April 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in April 2020.

~Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – An epistolary and lipogrammatic satire, narrated in the form of letters between characters, by eliminating letters from the English alphabet as the story progresses. Pure brilliance in the concept and outcome. 5/5

~Meg by Steve Alten – A prehistoric marine dinosaur (that actually existed and was larger and stronger than the T-Rex) surfaces in the present age, wrecking havoc in its wake as top predator that ever existed. A thrilling ride of paleontology and marine ecology. 4/5

~Friend Request by Laura Marshall – A middle-aged woman receives a Facebook friend request from a school classmate. Only the latter died 27 years ago, and the protagonist was responsible for her death. An insightful tale on the obsession of social media and being consumed by the virtual world. 3.5/5

~Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – A woman spends most of her adult life working in a convenience store, and feels like a misfit in the “regular world”. A simple story offering a fresh take on society and the pressure to conform. 3.5/5

~Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw – A post-apocalyptic novel about killer jam consuming the world. The tables have truly turned, and the eaten becomes the eater. A laugh riot all the way. 4/5

~The Yellow Arrow by Victor Pelevin – A train that has no start point and an undisclosed destination. Once you get on, you cannot get off, and you forget all about your time outside the train. The Yellow Arrow makes you a passenger for life. Philosophical and metaphorical, the train as an analogy for life itself. What is it about Russian writers that every book seems to warrant a 5/5?

2 books on Autism, since April is dedicated to Autism Awareness.

~The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris – An autistic child with synesthesia narrates the story of his neighbor’s murder. Only he’s the one who murdered her. And nobody believes him because he’s on the spectrum. Interestingly chronicled through colors. 4/5

~Autism in Heels by Jennifer O’Toole – A memoir of being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 34, and subsequently bringing up children on the autism spectrum. A witty, humorous and informative read. 5/5

April2020

Healing With The Arts – Part 2

In a follow up to my previous post about a course on the Arts I am currently pursuing, I would like to present my take on photography for the module of Visual Arts. This period of quarantine and self isolation has left us with limited resources, leading us to work with the little we have available. I love to read, and books have always occupied a large part of my life, especially in today’s situation where they offer comfort and a connection to the world around. I have photographed some of my books, working with the theme of the books and what they meant to me. Both paperbacks as well as my kindle reader have been included – with reference to the complete lockdown here where we can neither visit book shops and libraries, nor can we order books online since home deliveries are not allowed, causing e-books to be a lifeline for us readers who do not have immediate access to paperbacks. Here are some book pictures clicked in the past few weeks:

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March 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in March – An array of women authors and female protagonists, in keeping with the month that celebrates Women’s Day. Due to lots going on around, I have not been able to get online much. Detailed reviews will follow as and when I find the time. Hope everyone is staying safe in these difficult days. It’s times like these when books are our refuge.

4 paperbacks:

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~Aranyaka by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattaniak – A graphic novel about forests – the wilderness outside and within; the beginning of life and civilization, the merging of elements, and the influence of nature on man and vice versa. 5/5

~Road to Mekong by Piya Bahadur – A memoir about 4 women motorcyclists who undertake a road trip, covering 17,000 kilometers through 6 countries, guided by the river Mekong that flows through Southeast Asia. 5/5

~Sand & Sea by Ann D’Silva – A novel about past lives and connected souls. A women’s dreams are haunted by a man she knew in another life, and she attempts to find out more about him. 2/5

~In My Dreams I Dance by Anne Wafula Strike – The autobiography of a Paralympic racer who overcame disability and prejudice to compete among top level athletes. 5/5

3 books on Kindle:

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~The End We Start From by Megan Hunter – A post apocalyptic novel with development and destruction running parallel in the narrative. A baby is born as the world is being submerged by exponential floods. As the child grows, the world sinks further. 4/5

~Mad Love by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan – A novelization of the origin story of Harley Quinn and her subsequent prominence in the DC comic world. 3/5

1 re-read:

~The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – One of the books I read this month was so disappointing, this book was conjured to bring back some brilliance in my reading. 4 individuals are placed in a supposedly haunted house to measure hauntings and obtain evidence of ghosts. But ghosts are not always around you. What about the ghosts within us? When it’s pure, brilliant writing one is looking for, look no further than Shirley Jackson. 5/5

ARANYAKA – Book Review

Title – Aranyaka

Authors –  Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik

Genre – graphic novel, mythology, history

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“From wind, she learned movement. From mountains, patience. From rivers, persistence. From outstretched branches and deep roots, she understood hunger.”

