There Can Be Only One

“We don’t care for the term ‘only child’ because it sounds so negative.”

–          Yahoo! homeschooling group, which prefers “singleton”

“Come on…you don’t want to let Jessica finish ahead, do you?”

–          Lo, on a boxing team run

I have a standard reply when people inquire about my (nonexistent) siblings: “No, I’m an only child.  In fact, I’m an only grandchild on one side of my family. So, pretty much, I’m the center of the universe.”  Inevitably, my examiner will ask some iteration of the question, “But aren’t you sad/lonely/disappointed/empty?”  Raising my left eyebrow independent of my right, I reply, “Wouldn’t you want to be the center of the universe?”

Yes: I am an only child, and I am the epitome of an only child, if what I’ve learned from other onlies/singletons is statistically significant: early reader, self-directed, more comfortable with adults than same-age peers when younger, at best a strong leader, at worst a strongarm dictator. I’ve loved every moment.

Some of what I am has to do with where I grew up, as well.  I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, as in “more cows than people” rural.  There wasn’t another child near my age in the area until I was eight.  The lack of other kids, coupled with the fact that I could, with safety and impunity, run wild on my family’s farm and its adjacent woods created a unique space in which to grow.  My world, and particularly my Summer World, consisted of me, my boxer-dog Misty, and the landscape.  All games were self-invented or necessary modifications of “For 2-6 players; Ages 10 and up!”  No one shouted “No fair!”; the rules changed to suit me; there was no taking of turns; it made me a person who still talks to myself (a lot).

One of the messages that led to this “only child blog-off” invoked the term “hyper-individual,” a phrase with which I fell instantly and passionately in love.  It’s perfect: biologically, it connotes excessive production; colloquially, it indicates rabidity, fanaticism…everything I feel about being exactly who I am in any given moment and someone else entirely in the next.  Growing up as my own sounding board, as my parents’ archetype for what a child is and should be affords me that freedom.

Unfortunately, that’s the crux of nearly everything negative I hear leveled at only children, and particularly, at parents who choose to raise only children.  Onlies are spoiled; they never learn compromise; they expect the world to yield to them.  Sometimes, yes.  But who isn’t/doesn’t, sometimes?

Where I do see and feel a difference in myself is my ability to, regardless of circumstance, hold onto that key core that is Me.  The Me that developed in my childhood remains.  She doesn’t feel coerced to back down from her beliefs, be it in the classroom or the ring.  She isn’t worried that no one will like her if she wears eight-hole Doc Martens with shorts to a bridesmaid gown fitting.  She covers her left arm with more and more and more ink that formulates a map of where she was; where she would like to go next.  She doesn’t care if Jessica finishes ahead of her on a team run.  She knows, precisely, the time she last logged on this distance – she’s nearly 45 seconds ahead of herself, and what the hell else matters?

For more on onlies, see the lovely and talented http://indecisivepeach.com/

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1-0 (Won-Oh, Shit: What Now?)

It shocks me that Oscar Wilde claimed there was “no such thing as an omen;” my family has always stood by the fact that being superstitious was an Irish birthright, akin to my burn-before-I-can-blink complexion and greenhazel eyes.  It didn’t surprise me, then, that I felt I jinxed myself into the injury that supplanted the November 2009 fight: I blogged it, didn’t knock sufficient wood, and that made it not-happen.  That’s why I purposely did not come here to think in public about my actual first fight, which went down Saturday March 20, 2010.  Part of me believed that if I spoke of it, it would never be.

The first stirring of the fight occurred in early February.  Co-Coach let me know that a fellow local trainer and longtime friend contacted him and asked if he’d be willing to match me with a girl on his team, a girl who has more experience than I (three Fights in the Ring) and is ten years my junior.  Co-Coach agreed immediately, and in the ethers of the boxing world, it was on, before I even knew of it.

It wasn’t the most flattering situation.  I knew they were looking for me because they thought I’d be an easy win for her, someone she could walk over, maybe pull off a TKO or ref stoppage for her record.  I vowed that, no matter what, I would not be that girl.  Win or lose, she would know we’d fought.  That’s the promise that drove my training for the weeks leading up to the bout.  When I felt like I couldn’t run one more set of stairs in the Uni stadium or grunt out one more pushup or take one more shot in the gut from a medicine ball, I spurred myself with the knowledge that they thought I’d be a pushover.  I sparred tougher partners, ran sprints until I cried, applied more and more tape to hands and wrists increasingly battered by the impact of constant heavy bag work.  In the dizzy moments between sleep and waking, those times when one’s body jumps involuntarily as dreams start to cloud over consciousness, I was still punching, my hands flapping weakly out in front of me.  I lived this sport.

That’s how I showed up on March 20th in the hardest-edged shape of my life.  Weigh-ins, pre-fight physical, and handwraps approval behind me, I found myself gloved up and waiting to go in.

And…let’s go to the video.  I’ve watched it twice so far, and found it too unsettling to view it again, or in any great detail.

