My Venus of Willendorff belly is flopping as I lurch forward and try to make contact with my coach’s punch mitts, brown cushions around ten inches wide; up by his shoulder height they make him look like an angry bear coming out of hibernation. John’s boxing nickname was “The Punisher” --physically he’s a cross between Bruce Willis and Tony Soprano. I am a fifty-five-year old Jewish psychotherapist and spend my days in a leather recliner, quietly tuning myself to the complex themes of other peoples’ melodies, and each day begins with someone else’s song. But not when I am boxing; then I am edgy, tough, ageless, and loud.
“C’mon baby, that punch wasn’t sexy. Put your hips into it. Jab, one-two, blow to the body, blow to the head. There ya go,” John is saying to me.
“The Punisher” is teaching me to crouch like a Ninja, slip and weave, keep my hands up, and send force up from my heavy legs into my middle and out through my arms, using my body in ways I never thought possible.
It’s a surprise to feel so exhilarated by my own body and its abilities. My body. What a drag it’s been – what a disappointment! Sometime it just seemed like a necessary over-sized backpack for my brain. My body has been, um . . . sensitive. Asthma and allergies as a teen-ager, life-long irritable bowel syndrome that started at twenty-one after a particularly pernicious GI infection involving salmonella while living in New York City (not even after exotic travel), migraines and chronic headaches forever. Not to mention the dark cloak that swathed my whole family with a swirl of odd feelings, anxieties, phobias, and panic attacks. At times we’ve been like throwbacks to Freud’s hysterical patients who couldn’t lift an arm after seeing a snake or became obsessively aware of their tongues in their mouths.
So it’s utterly new to feel my power, hear the propulsive sound of my own grunts, and feel such a delight in making this kind of physical contact. My body is bringing me joy. I’m also blinking desperately because my eyeballs are sweating. That’s how serious an initiation I’m enduring – my eyeballs are affected.
I’m tightening my core, I’m keeping my knees bent, I’m bouncing back and forth on my feet, and I can barely breathe. I never before participated in contact sports or athletics of any kind. I have not ever dominated a younger sibling, stood up to a bully, play-wrestled with a brother, or felt my own physical strength in any way. During particularly passionate fights with lovers, I have wiped a counter clear of a dish or two, and once I tore the buttons off a man’s shirt, but I’ve never hit anyone, and the thought of it, well, the thought never occurred to me. It just wasn’t an option.
Thwack! My glove makes contact. My god, it feels good. I do it again, remembering to snap my jab right back after I throw it. This is . . .it’s . . .thrilling. I’ve never made such a profoundly clarifying sound with my fist before. To say that while I was growing up my family lacked a certain . . .athleticism . . .would be an understatement. Although in the 1950s and 60s President Kennedy put the nation on a physical fitness kick, in my home there was no concept of “fit,” except as it applied to clothing, and because we didn’t do sports, our obsessive interest in food made matters worse. My sister and I loved nothing more than to laze around watching television while consuming entire bags of Wise potato chips. I emptied boxes of animal crackers into large bowls and assembled them by size, eating the panther, the bear, and the lion first, and working my way expectantly up to the gorilla and hippo. My mother, though not the most inventive of cooks (I ate my first fresh mushroom in my twenties), could whip up a mean Duncan Hines sheet cake. Late at night my father would inhale a salami sandwich on rye with Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard over the kitchen sink. His traveling salesman tales were punctuated by detailed descriptions of the sumptuous meals at restaurants that he put on the expense account when he entertained the jobbers. “They had a spread, my daughters…” he intoned wistfully, while we listened with rapt attention to lurid tales of deli meats, chopped liver, cocktail shrimp, blintzes, and chocolate cheesecake.
Although my father had been a track star at Thomas Jefferson High, I never even saw him walk fast. My parents both seemed worn out. Newark’s Weequahic High School had an award-winning basketball team, but I never knew anyone who played on it. (Philip Roth’s Portnoy reminds us of the classic cheer of the era: Ikey, Mikey, Jake, and Sam/We’re the boys who eat no ham/We keep matzohs in our locker! Aye, Aye, aye, Weequahic High!) In the 1940s, Roth and his buddies were still fleeing from anti-Semitic violence in the streets of Newark, especially perpetrated by kids from non-Jewish schools, and still Roth said, “I could no more smash a nose with a fist than fire a pistol into someone’s heart.”
