The first time I played American football, I scored a touchdown.
I assumed the neighborhood kids’ chants of, “Lauren! Lauren!” were intended to cheer me on. Wow, I must be really fast, I remember thinking, which, in retrospect, seems like a ludicrous explanation invented to rationalize the situation. Because no one was chasing me.
Because I was running toward the other team’s endzone.
Growing up, I was allergic to sports. Occasionally I would buck the status quo and attempt to defy nature. There are two stories that exemplify what catastrophic failures any such attempts were; the first goes like this: In the ninth grade, my best friend and I decided to take up cross-country running. I don’t even remember what our reasoning was; maybe we felt like we were rebelling against our previous rebellion against sports we’d initiated in our desperation to carve out identities for ourselves where we could read Greek mythology and talk about X-Men and sport unibrows and still be cool. I’m reticent to speak for her, because she’s still way cooler than I am, but if Scarlet Johansson and Thora Birch could do it so effortlessly in Ghost World, then by God, I was going to be a nonconformist, too, and Steve Buscemi would be my boyfriend.
So maybe we were running ironically. We donned our gym shorts and tied the laces of our tennis shoes and headed down the street. We barely made it around the corner, jogging in tandem, before we had to sit down, panting and hacking like 70-year-old lifetime smokers. We couldn’t have run farther than 100 meters before I made the executive decision to turn around and go inside to watch TV and eat ice cream. I flooded my bowl with chocolate chips and whipped cream.
The second anecdote transpired in ninth grade gym class. The rain had sequestered our group indoors, where the teachers had organized an impromptu game of kickball. I was hiding in a back corner of the gym with my friends, trying to stay out of the way of the actual athletes who were contributing to our team’s success (and, therefore, ultimately contributing to my team’s success as well), when the trajectory of a ball landed it squarely, somehow, in my arms. There was silence, and then the entire class broke into applause. That’s how shocked they were that I had caught a ball. The entire game stopped. Everyone clapped. I probably should have felt something akin to shame, but I acted like an NFL quarterback in the endzone, slamming down the football and throwing his fists into the air and pounding his chest. Did you see that?! I caught the ball! ME!
Needless to say, I preferred mental gymnastics to physical ones.
But left to its own devices, my mind is a tyrant. I subject my personal life to the same scrutiny applied to issues of politics, current events, and history–the key difference being that I cannot debate the former in open forum. My mind, like Freud’s Super-ego, is a ruthless pedant, both well-versed in my insecurities, and obsessed with punishing me for them.
I have tried various remedies to try to shut it down. During a particularly turbulent time in my life, a friend prescribed running as an escape from the sanatorium that is an overactive mind.
I balked at the suggestion. “Running toward nothing, with nothing chasing me, for extended periods of time? That will just give me more time to think. No, thank you.”
He retorted that if I had time to think, I wasn’t running hard enough.
So I started putting one foot in front of the other, at faster and faster paces, just to prove him wrong. I am nothing if not a contrarian. Worse came to worst, I would be in that much better of a position to survive the impending Zombie Apocalypse. And I never really stopped.
Mounting evidence and exponential technological advance have upended dualist perspectives of the brain. Our brain cells are made of all the same stuff as our other body cells, just arranged in a different way: imagine building a lego helicopter, dismantling it, and then building a lego house with the same blocks. It is likely that consciousness arises from the electric signals transmitted across our neurons, though the exact mechanism for this is unknown.¹ So, in effect, everything that we think and perceive is just a function of a series of chemical and electrical reactions occurring in our body. Who we are is the same as how we interact with the world is the same as the automatic churning of our intestines. For me, trying to conceptualize this is a little like being a fish trying to observe the fishbowl he is currently suspended in.
But in that sense, all those admonitions of fitness freaks seem intuitive: a strong body yields a strong mind. The evidence to support this is overwhelming.
And so, I graduated to interval training, which was slightly more my speed, because the only coordination required is that which it takes to pick something up off the ground and put it down again. (In addition to being unable to catch flying objects, the trajectory of any object flung from my grasp is completely unpredictable. I can’t even make my own fist go where I want it to go if that place is too far away.) (In a post-traumatic flashback to primary school gym class, I was also always picked last for beer pong in college.)
These are the ways I justify sportsing and otherwise acting like [roid-]raging, vain, meathead fratboy all the time:
- The Power
There’s something about being able to deadlift 100 kg that just makes me feel a little more confident walking down the street. And not just because I am physically intimidating to men who would harass me (which only happens now when the US Navy comes to town… importing freedom and misogyny to Asia since since 1899!). I get sick less. I feel invincible. Plus, “I can deadlift your mom” is the ultimate yo-mama joke, both extolling your own fitness prowess and insinuating that your mother is, in fact, overweight.
2. Nature’s Prozac
Start your day off with coffee and endorphins and see if you can stay sad for very long. And if you can, then quit your job and run away to the Amazon Rainforest and see if that works.
…But in all seriousness, not only do endorphins elevate your mood, but exercise helps you sleep better and have more energy. Pair that with good nutrition and it’s a recipe for mad gains in mood stability.
3. Unplugging from the Matrix
I find it a little ironic when people post memes about how when they were children, they played outside! on the internet. It’s an even more outrageous version of “when I was your age, I had to walk to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways” because the person critiquing social norms is doing so via the very communication tool he or she is critiquing. In spite of the barrage of headlines hurled into my newsfeed or inbox on a daily basis reading, “What You Don’t Know About Your Computer Will KILL you,” or “How Looking at Screens Causes Your Child’s Brain to Ooze Out of His Ears,” or, “If You Stare Too Long at the Internets You Will Forget All of Your Knowledge and Become an Obese Failure Imprisoned on Your Couch by a Pile of Empty Pizza Boxes and Doritos Bags with No Friends who Dies Early and is Then Consumed by Your Cat who Never Liked You Anyway, Not Even a Little, but What Did You Expect When You Got a Cat, Jesus Christ,” I’m skeptical of overstating the disadvantages of modern technology.
Skepticism aside, there is something to be said for disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of the information age, even if just for an hour or two a day, to be present and just focus on moving your body in different ways.
I don’t really subscribe to all that Inner Peace Mumbo Jumbo (and can occasionally be heard bastardizing yoga mantras with exclamations of, “Namaste, bitches,” which I have gathered is in stark contradiction with teachings of serenity and zen), but there is something very liberating about turning your phone off and committing to an hour of meditation.
Plus, they told me I could do handstands.
At the end of the day, this could all be one giant humblebrag wrapped in a flimsy excuse for being superficial. But ultimately this is all about trying something new, not being very good at it, and persisting anyways. There have been worse delusions.
- And possibly attributed to the supernatural by some.