I see myself waiting to get into the ring; my jaw muscles flare as I bite down on my mouthpiece. Lo stands serious beside me, rearranging the towel over his shoulder.  This is a towel that has been a part of our bathroom rotation for the last few years. It is there tonight to wipe sweat, blood, and water from my face between rounds. It is there to be thrown to the canvas if Lo feels I’m overwhelmed and the ref isn’t protecting me as he should. It is there to complete Lo’s outfit as Trainer, along with a squirt-water bottle and a small blue pail.

I see myself climb the three stairs to the ring, duck between the ropes without waiting for Lo to join me and separate them with his hand and knee. I turn to the chairs lining the floor, lift my glove to “my” crowd: three colleagues/soulmates from my PhD department.  Their faces, just about the only white faces in the crowd, are split by catcalls that explode from their lips when I acknowledge them.  I see myself turn back to the ring as the ref checks my mouthpiece and the tape over the laces on my gloves, makes sure my headgear is secure.  I hear the bell ring and watch myself stalk diagonally across the ring to – finally – see this thing through.

I can’t adequately describe what I see from this point on, much less explain what it felt like being there.  She’s a brawler: she wanted to stand toe-to-toe and exchange power shots.  Her experience allowed her to dictate the pace of the fight more than I should have allowed: there are times when we do just that.  She landed more big hits than I – a left hook in the first-of-four rounds threw a blanket over the hearing in my right ear for the next few hours.  But I make my mark; in less flamboyant ways, I make my mark.  I sting her with jab after jab, following up with the right to the head or body – less than I should, but following up.  When I come on, she backs off.  For a brief moment that makes Lo snort with laughter and hiccup “Rewind…rewind!” I go southpaw (?!?).

Between rounds I hitch and heave air into my lungs in as controlled a manner as possible when my heart rate is maxed out in a manner that would make a Stairmaster tell me to “Slow Down.”  Co-Coach is inches from my face, his lips a blur as he tries to compress 33 years of boxing experience into a one-minute break.  He pulls my arms down from the ropes where I’ve rested them – it doesn’t look good, makes you look tired and the judges are always watching.

I go out for each of my four, sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing.  Supporters standing near the gym associate who videoed for us scream my name along with advice that I never heard.  My form sometimes suffers, but this dance is a testament to muscle memory: my left fires, retracts to protect my temple.  My right moves away from my ear, going out to meet her glove, regains its senses and tucks back to my cheekbone.  Knees bend, weight pushes off the right toe, shoulders trade the lead position to keep my head in motion.  I see myself take punches and I cannot believe I kept my feet; more – I kept answering back.  For every looping, immensely heavy hit she lands, I pop two or three back at her.  Still, it’s hard to think about anything but how brutalized I’m feeling.

I knew I’d lost, but I didn’t care.  I just wanted to finish out the ritual, congratulate her on a fine ass-whipping, clean up, and go sit down somewhere.  Lo caught the mouthpiece I spit at him and stripped off my headgear while Co-Coach yanked the tape from the laces and the gloves from my hands.  Lo squirted water on the towel, which now looked like something from an episode of Cold Case Files, scrubbed my face to send me into the middle as composed-looking as possible.

The first inkling I have that this was actually a good fight (as in, not utterly one-sided) is the fact that the ref and announcer, still awaiting the read from the judges’ cards, say so: the ref grins big at both of us and says reverently, “That was a fight.”  The announcer brays something I can’t recall, but typical tropes dictate “How about these two fighters?!?!”  The ref raises both our hands, spins in place like a small sun as we orbit around him, taking in the people on all sides of the ring.  The audience roars, many on their feet.  We return to our original position: me the left of the ref, she to the right, our wrists in his hands. Waiting.

“Annnnddd…we have a decision.  From Las Cruces [[We’re both from Las Cruces]]; fighting out of….the bluuuuuuuuuue corner [[Wha…?]]…BECKI GRAHAMmmmmmm!!!”

I see “my” crowd leaping in the air; a trophy is thrust in my hand as I’m shuttled out of the ring to check in with the doctor.  I’m already forgotten as the next pair of fighters climbs in to learn their fate.  The doctor looks at my face, asks, “Are you OK?”  “Uh-huh,” I reply, nodding like a bobblehead on a dirt road.  He smiles, signs my passbook, and says, “Congratulations.”  I walk back to the dressing room, where two young girls I’ve helped coach are waiting.  They debuted tonight, too, and they won tonight, too.  J’s nose is still dripping; R has an abrasion on her left cheek.  Their eyes are silver-bright as they try to shove one another out of the way to hug me.  I embrace each of them, put my back into an empty corner of the room, slide to the floor and begin crying.  J and R look stunned, suddenly uncertain.  A coach reassures them, “It’s just the adrenaline coming off.  She’s fine.”

