the time before the giant (and one-handed pushups)

A champion shows who he is by what he does when he’s tested. When a person gets up and says ‘I can still do it’, he’s a champion.

– Evander Holyfield.

 

All my warm fuzzy feelings about boxing went out the window for a minute this week. On Wednesday morning, my trainer said to me as we were warming up “what, you didn’t have breakfast this morning?” Then he imitated 90-year-old boxer after running a marathon. I felt exhausted Wednesday morning, but it was Thursday that really got me. It was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Boxing Edition. I felt beat up by life even before sparring by some combination of overall exhaustion, PMS, and frustration with work and life, not to mention soreness from boxing the previous day. Then I got hit hard repeatedly with the right cross and the left hook because I failed, again and again, to protect myself. After two rounds, I climbed out of the ring and burst into tears. 

Following Thursday’s sparring session, for the first time since I started going to boxing in February, I didn’t want to go to class on Friday. I was dreading it. I was tired of getting hit, tired of making mistakes, tired of being told to keep my right hand glued to my temple for protection and change the level of my head so I’m not an easy target (can’t you see I’m trying?). I was tired of the persistent whiplash headache that follows me home after taking a few hard blows and settles like a fog around my head for the rest of the day. My inner teenager was shouting, “Well, I’ll show them! I just won’t show up in the morning. Ha! Then they’ll be sorry. Try to hit me when I’m not even there!” But of course, it doesn’t work this way. You can’t even win at Bingo if you don’t show up to play the game.

If I had given myself a choice, I might not have gone that morning. But I didn’t give myself the option to stay in bed, so I ended up once again at Redline at 6:50am. My neck and head were still hurting, the mile-long bike ride to the gym with heavy legs and a heavier heart had felt interminable, and I wanted to cry just thinking about sparring. I forced myself through the warm up and distracted myself with the drills. When it came time to spar though, I suspect my trainer knew I couldn’t handle another day like Thursday. Instead of the usual culprits, he had me spar with people he knew wouldn’t hurt me. I boxed a total of 7 or 8 rounds, but mostly with guys. This was a welcome relief, since the men tend to practice their defense and let me do most of the hitting, punishing me only gently when I make some egregious error.

One of the guys with whom I sparred is an experienced fighter, though I don’t think boxing is his favorite of the fight sports. Boxing with this kid is like boxing with running water. He actually seems to conform his body to the shape of your hand like a waterfall would if you tried to hit it. This makes it nearly impossible to strike him with any force. He weaves in and out and around your hands the way a river passes around rocks. Watching him and an opponent is a bit like Saturday morning cartoons: his opponent comes charging at him with everything they’ve got, and he moves calmly, unhurriedly out of the way.

Thanks to the guys, I made it through another day of boxing. As inspiration this weekend, I watched Rocky for the first time. (Yes, I managed to get through 31 years without ever seeing a single one of the Rocky films. Like I said, before I was into boxing, I really wasn’t into boxing.) Why is it that we love an underdog story? No one wants to watch a movie about the big guy winning. We see that every day around us. Maybe it’s because we’ve all seen the world through David’s eyes. We’ve all stared down our own giants. We’ve fiddled with the pebbles in our pockets, knowing that we aren’t even a little prepared for what’s about to come. We want to know that there’s a chance we can succeed, and these stories give us hope.

The thing they don’t show in the movies is everything it takes to get to the point of facing down the giant. If David hadn’t been a shepherd chasing off lions all those years with his slingshot, he wouldn’t have had a chance against Goliath. If the Italian Stallion had been just some guy off the street, he definitely would have been crushed ten seconds into the fight. Of course, they show a song’s worth of Rocky running stairs and doing one-handed pushups, but the song is one of those that sort of gets you all pumped up and makes you think you could probably do a one-handed pushup too. Real life isn’t like this. It is getting up and doing the things you don’t want to do. Again and again. With no peppy song to get you going. It is facing the lions every single day. It is falling and getting up. Falling and getting up until you are weary beyond belief. It is boring. It is messy. It is exhausting. Only after working hard, working hard again, and continuing to work hard do we face the giant. Then, even though the odds are still against us, we’ve got a shot.

I really wish I had some tidy closing statement declaring that I persevered, broke through the wall, and marched on to victory. We’re not to that point of the story though. We are in the running stairs and one-handed pushups (ha! don’t I wish) point of this tale. Maybe someday I’ll have a big smash bang ending and a beautiful moral to my story, but for right now, I’m just getting up again. And again. And again.

the Redline family

Among the many things I did not expect to gain from boxing was a family. I feel a little weird writing about it in a public blog because it’s similar to admitting you like someone before you’re quite sure they like you. I think I’m part of the family—or becoming part of the family, and I kind of think they think I’m part of the family, but I am one who assumes that no one likes me until proven otherwise. I hesitate to believe that anyone wants to be my friend—nonetheless would accept me as family. But somehow, I think I’ve perhaps been adopted into the Redline family. Or at least, the papers are pending.

I’ve played on plenty of sports teams, but what I see at Redline is distinctly different from the team mentality. Playing for a team can be fantastic—you work hard together, celebrate wins together, and commiserate together when it doesn’t go well. But playing for a team means you rely on your teammates for success, so one weak link can bring the whole team down. Even playing on the friendliest of teams, this pressure always weighed heavily on me. I kept a tally of all the times I let the team down, so of course, with this list hanging over my head, I could hardly perform well. On more competitive teams, this pressure killed my spirit and my desire to play the game at all. This is why I stick to solo sports now. The beauty of boxing is that you are it. When it comes down to it, it’s just you against your opponent. Or at least, that’s what I thought. As it turns out, it’s actually you and your corner against your opponent. The unique thing about your corner, and the thing that sets it apart from a team, is that your corner believes in you entirely, but doesn’t expect anything of you. Your corner will support you from beginning to end with nothing to gain except to see you succeed.

