Sometimes Winning Isn’t Everything: a sort of fight recap

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” – Muhammad Ali

They say that winning isn’t everything, but part of me always figured that’s just what parents say to console their kids when they lose. Then I won a fight, and I’m not so sure anymore. Winning didn’t at all feel as I’d imagined it would. In fact, I found that winning doesn’t feel much different from losing. This is, perhaps, why I’ve struggled to write this post for nearly a month. Yeah, it felt better to be the one with the raised hand at the end of the fight. It was really nice to hear the congratulations from so many people and have 40 likes on a Facebook status update. (I realize that many of you get 40 likes for “heading to the grocery store—gotta buy TP,” but for me, it’s a big deal.) Winning felt a little better than losing, overall. The feeling that I just got beat up was still there though. I didn’t feel any less humbled than I did after I lost.

The girl I fought was tougher than I’d expected. Usually, if I can land a couple hard straight rights, people stop coming at me quite so fervently. She, on the other hand, seemed completely un-phased by anything I did. Her head flew back with each solid shot I threw, but her fists kept coming like the Energizer Bunny. My trainer later said that I sat down on the stool after the first round with a look that said, “Shit. I wasn’t expecting this shit.” Which pretty much sums up how I felt. She proceeded to come at me in the second and third rounds with as much determination and ferocity as she had in the first. The only thing that kept me calm and held me together was the knowledge that I was the better boxer. It wasn’t that I thought I was better—I knew that I was because I had been training longer, and I was more experienced. So I simply kept fighting through the three rounds, knowing that I would come out on top.

And I did. Rather than feeling like a victor, though, I was left with the feeling of, “well, so what?” Maybe the reason winning didn’t feel so much like winning is because, after I lost my first fight, I told myself that if it had been a different girl, or if I’d had a few more weeks to train, the outcome would have been different. The thing is, that’s a two way street—I can’t have it one way without the other. I won because I fought that girl on that night. There are only a million other boxers who could knock me senseless in less than two minutes, and the chances are good that if this girl had another month or so of training, she would have won. So, I wonder, what does it really mean to be a winner?

I connected instantly with the Muhammad Ali quote above when I saw it for the first time last summer. Initially, I thought it meant that in order to win, you have to work hard behind the scenes. Which is true. There are very few winners who haven’t put in their time back stage. After the last fight, however, this quote flipped on itself to mean something entirely different and, somehow, exactly the same. It helped me define what it means to be a winner—perhaps not as Merriam-Webster would have, but in a way that is meaningful to me. I suspect that Ali did not have this in mind when he said it, but in a way, his quote implies that we make ourselves winners or losers before we step into the ring. Maybe this means that what happens in the ring actually matters less than we imagine—or not at all. People create winners within themselves by working hard, persevering, and passionately pursuing their dreams. Maybe when you’ve already made the winner, the outcome of a boxing match can’t change that title.

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when hard work doesn’t pay up

“Hard work pays off.” This is one of my trainer’s favorite lines. I’ve heard it so many times that I can hear it in my head like he’s standing beside me. In boxing, this is true, without a doubt. Each week I put in the effort, I see the pay off. A year of boxing has changed the way I think, molded my body, sharpened my reflexes, and has trained me to be a fighter. I am no longer an inexperienced newbie, but a seasoned (albeit, lightly seasoned) boxer. Even over the course of a few weeks, I notice improvements, such that I can hardly bear to watch the fight from four months ago because I’m embarrassed to see how little I resembled a boxer at that time.

The problem with hard work is that it seems it doesn’t always pays off—at least, not the way I hoped it would. Science swept the rug out from under me shortly after the New Year. Back in June, after two years of fruitless efforts, I set aside what I’d been working on and began following up on some exciting results previous lab members had observed. All was going as smoothly as science ever goes. I was just trying to get a quality image for publication when I grew suspicious of something and decided I should do one more control “just to reassure myself.” That control unraveled the whole experiment. I found that those “exciting results” were just an artifact of the technique we were using.

This is not the first time science has hit me with a doozy. Daily failures are something I’ve grown used to, sort of the way one gets used to repeatedly being hit in the head (only more demoralizing because you never really get to hit back). I’ve learned to expect failure in science. I now rejoice even when I’m simply successful at getting a flask of cells to grow, when there is a black smudge in the appropriate place on a blot, or when there are bacterial colonies on the plates that should have colonies (and not on the ones that shouldn’t!). The really painful failures though, are those when I realize I’ve been on the wrong track all along. I look ahead and see the dead end, and I turn around and see how much I’ve wasted getting there. Sometimes it seems like, with science, the harder I work, the less it pays off. After all, the faster you go on the road to nowhere, the more obvious it is that you’re not going anywhere.

This is the reason I was tempted to say that hard work pays off in everything except science. I was bitter and angry about putting nearly three years of work into a project that has given nothing back to me. Then I realized that I have gotten paid for my hard work, but not in the way I’d hoped. Hard work, success and failure in science are actually no different from in boxing—the difference is only in my objective and expectation. If my expectation when I signed up to fight had been that if I worked very hard at boxing for three months, I would win my fight, I would have been one sad little boxer. Come October 2, I would have looked back at those months of sweat and tears (and a little blood) and said it was all wasted. This, however, wasn’t my perspective. I wanted to master the sport, so I worked hard, and I continued to work hard even after I lost the fight. Still today, I put in the time and effort because I want to be a boxer. And, slowly, I am becoming a boxer. Now I can look back and laugh at how I used to throw my fists like superman and how I never blocked my opponent’s punches, so my nose was sore for months. I can be amazed at how effortlessly I move around the ring compared to the way I used to freeze anytime an opponent came at me. Whether or not I won the fight in October was a moot point because my ultimate goal was to learn—not to win. And that is what I’ve done.