“Bad arguments were about ego and delusion, good arguments brought epiphany. All argument was combat.”

“I thought we were equals, bilateral symmetry of leaves. He thought we were halves – He above, Me below.”

Aranyaka literally translates to “of the forest”. It begins with the history of all living beings which started from the forest, and how domestication and civilization take us away from nature. The story is a warp and weft of 3 primary women – the Large, the Weaver and the Fig, (The three rishikas – Katyayani, Gargi and Maitreyi) who help us unravel humankind. Aranyaka is not only the forest around us, but also addresses the wilderness within us. Is food solely to satiate hunger, or is it a temporary replacement for a greater hunger/thirst in life? When we cook for or help or take care of others, is it in thought of the opposite person, or emphasizing our own importance in their lives?

A difficult book to review because it encapsulates a multitude of subjects and themes. Aranyaka alludes to a set of 3000-year old Vedic scriptures, and the foundational role forests play in Vedic lore.Writer Devdutt Pattanaik and illustrator Amruta Patil have imaginatively transformed a myriad of ideas into a novel – the crux of which is, observing elements and the natural world transforms the way humans think. Forests can be as violent as they are beautiful. In this sense, scriptures do not belong to a bygone era, but are right here with us.

The two artists have collaborated long distance – with Patil living in France, and Pattanaik in India. The tremendous research dedicated to the text reflects Pattanaik’s strength in his genre of mythology. There are numerous references suggested for further reading. Patil’s artwork is just beautiful – closely following the storyline, with a vibrant assortment of shades and tones. Some pages don’t need dialogue – the striking paintings take you through the multi-layered narrative.

A delightful book, worth having in ones collection – more for the artwork than the story.

My rating – 5/5

WITH THE BEATLES – A Review Of Haruki Murakami’s Short Story

Title – With The Beatles

Author – Haruki Murakami

Genre – Short story, fiction

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“The death of a dream can be, in a way, sadder than that of a living being.”

“Memory became one of my most valued emotional tools, a means of survival, even. Like a warm kitten, softly curled inside an oversized coat pocket, fast asleep.”

Haruki Murakami’s “WITH THE BEATLES” is a bittersweet story of a narrator reminiscing about his college days, and the passing of life from adolescence to adulthood. One of the narrator’s fondest memories is of a girl he encounters in the school corridor in 1964, clutching an LP of “With The Beatles”. He didn’t know her name and never met her again after that one incident, but the memory of the LP brought back some more memories of the Beatles’ music and the height of Beatlemania of the 1960s. The narrator subsequently takes us through the music of Nat King Cole, Percy Faith, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Temptations, and several other musicians of the era who made their way into Japan’s musical landscape. A chance encounter with the elder brother of his then girlfriend that led to a discussion on the works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Junichiro Tanizaki and Kobo Abe, leads the narrator to recollect his tryst with books and reading, “I could never just sit, still and silent. I always had to be turning the pages of a book or listening to music, one or the other. When there was no book lying around, I’d grab anything printed. I’d read a phone book, an instruction manual for a steam iron.”

The writing style appears autobiographical and confessional, and relatable for a reader when we realize our own recollections of snippets of past incidents, and memories both good and bad finding their way into our consciousness without any specific reason. No doubt a treat for music and book lovers, this can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a good story.

My rating – 4/5

2020 – Books Read In January

January done well! 📚💪

It’s a good day when you can retire with a book at the end of it. And it’s a literary achievement for a reader when all those good books accumulate and the year kicks off to a great start. There’s no time to waste on mediocre books, and there’s truly a sense of satisfaction when all the books you read turn out to be gems.

