posted January 31, 2005

I took up boxing in the middle of December. I think it was because Mars was crossing my Neptune, the planet of illusion and dreams. It had to be that, or something like that, because otherwise it made no sense. I am not at all–and never have been–a fan of boxing, karate, Tae Kwon Do, wrestling, fencing, jousting, polo—basically anything that involves two or more people at odds with each other. I like situations where one person is wrestling with inner demons. Or where big groups of people are having a really great time, saving the earth or playing in a rock band. (OK, I like tennis, or I did when I was a kid.) But fighting has always repulsed me. Boxing in particular. I never saw the Rocky movies, never watched Raging Bull, even though it won the Oscar in 1980. So for me to be studying boxing is the height of incongruousness. My family was utterly amused, confused and bemused. Mostly amused. So I have to believe I was getting caught up in the romance of the moment; and perhaps, the romance of the Warrior Planet coming face to face with the God of Dreams.

It happened when I was watching When We Were Kings, that wonderful documentary which won the Oscar in 1998, about Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman in Zaire in October, 1974, in the shadow of Watergate and the last gasps of the Vietnam War. He had come back from a four year hiatus during which he had been banned from boxing for refusing to go fight in the war, and he was hungry to regain the title. But he was also thirty-two and past his prime. He’d lost to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. He was looking to regain his title as heavyweight champion of the world.

Having just handed The Big Idea in to my agent, I had started writing a new novel; a book called Effelia about a 12 year old girl named Sage who had recently had a growth spurt and gone from being the littlest kid in her class to the tallest. Even so, she still got picked on and lived in fear of being beaten up by Sandy and the Boys. It occurred to me that Sage must have watched When We Were Kings and developed an instant fascination with Muhammad Ali: a crush akin to my little sister, Abigail’s high school crush on Malcolm X (along with Bruce Springsteen, Abigail’s walls were covered with posters of the handsome civil rights leader.)

I took my job as writer a step further: just as Mars and Neptune were doing their neat tango in the sky, I reached for my best friend, the Internet, and Googled “boxing Northampton MA.” Up came the name of a coach who taught 2.1 miles from me. His specialty was teaching women.

“Hi,” I wrote breathlessly in my email, if emails can be breathless. “I am a thirty seven year old woman, and I just watched When We Were Kings and I fell in love with Muhammad Ali! I am writing a book about a 12 year old who wants to be a boxer. I want to learn to box! Will you teach me?”

The next morning I met with him and had my first boxing lesson. He offered me a deal: 10 lessons for $250-$50 off the original package.

Things went well, that first day. Tom said he was fine with me boxing as long as no one wrecked my face. I liked the adrenal rush I got from punching. I am notoriously weak in the upper body, though my legs are strong, and it felt good to think about working on that neglected part of me. And I was thinking, in the back of my head, as I was putting together the syllabus for Journal For Peace, that this might somehow apply. How, I wasn’t sure.

I had to go on vacation for the next two weeks, I explained to my coach, whom I will hitherto refer to as “Coach, ” as that is what he liked to call himself. He was fine with that. He wanted me to come in three times a week, but I said I couldn’t do that with my schedule. I wanted to come in once a week, and we compromised at two, although there were a few weeks when I couldn’t even manage that.

At the fourth lesson, Coach taught me street fighting, which is bare fisted, and basically a lesson in how to kill someone who tries to mess with you in a dark alley. I left that lesson physically ill–with a migraine and on the verge of throwing up. I had to wash all the clothes I was wearing to get the smell of the studio out of my olfactory memory.

I liked Coach a lot. He was strong, articulate, full of dignity and respect for boxing. He had a picture of an African woman on the wall with this quotation: “Mutual respect is the basis of any community. If there is no mutual respect among people who are living together, they will not last long as a community. As the proverb says, to live together is to have a common fate.” I pumped him with questions about boxing, Muhammad Ali, and anything else I could think of. I’m a curious sort.

I loved wrapping and taping my hands. I loved the idea of jumping rope, even though I did not like the actuality of it. I loved punching. I loved the torque. I could feel myself “get it.”

But there were some not so great thing about Coach. He interrupted lessons to answer the phone, and on one occasion actually did some suspicious looking business with a fellow in the back room of the studio, leaving me on the mat. He wore sandals, as if it were not worth his time to put on athletic shoes to spar with me. He would time me skipping rope or punching Sam the Dummy while he checked his e-mail. I continued to ask him a lot of questions, and I think he found that tedious rather than chariming or endearing, which had been my hope. I pointed at all the black and white photos he had on the walls:

“Who’s that?” I’d say.

