Remaking the body; remaking the mind

I once had a “fitness trainer” who exhorted me, and those I worked with, to be as hard as the tip of the spear. I had spent years as a serious swimmer, and had a macho enough attitude to gobble this up. There were long sessions among Nautilus machines (the preferred hi-tech option of the early 80’s), blistering runs, and of course, time in the water. I enjoyed the hardness that was belied by my boyish exterior. The baby-faced bloom of youth did not dissipate until I was nearly 30 and grew a beard. I used my appearance to push me: “Do not mistake my youthful exterior for a lack of drive,” I thought. I drove hard.

Then I stopped. I left a life that promised not just physical hardness, but an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual severity. I dropped out and into the lost years of restaurant work, taking solace in uncommitted drift. In spite of the self-enforced sojourn, I kept swimming, which was more languid, even at a brisk pace. Two regular diners, Tom and Janet Flannigan, joked about all the “soft people” they saw in the pool—“You’ll never stay fit doing that,” they jested, lighting up cigarettes, and drinking themselves thin.

And I began writing, even while I worked 80 hour weeks at an Italian dive in Manayunk. The writing echoed the life I left and the ramifications of my decision. It feels as if everything I wrote was rooted in those moments. Of course, I was trying to write my life right.

I have often questioned my decision to become, if not “soft,”then decidedly less “hard” than the path that had been open to me. At least in the first several years after my decision, I think my friends saw aspects of that old self, but as best I could I burned it or buried it. We make choices in life, bending toward the light or dark—unlike phototropic plants that do so automatically. Or so we like to imagine. There are consequences to all our choices, to how we emphasize parts of our personalities or our essential selves. A choice away from or toward ripples into every other dimension of our lives.

This past winter, for the first time in over 30 years, I returned to weights. I bemoaned (and bemoan) the loss of strength—it isn’t innate, and must be tended. Jack, the owner of the gym I attend, says, “You’re in great shape.” I remember when, I think and do not gainsay. For now, I have taken on the task of shifting and strengthening the weight on my body. When I turned 50, I fought hard to get my body weight down to 200 pounds. This year, heading to 59, I flew lower with relative ease—I even have to eat more. I also feel harder, and delight in the body that has reemerged, as if it had been waiting all along (I knew you would be back). Although my strength is not what it was, it waxes again, along with some other aspects of that one time severity.

I court severity carefully. Maybe it took thirty years to give me distance from all that being the tip of the spear meant. Maybe the intervening years have buffered the fatal vision that guided my hand and mind. Or maybe those years changed me enough that I can take that dagger and wield it without the same moral repercussions that haunted me then, and that drove me to chose against it. Choosing against is never the same as choosing for; the choice to avoid a path is not the same as choosing a path. I have begun choosing for again, a bit rusty, but finding my way.

Not to my surprise, this change has come with a reinvigorated call to writing. I am a man whose mind and body work in concert. There was a reason I championed Susan Bordo’s and Richard Rorty’s philosophical repudiations of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. We are not just minds forged in cold thought but warm bodies that claim a presence in the world. I tried to make my mind and body softer, and there was a deeper cost. I felt that cost more powerfully as I passed through this year’s birthday. I choose this body now, and the mind that goes with it, and feel ready to press on.

Forward.

Lessons from Sailing: Patience and Course

We gathered a twice a day to listen to the nautical forecast, usually in the cockpit, but when the weather was execrable, in the cabin. For days on the ocean it was the only external information we had, and the computerized voice that intoned the zones and conditions annoyed and entranced us. My father never explained which particular slice of the forecast we should heed. If there was one, it was his secret. We did get a general sense: the information could reveal a significant change from the forecast with which we headed onto the ocean. For the most part, the weather we encountered was weather we could see.

Besides, what did the weather matter? We were going into it one way or the other. If something sudden arose—and in a storm, wind and rain could change direction in a moment—we had one rule: change course. At 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, Saturday afternoon’s destination could wait. That lesson only took one stern delivery.

I think I became an atheist on the ocean, or at least a pragmatist. If there is a god, it answered my prayers for relief with a simple, “You put yourself out here, jackass. You are going to have to get through it on your own.” At the same time I learned to believe in and respect a power much larger than my desire. Only a fool raises a fist against the weather or the ocean and then dares an impossible course. We had our foolish moments. On particularly bad days, my father would simply decree, “This is shitty.” If it was, we sailed through it.