My friends and I did play hit the penny and stoopball with the pink fuzzless tennis ball called a “Spalding” on the Newark streets but it’s not the kind of activity that produces sweat. For mysterious reasons, the Spalding sporting goods corporation took the ball off the market in the late 70s, but I’ve heard it’s being reissued. I’d like to feel one in the palm of my hand again; it holds the memories of games like “A My Name is Alice” that involved standing in place, reciting a long alliterative poem while crossing one leg over and under the bounce of the ball in sync with all the letters of the alphabet – a game for a poet, a game for a girl standing still. That was my sport.
Still, a longing remained. I could not give up on the fantasy of being more like the active girls. I peered through the slats of the venetian blinds in our den, with its view of the playground next door, and watched mournfully as the popular girls played softball. I wanted to run fast, hit hard, and wear a cute uniform. These girls seemed to know something about life I didn’t.
I wanted to move comfortably through space without feeling unsteady. Later, in high school, I read Simone de Beauvoir’s journals, in which she described having a body so strong and hungry for exercise she could barely satisfy it. She took monstrous hikes, packing a tidy little bag of plums as her sensuous reward which she savored on a picturesque bench in the French countryside.
I certainly never knew any boxers. In the 1960s, I marched against the Vietnam War and considered myself something of a pacifist, just like the cooler-than-cool boys in high school I coveted, who professed a fierce pacifism when I quizzed them on fantasied scenarios of danger. No, babe, I don’t think I could defend you. Peace, baby, they droned while trying to master Woody Guthrie chord progressions on acoustic guitars draped with embroidered straps.
“No one’s got any balls anymore in this nation,” my coach John often says. “It’s the worst for men – they get babied, and then they just look to be mothered.”
Thug philosophy, I think, simplistic but oddly compelling.
By the end of a boxing lesson, my sweat smells like a mixture of bitter oranges, aluminum, and old pastry. I walk over to the window ledge where I keep a collection of fluids –– and encircle a bottle of vitamin water with two giant gloved hands, like a clumsy baby. Water spurts everywhere and dribbles down my chin. John laughs, and tells me not to worry; it’s a dirty sport.
Like Roth, I grew up thinking Jews were the pale scholars, heads buried in books, funny, warm, sensitive, but definitely not outdoorsy, not physical. Jules Feiffer spoke of his “great desire to grow up” because of his understanding that “adults did not have to take gym.” A Jewish triathlon, as the joke goes, consists of “gin rummy,” then contract bridge, followed by a nap.” Woody Allen has infiltrated our collective psyche as the most influential Jewish comedian of the post World-War II era, and his persona and jokes highlight his physical vulnerability and meekness.
Yet a little known fact is that there was an impressive contingent of Jewish boxers in the early twentieth century, immigrants who struggled with the dilemma that faces all oppressed groups. Am I too much of this thing that makes me who I am? Or am I not enough of it? Artist Charles Miller, whose portraits of Jewish boxers (Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, countless others) are highly prized, says he paints these “anti-heroes” to “put blood back in their bodies again.”
When I started boxing in my mid-fifties, the country was having one long, rapturous and unending love affair with youth, and I felt sour, bitter, and dry. I approached my naked body in the mirror cautiously, like a wolf sizing up its prey, eyes narrowed, not in lustful need for food, but in….terror…. and then, it could only be confronted in sections, like a cafeteria plate (peas separated from the mashed potatoes), as each day brought a new pocket of dimpled and sagging flesh. I turned the bathroom fan off when I showered, letting the steam create a mercifully diffuse and hazy reflection in the mirror. While reaching for the toothpaste, I might glimpse just the delicate curve of an underarm, the slight indentation of a waist, and retain the sensuousness of an Impressionist painting
The slide from “miss” to “ma’am” happens gradually, like watching your dog age. You don’t notice all at once the increasing droop of the jowls, the dotting of white in the fur, the hesitation at doorways, or the occasional melancholy stare, as if he is remembering a carefree jog through a field. It all proceeds in tiny increments. One day your sweet pup is fourteen, and you are mopping up accidents and patting his head with the tender feeling of rehearsing how to let go. “Ma’am” urged me further into static waters, having waded in unknowingly, to join the aunts, grandmothers, and other desexed entities.
When I boxed, my body surprised me – it assumed unfamiliar positions eagerly, as if it were agile and strong. I felt myself bigger than life. I’d walk in the woods, in a state of happy ignorance, feeling strong, powerful, quick-footed; an animal primed to pounce if need be. Spotting a lone man near the lake, I’d think, Could I take him? Where would I start? What punch would I use? I’d stand in line at the bank, push my cart at the grocery store and size people up. Not only was it somewhat absurd, I had little to back up my fantasies.
