Monday, July 21, 2008

Muscle Memory

As the unamed narrator of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca did, I last night dreamed of a return. It was not a return to Manderly or anywhere else on the Cornish coast rather it was a return to a practice pretty much no longer practical for me, not since December of 1996, and more emphatically not a good idea after August of 2003.

In the dream, I was running. Judging from the terrain, I was well into what I liked to think of as the final kick in either a 20k or a marathon, up that last groaner of a hill along Shoreline Drive before it slopes down toward the beginning of the Marina across the road from the City College athletic field. I was wet from the more cosmetic than soothing effects of water dumped over my head, my breath steady, my quads knowing they'd been up against a long routine of struggle. In real life as well as in the dream, the outcome of the race was not an issue, starting it, enjoying every step of it, and being hopeful of doing better than the last time out in a race were the primary goals.

Since first my left hip and then my right have been replaced by wonders of modern design, running carries with it the possibility of some mischief. Even though I can log the equivalent of miles on the sophisticated treadmills at the Y, they are nevertheless treadmills, and even though I never approached what could be thought of as quality of performance, I did approach enough miles on the streets and back roads of California, the Central Park Circuit in New York, and such places as Rock Creek Park in Washington and the Mount Tabor section of Portland to leave me, all this time later, with that precious awareness called muscle memory, where closed eyes, not thinking, and a precious sense of movement merge to produce a sensation of effortless floating. "You ran," some running buddies told me, "as though you believed you were getting somewhere special--but not the finish line." My then dog companion, Molly, and I were well known about town in the context of our running.

Now it is swimming, which has its own rewards, its own sense of knowing when the crawl glide works and you are as one with the water as you were with the air when running.

If you do anything long enough to be able to do it without thinking, you are likely to find as often as two or three times a week the sense of unparalleled happiness. It is important at first to think about the steps or strokes or swing or stride. I can still recall hours spent in recreation parks where machines fired an assortment of baseballs at you, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes as a curve or slider, on one or two of the machines, even as screw balls, which break down and away as opposed to the curve breaking or dropping in. Swinging a 32-ounce Louisville slugger Johnny Pesky model at such pitches began with time to result in a constant and satisfying thwack sound as bat met ball, then sent it seeking its projectile destiny some three hundred feet away. The minute you began to think, you were screwed, often missing the next pitch or hearing the thwack change to a thunk.

If you write long enough, often enough, listening rather than thinking, it is possible to hear the literary equivalent of a thwack, an idea sent out on its orbit of dramatic destiny. Or perhaps the sound of a truth being met or an insight coming into contact with the narrative you swing.

Not to belabor the baseball metaphor because anything belabored in your swing or your prose style can cause mischief, fouled off pitches in one case, missed opportunities in another. There are opportunities to be missed, now that you think of it, the opportunity of the finishing kick at the end of a race, where placement in terms of finish is not the issue for you but the feel of a few moments of perfect harmony and coordination within your body is. The professional athlete has a different agenda; you are doing this thing, be it running or swimming or hotting balls in a baseball field or indeed, turning the tables and catching fly balls hit by others in a baseball field. These ancillary muscle memories are some of the preparations you make to be a professional at the writing, to get your ideas and visions and polemics and satires looping out there on trajectories you hope will break windows or dent the roofs of cars in the parking lot.

Fifty, sixty miles or running a week, a mile a day swimming, only a means to get your real set of muscles into shape to do the thing you do to feel that spurt of finishing or the falling-in-love-like swoop of the heart when you get a handle on a new piece and begin it and the sense of elegant despair midway through when you realize you are in one of Dr Kubler-Ross's stages and you know you can never get it down as gracefully and elegantly and effectively and humorously if you are funny as when you first had the vision of it.

Muscle memory is a good thing to experience because once you have it, you cannot let much time elapse before you take it out and use it again, on something, Even a note or a list of things to pick up at the grocery. The muscle memory won't accept that the muscle memory wants you to invent things you'd pick up at a stationery store or a hardware store or anyplace you dare not go for fear you will buy things you have no earthly use for.

You get muscle memory then just to have it, for the knowledge that once you do have it, you will be cranky, pissed, intolerant, impatient if you do not get to use it. Muscle memory has had you out in driving rain storms, your Etonics squishing complaint with every step; it has had your laps at the Y pool interrupted by life guards telling you it's time to clear the lanes for the kiddies lessons; it is discovering you have overdone your day's ration of writing time and you are cranky, pissed, intolerant, impatient to get back to it again the next time because for a few moments there, it was perfect coordination, the sound of it in your ears, the cadence, the movement of those strange persons you'd created, coming to life before you like Amtrack looming down at you, horn blaring.

Muscle memory.

1 comment:

Sally Lowenkopf said...

How dare you refer to that other dog, by name no less! You have had no other dogs before me. And don't you forget it.