My Uncle Brian recently tried to describe someone to my father. “He was a tall slender guy, like Michael.” Michael is me.
“Brian, when was the last time you saw Michael?”
“Maybe a year and a half ago . . . why?”
“Why?! Brian, he’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger! He’s busting out of his shirts!’”
I felt my face turn red when my father related this conversation to me. Part of me was pleased—I work hard at the gym. Another part of me, a part I keep hidden, knew I had so much further to go—and that was why I blushed, not because of the compliment. It’s that second part, the secret part, throbbing constantly under everything else, that I want to talk about. The incessant drumbeat inside me that calls out for more, that animates my endeavors at the gym. It feels like an unseemly thing I’d do best to hide. It is a desire that I have hidden, or downplayed, or dressed up in respectable guises.
Well. Time to come out of the closet.
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It is not uncommon for scholars to spend so much of their time focused on books and the ideas held in them that they neglect physical activity, which is just as well, because strengthening the body is still deemed a less rigorous or less sophisticated pursuit within some corners of the professional cultural climate. This old idea still has broader influence. We almost take it for granted that one can’t be both intellectual and athletic. Just think of common stereotypes: the nerdy kid with glasses who doesn’t know how to throw a pass or, conversely, the high school football star who can’t pass his classes.
The pressure to focus so intensely on the intellectual side of life can be particularly intense for humanists, whose research less often concerns the physical body and more often focuses on human creation, its ideas, formation, and influence. In this funny and insightful essay, Ben Utter, a specialist in the literature, culture, and history of the Middle Ages, “confesses” to his hypothetical humanist professor that he has, in fact, abandoned his life of the mind to pursue, at times, a life of the body. This essay highlights the tension present in a professional culture that privileges one over the other and, through an expertly detailed historical analysis of this juxtaposition, invites us to reconsider the concept of dividing mind and body in the first place. Continue reading →
In his catchy song “Get Rhythm,” Johnny Cash tells the story of a shoe-shine boy who fights the blues with the repetitious beats of the polish rag as it rubs across the shoes, back and forth, back and forth. Laying a soundtrack upon back-breaking work, this rhythmic shoe polisher finds joy in pain, inspiration in tedium.
I like to think that my desire to engage in endurance sports is inflected by the same kind of musical throb and thrum, but instead of following the slap of the rag, my rhythms are composed of racing heartbeats, heel strikes, and hurried breaths. It is a cadence I crave from day to day, so much so that I find it difficult to engage with my research and teaching without it. Continue reading →