And I am fine.  My nose bled off-and-on for most of the following day.  My neck felt like I’d been in a minor car accident.  Regardless, I was back in the gym the Monday after the fight – stiff and a little hesitant, but working.  And, I realized, for the first time in close to two months, I was having fun.  With no fight hanging over my head, I actually found myself smiling as I worked mitts.  My heart raced from exertion, but not from the epinephrine that slammed my system each time I thought about what I had to do in the weeks leading up to the match.

Co-Coach is already looking ahead to the Next One, three weeks away.  I’ve not yet decided what I’ll tell him, but I’m fairly certain I don’t want to do this again.

I Want My Rib Back, Baby.

It turns out you use your ribcage more than you ever could have imagined.  You can imagine how much you use your ribcage when it snarls at you every time you move it in a way it doesn’t appreciate.

Having broken my humerus in a fall from a horse in 2003 (An x-ray technician said blandly to me, “Aren’t you a little old to be breaking an arm?” “I was trying to get out of the spelling bee,” I replied tersely), I was already aware of the fragility of my body and the frustration of negotiating everyday life with a busted something-or-other.  Physically, I knew what I was in for when I got the fracture diagnosis: I’d be floored by tasks I’d ordinarily do in a trance, like carrying in the groceries or lowering myself into my car.  Emotionally, this has been a whole new monster.

Although a lifelong fixation with horses makes riding one of the most important things in my life, and while I missed it when I was bound in a sling for 8 weeks, I experienced none of the clawing the walls and banging on the bars I have as I’ve been  limited in boxing training.  I watched wistfully as other riders schooled my horse to keep him in condition while I healed, and I was counting the moments until I could get on again, but at no point was I tempted to do something really ill-informed, like pushing my body before it was ready.

Two weeks into my rib recuperation (I had been back in the gym, in a feather-touch sense for a week), I declared myself ready to rejoin my team.  It was a Medicine Ball Night, those terrible evenings in which we brutalize one another’s abdomens with objects that equate to 15 pound basketballs and mimic body shots thrown by opponents.

I thought I was being smart: ordinarily, the balls are thrown onto the bellies of victims prone in the ring by partners standing over them.  Lo wasn’t in-house that night (which is, of course, how I got away with this in the first place); I didn’t trust anyone else’s aim, so I requested a modification: my partner would straddle me and pound the ball into my gut with an overhand motion that imitates axe-splitting a log.

She was happy to comply.  She’s a teenager with eight years’ ringtime looking eagerly toward 2012 now that we know women will be fighting in London.  Medicine ball is her passion.  Her brown eyes flicker fire when she hears it’s a Medicine Ball Night; her ability to absorb the percussion of the ball with her core is preternatural.  She grounded herself on my thighs and grinned, “Ready?” before starting the assault.

I felt my rib re-break on hit five-of-ten.  Unfortunately, if you have enough breath to say anything during a medicine ball series, your partner isn’t doing her job.

“TEN!” she exclaimed, leaping up to switch me places.  I rolled heavily to my good side, bracing the bad with my elbow in a gesture that had become so familiar in the past weeks.  I closed my eyes and willed them to swallow down the tears that were forming.  In boxing, only certain fluids are allowed.

“Are you OK…?” she asked.  “Dad!”

Her father stood over me, appraised me with eyes that have seen his three children come up as fighters and their nearly-20 collective years of boxing injuries and said, “Rib’s broken again, right?”  I nodded, still lacking speech.

“Mike’s gonna be pissed.  What are you doing in here anyway?”  At this point I had breath enough to answer, but no words to float on it.  He nudged me affectionately with his toe and hooked a thumb down towards the floor, ordering me out of the ring.  I sulked through a few ginger rounds on heavybag before giving up, packing up, and getting out.

Lo got home about an hour after me, just enough time for things in my side to really start to seize up.  His eyes narrowed as I walked up to him to offer a one-armed hug.  “What did you do?” he sighed.

“medicine ball…”

“What?!?  Are you serious?  Can’t you think for yourself the one night I can’t be there with you?”  He paused for a breath, saw how bad I was feeling, and cut himself off.  “Alright.  You’ll heal.  Again.”

I’ve been healing.  Again.  It’s given me a lot of time to think about why I was so eager to get back to the gym full force that I did something absurdly stupid.  I can’t formulate a cohesive answer, just as I can’t when someone asks me, “Why do you like boxing so much anyway?”

Some of it is the empowerment.  I love walking through a parking lot measuring up my fictive opponents as they carry grocery bags to their cars or weave with their eyes down texting their way to the entrance of a store.  In my mind, I could take out approximately 95% of the people I encounter on the street.  Just feeling that, oddly, makes me a bit more benevolent to others, as if I’m some sort of cut-rate goddess looking fondly down on her underlings.

Some of it is the satisfaction of accomplishing something really, really hard.  Boxing like you mean it is like having the toughest workout of your life…five days a week.  No matter how many practices I attend, I always, at least once, have a moment during the session when I think I’m not going to be able to make it through.  When I do, I feel like the baddest girl in the world.  There’s a lot to be said for feeling like the baddest girl in the world, especially when a great portion of one’s life is devoted to mulling over postmodern theories in a seated position or arguing about someone’s questionable use of “finger quotes” in a class debate.

