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Saturday, March 31, 2012

One reason not to dislike Michelle Obama

Two days ago it was announced that Michelle Obama would appear on The Biggest Loser, a television show about obese people trying to lose weight:

All First Ladies adopt pet causes, and Obama has chosen eating right and exercising as hers.

You sometimes hear people criticize her for violating her own eating guidelines. People occasionally express sentiments like, who does she think she is to be telling us what to eat and what to do? Some have tried to characterize her cause as symptomatic of the Democrats' attempt to turn our country into a nanny state. A few make snippy comments about the way she likes to show off her toned arms, or about the way she often seems to indulge in ribs or hamburgers herself.

But a third of Americans are obese, and another third are overweight. The incidence of diabetes is way up, and there are plenty of other health consequences to carrying too much fat. To try to rally people to eat right and exercise is a good cause, and also a nonpartisan one.

If you criticize Michelle Obama for this, your dislike of her comes off as reflexive and unthinking. There are many far better reasons for disliking the First Lady and her husband.

Don't use this one, unless you want to come across as prejudiced and full of bile.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On being a sports fan

A friend, Dave Moriarty, like me, has never outgrown his chosen sport (in his case, baseball). I asked yesterday if he'd heard about a certain older player who had just been signed by a major league team, and he said yes. I said that I should have realized he'd be way ahead of me on that one.

He replied:

The truth is, I don't follow the major leagues as avidly as you might guess. I rarely watch games on TV. I read some newspaper articles, mostly highlights, but don't pore over box scores. So it's a pretty shallow pool I swim in (I figure you can relate to that metaphor.)

I'm more interested in my own playing than that of a bunch of people I'll never meet. I do get to one or two games a season, but it's either a social occasion or with Shea as a father son bonding experience.

I peek at Yahoo Sports to stay somewhat abreast, but there are plenty of people -- these fantasy players in particular -- who absorb every piece of information they can. There are many teams I couldn't name a single player on, and that's fine with me.

I'd like to say I have Dave's healthy attitude. But I don't -- I'm more like one of those fantasy baseball players. I pore over swimming results with great relish, marvel at outstanding performances, and try to figure out who's going to win at the Olympics this summer. I follow swimming as obsessively as some follow the stock market, or the Presidential election, or other things that actually matter.

I know I'm not alone in this. There are legions of fans who follow their sports fanatically. ("Fanatic" is the root of the word "fan.") I'm not one of those who identify with and root for certain athletes or teams; but I do know an embarrassing amount about them.

It's almost as if I have no choice in the matter. I suppose I could go cold turkey. But I won't, since it's not a matter or life or death.

If anyone does know of a cure for this disease, though, please let me know. I'm sure I'd be better off not wasting the time I do being a fan(atic).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why endorse Romney now?

Last night Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, endorsed Mitt Romney for President. This endorsement came on the heels of an announcement that George H.W. Bush (the Elder) is going to endorse Romney as well.

Now that Romney has all but clinched the Republican nomination, what is the value of endorsing him now? To convince him that you were with him all along?

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey endorsed him back when the outcome was still uncertain, when to do so was to risk being excluded from a possible Gingrich or Santorum administration.

But now? What's the point?

Rubio of course has had great incentive to wait and then go with the winner, as his is the name most often mentioned as a Vice Presidential pick. But for the other latecomers, backing Romney seems to show a certain lack of courage. And a certain pointlessness.

In the same spirit, I hereby boldly predict that Barack Obama will win the Presidency in 2008.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The real "Wedding Crashers"

Maybe Hollywood can write a story about this obvious sociopath.

They can gloss over the fake credit card, the bad checks, the fraudulent bank accounts, the impersonations, the desperate social-climbing, and the falling asleep at fancy parties (sociopaths are so relaxed they can do that).

And they can make him seem charming, sympathetic, and underneath it all, a very decent fellow.

That is, after all, what Hollywood normally does with con men.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Those damn microphones will get you every time

By now most people have heard of Barack Obama's classic gaffe:

His crucial, revelatory line regarding The United States' missile defense capability was, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."

There's really no editorial comment necessary here.

But I do want to make one prediction: The New York Times, which would make any such gaffe by a Republican front page news, will bury this story tomorrow.

