Thursday, July 25, 2013

How the Sweet Science Unleashed My Secret Sporty Spice

“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters,” said famed boxing coach Cus D’amato.  I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic as I entered the IFC gym looking to hire a boxing coach.  I chose Freddie Cuevas before meeting him as he was billed as being big on fighting philosophy as well as form.  Freddie retired from boxing professionally in 2006 after putting in eleven years as a popular Chicago middleweight fighter.  I hired him not for his record, which was certainly respectable, but because he is a boxing coach for thinkers.  I was counting on my brain to overcome my physical limitations, as I am far from sporty.  I felt that boxing might be the best crash course on fine tuning my concentration and my coordination, two areas that have kept me out of sports generally. My aversion to fitness started early; I forged notes from my mother to excuse myself from P.E. class as I couldn’t bear to be the last person picked for every team.  I’ve always been that person in aerobics class that’s facing the wrong direction, while practicing yoga I’m always struggling with the right side when everyone else is effortlessly doing the left side.  In dance classes advertised as “There’s no wrong way to do this”, teachers have proclaimed after seeing my attempts, “Except maybe that way.” Eventually I took up running as it was something I could do alone, free of being judged on my performance.  But I became determined to find a sport that worked for me, and if that sport involved hitting things, I was all for it.  While wrapping my hands at our first session, Freddie asked me a reasonable question.  “Why boxing?”  I joked that it was because I’m Irish and I don’t play well with others.  I went on to explain that some of my interest came from family tradition.  My grandfather was a professional boxing referee, I grew up watching all the men in my family glove up and hit the heavy bag.  We watched fights on television with great regularity, there were many discussions of technique and strategy as we watched the likes of Muhammed Ali, Leon Spinks and Joe Frazier.  I was seven years old when my extended family gathered excitedly around the television to see my grandfather in action, moderating the heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Ken Norton.  Foreman knocked Norton out shortly into the second round so my grandfather’s time in the spotlight wasn’t lengthy, but it was memorable.  

Gramps Jimmy Rondeau officiating at the 1946 Golden Gloves

The IFC gym itself was not like the other slick places I’d gone to work out in the past.  It is a simple two room space with a standard ring in the front, heavy bags and speed bags in the rear, as well as two treadmills, a bike, some kettle balls and a few basic weight lifting machines.  The walls are adorned with photos and clippings of the employees doing what they know best: fighting. There is no air conditioning.  There is no juice bar.  They are often blasting hard rock or rap, or if Freddie has his way, salsa.  It’s all about function, no fancy stuff.  It’s not a health club, a spa, a studio, or a dojo.  It’s a straight up boxing gym.

Freddie with today's motivational message

Freddie started by teaching me the four basic punches: the jab, the cross, the hook, and the upper cut. Our subsequent workouts have varied a little but generally we do something close to the following program each time we meet. After a brief warm up of windmilling my arms, doing jumping jacks followed by squats, I do two rounds of shadowboxing.  This warms up not only my core and my shoulders, but my comfort level with looking stupid.  I find it hard not to feel self conscious as I’m throwing punches into the air in a boxing ring in clear view of passersby on a busy street in Chicago.  After my ego and my arms are ready to go, Freddie puts on mitts to field my punches as we do three rounds of different punch combinations that he dictates. 

I then move to the heavy bag for two rounds of punch combinations of my own choosing.  Then to the speed bag for two rounds, which is a nice relief to have something that’s less about punching and more about hand/eye coordination. 


Then there’s two rounds of jumping rope, a round of chasing mitts, (remember Rocky chasing the chicken? It’s the same principle, working on speed and agility, but with Freddie throwing mitts around the room and me retrieving them like a dog)

and three different kinds of sit ups, a minute of plank pose

and we’re DONE.  All rounds of every exercise are three minutes, just like boxing rounds in a standard match.  Every round of exercise is capped off with fifteen jumping jacks and ten squats as well, just to keep it moving. 

