2013-05-23

Cat Calls

Some women have occasionally and indignantly told me that I will never know how it feels to experience cat calls while walking down the street. Au contraire. I have been subjected to cat calls for almost as long as I have been running.

Cat Calls As A Young Runner
I started running at about the age of seven or eight. There is some ambiguity here, because some of the memories I have of considering myself a runner pre-date the memory I have of committing myself to the idea of becoming a runner. I suppose I was running informally, and developing an interest in running, for a short while before finally accepting it as a personal challenge to myself. Whatever the case may be, on the day I really embraced the idea of being a runner I was eight years old and a classmate of mine had just finished a race with a highly impressive time and place in the competition. Inspired by that, I decided that when that same competition was held the next year, I would try to achieve similar success. And I did.

What that required of me was practice, so I would run approximately one mile to school every day, with a book bag thrown over my shoulder, and another mile back home again after school. You can imagine what sort of impact this had on my classmates. Not only were they not impressed, they were incredibly bemused. On at least one occasion, I was chased down the street, being kicked. I wasn't afraid; I calmly out-ran them. Such experiences set the stage for what would become an ongoing inside-joke I had with myself: Bullies would chase me, and I would enjoy out-running them. This made me look ridiculous, but who cares? It's not as if any victim of bullying can ever come out looking good.

As a part of these early experiences, I received my first cat calls. Generally, they were made by bullies who would voice threats to chase me and kick me. It is what it is. Kids bully each other. Such life experiences don't last forever, and I certainly didn't spend the majority of my life as a nerd. We all out-grew this stuff, and many of the bullies would later become friends of mine. (There's a lesson here for you anti-bullying advocates.)

The bullying eventually stopped, but the cat calls didn't. Most of the cat calls I received later on consisted of a loud, derisive "Woooo!" I guess the idea here is that the cat callers wanted to let me know that they were not impressed by the fact that I was running. I wasn't trying to impress them, but maybe they thought I was. Or maybe a young boy barreling down the street in neon running clothes just makes for an easy target.

For The Record, No, You Were Not The First To Say It
In 1994, Paramount Pictures released an Oscar-winning blockbuster that would forever change the course of the cat calls I received: Forrest Gump.

I have never seen this movie. I presume from whatever I can recall about the movie's trailers that it is about a simple man who experiences the most life has to offer by somehow being true to himself and his own simple nature. I honestly have no idea how correct I am about that, however, because - I reiterate - I have never seen the movie, nor have I ever wanted to. It's just not my bag.

I am aware of the fact that the movie contains a scene in which a young girl urges a young Forrest Gump to "Run, Forrest! Run!" I have been hearing those three words several times a week, every week, since about July 6th, 1994.

Today, "Run, Forrest! Run!" makes up about half of the cat calls I receive during the course of any given run.

Charged Cat Calls
Far be it from me to equate an annoying movie quote to the offensive cat calls that some women have to endure when they walk down the street. Again, about half of the cat calls I get while running are not anywhere near the kinds of things that women tell me they have to hear from men.

The other half of the cat calls I get, however, are overt examples of overtly sexualized outcries. These come in various forms, but all refer specifically to their appraisal of my physical appearance. Some examples:

Yesterday, a twenty-something man poked his head out the window of his car as he drove past me in the parking lot of a public park and shouted, "Looking hot, gorgeous!" This strikes me as being along the same lines as the "Wooo!" I used to get in the pre-Forrest Gump days. The idea seems to be that, by running, I am supposedly calling attention to my body, which the young man would like to inform me is not as attractive as he assumes I believe it to be.

Another typical one is for a car full of youth slow down long enough to make a lengthy series of "Ow!!" noises. Sometimes this is accompanied by honking, but not always. In nearly every case I can remember, the car accelerates quickly away from me once the noises have been made to the passengers' satisfaction. A lot of this is just teenage horseplay, but they also seem to be riffing on the idea that, because I am running down the street, I am attempting to display my body in a flirtatious manner.

