Life of the Body

I seem to have spent a lot of time in this blog talking about my thinking and my writing, and aside from touching on basketball a bit, I haven’t said much about the physical side of my life. One might get the impression that I’m some kind of cerebral bookworm, but I’m not. I may be no Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist whose training schedule was such that he’d leave his friends at the bar at 1 am to go home and hit the weights if he hadn’t gotten his workout in yet that day. But I did play sports throughout and went to the gym two or three times a week for most of my life. And those experiences had a profound effect on my writing, as I hope to give you a taste of here.

I should start by saying that I have no natural athletic gifts, never threw a ball til I was nine years old, and was graced with what some called a “swimmer’s body” all my life—six feet tall and around 170 pounds. Starting in seventh grade, when I went out for football, basketball and baseball, I had to compete with guys typically bigger and stronger than me. One or two along the way seemed to think it was their business to try to make me feel less of a “man” than they were. You’d think this would have stopped after high school, but it never really did. Thus, as I said in another post about basketball, I had to struggle to “stay in the game.” And as I also said, I wasn’t a bad player—and that applies to other sports I played as well.

Why was this such a lifelong thing? Was I hard to get along with? Strange? Uncooperative? Condescending? Though I can’t be sure how others saw me, I really think I talked and acted (more or less) like “one of the guys.” It was only my lesser athletic ability, as far as I could see (as well as my habitual practice of going to the gym or the court alone and playing with strangers—because of my traveling ways) that gave someone license now and then to treat me as a second-class citizen. I’ve often wondered if some were themselves second-class in the world outside and this was a way for them to throw their weight around and “be somebody.” I’m inclined to think that may have been the case.

This is not to say that I didn’t meet great guys out there, or that most experiences were unpleasant. On the contrary, I had many of the best times of my life playing sports. It thrilled and rejuvenated me. There’s something about moving one’s body through space—with rhythm and a certain amount of precision—that’s exhilarating. It kept me alive, believe me. And I loved the camaraderie, when it was there. But there were enough hard times to make me think “there was something rotten in the state of Denmark,” and that this might be just one more symptom associated with our culture. After all, I wasn’t just theorizing; I was on the receiving end of some very weird behavior that should have been left behind in junior high school. That it would persist off and on throughout a lifetime made me feel that something was very, very wrong. You may not feel this way. If you’re a woman, maybe you don’t. And the 80% of American men who don’t go to the gym or get out on one court or another regularly are probably unaware of this, too. Likewise those who do play but always do so with friends. And those who are reasonably gifted athletes will realize none of this at all because their success gives them a kind of immunity. Good players walk like gods in America. Believe me, I speak from long experience.

Please don’t think that it’s just the “lowlifes” of basketball (Bill Bradley went to Princeton, by the way) who show this adolescent behavior. I’ve encountered it on the ski slopes in Colorado and playing volleyball in the Hamptons. Everything’s a competition. It’s so unlike the Mexican-Americans who I watched on the basketball courts of L.A.—laughing, talking, passing the ball freely, acting as if they didn’t care what the score was. A friend of mine in grad school commented (after a particularly competitive and unfriendly game we played with some white guys at the local park) that he’d been in Alaska working on the pipeline in order to save up money for school, and that the Eskimos played like the Mexicans. That is, they weren’t there to outshine and lord it over anyone, but to enjoy each others’ company and have a good time. Not the white guys, however. Or the black.

Sometimes I step into the snake pit quite without even knowing it’s there. I remember once working out at the gym—a nice one, too, not your typical bodybuilders’ hangout; I was doing circuit training using the various Nautilus-type machines, minding my own business, listening to the music, and content in my thoughts. Two or three other people were in that area as individuals, and three guys of considerable beef were talking in a group. I sat down on a bench press and leaned back to start my routine when one of the three guys came over, pulled the pin from my machine and said rather venomously, “Whatsa matter, you in a hurry?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I sat up and asked him what he meant. “We’re using that machine,” he said. Of course, they couldn’t be, because I was using it. They hadn’t even been standing next to it but were about four feet away and equidistant from several other machines. They were involved in a conversation about who knows what. Should I have explained that to them? That’s not the point.

What was the point? I saw it quite clearly at that moment. Three muscular guys were occupying a territory and no one was going to stroll in and use one of the machines they were using without consequences. Especially some guy weighing thirty pounds less than any of them. I can’t begin to describe the look on the guy’s face or the tone of his voice. It was like in the movies—you know, the gang leader’s demeanor when he talks to the intended recipient of a beating as the rest of the gang look on and glower.