The thing I didn’t realize about the corner until recently is how big the corner actually is. I’m discovering as the days go by, that my corner is not only the one or two people who will be standing by the ropes at my fight. My corner is the whole Redline family—the women I spar with every day who know my strengths and help me overcome my weaknesses, the guys who watch me spar like I’m the real deal and give me advice on how to be a better boxer, the super tall guy who fist pumps me every day even though I don’t know his name, the people who greet me enthusiastically and make me feel at home…In fighting, these people are not just friends, they’re not people I work out with—they’re the ones who fight beside me and help me endure when the fight gets rough. This fact fosters a deeper and more genuine sense of community than I’ve found anywhere else. Maybe this isn’t true of every boxing gym—in fact, I would venture to guess that it’s not, but at Redline, I’m finding that my corner is becoming crowded with family.

The most obvious member of my corner is my trainer. Before I started boxing, I had no idea that the fighter-trainer relationship is so vastly different from the team member-coach relationship. My trainer is the person who is teaching me how to survive in the ring. He pushes me until my legs are shaking and I’m certain I will fall over from fatigue. And then he tells me that I’m not tired, and because I trust him completely, I bend my legs, grit my teeth, and I hit harder. My trainer is the one who stands by me even if I’m being stupid…but won’t hesitate to tell me that. Before my first fight, my trainer is the person who will tie my gloves, buckle my headgear, and calm my nerves. He is the one who will take out my mouth guard, clean me up and give me water in between rounds—something I wouldn’t ask my own mother to do (even if she could stand to sit through a fight). He is the person who will tell me how to win the fight. Or he’ll call the fight if he sees I can’t take any more. If that’s not family, I don’t know what is.

Besides my trainer, there are all the women with whom I spar. The ones who beat me up with no—well, few apologies and then give me a hug afterwards. None of us are vying for first string, and as long as we’re all at Redline, we won’t fight each other for real, which eliminates most of the competitiveness that could taint our friendship. At least at this point in my boxing “career,” another woman being better than me means just that—she’s a better boxer, and she has a lot to teach me. She doesn’t gain anything from that except that she’ll fight better boxers (and she gets hit far fewer times when sparring with me). These women tell me when I’ve thrown a solid hit, they tell me that they’ve cried too in the ring, they cheer me on when I do something right, and they hit me when I make a mistake (what more could I ask?). These women work with me every day, turning me into a boxer little by little.

The men at Redline are what surprised me the most. Having played on teams with men, I sort of expected to find in boxing all the negative things I experienced in Ultimate Frisbee but times, maybe, 100. (I should say that I’ve played Frisbee with a few men who were phenomenal teammates, but more often than not, this was not my experience.) The first time I ventured into Redline for a class, I was prepared to find a basement veritably seething with machismo and aggression. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of the gentlest men I know box at Redline. On top of that, I have never seen a group of men with more respect for women. It is not a politically correct sort of respect—proper and polite, but genuine brotherly respect. They may tease you from time to time, but when it comes down to it, they’re there fighting with you. I’m sure there are assholes around the gym, as there are everywhere, but the men I box and train with every day, the other trainers who take time out of their day to help me—these guys who are becoming my brothers…they’re different. They accepted me as a boxer even when I would not have called myself a boxer. When they spar with me, they pull their punches so they don’t hurt me, but I never get the sense that they look down on me. They encourage me, telling me what I’m doing well when it seems to me like I’m doing everything wrong. They give me tips on a daily basis—not in the manner that advice is often given out of a place of pride, but from humility, knowing that they were once new to boxing and they are still learning and always will be. 

So there you have it—my new Redline family. In the end, it may be just me and my opponent in the ring, but I won’t be alone. It is the people in my corner, my family, who will get me through the fight.

little boxer in a big ring

Today ended my 4-week-long streak of not crying in the ring. I imagine one of those accident-free signs in industry hanging above the ring: 28 days tear-free. Well folks, you can turn it back to zero. All this time, I thought maybe I’d gotten tougher and learned how to take a hit, but no, it turns out that I just haven’t gotten hit that hard in the last month. Today, the women who don’t usually make me cry weren’t at the gym, so I went five rounds with the most experienced female boxer who comes to my trainer’s classes—the same one who has punished me a few times in the past. At the end of the third round, she got me with a solid left hook to the jaw that knocked me against the ropes and made all the lights seem very bright for a split second. A flood of tears welled up, threatening to overflow onto my face, and I spent the last two rounds fighting to hold them back and subdue the feelings attempting to strangle me.

I usually like to think of myself as pretty much a tough-y (even though, on occasion I have been caught crying during a touching commercial). For example, I crashed my bike on the way to play Ultimate Frisbee with some classmates in high school (barefoot Frisbee was the only “sport” at my school). I was tossed over the handlebars when I hit something in the bike path, and I busted open my chin and lip on the pavement. I sat on the side of the path to catch my breath, and a stream of blood from my face collected in a dark stain on the asphalt, but did I cry? No, I brushed the gravel off my hands, walked to the nearest building and got a wad of paper towels from the bathroom to hold against my chin. Then I went back to play Frisbee. I would have played too if my French teacher, Monsieur M., hadn’t walked over and told me in French and in no uncertain terms that I needed to go the hospital. Honestly, where is that toughness now? How is getting beat up by another person so different from taking a nose-dive into the bike path? Have I just become a pansy?

