Notes from the Strong School

“You have done very well. If one works hard one may be certain of God’s help. Always remember:

drops wear down the stone

not by strength but by constant falling.

Therefore, we are taught to work tirelessly in order to master the sciences, and to allow no day to pass without a line written (as they say).” – Aloysius, Gradus ad Parnassum (J.J. Fux)

 The stronger you become, the more calisthenics becomes a game. Perhaps more than a game, but a creative mode of self-expression containing unlimited possibilities, like counterpoint, or the written word. It has taken a few hundred thousand pushups and pullups to get to this point, and it’s true that along the way there were many times when I questioned why I was repeating these meaningless and monotonous motions. But now, every time I work out has truly become a genuinely fun event to which I can look forward, a time to explore the various possibilities my body offers, and to relish the sense of mastery I have over a select few types of motion. “How pitiful is our enforced return / to those small things we are the masters of,” wrote Mervyn Peake: but also, how fun, right?

Since New Haven doesn’t have public exercise equipment like Montreal or New York, I’ve been doing some freestyle calisthenic workouts on the playground of an abandoned school on my block. It’s actually called the Strong School.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strong_School

 What I am trying to do right now, I suppose, is to come as close as possible to embodying the abstract ideal of strength. In a similar way, and as you have probably gleaned, I spent roughly the years 2008-2012 attempting to embody endurance: spiritually and physically, endurance was the quality I strove for. I was led to this by a feeling that both internally and externally – in mind and body – this was an area in which either my natural gifts or my acquired disposition fell short. It was not only via distance running that I attempted to embody endurance, but also in the way I lived my life: as a gemini, I have always been inclined to flit from one pursuit to another, but, during those highly productive years, I made concerted efforts to stay focused on a discipline, a relationship, an interest from which I might otherwise have moved on. These efforts have paid off. For most of my youth, I was inclined to distractability, and, though I have not completely overcome this tendency, I feel I now possess greater tenacity. I am just more capable of hanging onto things that I feel should be hung on to.

Emil Zatopek’s race face is endurance:

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To change one’s body is – always and necessarily – to change one’s mind. Too much of our culture is based around denying this fundamental truth of what practicioners of the Alexander Technique call our psychophysical unity. I believe the modes of physical expression in which we allow ourselves to take part change our minds, permanently. Likewise, the books we read or write change our bodies, permanently, as observed by one 10th century monk/scribe:

 “Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body”

Accordingly, if one wishes to live a varied and balanced life, it may be necessary to practice a number of different physical and mental disciplines. All the same, one sometimes encounters two such disciplines which are mutually antagonistic. Case in point: endurance training (running), and strength training (calisthenics).

This is just one of many examples which illustrate how total surrender to a given discipline is the fastest and most efficient route to mastery… a principle I have appreciated on an intellectual level for a long time, but which I never seem capable of incorporating into my life. I forced myself to triple-major in school, to carry on a double life as a professional chorister and a grad student in literature, to complicate that double life by leading a counter-productive (in the academic/professional sense) nocturnal life as an ultramarathoner, and so forth. Old habits die hard, but I feel I have begun to curb this tendency through my work with endurance.

So the next frontier in my life, then, is strength. What is strength? Are runners “strong”? Of course in some senses of the word, they possess great strength. In my worldview, however, I am currently choosing to treat “strength” as a quality which is diametrically opposed to endurance. If endurance is the ability to “put up with shit,” to make peace with the Buddhist assertion that human life is suffering, then strength is the opposite ability: the capacity required to execute a sudden, efficient movement which changes the arrangement of elements in play rather than acquiescing to their seemingly unstoppable flow. Interestingly, we can see both strength and endurance as modes of embracing transience. In running, as in Vipassana meditation, the runner allows himself to pass through an ever-changing array of mental states from joy to extreme physical and emotional pain, surrendering to these fleeting sensations which inevitably arise and pass. In strength training, the practicioner is the agent of change. In both disciplines, stasis is an occasional daydream, but one which can never be reached. The difference between my endurance mindset and my current, strength-cultivating mindset, is that I am trying to attain agency. Endurance was about accepting that I am not in control of everything, whereas strength concerns taking control of what I can.

As I said before, I feel my work with endurance has enabled me to retain my focus somewhat better than has previously been my wont. I have never been a winner of running races, but can a winner ever truly be a master of endurance? Scott Jurek won ultramarathon races, but perhaps only because he was able to maintain his loser essence through a series of losses in his private life. Perhaps ultramarathoners are, like Elizabeth Bishop, masters of the art of losing. If I am not yet a true master of losing, a king of pain, a paragon of endurance, I have nonetheless begun to feel that I have engaged enough with this whole mode of life/thought/athleticism to move on. I’m just not content to max out one vital stat, I want the whole package.