A summary of books read this month:
5 paperbacks:
~The Wall by Jurek Becker – A collection of stories by a survivor of the Holocaust, using his memories at the concentration camps to weave out stories. 4/5
~Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges – A novel about the Goan, Mangalorean and East Indian Catholics in Bombay, travelling from the 1930s to the present day. 5/5
~Silent Was Zarathustra by Nicolas Wild – A graphic novel cum biography of the humanist Cyrus Yazdani, along with a history of Zoroastrianism. 4/5
~India’s Most Haunted by K. Hari Kumar – Essays of haunted places, superstitions, rumours, folktakes from around the country. 4/5
~Tödlicher Schnee by Felix & Theo – A crime novel about a private detective on holiday at a ski resort, who inadvertently gets pulled into a series of murders at a global environmental conference. 4/5

3 books read on kindle:
~The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – A novel about a teenager living life on the sidelines; ‘watching instead of participating’ in life. 5/5
~Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston – A verse novel about a duo of misfits trying to save the world from boredom. 5/5
~Booked by Kwame Alexander – Another verse novel about sport and books. Enough said! 4/5

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There’s Something About Christmas – Book Review

Title – There’s Something About Christmas

Author – Debbie Macomber

Genre – Fiction, humor, romance, seasonal, festive

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Emma Collins stopped celebrating Christmas the year her mother passed away. Christmas, for her, meant family and tradition and preparing cakes and sweets together, and it has failed to have the same meaning anymore. Emma works as a journalist with  ‘The Examiner’, a local newspaper for which she writes obituaries. The ‘Good Homemaking’ magazine had run a nationwide contest a month ago, for the best fruitcake recipe in the country – the winner of which would be announced on Christmas Day. Emma finds herself with a new job description – to interview the finalists of the fruitcake competition, and present a series of articles as a build-up to the Christmas season.

“Fruitcakes are like in-laws. They show up at the holidays. You have no idea who sent them, how old they are, or how long they’ll be hanging around your kitchen.”

“Fruitcake is about the ritual of a family recipe. The longer the ritual is repeated, the more it becomes part of the holidays.”

The reader is taken through Emma’s life in the weeks leading up to Christmas – her earnestness in making a name for herself as a journalist, a boss who doesn’t take her seriously, a colleague cum best friend and sole support system, her estrangement with her father, her mourning over her mother’s death. The author begins every chapter with quotes by real life chefs and bakers, on what fruitcakes symbolize to them. Emma’s journey as a journalist also comes across beautifully, as someone who documents the lives of others but personally feels she has hardly made a smudge on the page of her own life. Her aversion towards Christmas and the festive season shows us how not everyone celebrates festivals the same way, depending on what memories are attached to specific days/seasons. Her interviews with people from various walks of life reveal the stark differences in each finalist’s life story, along with the common bond they share through their love for baking. From an octogenarian widow to a young mother of four, Emma receives life lessons along with fruitcake lessons from an unassuming bunch of people.

“When I was with my husband, I felt there must be something lacking in me. Now I don’t think so anymore. Time will do that, you know?”

“I never could figure out people, but I know a whole lot about fruitcake.”

The more Emma goes over the notes of her meetings, the more she realizes that the interviews are not so much about fruitcake as much about the people themselves. “Lessons about life, wrapped up in a fruitcake recipe.” From traditional fruitcakes to personalized ingredients like chocolate or apples, and even no-bake recipes, Emma comes across a variety of methods to prepare the same product, which serves as a metaphor for life, in that, each of us lives our own journey. There are contestants who spent several years trying to bake the perfect fruitcake, only to realize that their life was what needed working on instead. Some divert from traditional recipes and use ingredients of their choice, serving the lesson of doing what you love and not following the herd. Others use the no-bake option because they want to “enjoy it now” – a lesson for living in the moment.

There are different fruitcake recipes provided in the book for the reader to try out. All-in-all, a sweet Christmas story that doesn’t succumb to clichés. Macomber writes with the right mix of humor and romance. Those who love baking and animals would enjoy this book. The epilogue was a tad drawn out and could have been done away with, but otherwise a cheery Christmas read that gets you into the festive spirit.

My rating – 3/5

In The Tall Grass – Book Review

Title – In The Tall Grass

Authors – Stephen King and Joe Hill

Genre – Horror

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The grass flows and you flow, too. Think of it as becoming one with nature.”

