I am sitting on a beat-up stool with wheels. My assignment is to go from one end of the physical therapy room to another, propelling myself by my heels. I will do this circuit three times. Prior to this I did ten minutes on the Precor, quad and hamstring lifts, glute presses, and a nasty stretching routine in which my right knee, which is no longer an actual knee but a bionic mix of titanium and plastic, loosens up to the 125 degrees I am aiming for by the end of the therapy session.
I tear off down the room, scooting past a youngish fireman with a repaired rotator cuff and an assortment of elderly people rehabilitating knees, hips, backs, elbows, shoulders.
My life in sports has put me in this room. One of my theories about athletics is that some people are born with all the physiological tools they need to excel athletically. The rest of us work our butts off, and end up grinding our bodies into dust for the sake of a championship that will always be out of our reach. One of the more grisly things about what I have done to my legs is that every professional I have encountered pre- and post surgery has to look at my chart to see which knee we are dealing with. Both of them are lumpy, misshapen and decorated with multiple long white scars.
My life in sports has also been inextricable from my life as an academic. It’s not just that academics have odd schedules that can create windows for working out, or access to top-flight gyms: in fact, athletics can take time that might otherwise be devoted to writing, and many of my colleagues actually refuse to work out in front of their students. It’s that, even though people don’t like to talk about it, academia calls on an individual’s capacity to compete, to endure, and to conquer self-doubt. These qualities I have honed, not in school, but in sports.
When I was in graduate school, I played in a highly competitive urban squash league. One of the reasons I practiced for several hours a day and spent entire weekends at tournaments was that I needed some area of my life that welcomed fierce competition. The graduate school ethic dictated that, even though we were all in competition with each other for fellowships, grants and jobs, we all pretend that it was not so. On the squash court, you could take. Someone. Out.
It was a great relief.
On the other hand, competition is also a tie that binds, and some of my fondest memories revolve around busting a$$ with members of my cohort. Around my third year, a group of us signed up for an intensive training course called Marathon Assault. I thought it would help my conditioning for squash (it did: I won the title for best record in the A League that year.) It was physically and psychologically grueling, to the point that people would start to weep openly as they continued to do the exercises. The trainer — a former elite British Marine — would stick his face in yours as you were doing two minutes of crunches and say menacingly: “Who are you? You are who you are in this room. That’s who you are.”
And you know what? It was true. People who couldn’t hack it dropped out, people who stayed revealed some pretty interesting character traits under stress. At the end of the course, we did a test (called the Final Assault) that pushed us beyond where we had ever gone before. Afterwards, three of us went to one of the jewelry stores on Eighth Street. Each athlete bought a gold stud earring with a thick star, had a new hole punched in one ear, and wore them to school in the afternoon.
Our feminist mentors thought we had lost our minds. I still have that stud. If you saw me in one of my job interviews in 2009-2011? I was wearing it.
You are who you are in this room. I can’t tell you how many times that has come back to me as a teacher, a colleague or a scholar. It doesn’t mean everyone has to be a cut throat competitor to earn my respect: quite the opposite. Often the person I notice (say in a job interview) is the one who is being quietly, serenely himself; or who takes a little extra time to put a group together, rather than trying to stand out as an individual. Like they do in sports, people in the academy are always dropping public clues that reveal character, particularly when they are under some kind of pressure. The key to understanding these clues is to peel through the junk of everyday life to read them properly, rather than assuming they are just circumstantial or an accident of the moment.
Being part of a department or a division requires some of the same qualitiesthat successful teams do: respect for each other, the capacity to work hard and sacrifice, and the knack of valuing people for what they bring to the table rather than what they don’t. Furthermore, academic life is an endurance test that requires flexibility, focus and the capacity to be honest with yourself about why you have succeeded, failed, or stalled in a way that you don’t seem to be able to change. Every time you win at something, you get about a day to enjoy it until somebody points out that you are at the starting line of the next race.
Got a job? Good for you. Your tenure clock just started. Are you going to play, or are you just going to stand there feeling all warm and glow-y about your dissertation prize?