“Jack Johnson?” he’d reply in disbelief. “You don’t know who Jack Johnson is?”

And he rolled his eyes at me, which I wasn’t too crazy about. Did he get that I wasn’t a nineteen year old boy who wanted to learn to fight? Did he get that I didn’t know anything about sports? He treated me with derision and frustration. Mostly, I didn’t care. I had a mission, and as a writer, everything—including the way he was treating me—was grist for the mill. I would use it as information about Sage and her world.

But after the infamous street fighting class began the drumbeat of Sign Up For More Classes. He offered me a new deal: 20 classes for $300, but only if I signed up RIGHT NOW! He said, “I usually wait till after the street fighting class to see if a student has what it takes to be a fighter before offering them more classes. You have what it takes.”

I knew this was a line, but again, I didn’t care about that. However, with all this time devoted to boxing, I wasn’t able to actually write my story. So I said I would make up my mind later and pay full price if I needed to. I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a fighter. This made him angry. He told me my book would be nonsense if I didn’t really learn to fight. I let all this roll off me, knowing in the peaceful part of me, that he was just trying to make a living like anyone. I saw it as a game he was playing, and I could let it go. I didn’t need to play that particular game with him. He struck me, over time, as a bitter man in his late fifties who had a small fiefdom for which he had staked his life, and he was willing to fight for the death to protect the honor and hegemony of his fiefdom.

It became increasingly harder for my enthusiastic Do Anything For Your Characters writer part of me to demand my adolescent Really I’d Rather Stay Home And Play My iPod side of me to be dragged the 2.1 miles away two mornings a week. Last Friday, I e-mailed Coach and explained that I had a show in Boston that night and felt I needed to conserve energy and not box.

“That’s fine,” he wrote in an email. “But Nerissa. I must caution you that if you do not sign up for further lessons, your book is just going to be the same kind of boxing trash like Million Dollar Baby and Rocky that’s out there. You will not be able to do justice to the sport if you don’t sign up for more classes.”

For some reason, that was the last straw. He had attacked my Peacemaking (or Peace-maintaining) Achilles heel: my artistic vision. NO ONE messes with my artist vision.

Dear Coach, I wrote. “My book is not about the sport of boxing. It’s about a 12 year old girl on a spiritual journey of sorts. I am not going to represent it as a book on boxing.”

I went on to enumerate the ways in which I am too busy to study boxing three times a week. “I am not a fighter,” I wrote. “I needed to work with you to learn that for sure, but I am clear on that now. I have no interest in hitting someone or getting hit. “ As for future classes, I declined the offer but said I wanted to leave the door open in case the spirit or muse called me to continue.

Coach responded by saying I was insulting him by saying boxing was about hitting and not getting hit. “But I have already given you too much of my wisdom,” he wrote. “You should have been done with your ten classes weeks ago. I will honor your last two classes next week, but I will not divulge any more information about boxing. I will perform my duties as coach, only.”

He told me he felt used. He told me there was a game Liberals in the Valley played, and he was not about to play it. “A Liberal, as Robert Frost said, is someone who won’t even take his own side in a fight.”

At this point, I wrote him and told him I would not come in for the last two classes I’d paid for, because I felt uncomfortable about the “disagreeable” feelings between us. I thanked him for his coaching and I apologized for “using” him and said I didn’t like it that he had pidgeonholed me as a liberal. I have not heard back from him. I got a new boxing coach/source that day and will start with him next week.

I recognized as I was writing back and forth with Coach that I might not be modeling good mediatory or peacemaking behaviors. I thought, “If I were really a warrior for peace, I would stay and work things out with Coach.” But I was angry and tired and wanted out.

But I felt really rotten about it all weekend. I felt like a quitter, for one thing, and I hate feeling like a quitter. (I love to quit; hate the aftereffects.) I felt sad that someone in the world might not love me anymore. Also, I felt angry and self-righteous. So I decided to do an exercise I know called Boomerang.

