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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.

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all riders have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

Is it any surprise that repetition plays a significant role in my life? I came of age as an athlete knocking out sets of 30 200 yard freestyle swims. They were yardage eaters—a quick and dirty way to lay in 6000 yards of workout and buy time for rest of the yards that the coach had in mind. We finished them at intervals of 2:30, 2:20, and 2:10, which left 50 minutes for the rest of the practice—an easy pace for the two to four thousand yards to come. Pushing off the wall every two minutes and thirty seconds, there was time for conversation between swims. Leaving at every two minutes and ten seconds put a crimp on anything other than brief exchanges: “This sucks,” “Stop hitting my feet,” “I’m hungry.”

We did this day after day.

With my head down in the water, my eyes trained on the feet of the swimmer who left 5 seconds before me—chasing, always chasing. In high school I was far from the fastest swimmer on the team. I made myself a better swimmer. One summer I traveled to Iowa and a training regimen that increased the junior varsity’s load of 3500 yards in an afternoon’s hour long practice, to 22,000-28,000 yards spread over three practices every day. I lost whatever baby fat—and whatever other fat—that my 15 year old frame carried, crashed my immune system—catching a nasty staph infection that laid me up for days after I returned home—and sliced ten seconds off my hundred breaststroke time. No mean feat. I made the varsity team. Repetition was the way.

Years later, when I was a graduate student in English, I read books two and three times. I would attack most of the books for my classes in two weeks before the beginning of the semester, then again as we read them as a class. The initial reading with facile, getting the joys and traps of plot out of the way, allowing the words—and all the ideas in the words—to come to the fore when I read along with the class. If I wrote about a particular book, I read it again, and some passages, dozens of times.

Since I was in school to write, I wrote and rewrote some stories six or seven times. My classmates, colleagues, cow-writers, and teachers, shared the demanding mantra: “All writing is rewriting.” And we practiced what we preached.

As a teacher, I sometimes warn my students that this—and the years to come in college—are the best years, because of the preponderance of the new. Almost everything they learn is, will be, new. Each encounter with something new gives a new opportunity for mastery—another shot at sudden improvement and the giddy transformative moment of adding some unknown idea to the swirl of self.

I warn them because at some point there lives will bend toward repetition. Yes, the repetition may lead to a finer, hard-earned mastery. I think of all the miles that I put into the pool, and how it shaped and shapes my body (still). I think of the ways that great works give up new meanings after repeated shared readings, and how I became a more aware reader. And while I may not rewrite as much as I once did—obsessively, compulsively, debilitatingly—I know that writing begets writing—good, bad, or otherwise. The thing is to write, over and over, every day, without fear, even without hope. The words will bear you up. Push off. Go again.

Well do I know that repetition can suck the joy from the flower of life—making no honey, leaving all empty, colorless, scentless. I do not how how I managed all those laps in the pool, with nothing but the dull roar of water passing my ears, the steady ache and agony of my muscles, and the songs that played in my mind, setting an unimaginable pace. There was joy at the end of each 200 yards—“Good time!”—and these little victories provided enough of a goad to return to repeat success. Who determined what was a “good” time? I did, in concert with the clock—the cold but consistent arbiter of performance. Time, as opposed to opinion, never wavered. The clock was not making a comment because it had a good or a bad day. Go again.

I hope that my students will discover some place where they can demonstrate mastery, and change the long monotonous drone of repetition into a glorious repeated success. That they will find a way to insist, “Again, again,” holding on to that inner childlike joy. That in spite of how hard their task may be, that their arbiters are, if not cold, consistent and consistently challenging. I hope all this for myself as well.

The sweeping red hand of the clock on the wall flies past the black hashmarks: two minutes and one second; two minutes and two seconds, two minutes and three seconds. I breathe deep, and get ready. Here I go. Again.

We took the new daughter to the pool this weekend. It was immediately clear that she had not been in water deeper than her knees.

The pool in which she played with us at Guangzhou was a meter deep in the shallow end, so all she could do was sit on the side or allow us to carry her. The pool at the Mallory has steps leading to water that is two and a half feet deep.

And so on Sunday, the first wade into water that rose above her waist. There was a nervous look for a moment, and then back to the usual peel of giggles. This is her method as she approaches new things: a moment of nervousness (sometimes barely perceptible) and then “Look at me!” Swimming lessons are in the offing.

And then of course, the ocean. This was a more daunting prospect, and it will take her a while to overcome the force of waves. She is a wee thing (and already weighs more than she did three weeks ago). One wave surprised her straight on, and she ran back up the beach, only to turn and look with more than a fair amount of longing.

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