Addendum, next day: the Times did put a picture of Obama and Medvedev on the front page, but seemed to make light of the story with the caption "For You Alone (and to All the Ships at Sea)"; they put the explanation on page A14.

Old scores

Coach McLachlin:

I'm just writing to let you know what a huge error you made in not putting me on the starting five at Punahou. You never considered me varsity material, but guess what? I now play basketball with NBA stars.

You may not believe me, but I regularly have top NBA players like Joaquim Noah and Carmelo Anthony over to my crib. And every time they visit, we have a pickup game. The last time those guys were here, I scored 28 points on them in a 3 on 3 match.

I know what you're thinking, that they're just letting me score on them because I'm President. Well, that's what I thought at first, too. But I've asked them about that any number of times, and every single time they've sworn it's not the case.

Just the other day Lebron told me I guard him better than some of the guys in the NBA. That's Lebron James, as in the Lebron!

I feel strongly that I could have been another Jeremy Lin, if only you hadn't held me back. You've probably been following the Lin story. Well, he had the same problem that I had: coaches who didn't realize his potential, who didn't realize what leadership he could show as a point guard. But eventually he got a coach who was smart, who saw his potential. I never did.

I don't think I need to tell you the kind of leadership I've shown elsewhere. It's high time you admitted you screwed up. That's all I want to hear, for you admit that you should have started me. I never got enough playing time.

You just never gave me a chance. If only you had, I could have gotten a basketball scholarship to college and then gone on to a career in the NBA.

It still makes me furious to think that you made me a bench warmer. Coach McLachlin, I play with NBA stars now!

Just a little word of warning. I have power, you know. And if I don't think someone is doing their job wright, I can do something about it. I fired the President of General Motors. I can fire basketball coaches too. Bear that in mind.

Yours Truly,
Barack Obama
44th President of the United States

Friday, March 23, 2012

Taking offense

How often have you witnessed people pull themselves up to their full height, and say, in the most haughty, tremulous tones they can summon, "I find that statement really offensive!" 

That pronouncement has two basic translations. The first is, "I am an extremely politically correct thinker, in fact I am SO correct that I can't even countenance this trespass on a cherished illusion."

The second is, "If I could slice and dice your statement to make you look foolish, believe me, I'd do it. But since I lack the intellectual firepower to do so, instead I'm going to resort to this tired old formulation in hopes that you're intimidated enough by the power of political correctness to back off and suspend all critical thought."

The appropriate response whenever someone tells you they're offended is, of course, "So what?"

But since they most likely won't get that, you probably want to explain this way:

"Okay, I'm very impressed by your refined sensibilities. But honestly, I'd be more interested in hearing an intelligent rebuttal. Or are you going to just continue to posture and act outraged?"

Then add, "Guess I've hit a nerve. If I'd said something ridiculous, for instance, that the earth is flat, you'd never have acted all offended. You'd have laughed and made fun of my faulty logic. I challenge you to do that now."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Humor now banned

At a recent Obama fundraiser, Robert DeNiro got up on stage and joked, "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you think the country is really ready for a white First Lady?"

As jokes go, it was pretty mild, a gentle parody of what some undoubtedly suggested four years ago about the country not being ready for a black First Lady.

Nonetheless, Newt Gingrich, that paragon of moral rectitude, immediately demanded an apology from DeNiro.

Pathetically enough, DeNiro gave one:  "My remarks, although spoken with satirical jest, were not meant to offend or embarrass anyone, especially the First Lady."

The only thing even mildly off-putting about DeNiro's comments was that his apology seemed directed to Michelle Obama, when his joke seemed aimed at the other three women.

This minor flap is of course an outgrowth of the brouhaha over Rush Limbaugh's having referred to law student Sandra Fluke as a slut. Limbaugh was not seriously trying to impugn Fluke's sexual character; he was just engaging in his usual hyperbole to make a point about ObamaCare.

But ever since, both parties have engaged in an escalating war of primness and prudishness.

It's been gratifying to see the Democrats' hypocrisy (vis-a-vis Bill Maher) exposed. But Democratic hypocrisy has been exposed so many times before, to absolutely no effect. So it's safe to say that no good has come of this.

