From The New Yorker
Perhaps the mystery of my attraction to the kettlebell, and where it led me, is solved in this very digression. In the run up to such a vulnerable moment, you need to be strong.
CrossFit, founded in 2000, is structured around a central accrediting organization and its affiliates, the number of which has increased by about fifty per cent each year for the past several years and is now above five thousand. The exercises that draw all this interest are a mixture of old-fashioned physical culture—chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and sprints, all with tricky little variations—and the clean, press, and jerk movements of Olympic weight lifting that, as practiced by potbellied Russians in the seventies, circa “The Wide World of Sports,” had fascinated me. There is a smattering of gymnastics: headstands, rings, squats, box jumps, pistols (squats on one leg). There are a few rather random movements, like lifting gigantic truck tires end over end, or pulling around a weighted sleigh with chains. Many of these movements, one way or another, involve squatting. And then there are the kettlebells and their faintly Ottoman air. My favorite kettlebell workout is called “The Turkish Get-Up,” which involves standing up from a prone position while holding a kettlebell over your head in a state of adrenalized fear that you might drop the thing and crush your face.
CrossFit attracts control freaks and perfectionists, as well as people with soldierly dispositions, like cops, firefighters—one of whom memorably did a workout in full gear—and military veterans. There are as many middle-aged people as young ones.
It’s been nearly three years since I first joined. Some of this time has been spent in New York, most of it in New Orleans. When I am in New York, I go to CrossFit workouts sporadically, maybe once or twice a month. In New Orleans, the CrossFit need is much stronger.
What is behind the CrossFit need, which is a variation of compulsive intense training? And I mean training, not playing a sport—training as a form of preparation.
The answer moves along several parallel axes:
1. The Axis of Wanting to Be a Middle-Aged Man Who Can Dunk.
I have always been on the very cusp of being able to dunk a basketball, at times able to finish and at other times falling short, pathetically, the ball banging against the front rim or bouncing off the back. My relationship to a dunked basketball, in the course of an actual game, has mostly been that of the person being dunked on. This is a point of pride: it means I am good enough to be on the court with people who can dunk. But it is also depressing. Getting dunked on is itself not too bad, but the gleam in the eye of the dunker when he or she first lays eyes on you is. One of the most famous victims of a dunk is a guy named Frédéric Weis, a calamitously soft, inept Frenchman whose great moment in basketball history came when Vince Carter more or lessjumped over him to dunk in the 2000 Olympics. C’est moi.
An idea has been percolating recently among basketball fanatics that being dunked on is a good thing, a sign of character and integrity. It means you have contested a shot and tried to make a defensive play. This is better and more useful than saying, “Oh boy, here comes a potentially ego-devastating experience. Let me turn my back and get out of the way.”
It would be dishonest to write that I joined CrossFit so I could be a middle-aged guy who canstill dunk. No, I joined CrossFit not wanting to sustain my game but to improve it. I have played basketball for most of my life, starting at around ten. Could I have used something like CrossFit five or ten (or twenty or thirty) years ago? Most certainly. I wish there had been something like it. But the frantic culture of physical self-improvement in which we live did not exist thirty years ago, or even fifteen. Maybe I am more under the influence of the zeitgeist than I would like to admit, but my desire to stay fit enough to keep playing is earnest.
And yet, as powerful as this motivation is, I don’t think it is the primary explanation for the CrossFit need.
2. The Axis of Parenting. And Within That, the Axis of Having a Son.
I have a wildly physical daughter with whom I have run around and roughhoused from her earliest years. She is no slouch, my daughter, when it comes to wanting to be thrown in the air, or to play tag or swim. But it was when I found out that our second child would be a boy that I had my CrossFit freak-out.
While my daughter presented me with a demanding physical challenge, I was thinking about her now, the ongoing now of parenthood. This now is so forceful that seeing a photograph of your kid taken two or three years earlier is always a shock. My son, though, provoked a new way of regarding time. Even before he was born, I was looking into the future in a way I hadn’t done with my daughter. I wasn’t worried about playing with my son when he was a week or a year old; I was, in some way I can still only barely perceive, thinking about whether I could play with him when he was twelve and fourteen and sixteen.
No sooner do I write that than it occurs to me that CrossFit may as well put up banners saying, “Oedipal Camp: It’s time to start training now for when they try to kill you and take your place!”
There are a pair of iconic sports scenes that hover on the surface of my memory. One is from the movie “Breaking Away,” which has an understated and gorgeously sad father-son dynamic. The son is an athletic freak and the father is a stonecutter with a beer gut. The son is obsessed with Italy, and its bike-racing culture in particular, while the father is a creature of Bloomington, Indiana, where the movie is set. The film, written by Steve Tesich, is played as light comedy, but the moment of reconciliation between the pair, when the father speaks of being proud to have cut the stone that built the Indiana University campus that his son now attends, has always been wrenchingly sad and moving for me.