At some point during the past year of my PhD, my objective in science changed. I began expecting to see results beyond the huge amount of information I was learning and all the skills I was mastering. I wanted a paper, and I wanted the end of my schooling to come into view. I lost sight of the fact that just a few years ago I was a baby scientist. When I started my PhD, I couldn’t speak the language of biology, nonetheless design experiments, follow protocols, and write up my results. When people mentioned the Central Dogma, I thought this might be a religious thing (in reality, it refers to the process of how the genetic information in DNA becomes a protein). Even just a couple years ago, I had only a vague understanding of cloning—I most certainly had never cloned anything. Now, I have cloned hundreds of bacterial strains. I have taught the Central Dogma to many Harvard undergraduates. I am nearly fluent in biology, I design my own experiments, and I follow detailed protocols.

Remembering that my hard work has paid off—though not exactly in the way I was hoping—helps somewhat to keep me grounded. In fact, upon reflection, I’m sure I have learned more from working on a project that I have grappled with than I would have if I’d been handed a project that was a couple experiments away from publication. In a way, this project has fulfilled the true goal of my PhD better than I could have planned. I admit this with reluctance and a slight roll of the eyes because this doesn’t mean I am not still frustrated and overwhelmed at the thought of back-tracking and starting anew. Nor does this mean that I am not striving towards success in the more traditional sense. I do ultimately want to graduate, and I also would like to publish a paper on my work before that time. Similarly, I’d like to win a fight. I can only trust that if I continue to focus on gaining knowledge, on growing and developing as a scientist, a fighter, and a person, one day I’ll see the returns.

For anyone who has been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve published several articles on another blog called, bitterempire.com. You can find them below if you’re interested:

catching squirrels

Wednesdays and Fridays are special days for me and my dog, Sky. I get to spend two hours boxing at the gym early in the morning, and Sky gets one shot at catching a squirrel. That is the routine we’ve established over the past six weeks that he’s lived with me and my partner. I come home sweaty and tired, drink a smoothie, and take a shower. Then Sky gets to chase a squirrel. He knows the routine now, so with the familiar clink as I open the gate, he bolts towards the park like a drag racer with me in tow. We then spend four minutes arguing about who is walking whom. He lunges forward, and I stop and wait for him to back up. I move forward, he lunges, and we stop again. Sometimes I pretend any slight release of tension on the leash is actually loose leash walking because I don’t like walking at a pace that most turtles consider sluggish any more than he does. This way, little by little, we make our way across the 50 yards to the park. Then the real torture begins. I make him sit. And sit. He doesn’t even look at me—his eyes are fixed on the fat squirrels unwittingly enjoying the tasty acorns scattered around beneath the big oak trees. Sky’s every muscle is as taught as a harp string. His whole body is shaking with anticipation. Oh, how he wants it so bad. More than anything ever in the world he wants to get that squirrel. I take off the leash, but make him stay. By now he’s “sitting” only in the very loosest definition of the word, leaning forward, his haunches inches off the ground. When I think he can take it no longer, I say, “OK.” I always expect him to dart away after a squirrel, but he doesn’t. He tiptoes, one foot ever so softly at a time. Right front. Left back. Left front. Right back. So slowly and smoothly that even the tags on his collar cease their persistent jingling. He moves inches at a time, barely breathing for fear one of the squirrels may catch on to him. I don’t actually want him to catch a squirrel, so I spoil the fun a bit and walk noisily, shuffling leaves beside him to give the squirrels a few seconds warning. He gets annoyed by this, realizing his breakfast is about to take off up a tree, and he picks up the pace a little. His every move is fluid, as if he had wheels, not legs. Then it happens—so fast you can’t tell who moves first, Sky or the squirrel. A squirrel dashes full speed towards the nearest tree, and in the same instant, Sky, the great wild beast, the hunter, is after him. You can hear the skitter of squirrel claws on the tree bark, and Sky makes a mighty leap in a desperate attempt to climb the tree. Alas, this dog is no tree-dweller, and the squirrel is lost once again. But Sky will be back to try again next week, and the squirrels will still be there. I fear one day my squirrel-crazy pup will actually succeed in catching one of the rodents and will find out that it’s not actually that fun to catch animals with teeth and claws. But for now, he lives for these moments.

Watching Sky stalk squirrels today, seeing his uncontainable enthusiasm made me wonder what, in my life, makes me feel this way. What makes me feel alive when the world seems gray and cold? I am lucky to be able to name several: my amazing partner, a goofy dog, boxing, and writing. An eclectic combination, perhaps, but these are the things I live for, the things I think about all day long. So when my days are filled with just looking out the windows, well, at least we’re catching squirrels on Wednesday.

the bootstraps method

My trainer and one of the boxers told me the fight two weeks ago was a mental win, given how I fought and the experience difference between me and my opponent. A lot of people told me it was a great fight and that I did a great job. Many people said they were impressed. Someone even told me I was robbed. The encouragement has been really nice, but it seemed like there was something I was waiting to hear that no one was telling me. I spent a few days thinking about exactly what it was that I wanted to hear, and I finally figured it out: I don’t really care about hearing that I’ve worked very hard and improved a lot, or even that I’m a good boxer for having started not so long ago. I want to hear that I’m a talented boxer. I want to hear, not necessarily that I’m good now, but that I could be a great fighter if I wanted to be. In reality, being a great boxer would serve no real purpose for me, since I will never fight professionally or probably even seriously in the amateur ranks. But this doesn’t change the fact that I want to hear that I’m gifted. Why is this? Why would it mean so much more to me to be told that I may not be that great now, but I’m talented, than to be told that I’m a decent boxer because I worked really hard? When I think about it this way, it seems almost more meaningful to have worked really hard to be good, since that says more about one’s character and love for the sport. If I’m a good boxer because I’m gifted, it means my parents gave me some athletic genes, and I’m cashing in on it (albeit, probably with some hard work in there as well). That doesn’t seem as admirable as working really hard to be good at something you love, even if it doesn’t come naturally. Don’t most of us begrudge a little bit the people who are wealthy with family money, while we make heroes out of those who make it big by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps? Why do I view talent so differently from wealth?