My body began to have a double life. I had the sturdy, eager, and uncomplaining body of the training, and the after-hours body, with its plump, fleshy passivity, and its mundane aches and pains.
The first time we officially spar, John gently moves my hair back behind my ears and places the helmet onto my head. I’m being crowned, but in a dark and claustrophobic way. He starts tightening the strap at the neck. My head is now outlined in black, cheeks protected, nose and mouth poking through. I steal a glance in the mirror. It’s not attractive. I look like a chubby devotee of S&M.
Soon I find myself up against John’s body, pounding him gracelessly on his middle. I want to just lean onto him and collapse. I understand now why referees often shout “No holding!” The fighters are basically embracing each other to grab a moment’s rest.
“No! Too close, get back!” John yells.
Bop! He hits me on the side of my head. Whoosh! Arms are moving past me. He’s moving from side to side like a beast of prey, sizing me up, I try to mimic his moves, and feel idiotic. I bring my left hand out in front of me and throw it higher and more in the middle. The punch mitt was always out to the side. I look at John’s eyes, his nose, and push forward. He slips expertly. I’ve hit nothing.
“Again, again! Jab, jab one-two!”
John is not only asking me to hit him, he is reaching out and hitting me. I feel the impact, it’s never very strong, but I’m definitely being buffeted by something coming at me. John. John is coming at me. I have to be careful now. The stakes are higher. I’m trying to remember everything he ever said – protect yourself at all times, keep your hands up, cover your face, keep your right leg back, don’t drop your hands, snap back the jab, keep your composure. Breathe.
“Keep jabbing! See what’s out there!”
“What do you mean? See what’s out there?” I gasp.
“See where I am. Find your range.”
Range? It’s all meaningless. I can’t get at him, whether I’m far back or close up.
Clang! Ten-second warning. My reprieve is on its way. I leap up, move towards John. “Here we go! See what’s out there!” John is batting me about.
Suddenly I’m ready, and I jerk forward a bit as if to jab with my left and then bam! I’ve thrown my right and hit John right on his nose, right in the middle of his face.
“Good! That’s it, baby, nice. You faked me out.”
Giddy with my success, I start flailing and try for a left hook on the side of his head. He ducks. I’ve almost spun myself around in the process.
“Never turn your back. Never. Or you’ll wake up in the locker room.”
I’m dazzled. I hit this man. I have made contact. It feels amazing.
Clang! The final bell. John removes my headgear. I am dripping with sweat. We embrace, and I’m crying.
After the lesson I pack up and drive down to the Milford Shopping Mall, where I often go after boxing to have a snack, browse at Borders, or occasionally go to a movie. This time I set up my laptop in front of the fireplace at Panera’s, eat some lukewarm pumpkin soup, check my email, and within several minutes, I am drifting off to sleep, thinking about how I’m often too cerebral, cognitively flooded, introspective, dreamy, ambivalent, paralyzed by nuances. When John teaches me to slip, weave, block, and feint, what am I literally doing? I’m getting my head out of the way! I’m leaving obsessions behind and entering a state of flow: all things immediate and with consequences.
A buzzer goes off signaling that an order is ready, and I awake thinking I’ve got another round to go. I hope I wasn’t snoring. I know I still look the same, like a pleasant middle-aged woman enjoying a bite to eat, but I have a victory stored deep inside me that only John and I know, and I’m going to nurture it and savor it, and it’s going to grow.
I can feel it inside, flexing its fingers and toes like a tiny baby, moving into my future.
So when people hear I’m boxing and say with a mixture of curiosity and concern, “Oooh, how can you do that?” I wonder, how can they ask that?
Compared to the grotesque excesses of the larger world, boxing is an elegant containment of aggression, a stage for dramas both universal and exquisitely personal, and I’ve come to love its clarity.
Most surprisingly, it got me out of my head and into my body, and there, in my body, I got smarter again.
This essay is adapted from Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, SUNY Press, 2010 and appeared in Seneca Review, “The Lyric Body Issue,” Spring 2010.
Binnie Klein maintains a private psychotherapy practice in New Haven, CT, and is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University. Her memoir, Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind (SUNY Press) came out in 2010. She has a weekly show at WPKN-FM (and wpkn.org), Thursdays, 10 am until Noon called A Miniature World.