 As painful and disheartening as it can be, I learn a ton when I’m boxing with an experienced boxer. One of the things I learned today was how to move out of the way instead of just standing there while someone wails on me (you’d think this would be sort of intuitive, but for me, evidently, it’s not). In fact, after a couple hard blows to the head, my trainer said he’d never seen me move so fast. Positive reinforcement is all well and good, but really there’s nothing like the threat of bodily injury to make you pick up on something real fast. When we were finished sparring, as I was wearily unwinding the soggy wraps from my hands, my trainer told me that I did what he wanted me to do today—I relaxed and I moved out of the way with my hands up to protect my head. It’s just a difference in skill level, he said: she did what he wanted her to do and so did I. He told me I could walk out of there with my head up. I don’t think you ever feel like holding your head high when someone’s just beaten you up though.

I always worry that I’m not enough of a challenge for the more advanced boxers with whom I spar (i.e., basically everyone at the gym). I’m convinced that when they’re told to spar with me, they must secretly roll their eyes in irritation and boredom. I know that everyone who is a boxer today was once a baby boxer—no one went from novice to Mayweather overnight. Still, I am always so grateful to these people for boxing with me, and I’m typically battling the desire to apologize to them for not being a better boxer. These days, however, I’ve been on the other end a couple times, and I’m finding that one can always learn from boxing with someone, regardless of his or her skill level.

This was especially apparent yesterday when I sparred with a little boy. Really—in the ring, I fought a kid of around 9 or 10 years old, a good head shorter than I am and probably about half my weight. I was paired with him for drills first, and we were working on the basics. While some 10-year-olds probably could actually beat me up, this guy was still pretty new to boxing, so I focused on my technique and cut back on the power of my shots. My trainer walked up to us at one point and said to me, “this is how relaxed I want you to be when you’re fighting with adults.” I hadn’t even noticed how relaxed I was. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone and I wasn’t worried about getting hit hard, so my arms and shoulders were loose. My legs were free to move how they wanted. Eventually, I abandoned my friend to practice his hook on the bag, and I climbed into the ring with a more advanced fighter. I tried to carry with me that feeling of ease and composure that I felt during drills. I tried to let my legs go and relax my upper body so I could respond quickly to the shots coming at me. It helped that the full-grown fighter was going easy on me (the guys tend to be more gentle than the girls I box with), but still, I felt it was an improvement. Apparently, this kid was watching us spar because afterwards, he asked my trainer if he could spar with me. That’s how I came to be standing in the blue corner across from my pre-teen opponent in the ring. The round started slowly enough with a few poorly directed jabs, but the kid actually got in a reasonably solid blow when he charged at me 20 seconds into the round brandishing his little fists enveloped by over-sized gloves. These periodic onslaughts brought particular excitement, but the bout was never boring. I spent the three minutes working hard—dancing around the ring, parrying his shots, throwing a gentle jab here and there and working on staying loose. When the bell rang and we climbed out of the ring, he said to me with genuine concern on his face, “I’m sorry—did I hurt you?”

I could not hold back the smile when I assured him that I was OK and that he did a great job. The truth is, though his fervent punches didn’t hurt me, what I learned from boxing with this fledgling fighter I took into the ring with me today. When my trainer told me to relax and move out of the way, I called back the feeling of boxing with him, and I breathed deep and moved my feet. Thanks to him, I’m a better boxer today.

life as a car without brakes

My trainer called me a car with no brakes a couple weeks ago in between sparring sessions. This seems like a bad thing, since literally being a car with no brakes would be tragic both for the car and its passengers and, here in the U.S., would result in a flurry of lawsuits and a factory recall. My trainer was saying it was a good thing though. He said it in reference to the fact that when I really go for someone, I charge like, well, a car barreling down a hill. This either results in what may be my only quality blows during a sparring session or, as is often the case, a really hard hit to the head or the gut.

Yesterday brought to a close my 31st year and today commences my 32nd. As it typically does, the end of a year is causing me to reflect a bit on my life, and today, particularly the last decade. If I could go back and tell my 21-year-old self everything I would do in the next ten years, all that I would lose, all that I would gain, and where I’d end up, I don’t know if I would have wept or laughed my head off. One decade ago, I celebrated my birthday sans alcohol with a small group of Christian friends sitting in the darkness on not yet unpacked boxes in my first apartment, which still lacked electricity. We sang worship songs together, and I rejoiced in a year of strong friendships and new adventures, a year that had, at last, brought some relief from the depression that had stalked me for the previous decade. I looked forward to the future with hopeful eyes. At the time, I was trying desperately to be a heterosexual woman, wearing tight(er)-fitting clothes, straightening my shoulder-length hair, curling my eyelashes, putting on flowing skirts from time to time—all in hope of finding a mate. My dream was to go on staff with my church, marry a handsome, or even, at that point, a not-so-handsome Christian man, and have babies. I know, I’m as surprised as you are that the girl in that apartment is the same one writing this today. Thank God that the next ten years didn’t go even a little bit how I’d planned.

