Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Athlete in Lent

For a few days there, I had to wonder if the recent ability to be more constant with the fiction had put paid to the Ranger. The fiction goes pretty steadily, for a contemplative - on Saturday I came with nice fat installments for both streams - and I must say that I've never found the process easier. Famous last words, of course, but there are also a number of reasons for thinking that the writing room is in the best order it's ever been. After all, "Contemplatives" has already been written once, so the immense pressure of raw invention in a completely new genre is over; and, a further contentment for my easily scrupulous soul, I have realized that the difference between a redaction and a rewrite means that I can cheerfully ignore the chapter sequences whenever this is appropriate. And NWTA will possibly set a record as the novel that required the least invention whatsoever.
But now back to the gym.
When I first began to run, inspired so profoundly by the film "Chariots of Fire", back in 1982, my motivation were disgust for my own sloth after watching David Puttnam's actors pounding along that English beach, and sensing that I needed to build up my own body's strength, after popping a hernia carrying a cast iron heater down three flights of stairs. The heater was part of the set furniture for my last play, Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap". There was no question whatever of exercise for the purpose of weight control. In fact I was underweight, as the hospital scales so cruelly showed. Who could be overweight, having walked an average of fifty miles a week for a decade?
But the domestic schedule began to change, through a variety of causes that much diminished the opportunity for keeping my shoe repairman in business, and the middle-aged spread began to creep into view. That which I assumed would never happen to me, did, and I began to learn how much easier it was to put weight on than to take it off, once all that walking was no longer reasonably available.
On the other hand, I've never been obsessed with the idea staying slim. I don't have any professional obligations that require this, like an actress who plays romantic leads, or a male model, and I'm sensitive to health theories that suggest, or even insist, that a little too much fat is healthier than too little. Nor do I object to those with ampler figures. There is a kind of beauty in the variety of shapes, as Nature obviously teaches, and then there is the science of the doshas, as taught by Ayurveda, that details mental and emotional qualities that intertwine irremovably with the original created design of a particular body shape. Thus the debate over what is ideal, or even normal, in the area of body weight, is not a simple one.
So my attitude toward my own extra lard - and there are debates about how much of that is actually disproportionate - is as much a matter of philosophical, scientific, interest as it is personal and subjective. As a writer, what am I supposed to think about it? What am I supposed to do about it?
These questions emerged in my professional considerations once the running began, and continued, with greater or lesser efficiency, through a lot of experimentation and study, but never with any complete answers, until I seriously launched into the rowing programme. I got a very good list of answers, some of these permanent solvers of certain physical problems, but never a definitive solution to the weight problem.
For me, a definitive solution meant a method that made the exercise virtually something I barely had to think about, something that did not, could not, interfere with my preferential option for mental activity, believing as I do that the body was made to serve the soul and not the other way around.
"All physical movement passes through the heart."
Because in my first years as a Catholic I read Thomas as constantly and naturally as children - at least of my generation - read the funny papers, I read these words of his and took them for granted, so obvious that only the stupidest of human beings would contradict them. After all, the heart's physiological job is to pump blood throughout the body, it is the body that moves, so the heart knows about the movement. But I don't know if I would have understood them as applying to the question of exercise until I had gone through all the research I commenced upon when I took up running, to any degree at all, and especially not at any thoroughly comprehensive level until my starting up a gym schedule and then immediately lucking into John Douillard's "Body, Mind, and Sport".
As it's been John of the Cross that has been my daily bread for decades now, I don't roar through Thomas as I used to, and I don't know how it was that I was inspired to pick him up and find that passage about the heart. Was it two years ago? Three? Certainly before I took up rowing regularly, but after I'd learned how ayurvedic breathing and other wise old Indian doctrines on the para-sympathetic nervous system could make wise men out of air-headed jocks.
John of the Cross, for all that his first book implies the exercise known to alpinists, in its title, says nothing directly to athletes of any description, except the immensely pertinent advice to those under the mystical influence that if God is not pleased with your team attitude He'll find ways to bench you so abruptly, and forcibly, as to make Vince Lombardi look and sound like a palliative care giver.
According to the ayurvedic logic of the doshas, I happen to have a lot of pitta in me, so I have the attitude problems of the ambitious. I don't automatically think in terms of less is more, and once I'm warmed up I automatically think of getting as much out of the moment as I can.
Thus, with the rower, as I grew stronger week after week, always with that Boston row-off record in mind, I naturally racked off the fast intervals as quickly as I felt the inspiration. Up to the point, this was excellent, and totally natural. We have the right to be as strong as we naturally can be. But what is to be understood as natural? And is the old "mind over matter", or "no gain without pain" an element of natural thinking, or madness?
I certainly was having a good time, and with lots of excellent reading, between all those lovely intervals. But I also had to admit that I sometimes made myself too tired to write or study the keyboard for some time afterward, and I wasn't getting the spiritual feel for the longer rowing sessions necessary for real progress with the midriff. The blast-offs were giving me, on average 200 calorie days, and at the best, only four days a week. Not much pudge put down since Xmas. Some, but not what I'd expected.
And then came the thoughts of Lent that show up at this time of the liturgical year.
I mean, what the hell, Lento means "slow" anyway, so plainly it makes good spiritual sense to drop back to maximum comfort and the extra room for sober thought. The brain is connected to the heart as well as the body is, so let's see what happens.
Honestly, I must admit to being surprised. All those intervals, as much as I enjoyed them, were actually interfering with the real wisdom of the process, and I seem to be learning something about the positive psychological effects of concentrating on endurance. If the body/mind combo knows it can't quit for half-an-hour, it will find ways to make that stretch pleasurable, therefore endurable.
So, four straight days now of 300's, and I can't even think of needing a day off.
At this rate, I'll not only be down some real ounces by Easter, I'll perhaps be light enough by the Ascension to perform in an aeronautic fashion myself.
And stay tuned, because if you think this is an anti-Western sermon, wait until next time when we address the issue of breathing properly while riding an erg. It's not what the maker's literature tells you.

No comments: