I took up boxing the year I turned sixty. Oh, I had done a little boxing in high school, and I was a boxing fan most of my life; I always imagined myself a skilled pugilist and potentially violent combatant, stinging like a butterfly.
Seriously, I took up boxing at age sixty as a new way of doing fitness. I was getting bored with my usual gym routine: rowing machine and weight training in my downtown office gym. Boxing was a much more aggressive way to express my fitness goals. Let me be clear though, I wasn’t actually in the ring facing an opponent. My opponents were the speed bag, the heavy bag and mirrors, and maybe myself: I didn’t want to fail in the eyes of my fellow novice boxing students. I also took up French language training the same year. Both are excellent strategies for retaining mental acuity.
By age 65 my interest in both waned. And by 66 Marlene had become ill and my motivation and energies were sapped.
I gave up French class for the ridiculous reason I was irritated by my latest instructor, an arrogant Persian woman who intimidated more than entertained. (I bet you read Parisian there and wondered if I had misspelt. Nope, she was Persian.) We were a class of ~20, mostly sexagenarian women, and in no mood for condescension.
I gave up boxing lessons for altogether different reasons. I had sustained too many insults to my aging body to continue with the strenuous effort expected at Weisbock Boxing Club. These injuries were mostly to my metatarsi, Achilles and knees, sustained from the ballistic stress of skipping! My goals had been to learn technique and achieve fitness, and to be the oldest member of the club. I mostly met my goals but I was never going to be the best in technique, or fitness, and there was a guy older than me who showed no sign of quitting. So I let it go. Still, in my mind, I kudda been a champion.
But I still liked the violence and stress-relief of pounding the heavy bag, so I bought some equipment and installed it in my basement: a speed bag, a heavy bag and a retort bag, a few dumbbells, and my skipping rope. I must confess, I had trouble sustaining the discipline of going downstairs for even a weekly workout. And then, with Marlene’s illness, this trickled to nothing at all.
When I sold my house and moved to the townhouse I was determined to start my fitness regime again and so moved my boxing gear with me and had my handyman install the equipment in the basement. And there it stayed, unused for a year, as I sunk into my post-Emily depression and despair. Even though I knew that frequent strenuous exercise, with the release of positive endorphins, is excellent mental therapy as well as physical fitness, I could not rustle up the energy to change into my gym clothes and go downstairs to face those bags.
And then Carmen arrived.
‘What’s all this?’ she inquired. Coming from the land of Manny Pacquiao, she knew what the equipment was, she just didn’t expect to see it in my basement. What she wanted to know was, why wasn’t I using it. I shrugged. She said, ‘we’ll start tomorrow’.
Carmen liked to say she enjoyed exercise, and she seemed to have the legs to prove it, but Zumba is not the same as punching, nor bicep curls. She may have encouraged me to start, but I was also eager to teach. So we worked out together. I taught her how to make a fist, and swing efficiently at the bags rather than flailing wildly – such a girl. She picked up my old wrist weights and learned how to do bicep curls, triceps curls, pullups and lateral raises. She progressed to 5# dumbbells! I picked up my 25# dumbbells but should have taken my own lessons as I managed to give myself a strained back and groin from overloaded seated bicep curls.
Even though skipping rope may be the best overall exercise you can do, and the quintessential boxing fitness tool, I wasn’t prepared to reinjure my joints again from skipping. Aging metatarsi, Achilles, ankles, hamstrings, hip flexors, groins and gluteus medias, were letting me know my skipping days were over. So we used the stepper – a much gentler way to increase heart rate.
We both got fitter, though I never saw her sweat. And my mental heath got better by the week.
As the summer progressed and into the Fall we got down to the gym three times a week, sometimes four. I could feel the difference, not only in my fitness, hardness and endurance, I would feel it in my mind as well. There were days when I would find myself in a funk and couldn’t face the gym. But after two or three such days I would force myself to put on those gym clothes and head to the basement. As I pounded the heavy bag, and the heavy mental image of my discontent, I could feel my mood lifting.
I smiled to think of my former student who had defeated post-partum depression with the same method.
Carmen often would claim to be my new medicine and the reason for me getting off my psycho-pharmaceuticals, and this was almost certainly true, to a degree. But maybe more importantly, her catalyzing me to get back to boxing was even more significant for my improving mental outlook. It suited my Ernest Hemmingway self-image as well.