I grew up hearing I was musically gifted. It’s true that I got away with practicing less than some other harpists or some of the kids in band, but I tend to think this was not because I was a talented musician. Rather, I was good at learning skills, which meant that training my hands to play the harp or my mouth to play the French horn came relatively easily. Maybe that’s just the way I justify “throwing away my talent,” which I’ve been accused of doing on multiple occasions. On the other hand, at school, I was told by standardized tests that I was not gifted, in spite of the fact that I did well in my classes. I have no doubt that this is a primary reason I veered away from academics and continued in harp though I had no real passion for music—I knew that I was good at the harp and that I could succeed in music. By the same logic, I assumed that because I wasn’t “academically gifted,” I wasn’t cut out for school.

I read an article recently from Psychology Today called “The Trouble With Bright Girls.” In it, the author, Dr. Heidi Halvorson, summarizes research from the 1980s showing that intelligent girls gave up the fastest of fifth grade children when they were presented with a complex task. Straight-A female students were the worst, capitulating the fastest of everyone. Intelligent boys, in contrast, were more likely to continue to struggle with the same task, rather than give up. Further research suggests that this phenomenon is not due to a child’s ability. Rather, it is caused by the difference in how girls and boys perceive and interpret struggling with a task; boys tend to believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work, whereas girls think that they have inherent abilities that determine what they are capable of accomplishing. In truth, researchers have shown that skills of all sorts are not innate and fixed, but can be improved drastically through hard work and persistence. However, this deep-rooted belief that abilities are hard-wired and not something that can be improved upon causes many women to shy away from goals that appear difficult or outside their field of expertise.

Halvorson suggests the reason for this belief stems from a difference in how adults encourage the two sexes. Little girls tend to be well-behaved and succeed at school, generally outperforming their male classmates. As a result, little girls are told things like “you are so smart,” “you are so good at that.” Boys, on the other hand, are often a bit more on the wild side and are fed lines like “if you would only pay attention, you could do this,” “if you would only sit still, you would learn,” etc. I would imagine that we women perpetuate this belief when raising our own daughters; we want to be told that we are smart and talented, so we make sure our daughters know that they are smart and talented as well. What could be wrong with that? The problem is that when girls struggle with a task, they take this to mean that they are not good at whatever the task is at hand, and consequently, they will never succeed at it. Boys understand this to mean that if they try harder, they will get it.

Wherever these beliefs came from, they most certainly have an effect on us as adults. In some way, however, I managed to break free from this misconception and make the leap into academia. I do not know what caused me to believe enough in myself to move away from music and back into the world of books, exams, and standardized tests. I think it may go back to my success in an Ecology class in high school. Regarding our first exam on edible plants, my teacher told me that I scored higher than anyone ever had and that I knew things he didn’t even know (as you can see in the photo, I have held on to that test for nearly 15 years). Perhaps I interpreted this to mean that I had some kind of scientific aptitude. (Looking back at my lifelong obsession with things you can eat, I realize my high score on this test may have been an indicator that I should have become a chef, not a scientist.) Or perhaps, without realizing it, I had learned from music that innate ability is not all there is to it—hard work, diligence, and passion are absolutely necessary. Indeed, they may be more important, since without them, even the most talented will not go far. Ultimately, the fact that I lacked passion meant that, talent or no talent, I would never be a great musician. As for being a scientist, I do not believe I am a particularly skilled or gifted scientist. I’ve made it this far in science mostly because of enthusiasm, persistence (aka, stubborn-ness), and a heap of hard work.

It’s difficult for me to tell how much this belief still affects my life. If I knew I was not a talented boxer—that even if I devoted all my time and effort to boxing, I would never be more than an average boxer, would I continue to do it? I like to think I would, since I don’t believe my goal in boxing is to be amazing, but I’m not sure. Is it because I don’t believe that I am a gifted researcher that I don’t intend to stay in research? I don’t know. I have not learned how to tease out my general feeling towards an activity or career from my perception of how gifted I am at it. However, now that I know that I am carrying around this misconception, at least I can take this into account as I make decisions and move forward in my life. Instead of waiting for family money, I can try the bootstraps method, doing the things I love because I love them, not because I will ever be great.

The Fight: After (or, learning to lose)

“Rather than the strength it takes to not lose, it’s the strength to stand back up after a loss that is sometimes more valuable.”
―Kyo Shirodaira

My heart sank for a second when I looked at my little USA Boxing Passbook the day after the fight and saw the checkmark in the box labeled “lost.” But then two things came to mind: the first was that now the pressure is off—my record will never be perfect, so it doesn’t really matter if I lose the next fight or the fight after that. The second was that, for nearly all amateur boxers, your record is what it is because of the opponents you’ve faced. There will always be better boxers to put you in your place—whether or not you face them in the ring determines how many times “won” is checked versus “lost.” I faced a boxer who has been boxing for years longer than I have, and she gave me a run for my money. If I’d faced a different opponent, perhaps a boxer with more equivalent experience, I might have won. Or maybe not, but it doesn’t actually matter because there’s always going to be someone to kick my ass.

My relatively graceful loss of the fight was my biggest surprise of the night. Being a perfectionist and over-achiever, I generally take defeat hard and personally—each defeat serving to me as more proof that I am not really worth anything. But I actually didn’t feel defeated that night. Not when the announcer called my opponent’s name as the winner. Not when I stepped out of the ring to walk back to the green room with my coaches. I knew I had fought the best fight I could have fought; I had given it all I had. I did some of the things I wanted to do some of the time, my opponent did not dominate me, and on a different day I think I could have come out the winner. It turns out that what I’d really hoped for was that I’d put up a fight, and that’s what I did.