Here’s how a boomerang works. When you are in a conflicted relationship with someone, take it the analogy of the Buddhist Hindrances for both parties. The Buddhists say all human suffering can be attributed to one of three main conditions (from which all illness/evil springs). They are:

-Wanting (includes craving, selfishness, desires of all kinds, greed, miserliness)

-Aversion (includes hatred, prejudice, fear)

-Delusion (includes ignorance, sloth, torpor, dishonesty)

The work of the boomerang is to first see where you acted in these ways. When you have written down your part, then move on to see (with compassion!) where the other person acted through these illnesses. The end result should be greater understanding, even more compassion and forgiveness. A recognition of how difficult it is to be a human being.

Looking back on my interactions with Coach, I was greedy: I did want to use Coach for my own purposes. True, I felt I’d paid him what he’d asked for, but that’s not the point. I wanted to use him to write my own story. I was fearful of getting hit and didn’t really want to move on to that part of boxing, which was one of the reasons I didn’t want to continue. I didn’t need to enumerate the ways in which I am a busy person. That’s insulting (aversion). I also attempted to appear dominant when I said, “If and when the muse strikes, I will pay you and be back.” That is, I was making it clear that this is an economic relationship and I was assuming that as the purchaser, I had the upper hand. This isn’t actually true: he doesn’t have to take me on as a client. Just because I’m paying doesn’t mean I have the power. And we were in a kind of power struggle. Finally, I am certainly ignorant about Coach as a person, about his background, about the moccasins he’s been walking in for fifty odd years. I am certainly ignorant about what it takes to be an athlete. And I was pretty slothful about practicing: as in: I never did.

He was greedy in that he wanted me to write the story of boxing that he wants the world to hear and know. Also, he wanted money (which I can understand.) He was prejudiced against me because I am what he sees as a “Valley Liberal”. He learned prejudice first hand, so I can understand that. He is ignorant about me and my experience, just as I am ignorant about him and his.

Looking back on our correspondence, I am struck by the way we were “boxing” with each other on the page. I guess there’s a fighter in me after all. Perhaps that is a part of what I was running away from.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. It seems to me (offering my unasked for two cents) that you were both in a business relationship. You were not friends who respected on another for who you were, shared each other’s lives and felt a special bond with one another. You were the paying student; he was the paid teacher.

    Your expectations were clearly spelled out to him from the outset. That he failed to honor those expectations and superimposed his own expectations on top of yours is no fault of your own.

    One of the key words here in your give and take with Coach is relationship; relationships take two people actively working together to make the relationship work. From what you’ve written, Coach was not trying to make any relationship he had with you work through honorable means. It was clear that he saw you as Income only. When he felt that source of income being threatened, he threatened back — not physically but psychologically with guilt. My guess is that he’s used guilt a lot to keep paying customers paying (and could care less about whether or not they continued coming to practices or not).

    While your attempts to understand you own reactions are good ones, you did not bear the full weight of this incident alone.

  2. Boxing is about domination and control, so I can’t say I’m surprised your coach turned out to be less than desired. Nothing ventured…
    🙂 Stephen

  3. Regardless of all else, I think what strikes me most solidly is your desire and determination to take on such a personal challenge, for the sake of understanding your character better. It makes me smile, just thinking that Sage already has such a champion in her corner. Good for you for having the courage to step into those shoes, and the ring!

    Please keep us posted on the new novel. I’m already intrigued!



  4. I think sometimes it’s very hard to tell when we’re “quitting” and when we’re walking away from something that’s not working. I have, oddly, been having a similar problem with my yoga teacher (of all things). We have very different philosophies. Should I stay and learn what I can from this teacher, or should I move on to someone who is “more my style”? I don’t know whether I’m looking for someone who will just rubber-stamp my own ideas (bad) or whether I have justifiable concerns about my current teacher (okay). The boxing teacher sounds like the latter to me–a bad fit for you–but as an individual how do we know?

  5. Perhaps my perspective as a life-long athlete and as a peaceful yoga student may shed some light on this truly remarkable story. (I just LOVE reading this blog.)

    First, the yoga angle. There are many, many types of yoga teachers. So, I’d imagine there are many types of boxing teachers. The problem is that this guy was a bummer. All that derision and email checking told us the guy was a loser. Don’t let him turn you off to boxing, or sports. I wouldn’t want people to be turned off by yoga based on a bad experience. Perhaps there is a compassionate boxing teacher, especially in the “liberal valley,” that would be a better fit.

