Yeah, but did you puke? (why I take classes)

Do not attempt with unlined trash can
Photo Credit: Steve Johnson

Yeah, but did you puke?

Answering this question in the affirmative is a typically a badge of pride only if you are:

  1. A cross-fitter
  2. A fraternity pledge

I’m not a tree-trunk thighed weightlifter or an eighteen-year-old named Tucker. I’m a middle-aged writer, professor, and mom of two. I’m also trying to stave off osteoporosis and retain some ability to metabolize carbohydrates as the birthdays tick on by, so I am, in fact lifting weights these days in a class with the portentous name “The Alpha and Omega” project.

I am subjecting myself to the ridiculously-named weightlifting class, which features equally ridiculously-titled exercises such as “man maker,” “Russian kettlebell swings,” and something I initially heard as “goblin squat,” though it turns out to be “goblet squat.” I like my name for it better. I have to take these classes because of two related phenomena: 1. I am a weight-lifting beginner, 2. I do not like weight lifting. Together, these result in the following outcome: left to my own devices, I would never touch a barbell, a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or any other kind of bell those muscle-milk swilling sadists can conjure up.

This is not the way I feel about doing my writing, which I both like and am reasonably good at. I don’t need externally imposed discipline here, since the activity is both habitual and intrinsically rewarding for me.

For me, Alpha Omega is a form of bodily and proprioceptive torture. How does one thrust one’s hips forward and lift a weight overhead without standing on tiptoe, like some mad, pervert ballerina? My body does not seem able to learn an alternative strategy. In contrast, writing, even when challenging, is enjoyable, as I chew over a line of prose, try out a combination of ideas, write funny notes to self to be filled in later. I’ll get up for water, compose a sentence in my head on the walk to the fountain, and find great satisfaction laying down a run of language upon return to my little library station.

This is absolutely a photo of the author
Image credit: Binyamin Mellish

So, you might be surprised that it was sitting at her laptop that your author hurled her guts out. The act itself was violent and brief, and I was grateful to campus custodial services that my trashcan was empty—no stinky old banana peels–and that the custodian had left the next bag lining the can beneath the top one. Having expelled my breakfast, I tied off the bag, walked it out to a trashcan in the central library floor, brushed my teeth, and sat back down to write.

Now, it is worth explaining that despite subjecting myself to the weightlifting sadists, I am not, in fact a masochist or a workaholic. I’m actually just your everyday anemic who has a bit of trouble digesting iron pills, which is neither sexy nor dramatic.

The point about puking and going back to work—In my college drinking days, this was known as the “boot and rally.” Thank god these days are gone.—is not that I am super hardcore or that I suffer over my work, but that I know pretty well what I can and cannot handle in the specific discipline that is writing. And, because it is a discipline that I inhabit with relative ease, I can also tolerate some minor discomfort, whether that be bodily (I have a bit of a queasy stomach) or intellectual (this is a hard idea to express) or creative (I’m struggling to find the most interesting and innovative approach to this topic).

Not so the weightlifting. In those classes, there’s a relatively low level and constant discomfort that I would never push my way through alone. And it has mostly to do with being new and bad at a thing, which leads my mind to wander to the various ways in which the exercise is making me physically uncomfortable.

These are definitely the author’s abs
Photo credit: Victor Freitas

But this is true of other new and challenging pursuits. In addition to the embarrassing weights class, I’m voluntarily being embarrassed in another class at the moment, though I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically silly about this discipline. For three hours on Tuesday nights, I am sitting down with a dozen other adults and trying my hand at charcoal drawing. I am very, very bad at this. For the most part, we all are. This despite the very encouraging words of the extremely patient woman teaching the class. When you look at the objects she has gathered to form the class’s still life and you look at what’s on our pieces of newsprint, there’s a mismatch. Such a mismatch that my deskmate and I have come up with our own cheating strategy for any problem we encounter. Riffing on Portlandia, we’ve decided that any charcoal disaster can be solved by “putting a pear on it.” My drawings are full of pears that exist nowhere in the original still life.

At the end of the first class, intending to be encouraging, the teacher tells us that the grueling 45-minute drawings we have been doing are “sprints.” She looks forward to our final class together at the end of our four-week session, when we will spend the duration of the three hours on one sketch. I think she must be joking. I think I will die. Or barf.

But this is why I take class. Because I know that twenty minutes into the drawing, I will be taken with a parched throat. Or an overwhelming need to pee. Or that it is vital, even though it’s eight at night, for me to check my work email. I cannot have self-discipline in this discipline until I have practiced enough to feel some ease, to feel some pleasure that is more than fleeting.

I like having both in my life: the disciplines that are very hard as well as those that give me a sense of ease. Holding them in relation allows me to learn from each practice. When I find myself moving away from a particularly tough knot in a book chapter, I recognize that I must get up from this chair and do anything else feeling as part of the process of working through something that’s stretching me beyond my skillset. And similarly, knowing that there are kinds of discomfort I do habitually work through as a writer reminds me that even though I might be doing something new and strange, it’s often the case that difficulty does bring me pleasure and a sense of meaning. Even if I sometimes barf.

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