After being a runner for several years I was in fairly decent shape when I took on the boxing regime, so my stamina wasn’t an issue.  But my coordination problems made learning the punch combinations challenging, and jumping rope was an aggravating impossibility at first.  It was six minutes of pure frustration, punctuated by whipping my legs with the jumprope, further cementing my anxiety and disappointment with myself.  A majority of fitness instructors I’d had in the past would take to barking instructions on how to do things the right way at me, to no avail. I’d just shut down after getting yelled at.  I started noticing that when I would make mistakes while working with Freddie, he would simply stop me, and we’d do it over.  He wouldn’t sigh or make any sort of face indicating displeasure or exasperation or comment in anyway that was negative.  We’d just stop and do it over, however many times it took until I did it correctly.  Freddie also gave my mind a work out, discussing how the better boxer is not the tougher one, but the smarter one.  I found the mix of strategy and footwork to be akin to playing chess while dancing, with the mind and body finding harmony working together in unison.  After much practice, I started picking up the punching combinations more easily, which Freddie always took note of and commented on positively.  In my early struggles with the jumprope, he would tell me repeatedly in a calm voice, “You control the rope, you control your legs.  You just have to get those two things to work together."  And slowly but surely, those things did start working together. I now can jump rope fairly smoothly for much of the six minutes, and I whip myself with the jumprope much less now.  

I love it when a plan comes together

My love of boxing got a serious boost during a recent trip to Louisville, when I visited the Muhammad Ali Center.  Ali was not only an amazing athlete, but an artist, an activist, and a philanthropist. Wise and courageous (and so PRETTY!), the man continues to be an inspiration.  
A sports star that's truly worthy of hero worship, a man who taught me that there ain't nothing wrong with going down, it's when you stay down that you run into trouble.

So I opted not to get discouraged, even on days when the gym just beat the shit out of me, instead of the other way around.  At no point have I felt judged by Freddie, or anyone else in the gym for that matter.  I often get high fives and words of encouragement from the other staff and sometimes the other patrons of the gym.  Freddie trains many women who fight as amateurs, who are strong and beautiful and awe inspiring to watch as they spar with men who are much bigger than they are.  Again, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. 

A couple of months into the training, I noticed that not only were the exercises much easier to perform, but my confidence while tackling new exercises was enhanced. Freddie taught me not only how to be a boxer, but how to be a teacher. I’m sure I won’t ever be skilled enough to fight someone else in any official capacity, but I fought my fear of all things athletic and emerged victorious.  I think Cus D’amato would approve.

Photo credits:  Gym photos by Jill Howe, Ali Center photos by Chuck Sudo.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Amazing Grace

About a year into my re-entry back into single life after getting out of a fourteen year relationship, I had a pretty minimal understanding of the dating scene.  As luck would have it, the work wheel of fortune presented me with a co-worker that taught me a thing or two about love.  As the world is small and I want to protect her privacy, I will give her a pseudonym that represents what she is to me: Grace.   Grace and I immediately hit it off in a way that happens not so often, like we were old friends after talking just a few hours.  When she asked me about my love life, I told her about the garden of crazy that I had been tending.  I explained that I had been seeing a guy in rural Wisconsin who was handsome and baked me pies and played the piano for me, but he just didn’t want to ever leave that world to do anything else and the commute to see him had worn me out.

“Nope,” Grace said decidedly.  “What else?”

Let’s see.   I also had a guy who I’d been emailing with that was an amazing writer, a sensitive soul, and a lovely poet.  Trouble was he just didn’t want to meet me in person.  

“Nope,” she said.  “What else?”

Hmm.  That had been enough to keep me busy.  I mean, they both certainly had some promise, right?


I was taken aback by her matter of fact response.  How could she be so sure after my thumbnail sketch of what was going on?

Grace said in a quiet but firm voice, “Eileen, I’ll tell you what.  I was never the popular girl in school, I didn’t get asked out on a ton of dates.  I met my husband in college, and after a brief conversation, he asked me for my number.  He told me he’d call me at 2 o’clock the next day.  The next day, he called me at 2, and he’s never let me down since.”

I looked at her, bewildered.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said.  “We don’t always agree.  We’ve certainly had arguments and bumps in the road.  But he’s always done what he said he was going to do.  We’re a team, and I trust that I can count on him.”

She’d been married awhile.   They had two young children together, and with his two children from a prior marriage, they had a lovely family.  

She expounded, “You shouldn’t accept anything less than that, Eileen.  These guys you’re talking to are already letting you down, and they don’t even know you.”  I had to agree.  

We talked some more about her marriage, about life, about literature.  We discussed Michael Chabon, a favorite author of mine, and she mentioned that he and his wife Ayelet Waldman spoke publicly about putting their love for one another on a higher priority than their love for their children.  Ayelet took it in the shorts in the media for these beliefs, she was crucified by the Oprah generation, HOW DARE SHE NOT LOVE HER CHILDREN ABOVE ALL ELSE?  Ayelet explained that she believed her children were better off by understanding that they were not the center of the universe, instead reaping the rewards of being raised by two equal, loving partners who placed great importance on their romantic connection.  Grace felt that way about her husband, and that philosophy made sense to me. Grace left me with a copy of Chabon’s “Manhood For Amateurs”, his first foray in personal essay writing, which gave me much to think about in terms of what it means to be a man.   I loved the book, and I loved Grace.  Inside the book was a kind note that said lots of wonderful things, including, “You deserve the best in everything and that is what I wish for you.”

