Ben Tanzer’s 99 Problems

May 26th, 2011 in Articles by 0 Comments


Ben Tanzer 99 Problems

Ben Tanzer is a staple on Chicago’s underground (and aboveground) literary scene. He’s also a compulsive runner and makes no attempt to hide the ways in which his daily running influences his daily writing. His latest novel, You Can Make Him Like You, is just weeks old – but before Make Him Like You dropped, Tanzer published a picturesque set of essays about the beauty and the madness that drives us to lace up the shoes every day. The first of these essays is below. We are just pleased as punch that he’s a fan of our little site; expect to see more from Tanzer here soon.

99 Problems
Chicago, IL
December 2009

Heel to toe. Heel to toe. Rinse. Repeat.

It is the first snowfall of the year. I always run on the first snowfall of the year. No treadmills. No shame.

Loosen the wrists. Unclench the fists. Shake them out. The kids have been dropped off at school. How do the legs feel? Fatigued? Tight? Loose? What? Work beckons, but not yet. How does the right knee feel? Arthritis is a motherfucker.

Head up Sedgwick, past Dominicks and the corral where the animals from the Noble Horse Theater run in the morning. Regulate your breathing. In. Out. Steady. Steady. Cross over North Avenue, avoid the morning traffic and roll past Twin Anchors. When is the last time I had ribs? Good ribs? Adjust volume on iPod. Jerry Band. Nice.

Stanley’s is now behind me as I cross Armitage. This hat is not ideal for the cold weather. It’s all cotton. No whisking, just sweat and chills. Some buildings have already shoveled their sidewalks, others have thrown down mounds of salt, and the crystals are nipping at my ankles.

I veer east off of Clark and into Lincoln Park. I head across the path that parallels the petting zoo and dive into the park. It is 39 degrees and while not technically appropriate for the shorts I’m wearing, I am enjoying the cold windless air enveloping my legs like a blanket that has sat too long by the window.

I descend into the park and turn south onto the tree-lined path that runs to the Ben Franklin statue. The branches that arch into a canopy high above are alternately foreboding and protective, depending on the season and the amount of foliage. The leaves are all gone now and the trees look like skeletons, which makes me think about The Shining.

The Beastie Boys come on. It’s “Girls” from License to Ill. This is good. I am not tired or sore – in fact, I feel loose as I head into the final stretch of park. Still, a shot of Beasties can’t help but boost the endorphins already swimming around in my bloodstream. I run through the tunnel under LaSalle. During the summer the cobwebs collect here in epic fashion, and during the winter the homeless sleep here, shivering under the discarded items they use for their beds.

I feel the sweat starting to pool on my back, chest and armpits. My hat and boxer briefs are saturated as well. I will feel chilled the moment I stop, despite the presence of the sun now bearing down on my sweaty brow. “99 Problems” by Jay-Z comes on as I coast down the last half-block towards home, and I can’t help but smile. This is a good way to finish a run. So is catching a big fat snowflake on my tongue on my first attempt, Karate Kid style.

The challenge I have been ruminating on lately is how to not just write about running, but on how writing and running intersect. Running produces a means for escaping mental clutter, which most of the time allows for processing ideas and untangling the kinks that slow the evolution of any story. But how to write about this?

I have been thinking that I would pen one long essay about it all, touching on my obsessions, about running being both a compulsion and a solution to managing compulsions. I will tell anecdotes. I will talk about sex. I will be funny. I will explore how running makes writing possible. But it just isn’t working. I can’t get a handle on the language or flow, and I am not excited about the clunky manuscript that is vaguely emerging.

For motivation, I decide to read Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I find that the pieces are less about the writing/running relationship than about the pure act of running itself, in all its metaphysical and quotidian awesomeness. It is comprised of a series of essays about the running life, written at different times in different places around the planet, and it’s beautifully done. It is a book that I would have killed for when I was a kid, when books about running were few and far between, unless you were interested in training books, which I was not. I wanted art and excitement. I wanted something that spoke to me about the one thing outside of reading that I care about more than anything in the world. Such a thing didn’t exist then, but it does now. Can I use it?

It’s cool as I fly along the lakefront channeling Murakami, and his words slowly begin to form ideas in my head, quietly emerging from the morass. They are still unformed, but there is something there; not a single essay, not anything academic, but something for sure.

After the run I have drinks with my publisher. For months now he has been waiting patiently for this new book, and wants to know my plan. There’s a moment where I don’t know what to say, but then I think about my run not two hours before and I know what I want to do.

Like Murakami, I say, I am going to write essays framed around different runs in different places across the US, and like Murakami I am going to touch on my past where needed. But unlike Murakami, I am not only going to delve into my compulsions about running, but I am going to write about whatever fiction project I am working on that day as well, and whatever I’m thinking about during that run that’s influencing that project.

–Good, he says, taking a long drink of his Guinness. –That works. Now when are you going to start?

–Next week, I say. –I promise.

It is next week. And today I begin writing, the first hurdle now untangled.


Ben Tanzer is the author of the books 99 Problems and You Can Make Him Like You, among others. Tanzer is a lifelong runner who has completed four marathons and placed third in his age group at the 2010 Wrigley Start Early Run 5K, an accomplishment of grand proportions, though not quite as grand as his victory at age 12 in the 800 meter finals of the 1981 Southern Tier Athletic Championships – something he remains way too excited about. You can find him online at


Author: FasterThanForty

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