve stolen something from a 19th century cavalry trooper stuck behind enemy lines.


(‘We have won.’)

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