Many times I have encountered fellow pedestrians on residential streets who, upon laying eyes on the horrors of a fit human being outfitted in normal running, take the opportunity to call out, "Eww! Gross!!" This is a near-identical cat call concept to the previous two, with the added variation being that the caller chooses a presumably honest appraisal rather than a sarcastic one.

Of course, all of the above cat calls have also been delivered with favorable ratings, too. I've received some genuinely impressed "Wooo!"s. I've had cars full of young girls stop to give me high-fives or even to chat with me. I've had admiring cat callers make a wide variety of noises that can only be described as the exact opposite of "Gross!"

Discussion
Like cat calls and advances outside the running world, those I have received while running have evoked a wide variety of emotional responses.

No one feels anything less that outrage when some kind of slimy creep takes one's workout as an opportunity to make loud, derogatory, and offensive statements about one's physical appearance. There is something extremely uncomfortable about engaging in an innocuous activity like exercise and having some jerk call attention to you in a sexual way.

The perpetrators of this sort of behavior can be - and are - male or female. Anyone who would suggest that men like these sorts of cat calls from women in any circumstance is sadly mistaken. If there is one thing I would like to convey to women who believe "men don't know what it's like," it's this: some of your fellow females are as big or bigger creeps than the most offensive males.

On the other end of the spectrum, few people can help but feel flattered after receiving the however improbable respectful cat call, especially during a moment when we might feel we are performing at our best. This sort of thing does occur with a given regularity, and while it isn't nearly as potent as it was when I was single, it's still an encouraging thing to hear.

Finally, as my last paragraph implies, all of these cat calls occur on a spectrum across which a mix of good and bad emotions bubble up. Like the bullying experiences I underwent in my early years of running, enduring cat callers is part-and-parcel to being a runner. Feeding the bullies and cat callers has the effect of making things worse for the victim; ignoring them is frustratingly unsatisfying; learning how to handle the compliments without feeling ridiculous is a challenge of its own.

In the end, the best course of action is to grow comfortable within your own skin and embrace the world's imperfections however they may be.

As In Running, So In Life
There is no doubt that learning to run in spite of the bullying, derision, and ridicule shaped my perspective on all other issues.

I had the good fortune to receive a sizable athletic scholarship for running during my university years, which is something that had become a driving force for the running I had done earlier. Somehow I had developed the belief that getting a heavily discounted college education while "everyone else" was stuck flipping burgers to afford their degrees would make all the ridicule worthwhile. There was some truth to that. It was satisfying to be able to channel my energies into something that put me at a distinct advantage to the very peers who had teased me for simply being who I am.

Of course, that scholarship came with its own share of burdens, ones that ultimately proved to detract from the achievement itself. Having my emotional release owned and paid for by a public institution, redeemed at their discretion, robbed me of the kind of internal triumph I often experienced when I had previously left the world behind to challenge myself to an excruciating run through the mountains. These kinds of runs were off-limits. I was being paid to work out in the gym and on the track, not to go for pleasure-hikes in nearby national parks.

This loss of freedom has been known to toy with the mental fortitude of many runners who may not have had to hone their sense of individualism along with their running ability. For me, though, I was able to quickly identify the problem, find the solution, and continue my life-long love affair with the sport of running. Ultimately, this is running's primary benefit.

Yes, we all look ridiculous in our spandex and/or neon clothing. We hear all the time about how "crazy" it is, and how anyone else "would never do that, unless chased, haw haw haw." It's not a fraction as glamorous as a major team sport, and it makes many people feel like hapless clowns.

What it offers in exchange, though, is an opportunity to embrace individualism despite criticism, self-respect despite pervasive mockery, grace under pressure, pride under attack, and an unwavering appreciation for the introspection that develops in response to a kind of solitude that can only be experienced by people who have the courage to put themselves asunder of society by wearing gawky clothing and entering the public domain as a vulnerable object of veneration.

In short, running builds character.