In this way, we learned a sensible passivity on the ocean. Our single dare was the initial impulse: sail. After that we trimmed sails, corrected course, vomited, slept poorly, ran the engine through flat days, cursed the diesel odor, and gloried. We were sailors.

Every so often, the moment called for essential courage: tying down loose sheets at the bow while the boat bucked through night storm. I could hold onto nothing while grabbing the clew of the working jib and the sheet (line) that whipped back and forth, having worked itself loose. “You get that,” my father said, in a tacit admission that his Parkinson’s Disease would prevent him from ever again wandering forward in less than pleasant conditions. “It’s shitty, but we have to get that.” He didn’t even need to add that proviso. I had hooked my tether to the line that ran from bow to stern and was scrambling ahead—cursing, as is one’s right, and scrambling.

One learns not to wish for courageous opportunities. Danger is not a reward, even if it frees the soul from, what? complacency? On the ocean, complacency is death.

I knew about my father’s illness because, on the ocean, every limit will be tested, but it is essential to acknowledge those limits. You do not ask a first time sailor to take the helm in a gale, nor do you ask uncertain hands to tie a bowline. Few are those who ask for something hot to eat and a place at the helm in any weather. And my father’s illness was a limit–he wanted, desperately, to be the one who managed every danger; after all, he was our father. When he could not, we had to know it, and keep him safe.

Even while waiting on the ocean, one never stops being on alert, ready to absorb the next challenge—and boredom (bored in a week? Bah!) must be one of those challenges. But, who gets bored between the sun, the sky, and the endless blue?

Still, I wonder about the lesson—prepare and wait. It is easy to forget that while I waited, I was on board a 36’ sailboat that made steady and infernal forward motion—through all kinds of placid and idiotic weather. Yes, wait, be patient, but for the love of all that’s right, keep going. Even if the pace is a mere 6 knots, keep going. Even if a storm causes a momentary reversal, there is a destination, perhaps on the other side of the world. Keep going. And be prepared for what comes. It is, it will.

Risking it all

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36 foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crew mate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion, until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at watcher helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crew mates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were, and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways, and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. And can admit that for the times I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterwards.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a PhD in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

Perpetrators and Bystanders

In his TED Talk, “Violence Against Women—It’s a Men’s Issue,” Jackson Katz talks about the how there has been an awful lot of silence” from men surrounding the issue of sexual abuse. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, who pointed out that “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Katz proposes that when bystanders—those who are neither perpetrators nor victims of male violence—act against violence, not by simply intervening at the point of the violent action, but by calling out misogyny as it occurs in daily interactions, then the bystanders will help curb the violence that men commit against women.

I am thinking about this today because of the events that have transpired at my alma mater, the progressive bastion, Swarthmore College. At my old school, documents surfaced (and were published in the student newspapers) that called into question the nature of that culture. Young men wrote of a “rape attic” in one of the fraternities, and bragged about efforts to abuse women. Fortunately, when the documents came to light, action was swift. Unfortunately, as it must seem, knowledge of what had gone on must have existed in the community well before the documents were published in the student newspapers.

I know several women who men have sexually assaulted. Too many. I have seen how the assaults have shaped their lives. And strangely, I know no men who have sexually assaulted women. And that cannot be true. I know this. Because we must know that it isn’t just one man, or a few men committing these acts of violence—one or a handful of perpetrators and many victims. I would surmise that there are nearly as many perpetrators as there are victims.

The easy thing is to see men who commit violence as somehow uneducated, or unenlightened. The chants of “No means yes! Yes means anal!” at Yale, or the actions revealed in the documents at Swarthmore show that violence permeates all corners—high and low. You can be brilliant and assault women. I would hazard that one could be called or thought of as a “good man” by many, and assault women.

A friend posits that it is testosterone—she calls it “the most dangerous thing in the world”—that is at the root of male violence. And perhaps, but that seems like a broad stroke. There is a positive power in masculinity. However, a masculinity that seeks to control, denigrate, degrade, and rape, is foreign to me. These are not values that resonate or connect with anything eternal. My friends who point to the evolutionary roots of male violence—as if distant biology superseded any moral imperative—also seem to be making an excuse.

And yet, “we know better” is belied by the behavior of too many men in too many places. It is time to look in the mirror, as men, and to hold each other accountable. Because, if we all know a victim of sexual violence, we also know a perpetrator.