With Stephen King celebrating his 72nd birthday last weekend, and the movie releasing next week, it was apt to read this collaboration with his son, Joe Hill on this seemingly fun family holiday, which soon turns nightmarish. A pair of siblings on a long distance road trip, find themselves on a deserted strip of road parallel to a large field. Sounds of a child in distress emit from within the field. The boy doesn’t sound too far away, but it’s easy for a small kid to get lost in towering blades of grass. Within minutes of entering the field on their rescue mission, the brother-sister duo lose track of each other, feel disoriented in blades over seven feet tall, and get entangled even further in the verdant mass while trying to follow each other’s voices. Turns out there are more people similarly lost in the tall grass, and though they can hear each other, they can’t seem to find the owners of the voices. Directions and time melt in the grass. “There is no morning or night here, only eternal afternoon. If we had shadows, we might use them to move in the same direction”, reflects one of the characters. The grass has dew throughout the day and cannot be burned, new blades shoot up as soon as old ones are crushed under foot, and the “softly flowing ocean of green silk” appears to move even though the people are still, causing them to move without moving.

The father-son imagination of King-Hill elevates the horror to another level, and might not be suitable for all readers. Caution is recommended to those who get squeamish easily, as the story has a lot of gore. King is known for his detailed writing – the fun elements with a character who speaks in rhymes and another with a fondness for limericks, are easily interspersed with the brutality of its stomach churning moments. The protagonist/antagonist/lead character/side character, which ever way you see it, is the grass. And Stephen King proves once again why he is the king of horror, with his ability to find fear in the unlikeliest places/events. A disturbing read, but recommended for horror buffs.

My rating – 3.5/5

Run The World #9 – MIRNA VALERIO

“Embrace what is difficult so that you may progress. Welcome what makes you frightened.”

Mirna Valerio is a marathoner, ultramarathoner, and trail runner. She ran the 50K NJ Ultra Trail Festival in 2013 and the 35-miles Georgia Jewel in 2014. 2015 was eventful with the 12-hour Midsummer Nights’ Ultra in June, Finger Lakes 50K in July, 35 miles at the Georgia Jewel in September, and 100K at the Javelin Hundred in October. She was back for the 50K Finger Lakes in 2016, and ran the Black Mountain Monster and NJ Running With The Devil – both 12-hour runs in the months of May and June respectively, along with the NYC Knickerbocker 60K in November 2017. 2018 saw her run the 50K Run Amok, and this year she ran the Shore2Shore in April and the Strawberry Fields Forever in June – both 50K ultramarathons. She has also done several 10Ks, 15-milers, half marathons, 25Ks and full marathons in the interim.

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Skirt Sports 13er
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Colorado Rockies – 6-Day Ultra

The 43-year old, 5-foot-7, 250-pound African-American dressed in a ball cap, fitness top, knee-length running tights, and training shoes often receives a double take, which she responds to with a smile and a wave. Despite racism and body-shaming, she continues challenging stereotypes and inspiring others to do the same. “I think that people are really having trouble grappling with the idea that fit comes in many forms and that people can still participate in athletics no matter what kind of body they have,” she says.

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Finger Lakes 25K, 2013
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North face Half Marathon, 2010

 

Mirna was raised in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, bordering the Ridgewood neighborhood. Poverty, drugs, gangs, violence, absent fathers, single mothers, children locked away in apartments to avoid the danger of the streets, type 2 diabetes scourging the community – Valerio knew this world as she was growing up, but love and grit instilled strength and propelled her on an extraordinary trajectory.

Mirna was never a runner. In high school, she thought soccer involved too much running about, and decided to opt for hockey instead, assuming it was like golf – “walking through the field”. Realizing she couldn’t even manage the running drills before the actual game started, she decided to start running as “training for the warm-ups”. Running helped her not only in hockey but also lacrosse, a sport she loved, was good at, and wanted to get better at. “I started running to condition, to be able to be a better contributor to the team. It made me feel better. I fell in love with the act of running early in the morning.” While turning into an athlete, Valerio spontaneously blossomed as a singer. She taught herself to play piano by ear and sang gospel with her church choir. Excelling academically at the same time, Mirna demonstrated a particular gift for languages.

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Juilliard Choir Recital

She continued to run all the way through college, and recreationally through her twenties and thirties. In 2008, while driving to the school she taught at, she felt sharp pain in her chest. She was only thirty-three then, and her son who was with her had just turned five. Blood tests later revealed excessive arterial inflammation. The health scare prompted her to start exercising seriously. She started with 5Ks, subsequently graduating to 10Ks and 15-milers. Her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cholesterol readings dropped down to healthy levels, and the inflammation in her arteries reduced. She started training for her first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in 2011.