Most of the fight is a blur to me. I have only a few clear memories of it. I remember the feeling of getting tripped up in the first round—I remember exactly how my feet felt sticking to the mat before I toppled backwards. I remember the referee’s gentle smile and the way she kindly said, “I know” when I assured her that I was fine as she counted to eight on her fingers after that fall. I remember being in the red corner in between rounds with a trainer on one knee in front of me, rinsing my mouth guard then pouring water into my parched mouth, while my primary trainer put icepacks on my neck like they do in the professional fights and talked to me calmly, giving me advice (although the words he said are lost to me now). I remember hearing my trainer say, “I think you took that one” as I approached my corner after the second round. I remember thinking during one round that I had not parried a single shot and that maybe I should do that, and I remember parrying two jabs then giving up on that idea because, even though it is the most basic defense we learn, it took too much of my mental energy. I remember getting hit fairly hard a couple times by my opponent’s cross, which always came fast after one or two quick jabs. As my head was knocked backwards, I remember thinking, “was that as hard as I get hit in the gym? No, not even close—I can still see.” My greatest memory I think took place in the third round, but it may have been the second. I slipped my opponent’s cross and came back with a left hook to the body—a throw I have not used often, if ever, in sparring. I followed the body shot with a shot to the head, or maybe two shots to the head. I’ve watched the videos since, and it seems I did this more than once, but I remember only one time distinctly because I really connected, and it all felt exactly the way it should feel. I remember being so unbelievably exhausted in the third round that I could hardly raise my hands (I now have so much respect for professional fighters who go sometimes 7-9 more rounds than I did). I remember the four thumps signaling the last seconds of the third round, and I remember going at each other with every last bit of energy we could muster like two animals fighting to the death. I remember the announcer saying, as we stood under the bright lights, that it was a split decision and thinking, in those long seconds as we waited to hear the final decision, that this means that I could have won. I remember the announcement that the winner, fighting out of the blue corner, was my opponent. And I remember the surprising lack of emotion I felt upon hearing this.

Of those eight minutes of my life, that’s about all I can recall. The rest is just a fuzzy haze of punches, clamor from the crowds, sweat, lights and exhaustion.

The thing I feel worst about, having lost the fight, is letting my trainer down. Someone told me he has never had a woman lose in the Haymakers for Hope fights, so thanks to me, his record is no longer unblemished. He made it clear to me before the fight that he was already proud of me, that no matter what happened out there, he would be proud of me, but that doesn’t change the regret I feel about not giving him another W.

My other big regret is that I didn’t connect with an uppercut. I threw a right uppercut once that I can remember, but missed or only grazed her. Ah well, I will have to fight again, if only to use my uppercut.

Overall, however, the fight was a success. I think it was a real boxing match—not two women flailing wildly at each other, as is what happens sometimes in charity matches. I showed that I had come a long way from my very first sparring session three months ago when I threw punches with two fists at a time like superman, when I couldn’t even imagine slipping a shot, nonetheless returning fire after a slip, when I barely even knew how to throw an uppercut, and when I moved stiffly around the ring and froze whenever someone threw a punch at me. It was a fair fight, in spite of our mismatched experience. I did not get beat up. I never felt panicked or that horrible, desperate feeling that comes when I’m getting the shit kicked out of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am so glad I did not feel inclined to cry afterwards like I have so many times after a bad sparring session. Not even after leaving the ring did any of those emotions surface. This means, to me, that she didn’t totally win the fight.

So is this it for me and boxing? Not at all. I’ve only just started to get the hang of this sport—why would I stop now? Besides, I love it. I love boxing because it pushes me to my physical and mental limits. I love it for the technical skill required, for the excitement, and for the people. More than anything, I love it for what it teaches me about myself and about life. From boxing, I’ve learned humility, while gaining confidence. I’ve learned how to keep a cool head and take a hit. I’ve learned to trust my body, and I’ve learned how to fight when I’m exhausted beyond belief. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, three months of boxing has taught me something I didn’t learn from 15 years of playing the harp, from two advanced degrees, from running races of all distances or playing other sports. Boxing has taught, and continues to teach me to believe in myself even when I lose. And for this, I will be forever grateful because most of life is not winning. Most of life is getting up off the mat and saying “I can still do this.” Again and again and again.

Before signing off today, I want to say “thank you” to all the people who have made this possible and for the people who have supported me along the way. Many, many thanks to all the generous people who donated to my fundraising effort for Haymakers for Hope! Without your support, I couldn’t have done this (or anyway, I would have several thousand dollars charged to my credit card right now). I raised $4,775, and the total money raised from the fundraiser was greater than $155,000, which will go towards cancer research and awareness!

Thank you to the people who encouraged and helped me along the way. Thank you to my partner, especially, for getting me into this mess to begin with and for supporting me wholeheartedly these past three months when boxing took over my life. Thanks to Redline Fight Sports for sponsoring me. Thanks to all the people at Redline: first and foremost, thanks to my trainer who invested his time and energy in me and believed I could do this. Thank you to all the people who patiently taught me how to throw a punch and later, to all the men and women who sparred with me and made me a fighter. Don’t think this means your job is done. I’ll be back on Wednesday.

Lastly, thanks to all of you who have taken an interest in my story, read these posts, and commented on them or “liked” them on Facebook. As for the future of this blog, I have loved writing it, and I’ve learned a lot from it as well. I hope to keep it going, so if you’ve enjoyed it, please continue to check back.