The other iconic scene is not from popular culture but rather a basketball game I saw on the court in Saltaire, Fire Island, one summer, probably in the mid-nineties. It was one of those glimpsed moments that hardly register when you see them; only when they bob up to the surface on their own do you realize how powerful they remain. It was a pickup game, full court, maybe a league game of some kind because there was a small crowd. One of the teams featured a father-son tandem. The son was a huge, beefy twenty-year-old. He was the most athletic guy on the court, but he was not the center of the offense. That was his father. Well past middle age, the father had a full beard, and on his head wore a bandana styled somewhere between pirate and sushi chef. What the father possessed that the son did not was a fanatical intensity and a deeply rooted lower-body strength. He posted up, was fed the ball, and his neck became red, a color that telegraphed a certain sentiment: “I’m about to have a stroke but will not come out of this game, so don’t even talk to me about it.”
It was close game, with a lot of intensity on the court. Toward the end, the ball went to the old guy in the post, the defense collapsed, the neck was fire-engine red. I realized that I was rooting for this guy, madly rooting for him and the way he cleared out people with a few forceful dribbles. It was as if Charles Barkley were an old Jewish ad executive dressed like a basketball-playing pirate.
The son, so much more physically imposing but lacking the ferocity of the father, seemed to be both impressed and amused by his father’s intensity. The scene has lingered with me for years.
One other filial sports pair has an iconic stature in my imaginative life: the father-daughter relationship between Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal in “The Bad News Bears.” I have always loved Matthau as an actor, and I know this is at least in part because his color—his hair, his skin, the way his beard blues his cheeks a bit even when clean-shaven—reminds me of my father. “The Bad News Bears” hit a chord in me when I was ten, just after my father died. I saw it ten times in the theatre.
Maybe I joined CrossFit because I wish to live long enough to be able to play with my son at exactly the age—ten and onward—when I no longer had a father to play with me. Every parent knows how much having a kid inspires meditations on mortality. But was a son also provoking in me rivalrous feelings? Was I going into training for a competition that wouldn’t begin in earnest for twelve or fifteen or twenty years? Was CrossFit the start of something that would end with me looking like a pirate and demanding the ball in the post? And getting the ball?
3. The Axis of Geography.
But all of this discounts the fact that my need for CrossFit is most acute in New Orleans.
The answer must lie in the nature of New Orleans itself. Why the physical landscape of the city should make you want to do pull-ups, squats, and Olympic-style weight lifting is not immediately apparent. New Orleans is known, globally, as a place of indulgence and pleasure. CrossFit combines an aura of monkish asceticism with the imperatives of the hunter-gatherer: sugar and carbs are discouraged; meat, suffering, penance, and catharsis are prized. CrossFit’s motto—“Again, faster”—expresses a perverse insatiability for self-improvement, which is a decadence of a sort, but not in the usual New Orleans sense.
Once I grasped that there was a distinctly geographic element to my interest, I wanted to understand it. I finally came up with the word “decrepitude.”
I encountered the word among the early gospels of Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit who now limps with a bad leg (a worrisome quality in a guru of radically maximalist workouts). He was extolling the virtues of squatting.
“Why squat?” Glassman writes. “The squat is a vital, natural, and functional component of your being. In the bottom position, the squat is nature’s intended sitting posture. Only in the industrialized world do we find the need for chairs, couches, benches, and stools. This comes at a loss of functionality that contributes immensely to decrepitude.”
The word brought me up short. New Orleans is a place where one is constantly reminded of nature’s desire to reclaim the landscape from the man-made: the sidewalks buckle upward as tree roots rise with glacial force; the foliage blooms irrepressibly in all shapes and sizes, swaying and swishing like a hair-metal band whenever the wind picks up. The houses are old. The city is gorgeous for all these reasons, but it’s fragile. The balance between aged and falling-apart is always precarious. Was I responding to some feeling that the land itself would fall away beneath me by wanting to develop balance, stamina, and core strength? Was it that, away from the fortress of New York, with its density and my extended family of friendships, I now felt alone and vulnerable? Or was I just instinctively trying to loosen my body to the point where I could squat down beside my children, where I could hover effortlessly for a long period of time, seeing the world from their point of view? And when the time came to stand, could I rise without collapsing, and even, if circumstances called for it, lift them up with me so we could survey the world together?
Thomas Beller’s “J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist” will be published this June. He is an assistant professor of English at Tulane University and a frequent contributor to Culture Desk.
Illustration by Hannah K. Lee.