Marathon Man … Interview/Non-Interview: Derrida

Marathon Man

Last fall, Mark Nearenberg, a 42-year-old lawyer, suddenly decided to run in the New York City Marathon, even though he was out of shape and hadn’t trained seriously since high school.

Predictably, during the eighth mile, Mr. Nearenberg’s knee blew out. He stopped for 20 minutes while a doctor checked him out, and walked the next 17 miles. He clocked in at five hours and 50 minutes, which put him in approximately 30,000th place.

On Nov. 5, Mr. Nearenberg will give it another shot. But this year is going to be different. This year, Mr. Nearenberg is even less prepared. In March, Mr. Nearenberg stopped watching his diet and started eating everything he could get his hands on. He said he hasn’t run seriously since. He packed on 20 pounds and developed an enormous gut.

Mr. Nearenberg made one concession to proper training: He would run in a mini-marathon. The night before that was to take place, Mr. Nearenberg was preparing by drinking Sam Adams and eating mozzarella sticks at Dorrian’s Red Hand on the Upper East Side.

“At this weight, it’s very difficult to train because I have no wind and my knees hurt,” he said. “I’m really too overweight to run. I just eat everything. The key is just sugar. Häagen Dazs ice cream. Pizza is a staple. Bagels every morning, cream cheese. I’ll buy cookies. Desserts. That kind of thing, chips. Any type of chip, any type of Doritos.”

He was wearing a black polo shirt buttoned all the way up, blue jeans and black Rockports. He stood to reveal his great belly. “I look like I’m six months pregnant,” he said. “I’m probably in the worst shape I’ve been in my entire life. I am the heaviest I’ve been, and as far as my legs are concerned, my knees are not in bad shape because I haven’t been running. So at this point, it’s a matter of my wind–which means that this race is going to be run very, very slowly.”

Steve, Mr. Nearenberg’s hypochondriac cousin, predicted that he would drop dead–and that’s not out of the question. “It’s about the same chance of me being assassinated by Arab terrorists,” Mr. Nearenberg said. “It’s small. Can’t rule it out.”

Mr. Nearenberg grew up in Manhasset Hills on Long Island. He went to Vanderbilt and studied law at Cardozo. His heart wasn’t in it, though. He moved to California and tried to break into the entertainment industry, but that didn’t happen. He had a mid-life crisis at 29 and started losing his hair. He returned to New York to practice law, but he wasn’t happy about it.

“Listen, I could have become a personal-injury lawyer with friends of mine years ago and been very rich,” he said. “I don’t want to do that. I didn’t want to work for a big firm; I didn’t want to work for a small firm; I didn’t want to be a lawyer; I didn’t want to work as an attorney.” Even so, Mr. Nearenberg says his one-man firm is the best–and the only honest–law firm in New York; he says he’s only lost one case.

Mr. Nearenberg hasn’t made a lot of money, and he has about as much success with women as he does with marathons. “When it comes to dating and relationships, I have a very negative spin,” he said. “Because things didn’t work out for me, which is my own fault. I just made a lot of stupid mistakes. I mean, it’s not a mystery as to what I did wrong; the mystery is, at this point now, what to do correctly. I’m just kind of at a loss. I mean, most people expect a 42-year-old lawyer to be extremely wealthy and settled, and I’m not. That’s what makes me different. I may be the only poor 42-year-old lawyer in New York.”

Just before the marathon last year, Mr. Nearenberg was seeing a woman. “She wasn’t very pretty, but she was a millionaire,” he said, gesturing with a mozzarella stick in his hand. “She was very, very hypersensitive, because she was a boss and she had a boss’ mentality. Here’s this woman worth 50 million bucks; she’s got a coffee table in her apartment that cost over $4,000. A coffee table!”

They broke it off because she couldn’t take Mr. Nearenberg’s critical comments and jokes. Like the time he insulted her Italian leather coat. “I’d tease her,” he said. “‘What’s with that coat? Is that a hand-me-down from your brother? It looks a little big.’ She was furious.”

This year, Mr. Nearenberg believes he’ll do better in the marathon. “The psychological training is very simple,” he said. “You did it before; you can do it again. You keep saying that to yourself. You run until you can’t possibly run any more, and then you keep running. In my mind, the point is even in the face of adversity.… Not being properly trained, it will be more difficult, more of a challenge for me to run, and instead of wimping out and saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it next year when I’m better conditioned,’ I’m accepting it now under even more arduous circumstances.”

–George Gurley

Interview/Non-Interview: Derrida

You hardly need an excuse to honor Jacques Derrida, the father of post-structuralism and author of Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology , but just in case, New York University renamed October “Derrida Month.”

There was a symposium called “Derrida and His Non-Contemporaries,” a screening of the documentary D’Ailleurs Derrida (which means both “from elsewhere Derrida” and “Derrida as a matter of fact”) and an exhibition of Derrida-inspired art. (One installation by Lien-Chen Lin, called Chi , featured condoms filled with water, suspended like big raindrops over plaster penises.) It all concluded with a John Zorn concert at Tonic on Oct. 26.

When contacted on the phone at his New York apartment, however, Mr. Derrida did not want to talk about his month … or anything else.

Mr. Derrida, what have you been doing in New York?

“You mean, like what restaurants did I go to?” Mr. Derrida said. “I do not think that is relevant. Everything I have to say I have already said in my lectures and in my books. I’m sorry. There will be no interview. Allez !”

–Ian Blecher

The Writer Within

When South African writer and actress Pamela Gien was growing up in the suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1970′s, her grandfather was murdered on his farm by a man thought to be a Rhodesian freedom fighter. Her family stopped going to the farm, and Ms. Gien put the memory into a corner of her mind. “It was such a sad thing,” she said. “We never talked about it. Never went back. That whole time was just lost to us.”

Ms. Gien left South Africa after graduating from college, ultimately moving to the United States to pursue an acting career, among other reasons. “I found it unbearable there and I thought that, at a certain level, I couldn’t change things,” Ms. Gien said. “I felt either you could close your eyes to what was going on around you or you could actively work to change it–or you could leave. There was part of me that just couldn’t come to terms with the situation there. So I just shut that part of my life away. I didn’t want to talk about it that much.”

Ms. Gien found success in the United States. She appeared in David Mamet’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya opposite Christopher Walken, and in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore opposite Derek Smith. But her real breakthrough came one day during an exercise in an acting class, when Ms. Gien reconnected with her past and, in the process, discovered a talent she never knew she had.

Asked to tell a story, any story, for her class, Ms. Gien told of the events that were to shape The Syringa Tree , her moving one-woman show at Playhouse 91, in which she plays 28 characters. The play weaves together the story of Ms. Gien’s grandfather’s death with another story about a missing child.

Although Ms. Gien had never written anything before and certainly never considered herself a writer, once she started, she just couldn’t stop. She completed the first draft of The Syringa Tree in six weeks. She’s already working on her next play. “It just poured out,” Ms. Gien said. “I didn’t know I had anything to say until I started to write. I was astonished, actually. Maybe it’s just that at a certain time in one’s life one’s ready to do something, and one is not ready before that.”

–William Berlind