The Fight: Before (or, a dog off its leash)

Wednesday October 1, 2014 (the day before the fight)

I’m not sure why I’m getting so worked up about this boxing match. I know the girl isn’t going to hurt me—she has nothing on any of the Redline women who I know could do some damage if they put their mind to it. There’s nothing to worry about there. When I think about this match in the grand scheme of things, or even the small scheme of things, it doesn’t even matter a tiny bit. It doesn’t even register on the matterometer (yes, I made that word up, but I think it’s going to stick). Whether I win or lose is of no import whatsoever. I have gained so much from this whole experience that if I walked away right now, I’ve already received more reward than I deserve. In training for Haymakers, I have rediscovered my love of writing, which I’ve had since I learned how to write, and this rediscovery will more than likely dictate my next career move in some manner. On top of that, I’ve learned about life. I’ve learned so much about myself and about my body. I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve worked hard and seen the payoff. So what does it matter if I lose this fight? It doesn’t.

When I remember that, the angry birds in my stomach quiet themselves, and I feel my heart rate come back to a sustainable, reasonable level. And something else happens…I remember that boxing is fun. I started boxing because it is fun. I kept sparring because it is fun. Not all the time, but it is fun when I am able to take the pressure off. When I can relax and enjoy the complexity, the athleticism of this sport, it feels the way my dog looks when he’s chasing a squirrel—it feels like being alive, like what I was made to do, like boxing has always been a part of me. When I think of this, I forget my nerves, and I become a dog pulling at the leash, eyes riveted on a squirrel, ready to run with every fiber of my being.

So I will think of my dog today. I will remember why I did this in the first place—not to win, but to learn. And learn I did, and learn I will again tomorrow night. I will play like a dog off his leash, thrilled to be alive, ecstatic to be doing what he loves, what he was made to do.

to all the fighters

Twelve weeks ago I signed my life away and set out on this crazy journey training for my first fight through Haymakers for Hope. (Literally, I signed on the line saying that it’s fine if I am seriously injured or die while training for or during this fight.) In the brief interviews that will be played before the fight, we were asked to state who we’re fighting for. In other words, who we know with cancer that is motivating us to climb into the ring and raise money for cancer research. I had trouble with this question, especially since our answer had to be constrained to about 12 seconds long. Sadly, as I suspect is true for many of you, the people in my life who have had their lives turned upside down by cancer are too many to count, nonetheless recite in 12 seconds. I said something vague like “I’m fighting for all those who have lost the battle to cancer.” But that doesn’t really cover it. I have lost friends and family to this disease. I know many survivors of cancer whose lives will never be the same. I believe cancer research is worthwhile and it is the only possibility for finding better treatments for cancer, so I wanted to raise money to support this. But who am I fighting for? How should I answer that? Jumping into the ring for 6 minutes seems pretty wimpy compared to the fight cancer patients face every day. I feel a little phony even saying that I’m fighting for one of these brave men and women. So this post is my sort of unsuccessful, roundabout effort to address this question.

The first time I came face to face with cancer besides the St. Jude specials, which always made me cry even as a little kid, was when my friend’s mom died of cancer when I was in the fourth grade. “Why her?” I thought. “Why did she have to die? Why not me instead? Wouldn’t that be better?” I vowed to cure cancer, and I set out on my quest by reading books with photos of children with leukemia. This was before I understood that there are countless different types of cancer, and even the same type of cancer in different people can have disparate faces. When I was nine years old, cancer was a problem that was unsolved, obviously, because I wasn’t thinking about it. I imagined that surely, if I put my mind to it, I would find the answer that everyone else had been missing. More than 15 years later, I would, in fact, spend a year actually researching melanoma, a type of cancer that is virtually untreatable once it metastasizes. I took tumor samples from patients with melanoma and implanted them in mice to study. When I would later remove these tumors from the mice, I remember thinking how strange it was to be holding the living cells of someone who had already died. How sad that what was left of this person who had a life and friends and family, talents and dreams, is a teaspoon full of cells and, with those that loved her, the memory of her life.

From age nine to thirty-one, I lost more loved ones to cancer, whom I still miss. There is one person I think of immediately when I think of cancer though; one person whose memory causes a distinct pain, materializing as an aching chest and a tightening in my throat. I’ll refer to him here as M. M was one of my students when I was a Graduate Student Instructor for an Introductory Biology Lab at the University of MI. On the first day of class, they always tell you to do some sort of silly ice breaker—games that few people like, but everyone is willing to do, since it is the first day of class, and they aren’t sick of you yet. For this class, I chose “Two Truths and a Lie,” a game where individuals tell the group two things that are true about him- or herself and one thing that is a lie, and the class must guess which one is the lie. In my science classes, I might say something like “I play the harp, I have 6 nieces and nephews, and I run marathons.” The truth is, I actually have 9 nieces and nephews, so that one is the lie. I know, tricky, tricky. Most students say they’ve gone sky diving, they’ve been to 6 continents, they have a little sister, etc. The game that day was progressing normally. Students were being congenial, and we were laughing at the more outlandish truths and lies. Then came M’s turn. “I have had a heart transplant, I have cancer, and I wear contacts.” The room of 20 teenagers grew still enough to hear the raindrop-sized beads of sweat seeping from my pores.

Did he not understand the rules? Maybe he thought it was Two Lies and One Truth? My most fervent prayer in that moment was that he was wearing contacts. No, of course he wasn’t. His vision was just fine. As it turns out, M had a heart transplant when he was seven, and he was presently, at 18 years old, battling lymphoma. My heart sank. We were all silent, not knowing exactly how to respond. My tongue felt paralyzed in the parched desert of my mouth.

“Wow, I really killed the mood with that one,” he joked, the cheerful smile beneath his bright red, neatly cropped hair, easing the tension. A few kids chuckled nervously. I stuttered something and tried to move on to another student, swearing to myself never to play this stupid game again.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from M after that most interesting introduction, but he turned out to be the student every teacher wants in his or her classroom. I think anyone who has taught before would agree that one student can make or break a classroom. One bad attitude can turn 20 good students against you. On the other hand, one enthusiastic, determined, outspoken student can create a dream classroom, full of engaged and dedicated students. M was the latter. He came to class prepared, he was polite and friendly to me and other students, he was helpful, he was very intelligent, he brought life into the classroom with a bright, mildly sarcastic, sense of humor. He became a light in the classroom and quickly moved to the top of my list of favorite students.