Some of it is the environment of the gym – the filthy, drippy environment of the gym where the blood is cleaned from the floor once a week (if someone’s feeling particularly motivated).  Where I learn leverage, breath control, distance, and Spanish phrases I’m not allowed to say in front of Lo’s grandmother.  Where industrial space heaters intended to grace airplane hangars thrum beneath our workouts, keeping those who need to cut weight on track even though it’s freezing outside.  Where people who have no idea what I study or write or  my stand on composition pedagogy or the rhetoric of science  tease me about my whiteness in an un-self conscious way that seems golden in a life of painfully careful phrasing and anxiety about what someone will think of what I think. Where, most of all, I can forget myself; my worry isn’t strong enough to claim space in the moments when I have to focus everything I have on slowing my heart rate enough in the one minute rest to get through the three minutes of work in the upcoming round.  Where I get to Be.  Or to be.

How can I  not miss that?

If You Believe in Yourself…Cont’d

As mentioned, the fight’s off.  One well-placed body shot, one strange “popping” sensation in my side, four x-ray views of my chest, one fracture diagnosis, no fight.  It was a weird-ass night.

If you’ve never been intimately involved in a full-contact sport, you might think that sparring and fighting are the same thing.  They look and sound remarkably similar: punches land with audible thumps; blood drips or trickles or flows from noses and lips; faces wince, flinch, occasionally snarl (a primordial, unconscious show of teeth covered by mouthguards).  But sparring isn’t fighting.  We understand that we’re not supposed to hurt one another, not in a serious, permanent way that pulls us out of the real game.

Most of us know that.

Rib Breaker (RB) has been coming to the gym for two-or-so months.  She hasn’t fought before, but a full lineup of varsity high school sports renders her exceptionally strong and aware of her body.  She practices her punches without the self-consciousness that plagues so many girls and women trying to eke out a place in boxing’s Boy Kingdom.  She’s someone with a lot of potential, a natural talent that gets noticed and piques curiosity.

“I’m gonna spar RB and A,” co-coach told me.  “Get on your headgear and be ready to round-robin with them.”

I’ve known A for about 6 months.  I blew her off when she first arrived at the gym: she was just another girl in too-short shorts who spent more time watching the boys watch her than watching her form in the mirrors.  A stuck with it, though, more and more often getting lost in her punches and footwork, slapping impatiently at misguided suitors who tried to get her attention between rounds.  We’ve worked together a lot  lately, and I now consider A a teammate.  I wasn’t worried about her.  RB’s taller, heavier, stronger, but A’s got ring-time, a mean overhand right, and patience.

Bell rings. A extends her left glove, our customary gesture, a handless handshake to establish good will.  RB tilts her head, momentarily confused until co-coach calls, “Touch gloves.”

RB bats A’s hand, then advances with an aggression that stuns me.  She unloads on A: jab-right-jab-right-body-right-jab-right.  Co-coach steps in, admonishes RB, “Whoa-whoa-whoa, RB.  This is sparring.  You don’t go all out.  Work  your defense and distance.”

RB nods, covers up for a moment.  A, now guarded and tense, taps RB’s headgear with a few jabs, moving her head back and forth, leading with her left shoulder like we’ve been working on.  RB stands static for an instant, then launches again.  She hits blindly, the punches are ragged around the edges but they’re landing hard.  A’s driven backwards, off-balance when RB lands a straight right that opens A’s nose.

“Time!” shouts co-coach.  He lifts A’s face by the chin, looks briefly at her car-wreck nose, takes off her headgear and gloves and sends her to the women’s restroom, where the water always smells like overdone eggs from sitting too long in the pipes between uses.  He glances at RB, who is examining the lacings on her gloves, turns to me, says, “Take it easy on her, but make her work.”  I wasn’t concerned, feeling certain that I’ll be able to back RB off if I need to.

Bell rings.  I extend my glove, but not all the way, saving some elbow-space in case she goes over my left with a jab after we touch. Instead, she loops with her right, smashing into my left ear with a force that muffles my hearing, like getting rolled by a wave from behind at the beach – disorientation as water pours into your eyes and nose and you push fruitlessly Up at what suddenly became Down.

She follows with a left hook. I block automatically, twisting slightly to the inside to follow her glove and absorb the shock.  She steps back, jumps forward with the right hook that breaks my rib. The Wrong inside me drops me to the floor on my knee, the first time I’ve been knocked down.

I knew for an instant that something had gone bad in my body, but I forgot. Endorphins, adrenaline, hyperventilation oxygen and Pure Fucking Rage erased knowledge, tapped instinct on its shoulder and brought me back to my feet.  We sparred two more rounds, my anger making me awkward, she turning away and showing the back of her head when I landed punches on her.  That’s supposed to be like a dog in a play-fight flashing their belly – I’m compelled to shut down and let her regroup.  After the sixth or seventh time she pulled the toreador crap, I plugged her in the shoulderblade anyway, drawing the ire of Lo and co-coach.  They both tried to talk to me afterward, but I was obviously too unsettled to listen, too queasy and robbed to care.  Lo and I left for home.

