17 February, 2016

Tapping Out

The novelist boxes up his notes and inters them in the musty depths of a self-storage facility. Then he moves, retiring to some sleepy New England hamlet. He’s convinced that the book labored over for the better part of a decade can’t actually be written. He takes up a new, all-engrossing avocation — beekeeping — and spends the remainder of his years in an approximation of satisfaction, selling jars of dark wildflower honey and beeswax candles from the barn beside his house. His notes and manuscript draft molder and are eventually recycled by his next of kin, who aren’t interested in literary stewardship.

Or the poet for whom words were always lifeblood: he stares at the same vacant page for months, searching his soul for the language that suddenly won’t come. He quits publishing poems. In fact, he doesn’t write at all anymore, save for the occasional critical essay solicited by old acquaintances in the magazine world. His favors to these editors are prompted more by a need to fill empty hours than by creative drive. So he spends his efforts on the work of others, and, although he doesn’t admit as much, what he dreams of finding there is a soupçon of the pleasure he once obtained from his own poems.

Inspiration comes and goes. Creativity needs periodic refueling to keep running, and every writer has his or her preferred depot. (Some lucky bastards refuel midair, impressively enough, like long-distance military planes, but most of us lack the budget and auxiliary support for such maneuvers.) Parks, cafés, mountainsides, parties, beaches, libraries — wherever happens to take you out of your own headspace for a while works. In prose and poetry, perspective is everything. Changes in scenery are crucial… but they aren’t always enough.

Sometimes the tank goes unexpectedly dry, or there’s a mechanical failure, and the writer’s mighty efforts to remedy the problem come to naught. It must feel like a death in the family, to lose a part of one’s self integral to identity and sense of purpose — a horror beyond imagining.

Of course I imagine it all the time. There’s a mytho-romantic element to writer’s block, the tragic drama of a tortured artist pushing forward despite opposition from within. It’s like a Wagnerian opera. What would it be like to sit at the desk, clutching my head in my hands, and staring blankly at typewriter keys taunting me with their untapped potential, the creamy void of a fresh sheet of paper curling from inside the machine, beckoning me, as if from a great distance, to fill it with genius thoughts and ideas? I can see all this so clearly; it looks like I have a migraine.

Maybe more often than it perturbs the average writer, this sad vision preoccupies me. Unlike you, it’s not possible for me to pop outside whenever my low-fuel indicator dings. I can’t take a vacation, a pottery class, a walk down the street. I can’t, in fact, move beyond these four walls most of the time. Every day it’s the same scenery for me, much like Groundhog Day, except at least Bill Murray’s character in the movie had a whole town to call purgatory.

Prison provides a lot of material, from a writer’s perspective. I work with it because it’s what I have (that, plus an active mental life). Yet the images of the exhausted novelist and poet haunt me. Did they see their inactivity coming? Had they heard indicators chiming? More frightening still: were they aware, trying with all their resources to refuel, only to find nowhere offering the type of fuel their craft needed?

I don’t know how capacious my tank is. I suspect that none of us do. The sputtering of a craft running on empty probably feel identical to one merely bogging down for a moment. This indeterminacy makes both equally mortifying. What I’m running on will have to last me the duration of my trip through limbo. One distress I can’t imagine is getting stranded out here.

02 February, 2016

Cue Totally Rad 1980s-Movie Training Montage (Soundtrack by Dead or Alive)

It was on my bucket list for the longest time: find a fitness regimen I didn’t despise. The odds seemed stacked against me. A sedentary soul by nature, I was more comfortable between the covers of a book than between grunting meatheads at the gym. I could’ve given you a list of reasons why working out was not my bag. What it came down to, though, was smallness. The concept I’d developed of myself was one with which physical exertion didn’t jibe — like how some people can’t picture themselves wearing certain types of shoes. Not that my limiting ideas were concerned with appearances. No, they ran deeper than that.

I went through a phase, in my youth, when my physique grew decidedly toward roundness. My father and his boyfriend, fitness buffs that they were, noticed. They conspired to add me to their gym membership. After that, four days a week, Pops coached me through a grueling nightmare of cardio and strength exercises.

Other gymgoers couldn’t stay away from us. They thought it was great, a dad helping his son get into shape like that. Even I caught the subtext: “Way to go, dude, for whipping that little pudding cup into shape.” Pops was a real specimen, dark-haired and blue-eyed, beefy enough to compete in bodybuilding events from time to time. The women who approached us saw the perfect opportunity to flirt. I resented these hardbodies, male and female alike, and I hated every sweaty second of our sessions. The painful clanging of iron, the stink of a hundred bodies and the effluvia of their exertion, the agonizing chafing of my nooks and crannies — it’s a testament to my fortitude that this mental overtaxing only brought me to tears once.