America, or at least American politics, has returned to its Puritan roots.

And we no longer have the right to laugh at India for its sacred cows.

In fact, we no longer have the right to laugh at anybody -- someone might take offense.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Self-improvement vs. consumption

People can be divided into two groups: those into self-improvement, and those into consumption.

The former make an effort to read and learn about new things. They try to use their time efficiently, and eat healthily. They set goals, and try hard to reach them. They also enjoy competition, and testing themselves in various ways. Even when they don't enjoy it, they may test themselves just for the challenge.

The latter love vacations, parties, nice clothes, expensive cars, well-appointed homes, jewelry, fancy meals, fine wines, boxes of bonbons, etc. They measure their lives by what they have, as opposed to what they are.

Even the two types have a goal in common, they go about attaining it differently. The former try to lose weight through exercise and diet. The latter, via liposuction. The former make money by working for it. The latter, by marrying it.

There's not much overlap.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Confessions of a beta male XV: regrets

An alpha's brain is constructed so that as soon as one activity ends, it's on to the next distraction. Mine is constructed to be a slow motion replay machine, always analyzing what just happened, with regrets the inevitable byproduct. I have no more choice in this matter than a VCR has about being a VCR.

Alphas have that most adaptive of traits: a lousy memory. When they say, oh yeah, I honestly forgot all about that -- they're often actually being honest. I only wish I could forget.

If an alpha screws up, he shrugs and forgets about it by the next day. I still wince over stupid things I did as a teenager.

An alpha buys a nice car and enjoys it. I can't help but wonder if it was worth the money, what the purchase says about me, and how expensive it will be to maintain.

If things don't go an alpha's way, he just thinks, I'll get 'em next time. I know better: that was my last chance, there will never be a next time.

I rehash conversations, performances, everything I ever do. An alpha mostly just second guesses other people.

Alphas do makes mistakes. They go to the wrong school, pursue the wrong career path, date the wrong women, choose the wrong friends. They just don't agonize about it afterward. It's a wonder I have any teeth left after all the gnashing I've done.

You often hear that the unexamined life is not worth living. My experience has been that the overly examined one isn't either.

To be "introspective" means to look within, to inspect one's own interior. Do too much of this and you'll feel you're in a jail cell.

Alphas can employ pat little euphemisms and trite sayings which justify and excuse and explain and mollify. I am filled with envy at their ability to do so.

Alphas can laugh something off as being a learning experience. Whenever I hear that, I think, what did I learn that I haven't already been taught a hundred times before?

Alphas tend to look back and say, I wouldn't change a thing. Their lives are suffused with a rich contentment. I can't think of a single thing I wouldn't have done at least a little differently.

An alpha knows he will die eventually, but he still feels immortal. He feels confident that life will extend second chances. I feel my mortality every hour of every day.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Goldman guy

In the past 24 hours there's been a lot of publicity about Greg Smith's opinion piece in the NY Times yesterday about why he's leaving Goldman Sachs:

This guy started out awfully naive if he ever thought that Goldman was about anything other than making money. No one ever goes to Wall Street for any reason other than to get rich.

That noble-sounding saying about Goldman putting its clients first is a clever way to attract and retain business, but that's all it is: a pretty motto for public consumption.

Back when I was there, from 1984 to 1996, another of the firm's mantras was, "Be long term greedy rather than short term greedy." But I never saw evidence of anybody doing anything other than doing what was best for Goldman (and thus themselves), whether short term or long.

Another thing we'd constantly hear internally was how Goldman prized teamwork and wanted only team players. But the people who did best there -- as is true across corporate America -- were those most skilled at backstabbing and other forms of corporate gamesmanship: the opposite of team players.

Despite what Greg Smith has suggested, the character of the firm has not changed. It used to be, is, and always will be, about making as much money as possible.

Goldman used to get far better publicity than it deserved. Back in the 80's and 90's, from the way the press talked about the firm, you'd have thought its employees were a group of extraordinarily smart people who wanted nothing more than to make sure that Wall Street conducted itself honorably. I always had a hard time reconciling the place I read about to the place I worked. (Full disclosure: I did not go there out of a sense of public service myself.)