I was sure he would be fine. He was such a great kid. He had made it so far. I knew that his story would have a happy ending. He would triumph over the odds again.

Then one day I received an email from M saying that, due to his illness, he would be forced to withdraw from classes for the remainder of the semester. My heart was heavy, but I was still hopeful. I followed his progress on Caring Bridge, certain that one day I would find that he was in remission and would be coming back to school in the fall. That day never came. I still remember the last day I checked up on him. I saw the words I had been dreading. M had passed away a few weeks earlier in June—nine months after I met him. My heart ached. The question “why?” echoed in my mind again, but I knew by this time that there is no answer to that question.

There is no sufficient explanation for the cruelties of life. Kids die, babies starve, really good people suffer. That is how it is. Nor is there a way to take on the opponent of someone else, as I’d wished so long ago and still sometimes wish today. Occasionally, I have the privilege of assisting someone from the corner, but it is not my fight. I can fight only my own opponents.

Some people have bigger, scarier opponents than others. Some opponents are found on a medical chart, and some are not. When it comes down to it though, we are all fighting something, and the fight is real, no matter the opponent. We are fighting for our lives, we are fighting to be heard, we are fighting poverty, we are fighting addiction, we are fighting abuse, we are fighting for justice, we are fighting to be loved and to love, we are fighting for our friends or family, sometimes we are even fighting ourselves, but we are all fighting something.

I think perhaps if I could remember this always, I would have more mercy on the people around me, even on myself. We don’t have a ticket that lists the opponents of those around us though. It’s easy to forget that the guy who yells at me for walking my dog through the park is in the ring with his own opponent. Maybe he is losing in the twelfth round, weary and beaten. The woman I think has it all together with her beautiful body, fantastic job, all those friends…she is fighting something too, and it is real and overwhelming. And me? I have my own opponents. Some days, they beat the shit out of me. Perhaps if I could remember that we all lose sometimes, no matter how hard we fight, if I could give myself and others a break here and there, if I could see the people I pass on the street and work with and run into at the grocery store as fighters just like me…maybe then I could find the strength and compassion to help, to be gracious and loving, to be patient, to be merciful. Maybe if we could all acknowledge that we are surrounded by fighters, we would find that none of us are ever fighting alone—that there is always someone in our corner, someone cheering us on, someone to take care of us between rounds. Perhaps this way we could see more victors, or at least lift each other up when we’re down to go just one more round. And then when we fight the last round of the last fight, we’ll know we’ve fought hard in the ring, and outside the ring, we were the best cornerman we could be.

That is my answer that doesn’t really answer the question “for whom am I fighting?”

Here’s to all the fighters. May you always have someone in your corner. May you always find strength to get up one more time. May you find comfort when you lose the fight. May you be generous when you win. May we all find courage and hope together. Because we are all fighters.

just keep punching

I apologize to all the people who don’t actually want to read about boxing because this post is really only about boxing. There’s no life lesson or moral, except that hard work sometimes pays off. Oh, and sometimes there is no right punch. There is no right time. You just need to throw something and keep punching. So now that I’ve given away the punchline, if you don’t want to read about boxing, you can stop here, and you’ll save approximately four minutes of your time and have gotten the (very deep) moral of the story anyway (what a deal!).

Friday was a big day for two reasons: 1) I threw my first ever uppercut while sparring and 2) I started throwing more than one punch at a time (aka combinations).

I’d grown frustrated during the past couple weeks with my seeming inability to throw any more than one or two punches in a row. For instance, my jab-cross has come along nicely, but I couldn’t seem to follow the cross with the left hook, the punch everyone beginner boxer is taught to throw after the cross. I finally managed to throw an effective hook by itself last week, but couldn’t put it together in a combination with other throws. It seemed I had some mental block preventing me from throwing any more than two punches. I think I felt like I needed to throw the right punches, properly, at the right time. If I wasn’t sure I could land a punch, or if I thought it wasn’t the best punch, or not the best time, I wouldn’t throw it. Which means I didn’t throw a lot of punches. This is in spite of the fact that when I’m sparring with someone, I don’t really care if she is throwing proper punches at me when she’s wailing on me. I just really want to get away from the fists as fast as possible. Even if she’s not hitting me hard, it’s overwhelming and upsetting, and inevitably, one of the six shots ends up being a solid blow. Knowing this couldn’t get me out of my one-two rut though.

On Friday, a switch was flipped. We were practicing uppercuts during drills, and I told the woman with whom I was drilling that I thought the chances of me ever throwing an uppercut were slim to none. Truthfully, I was a little annoyed we were drilling uppercuts at all, since I thought that in these last few days of training before the fight I should be working on shots I would actually use. When we started sparring, the first round went by uneventfully with the same old jab-cross. In the 60 seconds between the first and second round I decided I would try to throw an uppercut just for kicks—only to see if I could connect with it. I figured I could slip the jab, which involves twisting a little to the right to get my head out of the way of the left-hand straight punch, and come back with a right uppercut, a shot aimed for the underside of an opponent’s chin. Then maybe, if I was feeling it, I could follow up with a left hook and right cross. That’s how I saw it happening in my head anyway. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what I did, since what I think happened in the ring and what actually happened in the ring after often distinctly different. But I did throw the uppercut. And in that split second, everything changed. All of a sudden, things opened up so that I could take other shots—the hook, the cross, another uppercut, and low and behold, when you are hitting someone, they are less likely to hit you back, which allowed me to hit more. Whatever block that had been there vanished, and I just started throwing punches. It didn’t matter if I missed some or if they weren’t perfect. All that mattered was that I was punching. I was actually putting up a fight.