I hit the doorstep of our house and knew I couldn’t be around anyone at the moment. I made my apologies, then drove over to the big parking lot outside the stadium at the university.  I found a circle of dark away from the lights, parked my car, and cried for a half-hour.  I cried for being 33 years old and finding boxing too late to be able to stack up to someone whose body bounces back obediently from any sketchy situation.  I cried for being embarrassed in front of the Ring Voyeurs, the guys who used to fight and now hang around the gym like their guts hang over their pants; unimpressive, practically stationary, but solid and real and there.  I cried because as much as I’ve built my muscle and timing and cardio condition over the past year, I apparently hadn’t developed confidence that would and should coast me through a bad sparring session.  Mostly, though, I just cried because I love This Thing so much and someone who knows nothing took that love away from me that night.

When I returned home, Lo took one look at me, then carried me to the bathroom where he undressed me like a child (“Arms up.”  “Give me your foot.”) and put me into the bathtub (the place he knows I always retreat when the world’s falling down).  I finished it out there, caught my mental breath at last, and stood up to towel off and go to bed.

Pain. Serious pain came back as instinct and epinephrine retired for the evening and knowledge again took the floor.  I knew something was wrong in my side, I just didn’t know what.  It took x-rays the following morning to answer that, with the footnote that I’ve got 4-6 weeks before I can even think about really training again.

“There’ll be tons of fights next year,” Lo says, and it’s true (amateur figts are rare during the holiday season when fighters want to eat with their families).  “You let being mad take away everything you’ve learned.  You just stood there and slugged it out with her instead of making her box  you.  Every time you thought about it before you threw, you out-boxed her like nothing.”  That’s true, too.  Unfortunately, it seems that knowing the truth (once again) isn’t making me feel any better.

“It’s one of the classic American meta-narratives,” I say to Lo a few days later. [His eyes start to glaze over, as they often do when I start in on the words that begin with “meta” or “post” or “neo” and end with “ism” or “ological.”] “‘If you believe in yourself, give 110%, and never abandon your dream, you can accomplish anything.’  But it’s not really true.  I work my ass off, want this more than I should and I still got taken by some girl who doesn’t know shit.”

He did the right thing, which was nothing.  He just took my hand and sighed.

If You Believe in Yourself, Give 110%, (don’t fracture a rib), and Never Abandon Your Dream, You Can Accomplish Anything

The Question will remain unanswered for the moment.  An overzealous, undertrained sparring partner fractured one of my ribs, making the Nov. 7th fight a no-go for me.  More later…

I’m Getting Ready to Rum-BLLLLLLLE.

Exactly one month from today (pending approved opponent) I’ll be navigating my first fight.

I decided in my mind about two months ago; decided in public two weeks after that.  It changed absolutely everything about boxing for me, including:

The Hierarchy. As I have mentioned, https://phdeath.wordpress.com/2009/04/23/dont-be-a-looky-loo-be-a-do-y-loo/, fighting in the ring (or merely saying you will, it turns out) secures one a place in the top echelon of the boxing gym.  Eyes are on me in new ways: seasoned fighters drop tips on their way to the water fountain (“Good on the feet, but keep your chin down.”), fighters at my level try to find a toehold in my psyche to plot their own (“Nervous yet?”), coaches favor me (“Get the fuck outta the way if you’re just gonna stand there – she’s trying to work.”).  Yes: I’m trying to work.

The Work. Boxing has always been the hardest physical task I’ve ever undertaken.  Our gym is a nod to traditionalist fight training – no air conditioning, no comforts, base accoutrements.  Get 20 of us working in there at 6PM on an August afternoon, and you’ll leave with your toes pruned from the sweat in your shoes – literally – like you’ve been swimming for the last 90 minutes.  It’s been rough since I started, but training is nothing like training-to-fight.

In addition to Lo, another trainer – a retired pro – took a shine to me and offered to help bring me along.  He subscribes to a well-tested and absolutely exhausting school of thought: boxing’s about legs and lungs, not fists.  His cardio/strength regiment takes things from my body that I didn’t know it had to give.  His relentless attention has sharpened my punches and my focus- the Hawthorne Effect revealed to me in a way that my undergrad intro psychology class could never have divulged.  I came off the bag one night after a round of burnouts (throwing as many punches as fast as you can for one minute) to hang over one of the industrial trashcans, unsure if I was going to throw up from the exertion.

“You OK there?” co-coach asked anxiously.

“I’m alright,” between gasps. “Just feeling pretty sick right now.”

“Oh. You know, just because you’re punching fast doesn’t mean you can’t punch clean.  Toward the end of that last set you weren’t snapping that left back to your cheek.  You’d be leaving yourself open for an overhand right just like we talked about…”

I got the feeling that if I had been puking my guts out in that moment, he simply would have critiqued my heaving technique.