So what to do in circumstances like that? Try to grab the pin from the guy’s hand and continue my workout? That wasn’t going to happen. Reason with him? Please, don’t make me laugh. Punch the idiot? Sure, and I’d wind up being charged with assault. Go running to the gym staff? I’m no tattletale, and besides, staff are usually beefy themselves and don’t really identify with guys like me. (It’s a kind of clique.) The only option I could see was to zing him with a pithy remark, but it seems to be the lot of writers that they are so immersed in the emotion of the moment and only later—sometimes much later—think of the perfect comeback. That’s one of the reasons we write. We get totally overwhelmed with the realities of life sometimes and have to think long and hard about what it all means. And there we are with all that emotion, and what to do with it? In my case, get it down on paper, show what it is, why it is, how we can get rid of it— so it doesn’t happen to anyone else again.

There’s something else I should add about this absurd incident: we weren’t fifteen years old when this was happening. I was forty and they were around thirty-five.

Are you wondering what the result was? You shouldn’t, because what result could there be? I had to express my displeasure and walk away. Not with a clever remark—which I couldn’t think of at the time—but something inane like, “Why don’t you guys grow up?” Then I walked away. “What’d you say?” he called after me, but there was nothing more to add. I got on another machine and they took over mine. Do you know how that feels? To be forty years old and be treated like that?

My immediate thought—why are there these huge gaps among men that let them feel it’s okay to act this way? Did I do something so offensive? Or was it the old saying, that I wasn’t actually the target but just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? To tell you the truth, I didn’t think these were bad guys—they looked “normal” and could well have been good family men. Under other circumstances they might even have been amiable to have a beer with. Thus I didn’t think it was me or them who was at fault. At home later, I wondered what it was about our society that lets these strange and unhealthy encounters happen, maybe even encourages them. (I say that because they’re more common than you might think—though more often on the court than at the gym, and more subtle.) In that particular incident, I walked away. I hated to do it but I saw no other choice, other than brawl and wind up in jail or the hospital. In many other cases, the party feeling wronged goes home and gets his buddies or his .38.

It’s not always so overt. On the basketball court, for example, if I missed my first shot, I pretty much knew I’d never see the ball again. Regardless of all the other things I did to help the team win, if I didn’t score right away, I found myself running from one end of the court to the other for the rest of the game, reduced to little more than a spectator. I’m quick on my feet, and I can’t tell you how many times I was wide open under the basket and one of my teammates thirty feet out decides he’d rather go one-on-one with his opponent (there’s very little passing in pick-up games), takes a long shot and misses. I gave up long ago shouting, “Why don’t you pass the ball?!” because it only elicits looks of total incomprehension.

In a way I have to look back with appreciation at such things (though my blood pressure goes up when I do). Especially in the case of physical confrontations, it’s a true form of suffering. (Kids at school consistently on the wrong end of such behavior—I wasn’t—sometimes kill themselves.) And few disagree that no art comes without suffering. I spoke of its virtues already in my post about being on the road. Suffering, even when it’s from a subtle form of treatment like being ignored on the court, makes you dig deep. And all those little occurrences add up. It has a way of putting you a lot more in touch with those out there whose lives are really filled with pain. The “human condition” isn’t just an empty concept, then, but something you feel very much a part of. It happened to you yesterday; it’ll happen to you tomorrow.

My role, as I see it, has been not only to create my own art (with a small “a”), but to use that art to attack the causes of suffering, which the case I described of masculine posturing at the gym is but one petty example. More common is the ongoing but subtle demeaning that one experiences by having lesser talent than the other players (but not appreciably so) and them having no compunction about making you feel bad about it. The tragedy is, most people, when confronted with such behavior, give up sports. Think of the hapless kids back in gym class who got picked on. After graduation, do you think they ever picked up another baseball bat (other than to hit someone with it)? Or the ones who were always chosen last for soccer or dodge ball. Where’s their motivation to continue a life of sport? That’s distressing—because I see physical activity as central to the good life that we all seek. Healthy, life-affirming, pleasurable activity. And the disturbingly small number of our people who actually do get out there and play, and continue to play, says a lot about our modern culture’s ability to lead us to that good life. If only the “successful” among us—on the playing field or in life—consistently enjoy the benefits, where’s the good in that?

I know, I know; regarding the three guys at the gym—just like in the movies, you wanted me to stand face to face with that dude and smash him in the mouth so hard that he falls back into the Nautilus equipment, frightening the others so they back off, while a good-looking chick in a tight leotard looks at me with dreamy eyes. Cue triumphant music. That’s the kind of scenario our culture has been consistently presenting us with, and because we’re so frustratingly human sometimes, it gives us great satisfaction. I won’t give you that satisfaction, sorry.

If you want courage from me, don’t expect me to use violence to solve (?) a situation like that; instead, ask yourself why I kept going back—to the gym, the basketball court, the ski slopes or wherever the beasts of the forest gather and try to establish their dominion. I demanded my workout time, my playing time, just like anyone else, and no one was going to take it away from me. I want my enjoyment of physical culture—I’ve needed it all my life—and I took it.

I should add as a footnote that I was always competitive—I played to win and always held my own—so what I take issue with is not our guys’ striving for excellence—which I myself did earnestly every time—but the underlying attitude supporting it. The way of thinking that separates people rather than bringing them closer together. That’s what I’m talking about.

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