Friday morning was probably my last real class before the fight, since I’ll start easing up on training by Monday or Tuesday. It was great to end on a high and the feeling like I can bring it next Thursday. I don’t know who will win this fight, but I know I won’t go down without a fight. If nothing else, I’ll just keep punching.

KEEP CALM AND BOX ON

Ten days out from the fight, things are starting to come together for me. This may be the fourth time I’ve written that things are finally starting to click, but maybe that’s just how boxing is: like life, you’re forever learning and always a step (or, at times, several miles) away from having it together. As soon as you think you’ve sort of figured it out, life fakes the cross and comes with a left hook to the body, and you find yourself in the fetal position on the mat.

My trainer seems to think I’ve come light years from where I was a couple months ago. In general, everything feels a little bit more natural in the ring. I’m throwing more punches and landing a higher percentage of them. I’m moving more around the ring and getting my head out of the way of my opponents fists. My fakes are more convincing. I’m turning my hips when I throw my cross. I’m mixing up combinations here and there, going from head to body or body to head, trying to remain unpredictable. I’m not getting hit as hard (or else I’m getting used to getting hit hard), and I’m countering sometimes when I get hit, instead of freezing. On Friday, I even successfully threw a left hook!

The biggest difference for me though is that I’m not afraid of anyone anymore. I used be overcome with nerves when I went up against certain boxers. My heart would start racing, and the butterflies in my stomach would transform into a flock of angry sea gulls. This would cause a sort of clog in communication between my body and my mind, slowing messages and preventing my body from doing what it knows how to do. Even now, immediately after I find out that I’m sparring with one of these women, a tiny fear monster springs up inside me out of habit. Instead of taking over my mind and body as it used to though, I manage to pacify the creature by reminding myself that I will fight these women just like I fight the boxers I’m not afraid of. I envision a sort of circular folding in on myself like a fountain in reverse, pulling in what I need with deep breaths, washing away the noisy monsters, and allowing the calm to spread from my slowing heartbeat through my limbs to the tips of my fingers and toes. Then, when the bell rings and I start fighting, amazingly, I have fun.

Learning to relax in the ring has been the biggest challenge for me, but I honestly believe that the progress I’ve made over the past month or so has largely come as a result of learning to calm my nerves. I can’t help but wonder if the same is true outside the ring. Maybe they’re right—perhaps worrying really doesn’t help anything. In fact, maybe getting all worked up and anxious actually makes life’s blows hurt more. Maybe if I could let go of my fears and anxieties, I could be a better human, and I could have a happier life. (I know, you’re thinking, “well, duh, Hannah. It only took you 31 years to figure this out?” Well, I’m a little slow about things like this). Anyway, I am trying to adopt the principles I’m learning in the ring into my daily routine. After all, the worst it could do is lower my blood pressure a little bit.

I’ll start by saying that, being prone to anxiety and depression, and having an overly active imagination, remaining calm is not my forte. I think this whole “centering practice,” as some people call it, is a great idea when I’m already relaxed and in good humor, when things aren’t going too badly, when my opponent isn’t so scary. I’m really not too bad at breathing, relaxing, letting go of the little things. Until, that is, life throws something at me that I’m not expecting. Then it all goes to shit. The fear monsters spring up from every direction and feed off my anxious mind, growing and multiplying until they’ve crept into every dark corner of my being.

So how do I learn to find calm in life’s chaos like I can in the ring? How do I quiet the fear monsters in real life? If you were hoping I’d have the answer, I hate to let you down. I don’t know how to do this, but, scientist that I am, I’m trying an experiment. My hypothesis is that the same thing that changed my life in the ring may help me in real life.

My trainer has told me from the start that I need to relax in the ring, but to be completely honest, I couldn’t imagine what that would look like. It was hard for me to even tell that I wasn’t relaxed. So I started observing when I sparred with boxers I wasn’t afraid to fight: the little boy, the guys at the gym who are so gentle with me. I began consciously focusing on how my body feels when it is calm. I felt it’s strong and steady heartbeat, I felt my core engaging with every punch, I felt how my hips turn when my body is loose, I felt my body respond to my sparring partner without me telling it to. I practiced calm. And then, one day, when I stepped into the ring with the big, scary opponents, I remembered what calm felt like, and I tried to imitate it. I moved and breathed like I was not anxious. Miraculously, this resulted in me taking fewer hits, or at least, the hits felt less hard. This boosted my confidence. It made me believe I was perhaps less bad than I had originally thought, which allowed me to relax a little more. Still, these days, sometimes when I get hit, I start to get worked up like old times. My muscles tense, and I find myself caught again on the wrong side of a flurry of punches. But then I back off for a second, breathe, and remember calm. I cannot say I’ve mastered this, but I can say that calm is feeling a little less foreign.

So I am trying to practice calm outside of the ring every day when life is not so scary. I’m trying to feel what calm is like. Then maybe when I find myself up against the big opponents, the really hard stuff of life, I’ll be able to remember calm and call it back. Maybe I’ll be able to imagine being calm, and maybe this will actually help me relax even as fists are flying around me. Then maybe I’ll be able to roll with the punches instead of rigidly resisting them. And maybe, just maybe, the punches will hurt a tiny bit less. I don’t expect this is something I’ll ever master. Rather, I suspect it is something I’ll have to practice and exercise for the rest of my life, as I meet bigger and better opponents. But perhaps practicing calm will allow me to reign in the fear monsters and enjoy this adventure a little bit more.

an accidental intervention: how boxing helps me eat

It seems lately that I can go from Happy Hannah to Hangry Hannah (hungry+angry=hangry) in a matter of moments. It is a Jekyll and Hyde type of transformation from my normal self, a person who is generally laid back and polite, to a ravenously, desperately hungry version of myself, reminiscent of a starving werewolf. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise given my workout schedule, but consider this fair warning: you better hope you are not the one who comes between me and my next meal.