    Second, the athlete perspective. The goal of most coaches is to push, push, push. Except for fanatical exercise addicts, we mortals need that pushing to go beyond our tendencies toward moderation. Even if the coach wasn’t a sharpster jerk, Nerissa would have had to address that resistance at some point. That could be part of the lesson for Effelia.

    Third, merging the two perspectives. To be competitive, one must “crave” the rewards that come from victory or from self-improvement. That paradox is one of the hardest challenges of a compassionate athlete. You must play as hard as you can but then let go of your ego. You want to vanquish your opponent but maintain his or her dignity. The compassionate athletes I know work hard to achieve that “state of grace,” but we all sin from time to time.

    Finally, I recall a between-song story in which Nerissa described her attempt to be the “most uncompetitive” yoga student ever. There’s that paradox again.

    For what it’s worth,

    jeff from Charlotte

  6. Thank you all for your amazing feedback on this story. This was by far the most difficult “blog” I ever wrote/posted. I really appreciate all the words of compassion and wisdom here. Effelia will too.

  7. What a fabulous post! It’s taken me a couple of days to figure out what I wanted to say. First, I’m impressed with your perseverence! Even in your frustration, you kept trying…and now you will continue with a new coach. Also, I am of the belief that we should do our best to surround ourselves with people who bring out the best in us…to the extent that it’s in our control. Coach clearly did not bring out your best Nerissa…and maybe you did not bring out the best Coach. So instead of continuing a relationship that was not benefitting either of you, you walked away. Wise move by a wise woman, I’d say. I hope your new coach brings out the best boxing Nerissa.

  8. You write that you thought, “If I were really a warrior for peace, I would stay and work things out with Coach.”

    I want to echo a point that other commentators have made, that sometimes walking away is the best way to promote peace. Sometimes an interaction just isn’t working out, and there shouldn’t be any shame in recognizing this early on and opting out of it. The alternative often ends up trying to bend the other person to your will, which often is detrimental to both people.

    I’ll note as well, for what it’s worth, that a number of the things that you report hearing or thinking with respect to Coach sound to me straight out of accounts of high-pressure salesfolk or cults. Or dysfunctional personal relationships, sometimes.

    — The attempt to force snap decisions with a jolt of hope and fear: pay $300 NOW or this great deal goes away. (Favorite tactic of high-pressure salesmen in those car dealerships that are set up to make you spend thousands more than you needed to.)

    — The moves to build-up or tear-down someone’s ego depending on whether they comply: you have what it takes, so you should sign up for more classes; otherwise you’re a failure and maybe even a hypocrite. (I’m reminded of the love bombing and cognitive dissonance techniques sometimes seen in cult recruitment.)

    — The message that the failure of a relationship is really a failure of the person: if you stop taking classes *from me* that shows *you’re* just a quitter. (Lots of people who’ve gotten ensnared in multi-level-marketing or highly-programmed “self-help” schemes and then have tried to walk away will recognize this one.)

    None of these are healthy, I think, nor can they be excused simply as someone trying to make a living.

    I’m not suggesting here that you should go back and spend a lot of energy fighting Coach in your mind. My thirdhand perceptions may have been distorted for one thing, and even if they’re right on target, your energy might well be better spent moving on and focusing on your own issues, as you suggest in your piece.

    But at the same time, it can sometimes be worthwhile to observe some of these dynamics, how they work, how they can hurt, and how they can be blocked or dodged. (Or when it’s best just to get out of the ring.)

    If your protagonist is like many young adolescents,
    she’ll probably have to learn many of these things
    on her own pretty soon.

    All the best wishes for your writing, and for your lessons with your new coach.

    — JMO in Philly

  9. I liked this post a lot, and not just because I am obsessed with Muhammad Ali myself.

    Boxing is portrayed by its literary fans (A.J. Liebling, Joyce Carol Oates, Thom Jones) as noble and pure, the closest one can embody the Platonic vision of courage. But it’s also a brutal game filled with hustlers, mobsters, and all sorts of criminals (a list too long to enumerate). It sounds to me like Coach is both noble and a hustler; he seems to use his respect for the game as a way to separate bills from your wallet. I don’t believe for a second that he’s interested in anything but your money.

    As for “I wanted to use [Coach] to write my own story,” what’s wrong with that? It’s called research, and all good writers do it. You don’t owe this guy a thing, and I don’t know how you will get any karmic retribution for that.

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