I told the story of what Grace had taught me to so many people.  It gave me something to work with.  It was a succinct but powerful textbook on relationship expectation.  It gave me a love model, something my life was lacking.  Every time I got involved with anyone, I heard her words in my head and I tried to act accordingly.

And with that, as is often the way with my job, I didn’t see Grace again for a handful of years.  

She reappeared on my Facebook feed not long ago, in a new location.  Smiling, in pictures with her younger children.  I thought to myself, it’s so good to see her again, even if only in a virtual setting, but something felt off.

Rumors started to circulate, whispers on the work wind.  That Grace had separated from her husband.  As the universe has been known to give you what you need through the art of serendipity, Grace appeared on a flight that I was working.  The odds of this happening were pretty slim, except that when it’s important, stars align to give you some answers.  She looked lovely, like she hadn’t aged a day.  Totally together on the surface, she shared with me that she had separated from her husband because not only had he been unfaithful to her, but he had been living a double life.  With another woman, in another world that she was completely unaware of.  She said to me, “You know when you hear those stories about men having two lives and you think the wife must be an idiot….I had no idea.  NO IDEA.”  She quickly made arrangements to share custody of her children, she took her savings and staked a claim in another city.  “I took my babies and ran.  It was the only plan that I could come up with to save my family,” she told me.  I listened to her in disbelief.  I could not fathom how anyone in their right mind could treat such a wonderful woman so poorly, how anyone could sleep at night leading a duplicitous existence, how anyone who had children could act so selfishly.  And speaking of selfish, I WAS PISSED OFF THAT THIS MOTHER FUCKER HAD BLOWN APART MY LOVE MODEL.  I had told so many people that story, I had invested so much of myself in believing what she had told me.  AND NOW IT WAS ALL LIES….FUCK. IT. ALL.

Grace had lent me the Chabon book years before, I subsequently lent it to a guy I had been seeing.  I broke up with him after a rocky year, but we were trying to maintain a friendship.  The last time I saw him, I spotted the book on his coffee table and I slipped it into my purse, knowing that he would never read it.  He insisted that he still wanted the book, and oh please, could I just give him a bit more time to read it.  Sure, I said, leaving the book on his kitchen counter.  I never heard from him again.  I begged, I pleaded with him to give me closure, I told him that it was fine if he didn’t want to see me anymore, in fact,  it was for the best.  But not like this.  I called, I texted, I emailed.  No answer.  One of the last transmissions on my end was boiled down to basics.  “I no longer want to talk.  I just want my book back.”   It had so much sentimental value, and in light of what happened to the woman who gave it to me, I felt despondent over the whole deal.  

I finally gave up hope of ever getting the book back. Then something really obvious finally sunk in, that the book was replaceable.  I was clinging so tightly to what I didn’t have, in material terms, the book, in emotional terms, the love model, that I lost sight of what I still had that was truly meaningful.  THE NOTE.  And my love model wasn’t broken, I just needed to see that it had been rewritten.  Grace had given me a new love template, one on how to love yourself.   Not to get all Whitney Houston on your ass (too soon?), but it really is the greatest love of all.  You can’t love anyone else the right way until you know how to treat yourself with respect….it sets the bar for what you deserve, like being surrounded by those who want you to have the best of everything.  

(Dramatic hoodie and romp with Henry Miller sold separately)

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”  Anais Nin reminds me that you must always remain in motion, even if it means giving up ideas you feel are part of your DNA.  And to do so with grace is to wholeheartedly embrace being alive.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Introvert ALERT!

Another magical thing that happened at the dune shack came in the form of a book that Jill brought with her.  That book was Susan Cain’s Quiet:  The Power of Introverts In A World That Won’t Stop Talking.  I picked it up with idle curiosity, I’ve always known that I’m an extrovert.  I mean, I’m a people person.  I do customer service for a living.  When I took the Myers Briggs test years ago, I was a solid ESFJ.  That’s a fancy clinical acronym for CAREGIVER.  But I was in a dune shack with writer’s block.  I would have read a week old Cleveland Plain Dealer if it had been what was in front of me.  In the beginning of the book, there is a quiz.  I heart quizzes, and although I knew the results, I took it anyway.

