Sunday, October 3, 2010

Life of the Body, Life of the Mind

This move to Pittsburgh has been a momentous one.  I changed cities, career paths, the direction of my life.  While this is certainly a movement forward for me, I sometimes feel like I’m making a trade.  No offense to Pittsburgh, but when it comes to swapping it for Brooklyn, I feel like I’m getting a bit of a raw deal.  (Though I do appreciate the 30%+ discount on rent.)  But I also feel like I’ve traded a life of the body for a life of the mind.

In New York, I began with—not much.  As friendships went, I was rich in quality but poor in quantity. Eventually I made more friends, and they generally fell into two categories: my running friends and my CrossFit friends.  Though they differed in their preferred methods of exercise (long runs versus heavy weightlifting) and diets (vegetarian versus a devout worship of bacon), they were similar in a lot of very important ways.  They were all energetic, welcoming, and incredibly smart.  I can count among them teachers, an equities analyst, a philosophy professor, a life and business coach, a hugely popular blogger/writer, business owners, an event planner, tech geniuses, and an architect.

Their collective brilliance made for excellent conversation during post-workout brunches or beers.  But one of the beautiful things about exercise-based friendship was that it was a way of escaping those things we did for money.  The exercise freed us from the stresses of the day, if only temporarily.  You could, in some way, run from a looming deadline, or simultaneously push away a heavy weight and the heft of a boss’s expectations.

On a run, talk quickly turned from workaday frustrations to mileage, pace, and training plans.  No matter what incalculable tasks we faced in other realms of life, in the CrossFit gym, we knew we could progress in incremental amounts—two pounds, five, ten—with careful, consistent practice.  Whether I had a “good” workout or a “bad” one often didn’t matter; I’d come home sweaty, taxed, and smiling. 

This is the life of the body: testing the limits of your physical abilities over and over, willing yourself to be better, faster, stronger.

So now here I am in Pittsburgh.  I’m a graduate student.  I’m also a teacher.  My hours are no longer 9 to 5:30.  In some ways, my “hours” now never end.  I just eventually fall asleep, only to wake up and immediately pick up where I left off.  I’m constantly writing, reading, and creating lesson plans. 

If I had to relate the experience of first-year teaching to my CrossFit friends, I’d say it was like trying to complete Fran, or Helen—maybe both back-to-back—with no warm-up.  If I had to describe what it was like, standing in front of 19 over-stimulated and under-rested college freshman three days a week, to my running friends, I’d compare it to running a marathon.  A hilly one.  In 90 degree heat.  And you don’t get a medal at the end.  On the contrary, you often leave feeling completely defeated: you are the worst teacher in the world; your students aren’t learning anything.  And they hate you.

Spending a large amount of time with brainy grad students and brilliant writers isn’t always easy either.  It requires an incredible amount of work and energy to feel like you can even hang with them.  And when you hear someone is halfway through his novel, or that another person wakes up at 6 AM each day to write—you rush to your own computer, or notebook, willing the words to flow for you as easily as they do for your classmates.  You are no writer, you say to yourself.  You are a fraud, a hack.

This is the life of the mind.  Always in your head, always attempting to create, learn, instruct.

When I was a five-day-a-week corporate drone, I felt like I was losing a part of myself.  Now, to be working and learning in an environment that I find challenging, fascinating, and constantly surprising is a wonderful thing.  But it’s also exhausting.  I’ll wake up at 8 or 9, do work, go to class, then come home and work some more—sometimes until as late as 2 or 3 in the morning. 

Unfortunately, this leaves little time for exercise.  If I do have time, I’m often too exhausted to do much beyond play with my cat.  (And even then there are nights when pointing a laser mouse at the ground from the comfort of my couch seems like incredibly taxing work.)

Hilariously—at least, for all of you who get to read about it later—I am signed up to run the Chicago Marathon next weekend.  This ain’t my first rodeo (see Detroit, 2008, and New York, 2009), but I’m absolutely terrified.  I’ve been running, but probably not enough.  I’ve given up on doing the recommended training mileage, because it would take too long.  The Pittsburgh hills are absolutely brutal.  Where I was used to doing 9:00-minute miles in Brooklyn, I’m happy to clock in 11:00-minute miles here.  So I go out for time: two hours, two-and-a-half, three.  I hope it will be enough.

This weekend, I attended a writers’ retreat in a Pennsylvania state park.  On Saturday morning, the day dawned sunny and cool: perfect running weather.  I went for five miles—any longer and I may have gotten lost in the park wilderness.  (Or been captured by the people in the “Primitive Camping” area, who, I imagine, would have roasted me on a spit.)  Plus, I needed to get back and write.

In that brief time while I was on the run, I thought about how I didn’t want to feel like I was giving up one life for another.  I want to have both.  Exercise and thought feed off of each other.  A workout that pushes me to physical exhaustion can bring mental clarity.  And accomplishments in the gym or at a race wouldn’t mean as much if I weren’t achieving things in the real world, where the benchmarks are fuzzy, and the finish line is an illusion.  No one will ever give me a medal for my work in the classroom, and it’s highly unlikely my writing will ever garner prizes or accolades.  But what I get back is infinitely better: a life.  A full one.


  1. I really value having a life without "homework." Work happens at the office...& then I come home.

  2. Hi Mordicai! I hear you. Having an awesome, engaging job where you didn't need to bring work home...that would probably be the best-case scenario. Not sure if it exists though.