As I blew out the candles on my cake on the first day of my 22nd year, I had no idea I was about to experience my first real heartbreak when my best friend started dating a boy. I didn’t know that a year later, having quit playing the harp and having been denied the opportunity to go on staff with the church because I continued to struggle with depression, I would take my first job as the manager of a coffee shop, and I’d come home each day for the next three years smelling of old coffee. I never in my wildest dreams would have guessed that 22 months later, over the course of a summer weekend retreat with two women in western Michigan, I would make my first major U-turn by coming out to myself as gay. My worldview would go from east to west overnight. I would leave the church and come out to my friends and family in a few short months. As a result, I would lose most of my friends and temporarily, some of my family. At the same time, I would start playing sports for the first time in the form of Ultimate Frisbee. This would lead to playing for the University of Michigan when I made another sharp turn, choosing to go into science and work towards a Master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Over the next eight years, I would research habitat fragmentation for crayfish, the effects of Prozac on frog development, melanoma, and a channel protein in bacteria. I would love and leave my first girlfriend. I would fall harder in love with another woman. I would ask her to marry me only to find out what it means to crash at full speed when our relationship ended a year later, after moving to Boston to start my PhD at Harvard. I would learn how to be a fighter—pulling myself from the flames, picking up the shattered remnants of what I thought I knew and beginning again anew. I would take the time to get to know myself. I would make friends again. I would run three marathons. I would fall in love again with a gorgeous, fiery Mexican. I would become a boxer and face my first opponent in the ring. I would say “good bye” to my sweet, old dog who was my traveling companion through it all, sitting beside me, her one ear up, nose pointed eagerly ahead, in spite of the carsickness and popping ears as we careened around every bend in the road and flew down each mountain.

What a decade. Looking back at it like this, I feel like a poorly drawn flip book that forces the “reader” flipping through the pages to fill in the blanks as the main character abruptly, from one page to the next, changes faces and leaps from one side of the page to another.  

Before I began writing this blog a little over a month ago, which has made me examine my life as more of an outsider, if you had said that I live my life like a car without brakes, I would have probably been a little offended. I would have insisted that I am cautious and careful in every move I make. I would have told you that I’m not a risk taker. In fact, although now I’ll admit that I take a risk here and there, I still insist that my risks are calculated. Although it might look reckless as I swerve around another corner, or make a U-turn while staring directly at the no U-turn sign, in actuality, I’ve carefully considered the turn I’m about to make. As I approach an intersection, I examine my options and weigh the consequences of turning or staying straight. But I never let the road dictate where I’m going; if there’s no road to where I want to go, I make one. Then, once I make the turn, I don’t look back. It’s full speed into uncharted territory, trusting that I’ll have what it takes—that I’m prepared for new terrain, that I’ll find fuel when I need it, that roadside assistance will be only a phone call away, and that I’ll know when to make the next turn.

So, here’s to life, full of stops and go’s, new roads, dead ends, 3-point turns, road rage, and fender benders. Here’s to driving with brakes cut full-speed into the unknown.

when the music takes you

I started boxing today. I mean, really boxing. I stopped playing a sport called “let’s beat up on Hannah while she stands there,” and I started boxing. This is especially good because the name of the sport I used to play is not so catchy. I don’t know exactly what instigated the change—probably a combination of things, but finally, something clicked.

It all started when I sparred with my opponent for Haymakers on Wednesday night. We went only two quick two-minute rounds, and that’s the last I’ll see of her until October. While it didn’t go as badly as it could have, it didn’t go nearly as well as I’d hoped. Her punches weren’t as hard as the ones I experience on a daily basis at Redline, but she was faster than I had expected. During the first round, I went with a defensive strategy similar to that of prey animals like the opossum—if I don’t move, maybe she won’t see me. This was an important lesson on how not to box. During the second round, I did better. I threw some decent punches and landed a few. My trainer says I took the second round, but I suspect he’s probably being generous. It was close enough that I’m fairly certain my opponent’s trainer is telling her she won both rounds.

I left disheartened and frustrated even though my opponent has been boxing something like six and a half more years than I have, so anyone would expect her to have the upper hand. It wasn’t that I was beating myself up as I often do, running through all the should-haves, would-haves, could-haves in my head. The truth is that I actually did my best out there. I did what I could, but it wasn’t good enough. Simply, I felt defeated.

That night and the next day, my trainer went over some things I should work on. I thought about them and worked on the bag a little. I fell asleep running through combinations in my head. I watched some other boxers sparring. All the same things I’ve been doing for the past six weeks. This morning when we sparred, the first round was no different from any other round. My punches felt unnatural and awkward. I still felt essentially defenseless against my opponent. Then something changed. I have no idea what it was, but between the first and the second round, I became a boxer. Maybe it was that I stopped focusing on throwing the right punches or slipping the right way* and finally trusted my body to do what it has trained for the past six months to do. Maybe it was because I picked just three things to work on: throwing the jab when an opponent is coming at me, turning my hips with my cross instead of swimming, as I am prone to doing, and trying out once or twice this weird move we’d been drilling in class (I’ll refrain from describing it here because I’m convinced that one day it’s going to be my secret weapon). Other than that, I just fought.

I fought for my life, and I fought for the love of fighting.

And it was like night and day. I don’t know whether I felt more like I was playing a distinctly different sport or like I was a wholly different person. I felt relaxed and fearless. I fired or moved anytime my opponent came at me, rather than standing around waiting to be hit. I connected with my jab and my cross. I felt my hips turn with the cross. I even tried implementing my secret weapon (OK, we all laughed the first time I tried it, but I’m telling you, some day it’s going to win the fight). I felt like a boxer for the first time, instead of some unfortunate duck who accidentally waddled into a boxing match. I had fun. On top of that, unless my sparring partners were giving me a break today, it seems like people don’t hit you as hard when you’re hitting back. This is great news for my head and ribs and also for my girlfriend who has told me she’d prefer that my face remain the way it is. It was in every way different from what I’ve experienced in the ring before.

Sparring today seemed the difference between playing the notes and playing music. There have been performances during which I’ve hidden behind my harp thinking, “What’s next? Oh no, here comes the hard part. Don’t mess it up. What now? What’s the next part? Shit, I don’t remember.” I wasn’t playing music. I was perhaps playing the notes (if I didn’t completely psych myself out and choke), but I was not playing music. On the other hand, there have been performances where I have forgotten about the notes, and I’ve played music like it was the voice of my soul. Times when I quieted the chatter in my mind, knowing that months of practicing the notes, perfecting my technique, the long hours of repetition were behind me, and my hands were ready to play this piece of music like a songbird is ready to sing. I abandoned my fears, and I was no longer a person playing notes but part of the music itself.