Writing, Purpose, and Masculinity

I have been struggling with masculinity as of late. Which is to say, struggling with ambition. Or struggling with my career choices. Or struggling with relationship choices. Or, simply struggling. Because I am a man, I am struggling on the somewhat closed field of masculinity. I haven’t always thought of it that way, and yet, there it is. I have avoided masculinity for dozens of reasons.

I have seen more examples of toxicity and hypocrisy among men than anywhere else.  Maybe these are not inherently male traits, but I grew up in a male dominated environment—which is to say, the world—including four years in an all-male prep school. I have been bullied, and been a bully. I have seen puffery masquerade as accomplishment. I have seen might valued over intelligence. I have watched as surface characteristics outshone deeper wells of strength. In To the Lighthouse, when Woolf takes Mr. Ramsay to the cleaners for failing to see the world outside of his carefully constructed “a, b, c…” hierarchy, I knew of what she was writing. But that came later.

After college my father brought me in to his company once, to ask his colleagues what career path I should pursue. One of the men counseled, “Don’t go into business.” This was a man my father had often spoken of as one of his few friends at work. This man did not offer an alternate suggestion, just “Don’t.” Then he spoke of a working world in which the soul found no home. That resonated with me. My father was often unhappy after a day of work, and I had seen that unhappiness first hand.

I drew a line between the life of the soul and the world of business and ambition—the world of men.

I spent a number of years in career limbo, and ended up managing a restaurant and working 80 hour weeks. Ambition always finds a way, even in limbo, even when one says, “No.” Part of being a man, I suppose, at least this man, was finding my way into positions of authority. During this time, I started writing—the very definition of author-ity—something I had done in fits and starts in high school then in college. I applied to graduate school in creative writing and was accepted.

So in my late twenties, I became a student of writing and literature. I went all in.  I was never interested in “finding my voice”; I was interested in hitting the metaphorical homerun, of, and pardon me for this, catching the big fish.  There was always a bigger fish in the ocean.  Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Marquez, Dickinson, Whitman, Marquez, and Calvino were among literary fish that pushed me forward. The critical fish were there too.  Each set out a mark and said, “Meet me here.” And, right or wrong, I chased that mark.

I sought work that broke the hierarchies, and offered more possibilities to all. Brilliance the only goal. Brilliance the reward. I reveled. My classmates often complained of this course or that course, or of school altogether. I did not. There was no class—even bibliography—that did not unlock some possibility. My purpose, clear and simple, was to learn and to write.

I was at graduate school at a time when feminism was fully asserting itself, and I allied myself with that movement, in part under the guise of being a creator, which I identified as a feminine act. I was full of it. In the end, I divided the world not between men and women, with all the problematic tangle that came between those energies, but between writers and non-writers. I saw a kinship between Charles Dickens and Jane Gallup. If you know the work, you know what a leap that is. Or, and this is easier, Hélène Cixous and James Joyce. Words held a primal energy for me, an energy that bridged gender and sex. The only ones who could experience jouissance, truly experience it, not simply having it happen, but calling it forth, meeting it, urging it on—if they could—were writers. And so I wrote fervently, seeking a pleasure beyond limits. And I found it.

Now, I realize that I had harnessed a most basic form of male sexual energy, of masculinity. If I had classmates who imagined me in black leather pants, well, there was a reason. I chased something bigger than me, something vital. And chasing is what men do—secretly or not. Part of our deep-seated masculinity drives us to seek—“to bear it out,” as Shakespeare writes, “even to the edge of doom.” What keeps us from doom, from becoming an Ahab (there’s that big fish) is not avoiding the sea and the hunt, just putting up the harpoon and dreaming of what might have been. We must learn to integrate the hunt with the world. We must listen to the world and find an honorable way forth.

I did not. I stopped. I did not stop all at once, but over a series of years. I let more temporary ambitions, often driven by temporary monetary concerns, take precedence. I grew nervous, even cautious. I stepped off the stage. I continued, as I had when I was younger, to find outlets for ambition. They were circumscribed by my career choices, but they persisted. I became principal of a school and, during a crisis at my church, helped hold a congregation together. But I was not doing my life’s work—the thing that brought me joy, even if it did not pay the water bill.

And, as a man, a life without a driving purpose withers. I’m sure this is true for women too, in some way. Finally, at 58, I made a change. It was not an easy, nor a secure choice. It is not the final choice I will make along this way. But it is the first step. And I realize that even though I have been writing—fervently, discovering along the way—that I also have things to learn. About me. About the world. And as a man.