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Running through a forested trail in Georgia
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Atop North Carolina’s Whiteside Mountain, National Geographic 2018

Shortly afterward she was drawn to trail running and ultras. She took to the solitude and challenge of the mountains, and also liked the comradeship and spirit of the trail-running community. “Part of a health journey, a fitness journey, a wellness journey — whatever you may call it — is finding what makes you happy. What about running makes you happy?” Reminiscing about a camping trip to the Catskill mountains at age eight, Mirna reveals how she fell in love with swimming in the lake, hiking, and just being outside all day; the sights and the smells all firmly etched in her memory. She loves being outside, whether hikes or camping trips. Long-distance running gives her an opportunity to be outside with a purpose. “Taking care of my body, exploring the limits — or my preconceived limits ― about what I thought I could do. The real appeal of it is pushing my body, pushing my mind, pushing my spirit.”

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Yoga by a waterfall near Georgia’s Blackrock Lake, National Geographic 2018
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Black Mountain Monster – 12 Hr Ultra, 2017
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Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise, 2013

Mirna works at the Rabun Gap-Na-coochee School in the town of Rabun Gap, where she serves as Spanish teacher, choir director, and head coach of the cross-country team. She believes in uplifting the community, the value of discipline, and the pertinence of encouraging people to put their health first. Optimism and ambition pour over into every aspect of her life and splash onto the people around her as well. Her grasp of the complex relationship people have with fitness and her own existence as a plus-size woman who has completed several ultramarathons and marathons — along with her bubbly personality and sense of humor, all make her an inspiring role model.

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Warming up before a morning run

But she has her share of detractors as well and knows critics serve to criticize. “People say to me, ‘Anyone who runs as much as you do deserves to be skinny.’ ‘If you do all this running, why are you still so fat?’  People look at me and think, ‘Big as this girl is, how can she possibly enjoy her sport? She’s really just punishing herself.’ They don’t think I’m for real, that I’ve earned the right to call myself a runner. Some people don’t understand why I run in the woods. They think I’m gonna get kidnapped. Others have their own ideas about what I should or shouldn’t be doing, but I just do it anyway.”

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Tough Mudder – an endurance event involving a series of obstacle races.

The link below is an indicator of all the races Mirna has participated in, from 5Ks to 100Ks.

https://www.athlinks.com/athletes/248654801/results

She runs about 25 miles a week if she’s not training for a race, 35 if she’s gearing up for an event, with the bulk of the mileage logged on a long weekend run. “Ms. Valerio is the most energetic teacher on campus,” says James Trammell, a senior at Rabun Gap, and co-captain of the cross-country team. Mirna is known to project an aura of inclusiveness in running: No matter who you are or what you look like, you have a place in this sport. Storyteller Jenny Nichols considers Mirna as the definition of a trailblazer. “She is redefining what a runner looks like and she’s doing it with style, grace and a huge smile. Mirna reinforces the fundamentals: Work out, be active, and eat a high-quality diet. Weight loss should be the by-product of a healthy life, not the goal. Writer John Brant is in awe of her all-encompassing pleasing personality.

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A copy of her memoir

Mirna’s memoir, “A Beautiful Work in Progress“, was published in October 2017. “It’s not  about me being a fat athlete—I want to reach out to anybody who wants to feel good in their own skin, exercise, and enjoy things that they may not feel able or welcome to do,” she says.

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At a book signing event

Mirna has never won any event, she is not the fastest or strongest-looking runner around, she doesn’t have a weight-loss story, and doesn’t have any disabilities. Why is she featured here? Because she is testimony to the fact that everybody can run. One doesn’t need to be on the podium, or lose weight, or run through medical conditions, or overcome visible obstacles, or have people constantly talking about them, to be considered inspiring. Even if no one praises you or writes or reads about you, you still run because it’s something you love to do. Everyone has their own journey and should proudly partake in it, irrespective of what others say.