This morning, I became a part of the music. I forgot about playing the notes, I let go of the plan, and I simply trusted my body to keep me safe and fight for itself. Did I slip a single cross? No. Of course, there remain a million (possibly more) things I have to work on. But that’s OK because I know that the defense we drill and the combinations we practice over and over will pay off, and when my body is ready, I will get in the ring and it will do exactly what it’s trained to do. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in being a boxer.

* Slipping is a defensive technique. To slip a punch means to turn your head and torso just enough so that a blow aimed at your head doesn’t connect.

hitting the wall (figuratively speaking)

The worst miles in a marathon for most people are miles 20-23, but not so for me. When I reach mile 20, my thought is “sweet, less than one hour of running left!” (Yes, there comes a point in marathon training when you actually think running for an hour is a short run.) Rather, my “wall,” as runners like to call it, comes somewhere between miles 10 and 13. I reach mile 10 or 11, and I think, “I’m so tired. I feel like I have run 100 miles, and I’m not even halfway finished. My feet are too hot, my legs ache, and I’m pretty sure I’ve only been running downhill, which means the next 15 miles are going to be uphill. I cannot do this. I’m not good enough. I will never finish.” Although I have finished the 3 marathons I set out to run, I think miles 10-13 (and the head games I play during those miles) are what have kept me, and perhaps what will always keep me from qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I end up easing up on my pace, I walk a bit, and I adjust my expectations (i.e., give up on my goal).

I seem to reach this wall in just about everything I do—in science, in music, in learning Spanish. I’ve found that I can fly through those first 10 miles. During these miles I’m satisfied with my pace. I’m assured that I’m learning quickly because every day I pick up something new. I’m seeing the miles go by. Then I reach this point somewhere before proficiency where the learning curve levels off a bit. Here, I face the things I’m not good at—the things that didn’t come naturally in miles 1-10. I become immensely frustrated with myself because I’m still working as hard, but my pace has slowed. I feel like I’ve come so far and learned so much, but I gaze up ahead, I see how far I have to go—how much I have to learn, and I lose heart.

In science, I plodded through these miles during the first and second years of my PhD. After receiving a Master’s of Science at the University of MI, I had thought nothing could be harder than going from music to Ecology. I imagined that I would never have to work harder than I did those two years. It turns out that this was not the case. I realized abruptly how little I knew in my first classes at Harvard. I’d learned so much, and yet, I was still so far from being a scientist. Just how critical of myself I am became apparent when, on the advice of several faculty, I took an advanced statistics class for which I’d taken none of the prerequisites—not even Calculus II or Linear Algebra, which are generally considered critical for statistics. I thought that statistics should just make sense to me if I put in enough time and effort. And I gave myself no grace whatsoever when it didn’t. By some miracle and a bit of brute force, I made it through those years. I am still learning as a scientist and always will be, but in the process, I’ve become a little more gracious with myself. I’ve learned that no scientist knows everything (although I’ve found that we are almost always trying to convince each other that we do), that we are all learning together, and that we all make mistakes.

In learning Spanish, I seem to be stuck indefinitely at mile 11. I’ve learned so much, I can understand much of what I hear, but I can’t speak it to save my life. In the back of my mind, I am sort of convinced that someday I will wake up, everything will click, and I’ll be able to speak proficiently. I mean, really, I’m dating a Mexican. Shouldn’t it rub off or something? Even though I would never expect to finish a marathon without running the last 15 miles, I somehow imagine that it should be different when it comes to the other activities I take on.

It appears that I have hit the wall in boxing. Or I’m having a bad week. It could also be that. At any rate, I am frustrated with everything. I feel like a two-year-old who is not getting what she wants—no, she NEEEDS. I cannot throw my punches hard enough. I cannot move fast enough. I’m not blocking well enough. Nothing I do is good enough for me, and I want to throw a little tantrum about it. I’m sparring with women who have incredible power behind their punches. This is because they use their whole body—not just their arms when they throw a punch. Even when they are trying to be gentle, their blows hurt simply because they turn their hips and use the force of their body when they throw. I try and try, but my hips do not like to move that way. I continue to throw with my arms, and this means when I hit, it’s little more than a pat on the head. (If you’ve been hit by anything harder, it was probably by accident.) Nothing is more frustrating to me than knowing what I need to change and not being able to change it. Even though most of these women have been throwing punches much longer than I have, and I know it is totally unrealistic to think that in a few months, I can have what they’ve worked for years to accomplish, I still want it. Now. And in walks the two-year-old.

Today, I’m trying (if not entirely successfully) to calm my inner toddler. Although I feel I would rather just be able to do everything perfectly, I’m trying to address the other problem: not only forgiving myself for being human but embracing my humanity and accepting that I will not do anything perfectly almost ever. Which is OK because perfection would actually be pretty boring. The very reason I love the things I do—science, music, running, Spanish, boxing—is because they are difficult. These things challenge me, and so I am always learning and growing. I am constantly getting better—even if it’s not as quickly as I’d like. It is the process that I truly love, and the feeling of success when I finally get something right. As every marathoner knows, the finish line tastes so much sweeter when you’ve run 26.2 hard miles to get there.

As for boxing, I’m learning slowly to turn my hips and throw harder punches. And I’m trying not to turn those punches on myself. After all, if I ever did to myself in the ring what I do in my head outside the ring, I’d only succeed in looking like an idiot.

how to roll with a punch

“Boxing is real easy. Life is much harder.”