20 Questions, followed by my honest answers.

1. I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.  I DO.  Like when people say, “The more the merrier,” I want to shoot them.  More is not more for me.  I thought this was because I’m an asshole.
2. I often prefer to express myself in writing.  Well, I’d say the fact that I’m writing this blog and not out with you right now chatting makes this a BIG FAT YES.
3. I enjoy solitude.  I DO.  My job involves so much noise and people two inches from my face commenting on every bit of minutia that goes on while they wait in line for the bathroom, I really, really enjoy being alone.  I thought this was because I’m an asshole.
4. I seem to care about wealth, fame, and status less than my peers.  I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW BIG OF A YES THIS IS.  I work enough to pay my bills and have a good time, but I own nothing of any material value, which is the way I like it.  I certainly need attention and approval to some degree from the people closest to me, but again, more is not more in this realm.  My dopamine races when people like a particularly flattering shot of my dopey face via social media, as I am human.  But I harbor no delusions of grandeur.
5. I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in-depth about topics that matter to me.  HOLY BALLS IS THIS AN AFFIRMATIVE.  I know that small talk is where big talk begins, not many can just dive into meaningful conversation without the warm up of jabbing about the weather and such.  After twelve years of being in a pressurized tube full of small talk,  I’ve taken to answering questions about the weather with remarks like, “Does it matter?  We’re going anyway.”  Okay, that one's really just me being an asshole.
6. People tell me that I'm a good listener.  I am.  I like to learn, and I do not learn when I’m talking.  Everything that comes out of my mouth, I already know.  I enjoy listening.  See, I’m not a complete asshole.
7. I'm not a big risk-taker.  This one is tricky.  I’m fine with telling very personal things to large crowds of strangers, yet driving my roommate’s car four blocks to the airport causes me to have a panic attack.  I am less nervous about skydiving than I am about holding your newborn baby.  This a mixed bag, so I’ll say PASS on this one.
8. I enjoy work that allows me to "dive in" with few interruptions.  Yep.   When I am on track, God help you if you try to derail me.  Prepare to witness me involuntarily eye rolling.
9. I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.  YES.  Again, more is not more.  
10. People describe me as "soft-spoken" or "mellow."  Hmm.  Maybe?  I was recently described as “reserved and slightly withdrawn”.  Sometimes I’m kind of a bag of hot air, but generally I think this fits.
11. I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it's finished.  DEFINITELY.  I will proofread this stupid blog post 97 times before I post it, then 97 more times after I post it, changing stuff no one will ever notice or care about.
12. I dislike conflict.  Are there people who enjoy conflict?  They are definitely not invited to my birthday party.  YES.
13. I do my best work on my own.  I’d say mostly yes, but I appreciate collaboration.  After I’ve done the work to the best of my ability (see #11), I'm happy to work with others.
14. I tend to think before I speakI try to.  When I don’t, I’m generally sorry.
15. I feel drained after being out and about, even if I've enjoyed myself.  100% YES.  I thought this was because I’m old, and quite possibly an asshole.
16. I often let calls go through to voice-mail.  I’m still surprised there are people who use the phone to CALL people and that people answer.  But yes, even if I love you dearly, even if I’m expecting you to call, I sometimes stare at the phone ringing and think....I. Just. Can’t. Do. It.  I’ll call you back in 5 minutes.  Or 5 hours.  Or tomorrow.  It's not personal.  I just can't deal.
17. If I had to choose, I'd prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.  DEFINITELY.  I get a strange thrill when people cancel plans.  It’s like I get to steal back time.  I chalked this up to being old, with a hint of being an asshole.
18. I don't enjoy multi-tasking.  I’m okay with it if it goes well, but generally it doesn’t.  And just because I can pour a Coke and talk to you about the weather doesn’t mean I love doing it.
19. I can concentrate easily.  Nope.  Squirrel!
20. In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.  Yes.  I’d rather soak in information than be so focused on what I should bring to the table that I stop listening entirely.  
So, in review, out of 20 questions, a vast majority of these I answered with a resounding yes, which indicates being an introvert.  I retook the Myers Briggs test and wound up being an ISFJ this time.  I’ve gained some relief with the notion that being an introvert doesn’t make me a better or worse person than when I thought I was an extrovert, just more self aware.  I’m more understanding of my social limitations now that I get who I am and how I operate.  I'm content to live in a comfortable spot somewhere between caregiver and asshole.  It seems pretty late in the game to get this realization, but I am also new to being really honest about myself.  I’m reminded of Miles Davis’ fine quote, ““Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
Some thoughts on how to get along with yourself and others, regardless of your acronym.  More soon.