These days, however, the firm probably gets worse publicity than it deserves, mostly because of its success and influence. Trust me, every other financial firm on the Street would love nothing more than to be a great big vampire squid wrapped around the face of America and jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. If they could only figure out how.

From a moral standpoint, Goldman is really no worse than any other financial institution. This isn't setting the bar high, but what do you expect? That people pursue careers at Citigroup or Deutsche Bank or Morgan Stanley or Goldman because there are no openings at the Peace Corps?

To believe that you'd have to be as naive as Greg Smith.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Unanswered questions Part V

The Huffington Post has produced another round of mugshots which raise more questions than they answer. (Italics mine.)

Jason Engel, 21, of Pittsburgh, was arrested after he skipped a court hearing on charges that he stole $400 from a 2-year-old's piggy bank.

Is it possible to sink any lower than that? If Jason goes to jail, do you think the other inmates will take a dim view of his crime? How will they express that view? And how enterprising must that 2-year-old have been to earn so much money? Doesn't your own two-year-old seem a bit feckless by comparison?

Matthew Ibarria, a fugitive from Florida wanted for allegedly attacking a relative, was arrested after jumping naked from a car in Georgia. This dashboard video from a Kingsland Police Department vehicle allegedly shows him running away.

Why did they feel the need to insert an "alleged"? Isn't he pretty clearly running away? Did Mr. Ibarria think that a lack of identifiable clothing would make him unidentifiable? Doesn't going for a drive with no clothing demonstrate a certain lack of planning?

Jacob Lee Bovia is facing real indecent exposure charges for exposing his fake genitalia to a group of women on Maryland's Anne Arundel Community College campus.

Is waving a prosthetic around really a crime? Wouldn't most coeds just laugh as soon as they realized that Jacob's "penis" was only a rubber toy? What was he doing, lying in wait outside a NOW meeting?

Former Elvis impersonator Michael Conley blamed his diabetes for starting a standoff with Florida police, in which he threatened to use a weapon of mass destruction against them. He allegedly held up a vial of what he called Ricin -- a highly potent toxin -- as he barricaded himself in a motel in February, 2012. He was arrested about four hours later.

Do former Elvis impersonators feel obliged to get fat the way Elvis did? If so, can Mr. Conley blame the King for his diabetes? Should Muslims publicize this incident in order to show that they are not the only terrorists around?

Barker called 911 repeatedly in Hudson, Fla. asking them to fetch him a taxi and saying that he lost his football. Cops arrested him for allegedly misusing the emergency system on Feb. 20, 2012.

Does Mr. Barker not look like a kid who just lost his ball? Or did he think that by scrunching up his face he would be unrecognizable? And why wouldn't the cops help him look for his lost ball? (They might have found his marbles while they were at it.)

Those who attempt to arrest Mark Loescher have their work cut out for them. When he was arrested for assault, he not only told officers that he was Elvis Presley's brother, a friend of President Bush, and director of the CIA, but he was also half-orangutan.

If Mr. Loescher believes that he is the director of the CIA, does he at least accept blame for the current mess in Afghanistan? And if he is half orangutan, doesn't that mean that Elvis was as well? Was it their father or mother who was the orang? Does it seem sporting for the Huffington Post to mock the ravings of a schizophrenic off his meds? Is it hypocritical for me to criticize them when I am doing the same? Should Mr. Loescher be used as a cautionary tale about what happens when you skip your meds?

A Martin County sheriff's deputy in Florida arrested Ramon Blair, 28, based on tips from informants that Blair would have hundreds of dollars of crack cocaine "on his person." An initial search turned no results, but a more thorough search while in custody revealed that Blair had hidden the crack in, well, his crack. Blair was told to undress, squat, and cough -- and police found what appeared to be a white piece of paper in his buttocks, which contained crack cocaine.

Who was the lucky sheriff who got to search for that cocaine? How heated was the argument at the station house about who would be assigned that task? In corporate American, there is an expression: shit flows downhill. Does that apply here? And Ramon looks like such a nice guy -- who would ever want to inform on him?