“You’ve got to want it more,” he finished.  That’s how he almost always finishes.

Wanting it More. I hesitate to say it because it sounds as cliched as a boxer having “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky on his iPod roadwork mix, but it’s true: I love the film Million Dollar Baby.  It’s not just because it’s a movie about a chick who boxes, it’s because it’s an amazing movie about a chick who boxes. It was adapted from a short story by the late F.X. Toole; his decades-long passion for boxing informs every detail, every character, every jab and slip and cut in the film.  If you box, you know this movie is legit.  Unfortunately, it’s also inspired my not-so-inspiring nickname from Lo.

Those who have seen MDB know the infinitely-hateable “Billie the Blue Bear,” the bitch who causes Maggie’s paralysis and eventual death.  Billie doesn’t care who she hurts or how badly, so long as she wins.

I don’t seem to mind if I lose or how badly, as long as I don’t hurt someone.  Enter “Becki the Care Bear.”

I’ve been doing far more sparring – learning to deliver and absorb punches in real-time is the most essential element of my training right now.  I’m absorbing beautifully.  The delivery’s been less impressive.

Lo, between rounds: “Why are you pretending?  You’re pulling 90% of your punches.  Get in there and land on her – that’s what she’s there for.”  (her/she, in this case, is a newly-minted female pro who started her wildly successful amateur career when she was in gradeschool.  I couldn’t hurt her with a two-by-four, but I still held back.).  Female pros; dudes with five inches and forty-five pounds on me; a girl who was allowed to beat on me for two rounds when I was forbidden to punch her back so she could build confidence…all receive the same gentle handling, arouse in me the same concern.  I’ve yet to really let my hands go on anyone to date, and I need to do that if I’m going to be ready.

I’m becoming a solid fighter…I just don’t much like to punch people.  I don’t remember all the details of necessary and sufficient conditions from the Informal Logic class I TAed 1,000,000 years ago, but it does seem obvious that I can’t fight well if I don’t want to hit anyone.  It seems a laughable stumbling block, but it’s my biggest challenge at present.

I’ve no pithy ending to conclude this.  I can only say that I hope to overcome this and not feel compelled to book passage to the Island of Misfit Toys (“A boxer…who can’t hit!!!”).

A Pound of Pure

There are almost no bright spots to being home-bound with the flu for three-days-and-counting.

Too tired and apathetic to read, journal, or prepare for the summer course I’m teaching in a few weeks.  Too mired in self-pity and chest congestion to rearrange my closet.  Too run down to do anything but curl on the couch with a double-the-fabric-softener blanket that I alternately embrace (the chills) and kick to the floor (the sweats).  Too weak from coughing and loss of appetite to monitor the results of the Iranian election, I turn to the movies we keep in the storage beneath our elderly TV.

My average body temperature runs in the low 97s Fahrenheit.  Anything over 100 and I begin to get tinny on the edges.

Temp: 101.3; Film: Requiem for a Dream.

Before The Wrestler and The Fountain, but after π (Pi), Darren Aronofsky made the moving, eloquently composed, breathtakingly ugly Requiem in 2000.  Aronofsky scripts obsession better than anyone I’ve encountered; Requiem is his landscape of addiction.  I’d seen it twice before; Saturday (Flu: Day III) was my third.  From nowhere, from everywhere, from fever, maybe: a Pound of Pure.

Harry and Tyrone are addicts restless in the ceaseless, small cycle of score and shoot.

HARRY

…we got this idea.   Tyrone has this connection, Brody, with some dynamite shit.  If we can get some cash together, we can get a piece, cut it up and make a fortune.

TYRONE

Soon we could get a pound of pure and retire.

HARRY

We’d get off hard knocks and be on easy street.

A Pound of Pure resurfaces later in the movie, too.  It’s not merely heroin, not just money, not only the end of petty everyday anxieties.  A Pound of Pure is a mantra, a code for Accomplishment, the psalm sung of having Arrived at Real Living.

We each have a Pound of Pure.  A girl I knew in high school, covered in anorexia creeping over her like ivy: a double-digit weight.  My mom: an Audi TT coupe.  My dad: a boat outfitted for deep-sea, captain’s flying bridge prominent on the horizon.  A friend from my Master’s program: a self-sufficient homestead, all food grown on premises.

And me?  I’ve had more Pounds of Pure than I can list. 

Age 11: my own horse.  My parents bought me a beautiful grey mare, not long off the racetrack.  She would bolt blindly – unstoppable – and was retired to pasture when she and I were 12.

Age 13: a boyfriend.  He was beautiful, too.  He kissed me with tongues before I was ready and dumped me a week before school started because, he said, he would be embarrassed to be seen with me in the hallway.

Age 17: acceptance to Temple University.  I lasted two weeks, the noises of Broad Street cutting through the window screens at night, and begged to be picked up and taken home.