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Blackrock Lake in Georgia, National Geographic 2018

Mirna sets her running calendar at the beginning of each year, so that people can join her on her runs, as part of an initiative called “Wanna Run With Mirna?” This was her entire running calendar for 2018:

April 7-8 Throwing Bones Run on the Mountains to Sea Trail with Kenny Capps, Boone NC
April 14 – BAA 5K, Boston MA
April 16 – Boston Marathon, Boston MA
April 28 – The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50K, Sterling VA
April 29 – The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 10K, Sterling VA
May 3-4 – Toughest South, Somewhere in TX
May 25 – Azores Trail Run 65K, Blue Island, Azores
June 1-3 – Skirt Sports Ambassador Retreat and 13er, Boulder CO
June 25-29 – City Kids Backpacking, Canoeing Jackson, WY
July 5-9 – Trail Running Adventures Retreat, Morganton NC
July 21-22 – Tough Mudder Long Island, NY
August 14-19 – Trans Rockies 6 Day
September 13-16 – REI Outessa, Waterville, NH
September 21-23 – Ragnar Adirondacks, Lake Placid, NY
September 27 -October 1 -Hiking Retreat in UT

Mirna realizes that whatever might be your journey – as a runner, a woman, a mother, or whoever one may be – somebody might be looking at you or looking at the things that you do and say, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that we could go and run for six days in the Colorado Rockies. Maybe I could try to do 5K.” We are all not on the same page, we don’t all have the same capabilities or the same financial ability to do things. But “things are possible – like going for a walk“. Mirna’s sixty-year old mom goes backpacking with her. What are her own sources of inspiration? You’re not always going to be motivated. And that’s the reality, you cannot live by motivation. Because you’re not always going to be inspired. You have to be disciplined.”

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Mirna with her son and husband
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On the cover of Women’s Running

 

Sources:

~www.huffingtonpost.in

~www.runnersworld.com

~www.national geographic.com

~www.themirnivator.com

Run The World #8 – ALEX & JAMIE SCHNEIDER

Alex and Jamie are identical twin brothers, diagnosed at 21 months of age as being severely autistic. Neither can communicate verbally, they cannot cross the street alone, and display self-injurious behaviors. But with running shoes on, they’re making a statement larger than any words can convey.  Alex ran the Suffolk County Marathon in 2016 in 2:56:20 (finishing in second place overall), the NYC Marathon of 2017 in 2:50:05, and achieved his current personal best of 2:48:03 at the Boston Marathon this year. The siblings have run 27 marathons and over 400 races in all, with Alex even having run ultramarathons. The Schneider Twins – as they are known in running circles – are also accomplished pianists.

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Born in 1990, the twin toddlers were growing up energetic and playful, when over a period of several months, playfulness was replaced with inexplicable meltdowns, repetitive behavior, and a complete lack of response to anyone or anything around them. They weren’t reaching age-appropriate milestones in their communication patterns, and would throw incomprehensible fits. Talking about the discovery of them being autistic, mom Robyn reveals, “I was terrified. But instead of letting that fear paralyze me, it propelled me into action. We will do everything for Alie and Jamie, and we will start doing it now.”  Parents Robyn and Allan started home schooling them, and along with a small group of other determined parents, turned their home into a therapy center, which subsequently became the Genesis School in 1995 – opened specifically for those with autism.

Being nonverbal, the boys couldn’t talk about what they liked, but much could be discerned from their reactions to activities. Increased agitation or acting out were signs they didn’t enjoy something. Calmness, or even a smile, counted as positive indicators. They tried horseback riding, swimming, gymnastics, soccer, karate and basketball. While some activities were more successful than others, the boys’ love of exercise and its ability to help calm them became apparent.

Now twenty-eight, the Schneider twins started running when they were fifteen years old. Mom Robyn discloses how the family had heard about a running club that paired experienced runners with those with developmental disabilities.We always wanted to explore because they can’t say what they like and what they don’t like, so the only way for us to know is to experience things”. Alex and Jamie began running three times a week and eventually began participating in races. Given the boys’ severe autism, finding coaches who could intuitively understand and work with them was difficult. And even though the boys are identical twins, they are unique in their approach to running. Alex is exceptionally fast, but doesn’t know he’s being competitive and is more euphoric about putting on his bib at the start of the race. Jamie on the other hand is a social runner, lingering around water stations with the volunteers and taking his own time to finish.