I have played field hockey and lacrosse, I skated competitively as a child (just long enough to really get it that some sports are not made for everyone), and I played squash. The year I was finishing my book and coming up for tenure, I learned to row, and started competing at that the following summer. This is how I found myself sitting in a Concept2 ergometer, in a huge gym, with a bad cold and about 1,000 other people in my age group, getting ready to row 2,000 meters at top speed.
Suddenly, one of the former coxswains from the Zenith rowing team, who was at the time enrolled in law school in Boston, ran up to cox me through the race. She pointed out Micki, a feminist academic, two rows ahead, who I had rowed with ad with whom I was fiercely competitive, on and off the water. People think coxswains are famous for yelling, but that’s not true: the good coxswain gets in your head, rewires it, and makes you do what s/he wants you to do. As I pushed down the last 500 meters, oxygen deprived and in terrible pain, she whispered angrily in my ear: “Are you going to let Micki beat you? Micki? Really? You are not going to let Micki beat you. Oh no. I don’t think so.” This went on until I crossed the electronic finish line, fainted, and fell off the machine unconscious.
Micki did not beat me.
Later my partner said to one of our friends, a psychologist and Zenith faculty member who had also coxed for the National Team, “What do you think about Claire passing out at the end of a race?” My friend said: “I think it’s cool.”
It’s probably great times like this that accelerated my run to knee replacement surgery. But it also underlines something I learned from my life in rowing. Rowers are some of the best people I have ever met in life, and they work incredibly hard. As a reward for this, people who stay in rowing after college or university are generally poor, often have no health insurance, and even when they are successful are some of the most poorly paid coaches I have ever met.
You think adjuncting sucks? Try getting paid $6-8,000 a year to work 40-50 hours a week at every conceivable job that a boathouse requires: getting up at 5:00 to coach kids who are bleary from lack of sleep, painting oars, rigging boats, steering a motorboat in cold wind and rain while a group of novices lurch back and forth, and driving trailers hundreds, or thousands, of miles to the next regatta. Try bringing home an eight safely when you have suddenly been overtaken by a fierce storm. People do this work in hopes of eventually making it to a head coaching job that, at the top college ranks, may pay as little as $53,000 (average salary for Big 10 rowing coaches was $79,100 in 2010.) And the athletes? I’ve known people training for the National Team who were food-stamp eligible, had no health insurance and were practically living out of their cars.
Which doesn’t make adjuncting look good, mind you, but it does put the economic issues attendant to graduate school and finding full time academic work in perspective.
Immediately after my knee surgery, looking at the immense purple and yellow sausage that used to call itself my leg, I imagined things like what it would be like to walk again, or ride my bike. When I started dealing with physical therapists, they emphasized that I would only get out of the treatment what I put into it. My partner reassured each of them: “Don’t worry. She’s a major competitor. She’ll do it.”
And I have. As I clomped quickly by one of the therapists on my wheeled stool, she said: “Wow! Look at you!” Thinking about the championship squash games and Head of the Charles races in my past, I thought, “Yeah, well you should have seen me the way I used to be.” And then I thought, stabbing my heels into the floor to accelerate across the finish line: Well, there is a rowing venue in Queens…..
Yes, I am a major competitor. This is probably why I am getting a major kick out of the recently launched #GraftonLine Challenge, although since we are a mixed group I have to remind myself from time to time not to act scary in front of the graduate students (which I would totally do if this were a race. Once, a women’s faculty boat I was in was practice racing the women’s varsity and, in a calculated psyche-out move, we took our tee-shirts off at the start because we knew it would freak the students out to see a bunch of middle-aged professors in their sports bras.) This competitiveness has gotten me over some rough patches where, frankly, it would have been easier to just give up rather than figure out why I was not succeeding at my writing or in getting ahead at my job.
And by the way? Once I get about another five degrees of flexibility in that right knee, I’ll be back on the Concept2. Just to keep things in perspective for a bit longer.