Portland, Ore. couple Nikolas Harbar and Stephanie Pelzner were arrested on Valentine's Day, 2012 after Harbar allegedly bound his naked girlfriend and threw her in the back of a car -- in the pursuit of a sexy role-play romp. Cops, after a long search, found that Pelzner wasn't a kidnapping victim, but that both were disorderly conduct suspects.

How funny would it have been if Ms. Pelzner had claimed that she was in fact an unwilling kidnap victim? And why did the cops have to conduct a "long search" of the naked Ms. Pelzner in order to find that out? Did the cops argue over who got to conduct that search as well?

Misty Lawson, 30, a self-described "professional baby maker" on her Facebook page, allegedly punched her son in the face and body several times during an in-home, state-mandated anger management course.

Does that picture not look like an advertisement for a porn movie? ("Stripper Nurses from Hell"?) Doesn't Misty look as if she could be a lot of fun -- if you happen to catch her in the right mood? Should her anger management school have its license revoked? Do all professional baby makers resent their own product so much? 

He had a real sweet tooth. Cops say they found 22-year-old Andrew Toothman lying down inside Kentucky Food World IGA market on Feb. 2, completely covered in chocolate and peanut butter. He'd also allegedly written "Sorry" in NyQuil on the floor.

Why would Mr. Toothman not just steal the sweets and enjoy them at home? Given how much he loves sugar, wouldn't you expect him to be a little fatter? How fat will he be in twenty years? Will the judge go easier on him because he has expressed remorse?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Clay Pigeons

Found myself watching one of my favorite movies on Youtube last night. Clay Pigeons has two well drawn sociopaths, and is also sexy and slyly humorous. It features beautiful western scenery. And it has a great, wide-ranging soundtrack.

The movie features early Vince Vaughn, before he became famous, before he began sleepwalking his way through all his roles. It makes you realize he could have been a great actor, if he hadn't become part of that Ben Stiller-Owen Wilson-Will Ferrell nexus who are in every other comedy of the past decade.

Joaquin Phoenix is excellent in his role, Georgina Cates is wonderfully evil and sexy. The only discordant note is the always annoying Janeane Garofalo, miscast here as an FBI agent. But even her aggressively feminist "sophistication" provides a useful contrast late in the film.

Here is the Youtube version.

Monday, March 5, 2012

True Grit

I don't like the Coen brothers, don't like Westerns, and have never been a Jeff Bridges fan, so didn't see the remake of True Grit when it was in the theaters. But my brother brought the DVD by this weekend, and we saw it last night. It was great.

The Coen brothers have basically made a career out of regarding WASPS as a strange, alien species whose habits and mannerisms are to be examined with a mix of condescension and horror. In a typical Coen movie, brutal Anglo simpletons commit crimes which have unforeseen consequences. This was the basic plot of Blood SimpleFargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, and The Ladykillers. All of these movies are populated with bumpkins and hayseeds and con men, most of whom speak with exaggerated Midwestern or Southern accents.

Burn After Reading mocked a more upscale brand of WASP (the kind who went to Yale and works for the CIA), as well as more downscale ones. The scene with the tuxedo-clad middle-aged men toasting each other and singing Whiffenpoof-style, and the scenes with Brad Pitt as a gym employee mindlessly dancing stood out.

Recently, however, the Coen brothers seem to have softened their view of the goyim. No Country for Old Men, made in 2007, featured a semi-sympathetic Western protagonist in Josh Brolin and a completely sympathetic one in Tommy Lee Jones.

True Grit is actually a paean to WASPs. The young girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld, is prim and self-righteous, but her defining traits are her resolve and fortitude. Jeff Bridges plays the John Wayne role, Rooster Cogburn, arguably the hero of the piece. He manages to imitate Wayne, out-gruff him, and throw in a little Lee Marvin (from Cat Ballou) while he's at it. It's a masterful (if slightly overdone) performance. Matt Damon is great as always as a Texas Ranger and former Confederate soldier who seems a bit taken with himself, but also proves noble in the end. Josh Brolin, to his credit, doesn't overplay the bad guy role, which would have been easy to do.

The rest of the cast are colorful dimwits of the type traditionally favored by the Coens, but the main characters are given such great lines that I found myself straining to make sure I heard every one, some of which were hard to make out through the accents. The effort was worth it, though, as the straightforward cleverness with which they lacerated each other was worthy of Elmore Leonard.