Similar to most women, I’ve had a complicated relationship with food and my body since long before I started shaving my legs. It all began when someone in my second grade class decided I was the fat kid. Unwittingly, that person shaped the way I would view my body for the next 20+ years. When I was only seven years old, a stubby tomboy with long, red pigtails and grass-stained knees, my body went from being useful to being ornamental. This new expectation that my body be decorative was devastating to my self-esteem simply because I wasn’t the shape and size a bunch of little kids thought I should be. I remember going home the first day someone called me fat, looking at my body as I sat in the bathtub and feeling disgust at the little rolls on my stomach and the fat on my thighs. I still feel that revulsion today.

I spent most of my teenage and adult life at the same weight, give or take five pounds. It didn’t matter how active I was or was not—I simply was more or less toned. Until, that is, at 29, I all but stopped eating and lost nearly 30 pounds over the course of a couple months. At my slimmest, I weighed in at 112 pounds, which at my height, means that my BMI registered as “athlete” on the little online chart (because what, but those BMI charts should be telling us who is an athlete?). This felt like a major achievement to me. I was finally skinny enough to be an athlete! I had to buy new clothes because my old clothes hung on my body like a scarecrow’s. These new clothes fit the way I had always wanted my clothes to fit. I felt small and sexy, and I was comfortable in my body for the first time in my life.

However, soon I was fighting the urge to eat from the time I woke up until the moment I fell sleep, and this caused me to sink into depression. The idea that each day for the rest of my life I was going to have to battle with food in order to be thin was absolutely overwhelming. By the end of my skinny year and a half, I was attempting to eat a diet of less than 1300 calories a day while running about 50 miles/week. Food had become the enemy. I hated food for tasting so good, but all my mental energy was devoted to thoughts of my next meal (even if it was a celery stick) and counting calories and not eating what or when I wasn’t “supposed to”. I learned later that preoccupation with food like this is a symptom of starvation. Eating anything that tasted good was terrifying because I knew that one small piece of chocolate could mean that I lost all control and ate everything I could find. I was famished all the time. Even when I did allow myself to eat, there remained this deep, soul hunger that could not be satiated. At that point, I had not had my period in nearly 18 months (another sign that my body was starving), but I actually took pride in this—this served to me as proof, not that I needed to eat more, but that I was a “real” endurance runner. It never occurred to me that running marathons was evidence enough that I was an endurance runner. No one told me that this behavior was crazy—at least, not that I remember. Rather, I only got complements about how fit and thin I looked. No one knew how very tired I was though. I finally arrived at the thought, “is being skinny really worth the cost?”

Eventually, I concluded that no, being thin was not worth the loss of my happiness. I gave up on restrictive eating and began allowing myself to eat anything I wanted. If what I wanted was an entire 1lb bar of dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s, that’s exactly what I ate. Nothing was off limits—there were no longer “bad” foods. At first, I ate everything. I put away the scale, and I ate. Rather than trying to suppress cravings and ignore the feeling of hunger or drown it with glasses of water, I started trying to listen and respond by giving my body what it wanted. And gradually, over the past 9 months, I’ve come to a point where I don’t want to eat everything. I’ve found that most often, my body wants healthy things (although rice cakes and cucumbers don’t taste nearly as good when you’re not starving). Sometimes, however, my body wants three dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Or maybe six. And that’s totally fine. I’ve learned to trust my body, having faith that it will tell me when and what it needs to eat and when it’s had enough.

Yes, I’m back to my original weight—30 pounds heavier than the days of hunger. Even though I know I am so much happier when I’m allowing myself to eat, I still can become frustrated just by putting on an old pair of pants that no longer fits or by catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It is boxing, more than anything, that is helping me look at this image in the mirror in a new light—or perhaps, more accurately, an old one. Boxing has caused me to appreciate my body again like my seven-year-old self when my body had just one purpose: to carry me around outside so I could play capture the flag, run barefoot through the woods, swing from the monkey bars, and climb trees.

My therapist called my introduction to boxing (which came shortly after I decided to start eating again) an accidental intervention. This is because weight means something different in boxing than it does in the rest of the world—it determines the people you can fight, not how well you fight. It’s a number on a scale, not an indication of your worth. In boxing, there’s a term called your fighting weight. This is your natural body weight when you are in top shape and ready to fight. I love this because it acknowledges that all our bodies are different—the weight of one person in peak physical condition could be quite different from another person’s fighting weight, even if they are the same height. It also suggests that your body “wants” to be at a certain weight. Because of this mentality, there is a certain nonchalance surrounding one’s weight among boxing women. I was shocked the first time a woman at the gym dropped her weight in casual conversation and appeared to have no discomfort or embarrassment whatsoever about this number. I learned that your weight is not something to be ashamed of in the ring. In fact, weight, when used properly, can be to your advantage as a fighter (which is why people fight in weight classes). Besides, you may as well get comfortable with the number on the scale because, come fight night, everyone will know it.

With practice, and by surrounding myself with people who are comfortable with their bodies (or at least, more comfortable than most), I have started to respect my body for all the things it can do, rather than constantly berating it for not looking the way I wish it would. I try to say a tiny prayer of gratitude each day for the things my body is good at. “Thank you for healing in spite of the abuse I inflict on you on a daily basis.” “Thank you for building muscle and learning new things.” “Thank you for not dying when my trainer decides I need one more round.” I don’t have it all figured out. Not even close. There are still days I feel repulsed by my body. Although I no longer have a meltdown because my old pants don’t fit, those deep-rooted feelings of shame and guilt are not far beneath the surface. We’re getting there though. I’m learning to work with my body, instead of against it. I’m trying to give it what it needs so it can serve me better. Learning to listen to and love my body is slow work, but at least now Hangry Hannah only survives until I get my hands on a granola bar. And we can all be happy about that.