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By Diane Flacks

What would prompt an otherwise sensible, university educated, 30 something woman to step into a rancid smelling gym, don sweat soaked headgear, and get punched in the mouth?

If you'd asked me that question three years ago I would have to say "nothing on earth," or "$40,000.00,"depending on the day. But I am now a boxing junkie. I'm not talking about boxercise, either. I'm talking better-wear-your-kidney-protector, snap your skull back fisty-cuffs. And it's not just me. Boxing is catching on with women all over the world. Mohammed Ali's daughter is pitching Nike, for fucks sake!

Some questions I am frequently asked when I mention my new obsession are, "Why don't you do something else to get in shape? What if you get hurt? What's wrong with you? Why don't you try swimming at the Y like a normal person? You pay for this?!"

My usual answer is, "Mom, please, I like it."

A nearer truth is that I stink at pretty much all sports. Things requiring co-ordination and group enthusiasm, like step classes, strippersize, or spin class where everyone is pretending to bike up hills while staring at someone wearing a head-mic, just exhaust me. I was never athletic, and I'm terrible at managing anger. I tend to deal with my rage by hyperventilating, bursting into tears, and sulking. But I am even worse at managing fear.

A frightening incident that occurred a few years ago got the boxing ball rolling. It happened late one night, as most humiliating epiphanies do. I got home and was in the process of locking my bike up to my front porch, when I heard a sound coming from somewhere behind me. It sounded like a low guttural growl of breath "hhhh" and I had no idea where it was coming from. At that moment, I felt like the life force was leaving my body and I was paralyzed, as my mind raced. I was terrified to look behind me. I struggled to force my body up the stairs, as my numb hands fumbled with keys. I heard the sound again, behind me, closer, "hhhh." I decided to turn and get a glimpse at how close he, my attacker, was. Feeling like I was about to faint, I looked back, and what did I see? My elderly neighbor horking on the sidewalk.

I am not proud of this moment, but it taught me something very important. In times of true crisis, my instincts lean toward scaredy-cat.

So I responded the way anyone would when confronted with such a stark revelation about their true self. I looked for someone else to blame. Socialization will do. I did some extensive research (phoning three friends) into the different ways men and women respond to a fear situation. Many men I know said that in the infrequent event that they were threatened, they, just like most women, often had the urge to cry, but on the heels of that urge, was a fury that propelled them to strike back. Accompanying that fury was an assurance that no one had the right to hit them.

But how do you develop that furious instinct? The knowledge that even if I could overcome my innate shaky-boots, I wouldn't even know how to hit someone; coupled with the equally pathetic fact that I throw like a girl - a drunk girl who left her glasses on the subway - led me to rip the ad for women's boxing right off the hydro pole.

After I finished soaking my finger in peroxide (paper cuts can cause MAJOR infections you know) I dialed, and my journey began.

The workout, led by the inspiring Ontario silver medalist female boxer, Savoy Howe, involves two agonizing and exhilarating hours of skipping, push-ups, sit-ups, punching a heavy bag, shadow-boxing, and yes, sparring with other women in a ring.

The other day, Savoy made us do one of those quaint and archaic boxing exercises you see in movies. If Burgess Meredith was forcing Sylvester Stallone to do it, it would be greeted with respect and maybe a little awe. To me, it seemed like demented torture, and not very flattering.

It involved being tied to a partner by a rope around each of our waists. There was a little slack between us, but not much. The object of the exercise was to learn about "in fighting" or fighting when you are in a clinch with another boxer. It's a good way to ensure your defense is working. You have to protect your head and body, and try and punch the other person as you stand practically nose to nose. Sound like fun?

My partner was affectionately called "The Jackhammer" because she has a killer punch. My nickname is "Mighty Mouse." As The Jackhammer rattled my cage with uppercuts and hooks to the temple, I defended myself, but only made a nominal effort to punch back. I was afraid that if I hit her, she'd just hit back harder.

At the end of the round, my partner shared an insight. During the exercise, her initial instinct had been to get away from me, but since she couldn't, something inside her told her that she had nothing to lose, and she struck out. My instinct told me that after this exercise there would be brunch, so I should just try and survive for 45 more minutes.

The next round, I tried her strategy, and I threw caution to the wind. I saw the look of shock and confusion on her face when I connected. Suddenly her punches lost their sting, and my fear ebbed away. It worked!

I left the gym excited to try out my new power. I longed for the chance to confront my urban fears. I longed to get mad and not get weepy! I urged the Universe: "Bring it on!"

The Universe answered. That week, my girlfriend went away on business. By day four, I had melted into a slothful recluse: soul and body atrophying, hair matted, bed unmade, depressed and petulant - a real joy. I was shuffling downstairs past my big dumb dog, when I heard a sound behind me. Unmistakably, it was the sound of a man's voice softly saying "boo." My tormentor had arrived and he was toying with me! The moment was here. Much to my horror, I once again felt the life blood draining out of me, paralyzing me with fear. "No!" I thought, "I'm pumped, I'm ready!" Shaking, I turned. I had the wherewithal to think for a brief flash that at least I could now put up some sort of a fight. Mingled with my dread, was a tiny whisper of "bring it on." That's when I saw him: my huge mutt stretching and yawning at such a ridiculous angle that his woof sounded like "boo."

This time, the relief was not followed by shame. The penny had dropped. Some of us are not born brave, but like the case of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, bravery can be thrust upon us.

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