-Floyd Mayweather, Jr

It is the hit you know is coming, but you can’t escape. You’re up against the ropes. They’ve thrown the one-two, and the three is on its way, but there’s nothing to do except take it. There is no going under this one. There is no stepping out of the way. So you let it hit you, protecting the side of your head with a gloved hand and you turn with the punch to lessen the blow. This is how you roll with a punch. Maybe it’s because I’m not so great at rolling with it, but in my experience, the blow still hurts a whole lot. In a fight however, rolling with a punch can mean the difference between remaining upright and not.

The blow didn’t come in the ring this time though. It came when I said “goodbye” to my loyal, gentle, smart (if somewhat neurotic) 16-year-old border collie last Saturday. The friend I have had for more than half my life. In fact, Nell was part of my life exactly the number of years that I lived at home with my parents. She only lived with me about 10 of those 16 years, but 10 years is long enough for a little dog to leave behind a big hole. She was with me when I learned to drive, she saw me graduate from high school, college and receive two master’s degrees, she was by my side through two major breakups, she made seven different houses feel like home, and she moved with me when I came to Boston and helped me through the most difficult year of my life. And now, I seem to be incapable of thinking of anything except that little 40 pounds of dog with her wonky ears and graying fur (that I’m still picking off my clothes). Even my thoughts of boxing have taken a backseat for a moment.

 It is the little things that sneak up on me and hit me in the gut, leaving me breathless and bringing tears to my eyes. One minute I can talk calmly about putting her to sleep, saying she had a good last day with so many treats that she started turning down all but the real high-premium treats: sausage and chicken that I cooked up in the morning. I can talk about her last little walk in the woods. It was so slow it could hardly even be considered a walk because her hips were so weak and sore from arthritis that she struggled to stay on her feet. Even still, when a stranger came up to her to say ‘hello,’ she picked up the stick that lay at her feet and tossed it towards the man, her ears up and head cocked expectantly, waiting for a game of fetch. She was Nell up until the end. Sometimes I can think about her and laugh at her antics. But then I’ll sneeze, and this will set off a new flood of tears. Why? Because Nell was always startled by sneezes, chopping carrots, cupboard doors closing, socks landing in the laundry bin…It drove me crazy. Who knew I would miss that? I put away some vegetables yesterday, and my heart sank when I realized there was no reason to keep the plastic bag they came in (this is something only a dog owner thinks about—those plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store make ideal poop bags). For the first time in years, no one greets me at the door. The house feels hollow and desolate without her. My life feels empty now that she’s gone. 

I thought that this wouldn’t be so hard. After all, I have been preparing myself for this for years. My first dog died at the age of 12, so when Nell reached 12, I suppose I began steeling myself for the day when I would have to say “goodbye”. For the last two years, I’m not sure there has been a morning when I didn’t wake up wondering if today would be the day I’d have to make the decision. Or if I would just find her body left behind. I began distancing myself from her a little bit, trying to convince myself that it will be nice when I don’t have to worry about being home at a certain time, or finding a dog sitter, and how I won’t have to get up in the frigid darkness to let her out in the dead of winter. I tried in vain to cushion the blow. But nothing could really prepare me for the pain of putting her to sleep. 

And she is only a dog who lived a long, happy life. I knew the blow was coming since she was a puppy. I can’t imagine the pain of losing the person you love too soon. I’m glad that most of us don’t get hit like this too many times in our lives. But when those blows do come, they leave us in anguish, longing to give in and lie down on the mat, to leave the ring and never fight again. We don’t though. Even though every subsequent blow hurts a little more, even when it takes everything we have just to keep our knees from buckling, even if we know we lost the round, we stay on our feet. We stay in the ring. We keep taking the punches and rolling with them because this means we are not only alive, but we are truly living our lives. Even when all seems lost, we keep fighting because we are resilient creatures full of fight and hope and love, and nothing will take this away.

lessons from the left hook

The big news around here is that I’ve started occasionally throwing my left hook while sparring. I found out last week when I was hit by the left hook for the first time that this punch can leave you with your ears ringing and the room spinning. The left hook from an opponent comes at the right side of your head, and it comes with the full weight of the body behind it. So I can tell you from experience that after 2 or 3 hits to the head like this…well, the other big news is that I’m learning to duck.

I’ve been learning a ton from sparring with a much more experienced boxer. Well, truthfully, I’m learning mostly how not to die in the ring. But I guess that’s a useful tool for the old toolbox. I both hate sparring with this girl and love it simultaneously. It shows me what boxing can be—the power, control, and presence I could have some day. At the same time, I feel completely helpless against her. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do—how hard I try to hit her, how fast I move, I just get smacked back against the ropes like it’s nothing. I imagine it would be pretty comical if I wasn’t the one getting knocked around…sort of like a Chihuahua duking it out with a bullmastiff. You know it can’t end well for the Chihuahua. To make matters worse, I realize that she’s using her gentle “try-not-to-kill-the-newbie” punches.

My trainer seems to feel the need to explain why we’re working so hard and why he keeps putting me up against a more experienced boxer who punishes me every time. He keeps telling me that this will pay off, and when I meet my opponent in the ring, I’ll have no trouble because I’ve been hit way harder by my friends at the gym. “It will all be worth it,” he says.

The thing is, it’s already worth it. If you actually think I’m going to put myself through 3 months of grueling training at 7 in the morning just to make a 10-minute fight seem a little easier, you are dead wrong. You way overestimate my dedication. In fact, that fight is far from the forefront of my mind right now. I’m training hard because I love it. Every part of it—the challenge, the work, the pain, and the thrill of success. I’m training like a fighter because I want to be a fighter. I would be pushing myself this hard with or without a fight looming at the end.

