Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kick Me Baby

"Kickboxing. Sport of the future."
- Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything (1989)

Lloyd Dobler, John Cusack's iconic character from the classic film of the 1980s was the first good guy on whom I had a crush. Otherwise, it's always been bad boys for me. It's telling that one of the few times I became smitten with a sensitive, caring soul, he also happened to be a fictional character.

In any case, Lloyd's passion for the sport of kickboxing was the beginning of my familiarity with the activity. Regular boxing always seemed challenging enough but this new incarnation involved a whole mess of kicks along with the requisite punches. As I spent all of my prime years (15-25) on the couch eating, gaining weight and losing muscle tone, I had the urge to do little more than bandage Lloyd after that mean Diane Court surprised him at the gym, resulting in a nice shot to the schnoz.

In my mid-20s, as I realized that I had trouble walking more than one flight of stairs and that my body bore a passing resemblance to the obese, chain smoking mother I abhorred, I finally got off my ass. Eight years and 60 pounds later, I have become more than one who patronizes the gym out of necessity. I found that I actually love to sweat, to challenge myself, to raise the adrenaline. I now get off on strength and agility, the ability to hang with the toughest, the way I once found solace in a Kit Kat binge.

One thing that has always made me uncomfortable however, is violence. Can't stand to see it. Can bear even less to be the perpetrator of it. I am the woman who watches episodes of Grey's Anatomy through her fingers. So though I always admired the badassery of a Laila Ali or a Cara Castronuova (a former trainer on The Biggest Loser), I never figured I'd have the stones to take up a sport that celebrates physical combat.

My usual Tuesday workout had long been a 20-mile round trip bike ride to downtown Chicago, bookending a Russian kettlebell session with my friend and trainer Rob. Well about six weeks ago, Rob had to cancel our usual meeting and I decided on a whim to take a shorter ride to the Lincoln Park gym I patronize. I was finally going to give kickboxing class a whirl. I asked around and learned it was all bag, no hand to hand engagement.

The meek, it turns out, shall inherit kickboxing. As long as I don't have to spar with an actual human, I. Am. An. Animal. I have split boxing gloves in my enthusiasm for whaling on the bag. I have been interrupted by the instructor with inquiries into the condition of my wrists and knuckles. At first I was confused and assumed I was simply using the wrong form. But as it turns out, Reagan wanted to know if I was ok because I was "killing" the heavy black sack in front of me. I don't need Dr. Freud to tell me I have a lot of aggression to release. But finally, at long last, I have a safe outlet. I don't have to fear hitting as hard as I can.

I suppose in a way, much like Lloyd Dobler, the discovery of kickboxing has provided a sense of power and control in a world where I often feel weak and ineffectual. Lloyd was the product of a disordered upbringing, graduating high school while living with his single mother of a sister. As the movie opens, he is hopelessly in love with a girl who seems unaware of his existence, staring at the probability of a lackluster future. I am also the product of a disordered upbringing and like the character, demanding physical exercise, striking out at a nameless target seems a lot more spirited and hopeful than sitting around waiting for something to happen.

I never realized in my youth, as I sat watching Say Anything ad nauseam with my younger sister, trading memorable quotes at lightening speed, that kickboxing was the sport of my future.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unexpected Valentines

At 33.5 years of age, I have lived long enough to know that both tragedy and spiritual uplift often come from the most unlikely places. One of the supremely terrible and wonderful features of human life is that we can plan all we want, but never quite know what to expect. But awareness of this fact doesn't always lead to preparedness, a ready script that one can summon in response to these little surprises.

Thus I was left on the street this evening, wordlessly clutching a three-foot tall white teddy bear named Shawn.

As part of my normal routine, I switched from one commuter train to the next, en route to the gym after a long day spent at the office. Upon alighting from the second train, a walk of roughly 6 blocks stood between me and the fitness center I patronize. Typically, I traverse the distance on autopilot, thinking over the day, what needs to be done when I get home, dread of the coming sweat session - the usual.

On this night, roughly halfway through my walk, I was interrupted from a reverie by the honk of a car horn. I looked to my left and it seemed that a rather well-dressed man driving a Mercedes-Benz was trying to grab my attention. Part of city living means coping with unwanted attention from various miscreants, but if Mr. Mercedes was a lunatic or a deadbeat, I had to admire the presentation.

I waved him off naturally, but he persisted. With an angry look on his face, he finally spoke: "Look I know this is weird, but can you just walk over here for a second?"

With that the gentleman thrust the aforementioned giant teddy bear from his driver side window, packaged adorably with a stand, fake roses and a balloon. "Here. Happy Valentine's Day," he said rather unenthusiastically.

By now I was running down a mental list of former friends and lovers. Had my memory lapsed completely? No other explanation made the scene logical. But failing to locate even a spark of recognition, I finally summoned the brain power to utter a single word, "Why?"

He sighed deeply before replying, "Because. You are a lot prettier and probably a lot nicer than the woman I just broke up with."

I wasn't ready for that at all. "But why me? Don't you want to give this to your mother, sister or at least a female friend?" [Presumably one that you have known for longer than 15 seconds?]

The man answered, "I really just want it out of my sight."

Why is that against every inclination I believed I had (I am SO not the teddy bear type), I suddenly wanted this stuffed animal more than anything? This bear represented something to the man - a loss, a broken promise, frustrated hopes. I will never really know the full story but all at once, I saw myself walking away from so many unsatisfying entanglements with nothing more than a box of tsotchkes. Here was someone in pain that I understood, literally asking me to lighten his load by taking a distressing Valentine's Day gift home. It seemed the least I could do.

By way of acceptance, I asked "May I at least have your name? So I know what to call the bear?"

"Shawn," was all he said. We made brief eye contact, and I like to believe, exchanged knowing looks. Yes, Shawn, this too shall pass. I was you last year.

Then Shawn peeled off into the night, into a world I never believed existed - where handsome men with nice cars and giant gifts still go home alone.

And I continued my walk to the gym, laden with a symbol of someone's disappointment. In the same moment that he gifted me the largest stuffed animal I will ever own, (and I WILL keep it because no one's pain belongs in a landfill), I hope I provided a service in return.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Super Rituals

As I get older, I am starting to realize that social and cultural rituals for which I used to think I was too evolved are beginning to adopt personal meaning.

I am not speaking of the big markers of the annual societal calendar, like the November/December holiday season. I simply have too many family and failed romance issues to get down with that period. Besides I hate the cold and the push to spend money I don't have.

The touchstones to which I am referring are of the more mundane variety: St. Patrick's Day, the annual Oscars telecast and the Super Bowl. I want to BE somewhere on these days, feel a sudden urge that I don't experience at more obvious times to participate and belong. What is it about a community of strangers that can make one feel so at home?

I experienced the now familiar lure this past Sunday. As a huge sports fan generally, and an NFL devotee more specifically, I have always enjoyed the Super Bowl. Once you take into account the commercials, National Anthem suspense (will the chosen singer forget the lyrics?) and Halftime Show (Madonna!!), the whole glittery spectacle is almost too much to resist. And with any luck, the game will be dramatic too, as the latest Giants/Patriots faceoff certainly was.

I met a couple friends at a popular Wrigleyville bar, a place I had never been, but on this day it didn't matter. Every inebriated Chicagoan was an instant pal trying to assess team allegiance, looking for potential kinship and maybe an excuse to buy a shot. It's like all the eye contact avoiding, brisk walks and dehumanization that can often serve as the hallmarks of urban life take a time out upon which everyone has silently agreed.

I used to think that those drawn to participate in the corporate-enhanced mass market rituals that comprise American culture just so didn't get it. Couldn't these lemmings see they were being preyed upon under the guise of collective enjoyment?

Yet paradoxically as I gain life experience and heartbreak, become more used to disappointment, these ceremonies inspire a childlike suspension of disbelief in which I am wholeheartedly willing to engage. Perhaps that is the point of rituals in the end. Everyone needs a break from isolation and introspection. Sometimes we just need something to celebrate.