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My dad went to a Division One school on a basketball scholarship. He idolized Wilt Chamberlain and almost never got off the bench for four years. He played basketball until his knees gave out when he was a little bit older than I am now, and then he kept playing it just a little more creakily and with a knee brace on - pick-up games with friends and with me even as I was less and less willing as I got older. Whenever he would walk into a high school gym - which, working in the administration of a high school, was frequently - he would wistfully make the motion of shooting a phantom free-throw from half-court, a long arm’s reach and a neat, careless wrist flick at the end, sending the ball in an imagined perfect arc to the basket, all air, nothing but net. When he lived in New York before I was born, he got his job teaching high school English partly because he could coach the basketball team. According to his own legend of himself, after work and on the weekends he would play pick-up games on the outdoor courts by the West 4th street station, and I imagine this in the saturated and fictional way I imagine all of New York in that era, the color of not quite developed disposable Kodak camera film, grainy and bursting with life. I imagine these games containing a type of joy that in my life I have rarely found an inroad to access, unafraid of people and unafraid of his own body and the two things one and the same, walking tall and sweaty off the court into the summer city, wholly sufficient in himself, every muscle singing.
For a while there it really looked like I was going to be an athlete, too, like the aspiring, air-beloved genetics that my dad carried around were transferring over to me. I was tall and gangly as a kid, all legs and energy, wholly and joyously unaware of my own limits. My dad got to teach me to play basketball, which I wasn’t good at because I was hopelessly uncoordinated, but I was young enough that there was the idea that I would learn to be good, that I had started soon enough, I had time.
My teen and pre-teen years cratered all of these hopes. I was very suddenly unathletic. I still played basketball because in sixth grade I was already 5’10”, but it was at that point fairly clear I was never going to be good at it. The connection I had had with my dad that was us shooting free throws and playing one on one in the high school’s gym on Sunday afternoons disappeared, became inaccessible. My body, previously a site of freedom, made rules and threw up borders. It was a stoppage order; I was an inconvenience to myself, stutteringly unbeautiful, meeting the world in a container that worked actively against my own happiness.
I kept playing basketball. I wasn’t good at it, but I was tall enough that it didn’t matter. It’s good to do things you aren’t good at sometimes, anyway. On occasion I’d get lucky when a game or a practice went right and there would be moments that recalled the weightless joy from when I had been only potential, all air and possibility and speed. At those rarer and rarer times, what I experienced was a sense of my body being wholly on my side, a vehicle for experience. A few years later I learned to drive in San Francisco. My boyfriend, teaching me to drive on the city’s hills, encouraged me to lose control of the car briefly on purpose, to do the very thing I was warned against and most scared of, letting it precariously pick up speed on the descent toward the bottom of a hill and just barely catching it before the stoplight. This is dangerous and bad and no one should ever do it and it feels like the pure idea of freedom, the word sung on a high, privileged, held note. That’s, I think, what being good at one’s own body, what being good at sports in the larger sense of sports, must feel like, that kicked in adrenaline, all the fast air cheering your name. I suppose people who grow up to be actual athletes carry this around their whole lives, or at least until their body betrays them and maybe even after that, because anyone who has ever stayed too late at a party knows we don’t stop celebrating just because we are no longer equipped to, and sometimes that’s when it feels the most like celebration.
Almost every day now, I go to an expensive, polished, shiny gym full of high-vaulting spaces and expensive, polished, shiny equipment. All its locations have massive windows out over whatever part of the city each one occupies. It feels like being in a low-hovering spaceship, insulated into an observer’s role, held apart by long clean panes of glass. The space itself is blank because it’s expensive, and that’s what money pays for, blankness and blamelessness, a room into which consequences do not carry. The gym is a space of hope, but hope in the bleakest way - which is the majority of forms of hope, because most hope is pretty bleak. The gym is the thing that sports grows up into when it settles down, when it stops craving blood in its mouth.
Watching professional sports, people talk about the palpable closeness of death. We want to say we’re concerned and maybe many of us are but at the same time, this is why we showed up and sat down, why the screen or the stadium holds us rapt. Sports exists right up against the skin of living, right where the blood makes noise. The summer before last, on a Saturday afternoon, Thomas and I idly turned the television on to the Olympics as a long distance bike event began, which - because this is how the Olympics on television works - within minutes we cared about as though the riders were our own family. About three-quarters of the way to to the finish line, the route involved a sharp turn on a steep hill in the middle of a jungle and a sickening handful of riders crashed one after another, bike over next bike, the elegance of speed transforming into the disorganization of disaster. Competitors were injured and it looked for a moment uncertain whether a couple of them would make it (they did). It was awful, and we felt like we shouldn’t be watching, but we also couldn’t look away. It was the whole thing-ness of sports, it was the moment where the event became An Olympics. Everybody is the Romans in the arena and everybody’s courting death as though pushing through a sweaty crowd of fans to see a celebrity. One way to deal with being afraid of something is to put yourself up against it, to glut yourself on the facts of it, your body up against the speaker that plays the song about your own decay.
But here at least the physical exertion of one’s body becomes more than just the grinding desire to make oneself more acceptable. Sports bodies are ugly in a relieved, luxurious, decadent way, sprawlingly ugly. The body claws free of presenting itself for grading and judgement. It’s a place where we can cease to chase the goal of making our bodies silent and unnoticed, commentless, blank within clothes. Instead: Look at my body, look at it, it’s screaming.