For anyone who knows me well, my signing up for Haymakers should come as no surprise to you. It’s certainly not the first crazy thing I’ve attempted. I don’t know if it was the way my parents encouraged me to pursue whatever ludicrous dream I came up with when I was little, or how playing the harp for so long taught me that even if something seems impossibly difficult when you first see it, if you take it measure by measure, bite by bite, you can master it. But something gave me this idea that I can do just about anything if I put my mind to it. It was this mindset that led me to believe that it was totally feasible to pursue an advanced degree in science without ever having taken a real biology course. It is why I believed I could be a great musician. And it is the reason I believed I could run a marathon. I look back on some of the things I’ve done and realize how absurd it was that I thought I could do them. I’m actually 97% sure that Harvard only let me into this PhD program because they thought, upon reading my application, “well, she’s got balls…or something. Let’s see what happens when we let her try.” Well, Harvard, if you were betting I wouldn’t make it through the first round, you were wrong. Year four, baby, and I’m still standing. I showed you.

True, if I had to do it all again, I might not choose the most difficult path. But despite the odds, I did those things, and that crazy, winding path full of ups and downs has made me who I am today. And…it is why I think I can go from never having sparred before to my first fight in three months. And win. It’s why I believe I can be a good boxer—maybe someday as good as the ones I sparred with this morning.

I should clarify that there have been plenty of times when I’ve been wrong. In fifth grade, when a friend’s mom died of cancer, I believed I could find the cure myself, and I set out to do so by reading picture books about children with leukemia. When I had a crush on a certain Ukrainian Olympic gymnast, I attempted to learn Ukranian from library books so that when I would meet her at long last, I would be able talk to her. Today, I remember that the word for pajamas begins with a “p-i-“ or something like that. So sadly, if I ever run into Lilia, I may be at a loss for words.  I’ve learned since then to set more reasonable and, perhaps, practical goals for myself. Still, although I gave it my all, I have yet to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

But it’s OK when I fail because I don’t do anything for the end product really. When I wanted to learn Ukranian, although I had the goal in mind of wooing my Ukrainian gymnast, I truly struggled through “hello,” “thank you,” “good bye,” and, apparently, “pajamas” in Ukrainian because I love language. I read about children with leukemia because I care about kids with leukemia. When I set out to run a marathon, I didn’t do it so I could say I’d run a marathon. I did it because I love running. I looked forward to those Saturday morning 3-hour runs even though there were days when every step seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, and I had to count each one simply to keep myself going (just try counting your steps for 16 miles…let me tell you, it’s a whole lot of steps). I wanted to see what my body could do. I pushed it and pushed it, and I loved the feeling of getting stronger and faster. And in the end, my body did what I wanted it to, albeit not as fast as I’d hoped. As I’m plugging away at my PhD, I’m not thinking about holding up that piece of paper covered in Latin scrawl. I mean yes, I’m hoping to finish someday and put my PhD to use, but in the midst of the battle (if you’ve ever gone up against science, you know it is a battle), I’m trying to become a better scientist, and even more than that, a better thinker. As I’m starting out my fourth year of graduate school 0 for 312 (give or take), I’m just trying to soak up everything I can. I’m trying to learn everything there is to learn because I can be sure that something here will come in handy when I find the next dream to chase and mountain to climb.

So that’s why I got up at 5:45 this morning to go sweat out 5 lbs of water for two hours as I push my body further than it’s been pushed before. That’s why I got into the ring (with a little fear and trembling) knowing I could not win. That’s why I got back in the ring again after being beaten down again and again. And that’s why I’ll get up tomorrow and start over again. Because if I’ve taken one thing from my 30 years of back routes and trail blazing, it’s that when you’re given the chance to dive into something you love and learn from some of the best, you take it, balls out, and you question your sanity later.

Fear: saving you from extinction since the dawn of humanity

Let me just say that I’m not exactly sure what FDR was thinking when he said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Really? There are a lot of things to be afraid of besides fear. In fact, fear is super useful. It’s the thing that kept our ancestors from playing with poisonous snakes. It’s the thing that keeps us from climbing the fence at the Grand Canyon for a better look. And it’s the thing that would cause most people to walk right out if they found themselves caught in a boxing ring with a boxer coming at them with flying fists. Fear has kept the human race from going extinct for 200,000 years. It may be one of the greatest evolutionary adaptations of all time. But sometimes that which was meant to preserve life gets in the way of really being alive.

These past few days, boxing has introduced me to fear in a new way. I’m not talking about the fear that we are all familiar with on a daily basis: the fear that we might lose our job, that our kids might get sick, that our partner might leave. I’m talking about life and death fear. Not fear of the thing that could possibly happen but the fear of the thing that is definitely happening right now in this very moment. The type of fear that sends 30+ hormones surging through your body in a split to get you ready to fight for your life or to get the f*** out of there. Primal fear. The thing an antelope experiences when it finds itself surrounded by a pride of lions. Fear that is not a feeling at all so much as a physical sensation. That is the fear I met in the boxing ring yesterday.

Allow me to digress: I failed to realize that losing at boxing is not at all like losing at other things. I’ve lost at a lot of things: games, competitions, you name it. I like to think that I’m an expert loser by now. But nothing compares to losing at boxing. In most sports, losing means you go home disappointed. Maybe you’re angry because the ref made a bad call and you lost the game. Maybe you feel really crappy because losing that game means you don’t move on to the finals. But in boxing, losing means you’ve been physically beaten. It means your life was in danger and you couldn’t stop the threat. Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but yesterday it came as a surprise to me.