According to coaches Shaunthy Hughes and Mike Kelly of the Rolling Thunder Running Club, Alex and Jamie were natural runners. The boys didn’t know when to stop, and would only stop when told to do so. They didn’t understand pacing, and every run was a race. Kevin McDermott – the fastest runner on the team –  then became Alex’s personal coach, and under his tutelage and methodical training, Alex consistently began setting new records each year.

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Alex with Kevin McDermott, who was instrumental in identifying Alex’s athletic gift.

The boys participated in numerous races for their high school cross country team. After eleven years of coaching Alex, McDermott moved away in 2017, from where Boyd Carrington and Sal Nastasi took over. Robyn runs shorter races with Jamie, and her husband Allan runs with him on longer distances.

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Jamie and Alex at Boston 2013

Mom Robyn speaks about their sensitivities, characteristic of autism. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, they had stopped running and eating. The boys were diagnosed with catatonia – a condition that affects behavioral, motor and vocal responses. At the New York City Marathon in 2014, someone once blew a giant horn in Jamie’s ear, and he exhibited self-injurious behavior that lasted for fifteen minutes on the route. In 2018, braving some of the worst weather conditions in the 122-year history of the event, Alex completed the Boston Marathon in a (for him) disappointing time of 2:56:54. A few weeks later, at the Long Island Half Marathon on May 6, Schneider finished seventh overall at 1:16:30.

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Alex at Boston 2018 with coaches Boyd Carrington and Sal Nastasi
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The trio at 2019 Boston, where Alex achieved his PB of 2:48:03

According to coaches Nastasi and Carrington, the boys do not understand the concept of elapsed time and can’t even lace up their own shoes, but their athletic gift needs to be nurtured. The coaches have reported finding themselves transformed by the experience of spending hours with someone who resides in the mysterious realm of the spectrum. They don’t know the difference between a 5K and a marathon. They won’t eat or drink if food and water are not offered. They have no sense of the weather or temperature, and do not express pain. Their coaches are always on the lookout for slight changes in gait or running mechanics that would suggest a problem. They pace them to direct them through the course, remove hazardous obstacles on the route, offer a jacket if it’s cold, are attentive to road crossings, check constantly for injuries and blisters – all requiring great diligence and responsibility that goes beyond merely training an athlete to finish strong. 

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Alex with coach Carrington at Massapequa, 2018

Stephen Shore, a PhD professor who has Asperger’s Syndrome says, “Such single-mindedness is a hallmark of the condition. A number of us do have great focus. When we focus on something, that becomes the entire world.” Repetitive behaviors, fixated interests, strict adherence to routines – all characteristic of autism – are also helpful for training. Russell Lang, director of the Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support at Texas State University, reiterates how running as a sport emphasizes repetitive behavior, which aligns itself well with the characteristics of autism.

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Working together as a team.

Parents Robyn and Allan both began running because of the boys. Allan, 62, suffers from multiple sclerosis but discovered that running helped him feel better physically. Robyn began running at Allan’s insistence while she was battling breast cancer, and found a joy and freedom in running. The discovery of running helped them all spend more time together as a family.

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Dad Allan with a new bike for mom Robyn, as she accompanies Jamie on his training runs.

When Alex and Jamie aren’t pounding the pavement, they enjoy swimming, horseback riding, shopping and going out to eat. They also play classical music on the piano thanks to the Occupational Octaves Piano Program and weekly lessons. They don’t read music, so when learning a new piano piece, the keys are labeled with colors, and colored pipe cleaners are attached to the brothers’ fingers. They even play in concerts and recitals.

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Jamie, Robyn and Alex
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Jamie with dad Allan

“The thing that warms my heart is when people look at our boys and see them as runners or pianists, not as kids with autism,” says Robyn said. “Alex and Jamie have abilities, they just show them differently. So, when people respect them and celebrate who they are and what they can be, it makes all the difference. A difference that extends well beyond 26.2 miles.” In addition to caring for her sons, running and advocating on behalf of those with autism, Robyn has written a memoir, “Silent Running: Our Family’s Journey to the Finish Line with Autism.””Even though my sons will never read the book, my inspiration was to leave a legacy for them,” she informs. Alie and Jamie Schneider live in a very different world. And yet, it is one in which the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other has made a significant difference.

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Jamie and Alex at the Massapequa 5K Firecracker race, 2018
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The proud “Autistic and Athletic” family.

Sources:

~www.autismrunners.com

~www.newsday.com

~www.espn.in