Age 23: a cross-country move to sight-unseen southern New Mexico.  I was the still the same girl with less relative humidity.

Until a few months ago, my Pound of Pure was my Ph.D.  With it would come the job at the small, liberal arts college; the end of coursework and obligatory writing; personal acceptance that I was smart and worthwhile – not just an articulate scammer who gives good word.  Until then, my Pound of Pure would be picked up in May 2011 along with a fake diploma (the real degrees are mailed weeks later in cylindrical tubes) from a Dean of Arts and Sciences who had never before laid eyes on me.

A few months ago, I realized the Ph.D. won’t make me happy, either.  I’m going to finish, but the patina’s already worn off the whole thing.  I’d lost my Pound of Pure without noticing.

I don’t think I can find a new one.  Requiem made me realize that.  Harry and Tyrone get their Pound of Pure, and predictably they fuck it up.  It’s not because they’re junkies.  Rather, it’s because there is no Pound of Pure – not in the way we want it to be, not in the way that you can get it/reach it/finish it/conquer it/end it and Life Proper begins.  Once you’re there, you’re you.  You with a better car, a better piece, a better job, and you.

Maybe I’m not better off for realizing that.  I walked Lo through my Pound of Pure, through the skeleton frame of this post.  “It’s OK, though,” he said.  “You get the Pound of Pure, are happy for a little while, then start looking for the next One.  That’s what it means to be human: working from goal to goal, keeping up the fight.”

But I don’t want to pretend that the Emerald City is truly shimmering in glory; I’d rather reconcile to the dodgy huckster behind the curtain.  Or maybe to the fact that I have to be that huckster – creating my own happiness fully aware that I’m doing so.  Settling in for a journey with no end date, no departure/arrival boards, nothing to frame or sail or drive or snort or buy.

My ounce of acceptance is worth a Pound of Pure.

Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty (My High School Bully)

I found my high school bully on Facebook.  No: I didn’t friend her.

She was older than I; I’d not bothered to search her class in the “Find Friends” (or former enemies) function of FB.  Eventually, boredom led me to browse the graduation years close to mine, et voila: High School Bully (HSB).

The few people to whom I’ve mentioned this are, across the boards, surprised that I had a HSB.  It’s not just that I’m a boxer.  Nor is it the bearing boxing lends to the rest of my life.  It’s that I’m quietly comfortable being in charge: at school, at the barn – the kind of quietly-comfortable-being-in-charge that apparently seems a natural birthright.  My Now-Friends cannot reoncile a Then-Death who was a target.

But I was a late bloomer.  Physically, emotionally, and certainly in regards to self-confidence.  I didn’t really start to grow until I was immersed in my undergraduate degree – far too late to have it make a difference in 9th grade.

HSB and her methods were fairly typical.  I was, too: the bullied kid who had no idea how it all started and even less of a concept of how to make it stop.  It erupted one day midway through my freshman year, when she cornered me in a lavatory and announced “Five people told me you’ve been talking about me.” (It’s somehow always “five people” isn’t it?).

I wasn’t even 100% on her last name, much less singling her out for a smear campaign.  I can’t recall excatly what I said, how I supplicated, but it was enough for her to sniff my weakness, to glimpse my rather large Achilles Tendon and begin the chase.  For the next six months, every school day was HSB and her three-or-four-member entourage tracking me through my tiny, rural high school, making it so I couldn’t use a bathroom until I got home, pressuring me until I was the youngest ulcer patient served by my family’s internist.  My principal, still carrying the muscle of his high school football, said that girls never really did anything to one another, anyway, and from then the situation was quietly ignored by staff.  It ended at the same time as the school year, and blessedly did not restart for my sophomore semesters.  Ah: the lousiest time of my life in one, brief blog paragraph.

So now: Facebook.

“Holy shit!” I cried to Lo.  “Come here!”

He appeared by my side, squinting at the thumbnail photos.  “That’s her.  That’s my fucking HSB.”  Unlike my Now-Friends, Lo is familiar with my HSB.  Six years of marriage and two cross-country car rides will do that to you.

He stared incredulous.  “That’s her?”

“Yeah.  I guess she had the superfluous head removed sometime after graduation.”

He rolled his eyes at my intentional misread of his reaction, and I knew what he was thinking…because I was thinking it, as well.  She looked stunningly mundane.  In high school, she had a hard-edged prettiness; I had to admit that even as she worked me over.  Now, all of those angles were buried under soft flesh.  Her wash-n-go haircut, rounded features, even the appliances in front of which she posed were so prosaic.  She wore a shapeless tee-shirt, and though the photo was waist-up, I could easily imagine the clumsy capris or jeans that sat below the frame.

Lo drifted back to the living room.  I couldn’t stop looking at her embarrassed grin, the dimple above her elbow.  I felt myself biting down on the mouthguard that wasn’t there, my eyes narrowing as they do when I’m checking my distance from the punch-mitts. My breathing got more resonant, measured – the way it does when I’m working to control my adrenaline.

I realized I was furious.

