When They Ask Me: "Are You Still Boxing?"
My memoir Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind, the paperback, came out this summer (2020) from SUNY Press. For those who might be wondering what I’ve been up to since the initial publication of the hardcover in 2010, here are some updates for you!
“Are you still boxing?” That’s the most frequent question.
I wish I could say yes. There are many people I met along the way who are headed into their 70s and still boxing. I thought I’d be one of them. Sure, I could simply say, “I took up boxing in my mid-fifties, and it’s been utterly transformational.” That’s the arc we want for a contemporary journey, isn’t it? I lost 50 lbs, I got divorced, I changed careers; only then would I be fulfilling the requirements for a “journey”-- a catch-all term gracing the cover of every glossy magazine. We have an un-ending interest in “living our best lives,” sucking the juice out of the marrow of being; pursuing achievement, perfection, fitness, de-cluttering, and for us women “of a certain age” in particular, the circle dance of re-invention and revitalization—from Botox to Living Solo to Aging Gracefully.
Until I began facing and expressing my own aggression, I didn’t know how sad I’d been about aging. Slowly, feelings of vitality had been diminishing as I experienced the invisibility of middle age. Physical power, endurance and stamina returned when I took up boxing. My body was becoming friendly, a source of pleasure.
But only in the land of upbeat narratives is life so formulaic. In truth, our motivations and actions are a cascade of molecules, weather changes, hormonal shifts, sorrows returning, and distant ambitious dreams hang around like a cherished cashmere sweater; a bit stretched out but wearable.
Rather than wholesale transformation, my boxing story followed a different paradigm. It was an adventure that ended. It was a curiosity, a magnetizing preoccupation that clung to me for quite a while, and gave me so much, and one, that after all, I literally fell into. I could not have imagined that those broken bones from a walk to the bird-feeder would lead me to take up boxing, meet my coach John, research Jewish boxers, push me out of my comfort zone, and write a book. It all happened because I was willing to follow along.
Everyone says our perception of time changes as we age; it begins to feel like it’s speeding up. Limitations crowd in with new crushing force. My mid-fifties now seem like the cusp of adolescence! But that’s inevitable, that wasn’t the most surprising loss that profoundly affected my relationship to boxing.
In October 2013 I got a phone call from a fellow therapist who also trained at John’s gym. “John’s dead,” she said. “I thought you would want to know.” He was 49. He had been “grappling” (a form of wrestling) at a gym when he collapsed. It’s been seven years now, and those of us who were touched by John are still grieving. At the funeral, one of John’s students took me aside to say: When I want to remember John and all the amazing things he said and taught me, I go through your book again. It had been a tough year for John before he died; we were drifting out of touch. Without scheduled lessons, what would we do to maintain what brought us together?
I’ll always remember how he beamed at my first reading at Barnes & Noble when I brought him up to the podium. I had long before invited him to co-write the book with me. “No, baby,” he demurred. “It’s your story.” I tried to bring him along when special events happened around the book, but things often got in the way. In the end he was ambivalent about the spotlight.
I do miss punching. When I feel powerless, I remember hitting punch mitts with John, experiencing his unique style of encouragement. Could I find another coach, and practice some limited combinations? Do I want it enough? I miss the visceral feeling of hitting. I miss John saying “it’s not wrong; it’s just not what we’re doing.”
I do know this: the absolute thrill of having this book come to life, and the opportunities to which it led, are in the end the things that have been the most wonderful parts of the adventure.
I met famous boxers, trainers and authors; people I’d researched or interviewed. Founders of the Pink Gloves boxing for women franchise who enjoyed the book named a combination of punches after me. I gave talks on the Jewish boxers that I’d studied. I covered a fight for the venerable paper, “The Forward.” John and I did a radio feature, “In Your Corner,” and who would have imagined I would wind up actually speaking on the phone with Muhammed Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee? It was surreal.
I was asked to help teach an undergraduate class on “Boxing and Culture” at a university via Skype. For one assignment, the students were expected to write research papers on my book! I’d never expected to have written a book that would be someone’s assignment, and I chuckled at being described by one student as “a woman in the middle ages.”
I said yes to things that were ultimately crazy – schlepped into Manhattan to have lunch in midtown with an out-of-touch show business agent who, entering 30 minutes late with a walker, thought my story could be a film. I met a fast-talking TV producer who wanted me to help with a documentary that tanked after I raised some money for it. I said “yes” a lot until it was clearly time to say “no.”
Sometimes inserting myself into groups of disciplined athletes throwing me quizzical looks brought humiliation. At Gleason’s Fantasy Boxing Camp in the Catskills, I was reduced to stinging tears by the trainer who coached Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby. Unlike my demanding but supportive coach, Hector “the Tormentor” (thanks to fellow pugilist author Lynn Snowden Pickett for the moniker) was brutal and critical. “Why you stand like that?” “You never learn right!” Yes, I sobbed in my run-down room in this once-famous resort where boxers trained and called John to tell him about Hector the Tormentor. He was ready to drive up and knock him out. He soothed me on the phone, and reminded me of the philosophy behind the way he taught middle-aged women like me to box – it’s not about abuse, it’s about empowerment. He gave me the strength to stick it out, train with someone more appropriate the next day, give my reading at the ending exhibition, and drive home from the Catskills with my head held high.
No, I’m not still boxing, but if I come upon another chance to be a beginner at something again, to pursue another adventure? – I’m taking it.
About the first jab, John often said “Okay, see what’s out there.” I was never completely sure what that meant – see if it lands? See who you’re fighting? See what you’re up against? See how strong you feel? Ultimately I came to hear his words as a simple instruction: