So I made it to the gym today. I used to go every day, exercising for two hours, sometimes longer. I did this for reasons that had little to do with physical health.
One reason that motivated me was that I thought I had an ugly body. This comes from childhood: when you grow up overweight, and you don’t like being overweight, or you haven’t made peace with it, you stay fat forever, no matter how lean, trim, muscular or grown up, you may become.
The second reason was that, as a creative type whose mood took the occasional depressive plunge, I found that exercise sometimes dragged me away from the blues. Better yet, I could get that delightful endorphin rush that has a marvelous way of awakening my imagination and restoring my mind to a playful state: I enter the world of the book I’m writing and see what could be the road ahead.
Back then, I could walk to the gym. Now the gym to which I belong is a somewhat taxing bicycle ride away. The bikes have stayed in the garage ever since, in a fit of fitness foment, my wife and I decided to a nine miler on a hot day.
I typically use a car to get there, but before I could grope for the keys, I was overwhelmed by dull, aching pains in my legs, arms and back. These pains could be due to the heart meds I’m taking. Or they could be a magnified version of that yucky, haven’t-exercised-and-don’t-wanna vibe that, I think, is like a physical depression.
A major don’t-wanna had to do with karate. I have one of those black belts, and I taught morning classes for about ten years until my teacher, a bodyguard for celebrities, lost his school. For many years I was learning a new kata (a series of movements containing offensive and defensive techniques) every year, relying mostly on video clips, diagrams and written steps found on the Internet.
The gym has a yoga room that isn’t in use in the mid afternoon. I use it to do the katas I know, and learn the ones I don’t. For the last few years, it took me about three weeks to get the movements of a new kata down, and then about six months of practice for it to settle in and become interesting.
Then I hit Junro Yondan. The name means the Way Number Four. It’s one of five katas developed by Tetsuhiko Asai, a Japanese master of the Shotokhan school who, like so many martial arts instructors, founded his own style.
Junro Yondan, one of many new katas Asai created, involves a lot of counter-intuitive spinning. Instead of merely turning to the right or left, Asai has you turn in the opposite direction, using your hips to build momentum so that when you finally arrive, whatever technique you’re performing has more power in it.
Also, when you’re in a fight, it’s always good to have skills that can confuse your opponent. It is much more efficient, and predictable, to turn clockwise when you want to go right. By going counter-clockwise, you travel farther but, for most of the trip, you’re not where you’re opponent expects you to be.
It took me two years before I could begin to get the spins right. During those years, I began to take a variety of medications for high blood pressure and cholesterol (welcome to your Sixth Decade on the planet!), had an operation on my wrist that rendered it immobile for six weeks, and two heart attacks.
The pills I take every morning and evening tend to drain my energy during the first hour or so after I swallow them. In the mornings, I listen to lectures about philosophy, history and economics that can be found free on Youtube (the Yale Open Courses are among the best–about ten years ago the university recorded many undergraduate buffet of introductory and second level courses–see them now while before they go out of date!). I try to write after I’ve seen one or two, and the results tend to be spotty. Some days, I can do a page or two, especially if it has lively dialogue. Other days, nothing much happens. I’ll read, cook, run errands and walk the dog.
In the evenings I watch streaming TV with my wife. Sometimes, I have so little energy that I can’t keep my eyes open.
Yes, I’m getting old and the essence of this process is the mastery of doing more, with less. But sometimes, all I can do is…less.
I’ve noticed that I’m becoming more forgetful, clumsy and less energetic. Yes, my blood pressure is under control and there is no indication that I’ll have another heart attack any time soon. But I have moments when my mind is not at its best. I hear lectures on topics and personalities that I lectured about, and it will be as if I am learning about these things for the first time.
I carry a great deal of grief about disappoints related to my work and the publishing industry. Though I know others share this, I was surprised to see this quote, from the prolific and very highly regarded science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, from one of two books about Silverberg reviewed by the Washington Post’s book critic, Michael Dirda:
“Most publishing deals. . . begin with high hopes, warm feelings, and glowing promises, and generally end with catastrophic bungling on the publisher’s part and disappointment for the writer.”
Dirda adds that “this repeated pattern…gradually wore him down.” Silverberg is no longer writing.
The process by which creative people realize their dreams is impossibly difficult. One way to begin to understand it is to see it as bringing something utterly new into the world. Another is to consider how unlikely it is that ANYTHING worthwhile happens.
I know too many writers who worked very hard, did their best and had their spirit crushed by the publishing industry. It’s not that the industry makes the occasional mistake, failing to publish writing that will eventually find their audience and be considered important, delightful or just plain fun. It’s that they do this all the time, and they do it no matter how compliant, agreeable, pleasant, eager-to-please or sympathetic you–the author–aim to be.
That’s why, when I am teaching, I cannot tell my students that “hard work pays off,” because amount, kind and intensity of labor required to bring their new things into the world are different every time. Persistence helps. Not taking yourself too seriously helps. Silverberg’s “Laws of Literary Success” may also help:
“Read a lot. Write a lot. Read a lot more, write a lot more.”
Then there’s Joseph Conrad’s recommendation:
“In the destructive element immerse. That is the way.”
To which I’ll add: Exercising helps. Learning new things helps. Appreciating what you’re doing, and how lucky you are that you can do it, helps best of all.
So I went to the gym and started learning Junro Godan: the Way Number Five. This kata is about short, quick position shifts to gain distance and power.
Or so it seems right now. I’ve learned enough to anticipate that when I begin, I can never be sure where I’ll end up.
I hope to be able to let you know at the end of a year.