The pain paid off, as pain frequently does. At the end of summer I started my freshman year in high school with a body worth displaying. Except I wasn’t showing it to anyone. Long sleeves and lots of black were by that point wardrobe staples, a product of my desire for invisibility. I was awkward around peers, who were never interested in the same geeky things as I was. For company I’d take a computer over them, any day.

Flab banished, I gave up the gym. Those hours seemed better spent with books, music, or PCs — anything that exercised my brain. Like a petulant child, I rebelled against everything that explicitly promoted health, avoiding physical exertion, sensible foods, and temperance the way someone who’s been mugged avoids dark alleys. Never again, I vowed with the confidence born of a young man’s metabolism, then lit up a smoke, admired my alabaster skin in a mirror, and sighed delightedly, Isn’t immortality wonderful?

Life went on. A quarter-century passed, and I noticed that the luxe machine that ferried my brain around was developing a few cracks in the upholstery. It sometimes made strange noises when I hit the accelerator. Some parts leaked. The realization that my negligence was to blame was slow to dawn, like a sunrise. When I finally got a look at the chassis in daylight, I knew it was time to do something.

By this point I’d been imprisoned for fourteen years — a meaningless number except to show that I’d been locked away, more physically idle than ever before, for a long time. The stereotypical prison inmate is physically imposing — tattooed all over, built like a Mack truck on steroids. I was neither. Defying the status quo, particularly as an innocent man amid criminals, is a point of pride. Also, circumstances did nothing to lessen my grudge against the gym. If anything, a prison gym kicked every undesirable element up exponentially.

So I settled on about forty-five minutes a day of basics — pushups, dips, stretches, jumping jacks — whatever I could manage at work when no one else was around. Those little fits of activity were almost meditative: I listened to my body, focusing on the tension and flex in every muscle and joint, doing only as much as felt right, getting acquainted with it again in this way. The numbers of motions and reps increased each week. I started setting modest aims, to see how much I might improve in a given period — a game with myself. Workouts, such as they were, evolved into mini challenges I looked forward to.

Flip can often be found at the farthest corner of the prison yard, weather permitting, doing yoga in the grass. When it came up in conversation, he asked if I cared to expand my repertoire, possibly start a more structured, disciplined version of what I’d been doing. The manual he loaned me was on body-weight training, about which I knew nothing but quickly got interested. Body-weight training builds strength and endurance through natural motions, requiring almost nothing in the way of equipment but sturdy ledges of various heights, something high enough to grasp and hang from, and the occasional short stack of books (or a basketball). It’s ideally done in solitude. Perfect! What’s more, the exercises in the book Flip loaned me are cool. Emphasis on balance and full-range motion leads toward feats such as standing-to-standing bridges and one-armed handstand pushups. To watch someone doing body-weight work is like watching a circus act warm up.

Seven months on, I stay pretty regular with my days, rarely going two without working out. Each session takes less than forty minutes, which doesn’t cut into writing time and proves that it’s quality, not quantity, that makes the difference. And what a difference!

Going in, I promised myself I wouldn’t turn into one of those guys, the goons who proselytize about fitness and bore people senseless, recounting their achievements. The astonishing accomplishment I feel after each incremental improvement (of which I have many) makes it hard not to crow. Maybe someone I judged as having any interest can tell you where my level of restraint lies.

The physical difference my regimen has made thus far is stunning. Parts of me bulge that haven’t bulged in decades. My skin itself feels different. Showering has turned into a novel experience, like bathing with a sexy stranger (is that weird?). And those muscly ridges that plunge, diagonally, under the trim waistlines of models in underwear ads? Those are called obliques, and I’ve discovered that you don’t need Photoshop to get visible ones.

So what’s the upshot here? Several have asked what my goal is, as though I’m charging toward a finish line where a medal awaits. But I see my workouts as a practice, not means to any specific end. I certainly don’t mind, while tuning my body to a state of health, sculpting it in the process; who wouldn’t want a physique like a cheetah wrapped in human skin? Primarily, though, I’m doing this to live the balance I’ve long claimed as my guiding maxim. Getting in shape is just one more step along the immeasurable road to better.

Now, please excuse me while I absentmindedly stroke my abs.