I wasn’t beaten to a pulp, nor was I even knocked down, but my sparring partner laid some combinations on me that definitely did some damage, and it was clear that if anyone should be declared a winner, it wasn’t me. The sensation that came after our 6th round was what surprised me. I had anticipated a sense of defeat, disappointment with myself, or frustration the first time I got creamed in boxing—all of the things I normally feel after losing. I felt none of these. What I felt was purely physical—the feeling you have the second after you narrowly escape a deadly car crash. I wanted to cry and collapse on the mat, not because I’d lost, but because I had just fought for my life.

Now, I know that my trainer is not going to let me die, or even be seriously injured, in the ring. However, I doubt my body has anything more than a vague appreciation of this as it’s being accosted by another human being. So, recognizing the threat, my body sends an urgent message to my brain that it’s under attack, and a fantastic number of things happen in a fraction of a second to help me survive. My brain tells my sympathetic nervous system (the thing that regulates my internal organs) that it’s go time. My sympathetic nervous system in turn sends out other signals and releases adrenaline, a chemical that gets my heart racing and raises my blood pressure. There’s some more back and forth between my brain and body, ultimately causing the release of a myriad of hormones. These hormones cause my pupils to dilate so my eyes let in as much light as possible, they make most of my muscles tense up to get me ready to fight or flee, but relax the little muscles that contract my blood vessels in order for my lungs to take in more oxygen, they shut down nonessential processes in my body like food digestion so that all the energy in my body goes to the survival strategy, and they make it nearly impossible for me to focus on anything except the boxer beating on me. If you think for a moment about how much happens in just milliseconds of a perceived threat to completely change the chemistry of your body, it’s absolutely incredible.

Pardon me, my geeky science nerd side just got the better of me for a minute there. Back to boxing.

All those chemical changes are what cause that primal fear feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another and that I sensed in the ring yesterday. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear. I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll get back in the ring. In fact, if my nose wasn’t still so sore today, I’d find someone to spar with this morning. But why do I do this to myself? This question was at the forefront of my mind in the ring yesterday. Why voluntarily subject myself fear and pain? I mean, even in the ring, I could have avoided such physical abuse. As we’ve already established, I’m a decent runner, and running around the ring for 3 minutes is child’s play compared to running 26.2 miles. But the thing is, if you’re just going to dance around the ring, keeping a comfortable space between you and your opponent, you may as well just get out of the ring. Find a different sport (I think this is when most people say, “well, duh. Thanks, I will”). But there is a thrill being in the ring that I can’t really describe. It is the feeling of being really alive. It is the feeling of crazy, passionate, risk-it-all love. It is going all in and burning the bridges behind you. It is like anything that is really worth doing—you do it in spite of all your fears. You do it even though the instinct of self-preservation says to do the opposite. You come in close to play the game, knowing full well that coming close means you’ll get hit. You hope it’s not too hard, and you hope you can defend it when it comes, but you know it’s coming. And even though at the sound of the bell, you may be battered, bruised, and exhausted beyond belief, you get back up and go in for another round.

 

 

The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” – Legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato

 

 

how boxing is just like playing the harp

These days, I eat, sleep, and breathe boxing. The problem with sleeping boxing is that it results in some violent sleep habits. So far, there have been no casualties, but I do a lot of twitching as I go to sleep running through a combination in my head or envisioning slipping a jab. I’m not the only boxer who does this apparently. I’ve heard of other boxers hitting in their sleep. I hope for my partner’s sake and mine that it doesn’t come to this. I may become good friends with the futon pretty soon.

I’m currently envisioning striking with one hand at a time because, evidently, in boxing two hands are not better than one. I have a tendency to superman it at my opponent, which is not ideal for me in so many ways. First of all, I don’t get a solid blow using the superman technique. In spite of what you might think, hitting with one hand is a lot more effective than hitting with two hands at the same time. Another problem is that it means I’m off balance and no longer in fighting stance because I’m leaping at my opponent like a jaguar. Since biting in boxing was outlawed in 1838, and the closest things I have to claws are covered with gloves, I probably should not be fighting like a jaguar. Lastly, with both hands out, my face is wide open for abuse. My sparring partner has picked up on this, leaving my nose a little sore as of late. So I’m focusing on keeping one hand at my face at all times and throwing measured, relaxed, hard blows. My trainer said this morning that it’s looking a little better—I’m not doing the superman every time. Hey, it’s a start.

One of the founders of Haymakers for Hope stopped by the gym this morning to watch our training. I was totally flattered because, after seeing me spar, she said that I have the things you can’t teach—timing and fearlessness. I imagine my fearlessness may come from growing up with an older brother. Since he’s a few years older, throwing punches usually ended badly for me; I’d typically end up lying on the floor paralyzed from tickling with both my hands trapped in one of his. But he broke me in for boxing all the same. All the whirlies are finally paying off. I’d like to say that playing the harp since the age of seven helped develop my sense of timing, but those two activities seem so drastically different it might be a stretch to connect the two.

In at least one respect though, playing the harp is just like boxing. When playing an instrument, you have to be willing to do the same thing over and over and over again until it feels like you were born doing it. You repeat it slowly and flawlessly until your muscles remember exactly what to do—until you do it without thinking. Only then do you pick it up. If you don’t have it, you slow it down again. Then when it’s time to perform or when you step into the ring, even if your mind is losing it worrying about this and that, your body does exactly what it is supposed to do. So I practice the same things over and over. Every day: one-two, one-two, one-two, one-one-two like meditation. One-hand-at a-time. One-two. And in this way, some day I’ll be a boxer.