I knew I still hated her, and how unhealthy that is.  I’d no idea I carried this much anger.  I shut down my laptop for the night.

Rationally, I think I should thank her.  Memories of her pointless, cruel offensive later taught me to square up, hold eye contact a second longer than comfortable, claim my space on every sidewalk and grocery store line and in every classroom.  Moreover, the Never Again she sparked in me is what sent me to boxing, one of the authentic joys in my life.  She unintentionally shaped one of the aspects of my personality I cherish most: Badass.  So yes, I owe her something for that.

Yet, I don’t feel that gratitude.  Time hasn’t comforted me, nor has HSB’s dissolution into a banal nonentity, nor my arrival at a being a person I really dig.

Is there closure beyond Dr. Phil?

Don’t Be a Looky-Loo; Be a Do-y Loo

“So – when are you going to fight?”

This question has been coming up frequently at the boxing gym the last few weeks.  I’ve been working hard, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  It helps to understand that there’s a hierarchy at the gym.

I. Randoms. Randoms are people who come to the gym once (or at the most, twice), realize boxing is really, really tough and never appear again.

II. Secondary Randoms. SRs make it past the first week, but remain nameless.

III. Regulars. Regulars can be counted on to show up, but don’t spar.  They have names, but no nicknames.

IV. Trainers. Trainers spar in preparation to Fight in the Ring.

V. Fighters. Fight in the Ring.  They are the Slashes to our GunsNRoses, the Kurts to our Nirvanas, the Fonzies to our “Happy Days.”

Then there’s me.  I train as hard as the Trainers, but have no solid plans to Fight in the Ring.  This baffles everyone at the gym.

It’s odd: in most ways I’m such an American.  I speak one, and only one language.  I measure in cups, miles, yards.  I get light-headed over the NFL.  Yet, I’m strangely non-competitive in my personal sports.  I ride well, but have only been in four horse shows in the last ten years.  I train until I’m so fatigued that some nights I get teary-eyed…but I haven’t really cared if I ever have a match.  And if you’ve no plans to climb those steps, slip between the ropes, Box Like Heaven and Fight Like Hell in front of a crowd, most ask “Why bother?”

I can’t provide a coherent answer.  “Why do I have to compete?” I asked Fiction Goddess, who is consistently incredulous about this whole boxing thing in the first place.  “Why can’t I just do my best at boxing because I love it?  Why does it only count if it’s scored?”

“Why does everything only count if you can win or lose?” FG replied.  She’s also incredulous about being an American, by the way.

“I know,” I say, warming to the topic.  “I want to be the best fighter I can be just for the pleasure of it.  Not for any extrinsic reward.  Like a Zen Buddhist, but who hits people.”

FG gracefully changed the subject, a talent that seems to come along with extensive yoga training.

Those at the gym, though, can’t be diverted from the topic of my (maybe-never-to-be) ring career.  Last night Lo’s coach approached me, spiral notebook in hand.  He gestured me ringside, asked, “What are you weighing these days?”

I should interject on myself here: unlike in polite society, asking about weight is not untoward in boxing.  We know one another to the ounce.  I couldn’t tell you Angel’s last name, but I know that he’s 111 right now, reveling in food again after cutting to 106 for Opens regionals.  Charlie’s down to 190 after a shoulder injury sidelined him: probably losing muscle.  Ayanna has a week to gain 8; yesterday she trained for an hour-and-a-half with a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese bouncing in her belly.

“I’m at 119 in my underwear, but I’ve been eating whatever I want…why?”

He told me there’s an all-woman/girl tournament coming up in June, and I should enter.

I’m torn.  I need to examine my motives, especially when the stakes are so high (as in, getting my ass kicked).  I am sorely tempted.  But I don’t know why.  Do I want to test myself, stand toe-to-toe, consider it a win just to step up?  Do I want to move up in the hierarchy?  Prove to everyone that Lo’s not wasting his time training a non-Fighter?  Be the only person in my academic department with blacked eyes, my blue collar badges?

I just don’t know.

A Poem to Goad a Poet

So…I know this amazing poet.  And you know who you are, Amazing Poet.  And I think I know you’re reading my blog when you should be posting on your own.  And if I, a dodgy rhetorician, can find the courage to post one of my dreadful poems, it follows that you can loose your genius.

I Just Wanted Red

When I was four, I always wanted red.

I was red in Candyland

ate cherry popsicles

and only accepted pink when it was

the closest thing to red.

My red Crayolas

and washable markers and

red tempra paint never lasted.

Blue, green, orange and yellow

stayed sharp

saturated

available

because I always wanted red.

One night, I took up my largest red crayon;

fat – as big around as my two biggest fingers put together –

and took up the task of turning my white dresser red.

I had a spot the size of my head scribbled in

when my mom caught me.

She scolded me

(she and Dr. Spock didn’t spank) and told me

no “Incredible Hulk” that night.

She thought I wanted to defy her,

assert my independence,

define myself separate from her.

But really?

I just wanted red.

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