 To that end, I have been running a grand total of maybe three or four times since I arrived at Wreck Beach, Vancouver, on August 20, 2012. At first I felt I might get back into it sooner or later, and I even had plans of training for the 2013 Canadian Death Race, but, with the exception of cycling (and that mostly for everyday transportation, though not an inconsiderable amount), I have felt more powerfully drawn to strength training, specifically minimalist, bodyweight stuff – calisthenics if you will, or what has come to be known as the “ghetto workout.” Accordingly, my body has changed a lot in the past year. Gradually, my gigantic quads, calves, and butt have shrunk to merely large proportions, allowing me to wear some pre-trans-Canada pants again (though they will probably never fit right again). A couple weeks ago, I was surprised to find that I was able to pull of a half-lever with ease, and every day I seem to discover some new variation on a basic move that I can perform. Handstands, muscle-ups, one-arm chinups, clapping pullups: these are the things I’ve been making progress on.

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 Well, all right, I’d be lying if I said I don’t take some pleasure in what, aesthetically, my body has undergone; sure, I’m tickled when people express their shock or their frank admiration for the muscle I’ve put on in my upper body this year. Is that avoidable when your mental life, in literature, film, music, and so forth, revolves around aesthetics? As a scholar of the arts and as a performer, I am so far past feeling any guilt when I take pleasure in aesthetics. Aesthetics for me comprise a dialectical network in which my preferences and my pleasure are not a form of masturbatory self-indulgence, but a nuanced intellectual position. What is more meaningful than this pleasure, perhaps, is that the corporeal aesthetic through which I choose to express myself, in which I take that pleasure, has – not to put too fine a point on it – shifted from the ripped to the jacked. Navel-gazing? Whatever. Whether you realize it or not, your body is an expression of your inner self. Why are we so often attracted, on a genuine emotional and spiritual level, to people who we single out as physically beautiful? It’s a (true enough) clîché that a person’s history is written in their facial features, but it is also inscribed on their body. And all bodies which are deliberately constructed and presented, all bodies which intentionally embody the ideals held in high esteem by their brains, are beautiful, just as all music which rigorously adheres to its maker’s aesthetic is beautiful. Sometimes, as with Stravinsky, the cumulative aesthetic developments which the composer goes through create a heterogeneous and eclectic musical body. Likewise, as with my own experiences, the idiosyncratic practices you carry out with your physical body accumulate to form an idiosyncratic but dynamic mass. This represents the sum of your values, your experiences, your abilities. It is important to be comfortable with that, and being comfortable with my body is a relatively new thing. (I remember being a bookish and pretentious child with a body that was always rebelling against the ways I constricted it and denied it any kind of expressive movement – when I was little I thought it was possible, even admirable, to have a keen mind and an immobile, inconsequential body.)

This is me when my body’s central task (and only real strength) was efficient locomotion across vast expanses:

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 And this is the result of my attempts to make my body better at a number of different tasks which are somewhat closer to real life:

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I realize I probably don’t even look very different. At my lowest trans-Canada weight I was still around 155, and I’m probably around 170 now. But it is amazing how different that can feel. Small changes feel big, I guess. One of my hopes is that this type of largely upper-body-focused workout might be more beneficial (or at least less antagonistic) to my professional aspirations as a classical singer. Is it a coincidence that good singers are so frequently just massive dudes? Your voice teacher will just be like, “hey, put your hand here and feel what happens when I breathe.” And then you try and feel that breath-expansion around your own puny waist and you wonder if you’ll ever have the same power, if maybe there’s a correlation between size of body and size of voice. There’s a complex relationship between voice and body that I haven’t figured out yet, but on the other hand I’m sure technique is far more important.

Well, I realize this isn’t, perhaps, the long-awaited update my loyal handful of blog readers might have expected. Like, what happened in Alberta and British Columbia after all? I haven’t managed to write out an account of those incredibly rich weeks in which I reached certain mental and geographical end-points. But one of the most important things from the past year, I think, is that I maxed out my personal concept of endurance. When I came back from the run, I had to think, “what’s next?” And these are just some of the thoughts I’ve had since then, which I think continue the exploration of bodily and psychological issues at the core of this whole blog.

I hope you are all thriving and consciously refining your own corporeal and spiritual narratives. It’s been a while since I had the opportunity to catch up with some of the people I stayed with while running across Canada, but I think of you all very often. Keep in touch!

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~ by edmundmilly on September 13, 2013.

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