The gym doesn’t have any of this, or at least it doesn’t want anyone to know that it does. It is one of the most determinedly un-poetic spaces anywhere. It has no larger conclusions, no great lessons. It has been designed specifically against these things. The gym is exactly itself, one’s body playing scales again and again with no intent toward symphonies. It does not encourage metaphor. It’s old rather than young because it’s trying to be careful. Its answer to the fact of the body’s breakability is to be more cautious, to try to intelligently prevent it rather than seeking it out to see if that miraculous capacity to heal will show up once more. After my dad tore his knee apart he started going to the gym and eventually the gym partially and then wholly replaced basketball, the repetitive imitation taking over from the actual thing, caution usurping risk, getting old.
The gym is a mean place because the fact of our own deterioration coming like a train so often turns us mean. Everyone at the gym is trying very hard not to die. Wearing their tight clothes and keeping their headphones in and dropping the weights when they aren’t supposed to drop the weights and waiting their turn for machines and making endless endless repetitive motions and trying not to die. The basic difference between youth and age is the belief in mortality, whether our bodies are a visible weight dragging us back to the awareness of death or whether they are the way in which we believe ourselves to be invincible, a buoyant pull up into the clean air. I am scared of so much more now than I used to be. The gym is a place to go to be afraid.
Imitating Homeric epithets, in Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson gives the example, “an insomniac, outside the joy.” This is the phrase I think of about the fact of living in a body, a lot of the time. Stories about everything from sex to eating vegetables tell us that our bodies should be a source of celebration. But more often lately, I find myself wishing there were somewhere else to store my life, my thoughts, my experience of wonder, my reaction to the way the part of the city between my apartment the park turns green at this time of year and makes me feel like a tourist which is to say it makes me feel reborn, the specific ways I love the people I love and the ways that I am also bitingly jealous of most of them, the memory of all the books and text messages I have ever read, the way I love my husband and want to show him that we are still young, that he has not gotten old, that we have not lost one another, the relief of stepping outside on the first evening when it’s gotten dark without getting cold, the way that my cat putting her small paws on my stomach and curling up to fall asleep has made me a better person, my memories of scarcity and the bright-morning shock of grief, my anger at larger systems and at people I have not seen in years. I wish that I did not have to use this particular meat sack, or any meat sack at all, as the net with which I drag all of this catch behind me from one day into the next.
My body is, nominally, fine. It fits into privileged categories for the most part. I cannot speak on its health with any authority because even now that I have health insurance I am afraid to go to the doctor, but as far as I know it carries no serious health issues. I am already several paces ahead at the starting line. And yet even with the advantages I do have, the very fact of it being the only vehicle with which I get to do any of the parts of life feels cruel and unmanageable more days than it does not, merely because having a body is just such a big ask. That these limbs and appendages and organs might also serve as a vehicle for joy when no other joys are left is something that I have felt fleetingly, and just enough to know that I am missing it, that my body itself is keeping me from it. At times I have found it in sex, in living too hard, in choosing to hurt myself against my own life. The cut-brakes sense of pure freedom, the body transcending the body by way of the body, has sometimes showed up in in the adrenaline of walking very fast when late to something important, in the freshness of grief, the bodypunch of loss, in the sudden snap of cold air on a commuter train platform on the first night when fall suggests winter and breath hangs white clouds in the darkness. I have found it in sweaty days in the city when everyone is too naked and miserable to look like anything at all, and in running outside to take out the trash in a thin t-shirt when it’s freezing, in walking circles around the few blocks of a neighborhood after a hard conversation until the buzz of what I should have said burned off, in the delicacy of navigating cobblestones expertly in teetering stiletto heels.
I was once - I still am, if not quite as much anymore - fascinated with the body’s ability to recover and remake itself, to knit itself whole, this reassuring heavy-handed metaphor we all carry around wherever we go. I wanted to test that out, to make it happen again and again, daring it not to work this time, daring the injuries not to eventually cohere and vanish as though they had never been. Much like sports, though, this sort of thing has an expiration date. I wanted to see if I was breakable and it turned out I was and that adrenal, Olympian thing dissolved once I got to a hurt that was permanent and couldn’t be walked off, that didn’t fade in a few days. The better absence, now, years later, of no longer seeking out wounds, feels lifeless and dull, much the way that sitting in a chair all day to actually get work done adds gravity to my spine and pulls me toward the floor. Outside the joy, un-buoyant, carrying around this dragging thing, the wrong tool for the task. It is hard, and maybe foolish, to try to find that sports-rush, that bloody-mouthed cut brakes freedom, the vivid yelling celebration, as just one more person with a body to preserve in the world.
A lot of writers write about running. I don’t run, but it always sounds like the thing I would do if I were a better person. It seems repetitive in a way that’s noble and I have always been easily susceptible to the quasi-religion of playing scales. It’s a beautiful idea: That a single, unimportant, uninteresting thing done over and over again consistently would gain meaning merely through its persistent repetition, that by doing something every day the same, you could turn it from an errand to a prayer. We are supposed to believe that this is how we transform, not a clap of thunder and a flash of light, but a thousand small imperceptible steps until the mountain is ground down. At its suspicious best, this is what the gym is offering, I suppose. The gospel of incremental change, a system that one has to believe in first in order to make it reveal itself. Belief proceeds proof, promising the miraculous in exchange for an investment of time. The appeal here is also that it’s the opposite of the brain, thoughtless repetition that allows the mind to give up its desperate grip and go blank, fall asleep in the passenger seat on a long stretch of highway. If I just keep doing this, this same action over and over again, one day I will wake up and feel celebration in my body again. If I keep putting my hands in the same place over and over in this same meaningless motion, one day I will get inside the joy. The air will rush in, the car speeding down the hill, the high note of freedom convinced of its own forever.
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