In the end, of course, it's not ethnic attitudes that make a movie good or bad -- as interesting as those are to note. It's plot, acting, and dialogue. All three are excellent here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Critics vs. movie-goers

Saw The Artist last night. It won Best Picture and four other Oscars, and starred Berenice Bejo, so I was curious. It was good; I certainly don't regret seeing it. But I also didn't think it quite as good as advertised. The movie highlights the difference between the way the critics -- or Academy voters -- see a movie, and the way the average movie-goer does.

Critics tend to like anything that's different, like recreating a silent black and white film. Audiences figure, hey, there's a reason they shifted to talkies, and to color.

Critics like movies about movies. And a movie -- like The Artist, which actually shows movie review headlines -- makes them feel important. This sort of incestuousness doesn't interest audiences, who only want to know about filmmakers if it's juicy gossip.

Critics like stylized movies. Audiences just want entertainment.

Critics like good acting. Audiences like good-looking stars; if they can act, that's a plus.

Audiences don't mind having their desires aroused; critics feel only intellectualized lust.

Male audiences like a manly hero to identify with. Critics consider too much testosterone an affront to their sensibilities.

Audiences look at Arnold Schwarzenegger and expect excitement. Critics look up at the screen and think, why is my job forcing to watch that moron again?

Critics care mostly about execution, and message. Audiences like cool, and funny, and inspirational.

Audiences like excitement, and big plots; to critics, "blockbuster" is a dirty word.

Audiences don't mind being emotionally manipulated. Critics resent it.

Audiences like impact; critics prefer subtlety. (Which do you prefer: a mocha grande or some precious European coffee served in a demitasse?)

Critics adore foreign films featuring unknown actors; audiences find subtitles annoying.

The average movie-goers isn't overly concerned with how his choice of movies reflects on him. Reading between the lines, it's fairly obvious most critics would hate to be thought unsophisticated in any way.

Movie-goers like emotionally satisfying endings, with all the loose ends neatly tied up and everybody getting their just desserts. Critics don't mind uncertainty; ambiguity seems to satisfy their sense of perversity.

Audiences are mostly well adjusted; critics favor neurosis.

All that said, The Artist was still an enjoyable film. It's just that it would have been better in color, with spoken dialogue, and maybe a car chase scene or two.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Davy Jones, RIP

Can't say I felt the usual nothing when I heard that Davy Jones, 66, had died of a massive heart attack yesterday.

I remember the Monkees from 1966, when I was 12 years old. I had a couple of their albums, and actually liked some of their songs. I hadn't heard -- or thought -- much about Jones since the 1960's, so hearing of his death really brought me back to a long ago time.

The Monkees were the first of the faux boy bands, a precursor to Menudo and the Backstreet Boys. All of these groups were cast for their potential appeal to tween girls, who prefer androgynous types to masculine men.

Even at 20, the 5' 3" Jones looked more like a cute 13-year-old:

Jones evidently made a living later with oldies nostalgia tours. He basically spent the rest of his life capitalizing on his cuteness at age 20.

Maybe that's how Justin Bieber will be making a living 40 years from now. (Why not?)

In any case, it was a little bit of a shock to hear that Jones had died. It felt as if a small part of my childhood had died.

A few observations

Isn't it interesting how the people who are wrong most often are precisely those least willing to admit error?

Isn't it amazing how those who need most to be in control of other people are always those with the least self control? Think of the people you know who always have to boss others around, always have to get their way. Don't they seem to have almost no control over their own tempers, their own appetites, their own spending, and their own egos?

Isn't it remarkable how the biggest hypocrites are never bothered by their own hypocrisy?

And isn't it stupefying that all three of those paradoxes will often find a home in the same person?

Then again, perhaps none of these things should be surprising. If you're unwilling to learn from your errors, you're condemned to always being wrong. If you have no self control, like a child, you're far more likely to act like a spoiled five year old, demanding that everyone else do your bidding. And if you were bothered by your own hypocrisy, you would stop being a hypocrite.

In any case, when you meet someone like this, turn around and run as far as you can, as fast as you can. Don't stop until you're completely out of breath.

Then, once you catch your breath, run even further.