Sunday, April 10, 2005

Memory in a Half-Nelson

I would like to set the record straight on a little matter involving sports. Wrestling – not ersatz, professional "wrestling," but the kind practiced in high school, college, and the Olympics – is not erotic. Sure, there’s plenty of sweaty guys with hot bodies knotted into seemingly kinky positions (yeah, yeah, look at the picture), but if you’ve been in the sport, you know better.

A double root canal is a bigger turn on than wrestling. As is stamping invoices or watching C-SPAN with the sound off.

The math is simple: wrestling is the hardest sport out there, period. A single high school match is the aerobic equivalent of sprinting for six minutes. Your body is twisted and mangled in shapes for which it was not designed. You are thrown around, subjected to painful holds, your face mashed and hit; all of this is legal.

Training is hell on earth. One’s life is spent lifting weights, running windsprints until you’re sick and then some more, and wrestling in overheated rooms, your body drenched, your ears mashed into cauliflower. And the offseason is just more of the same.

This is a good time?

Then there’s cutting weight. I wrestled at 138 pounds in high school, even though I was closer to 145, the next class up, so I’d have to lose 5 to 7 pounds each week. I cannot describe how awful this was to a growing boy who loved to eat.

I joined the team after my freshman soccer coach, also the freshman wrestling coach, talked me into it. Wrestling is a great sport, but not necessarily fun, even if you are successful. There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction when you win, but I can't say I ever looked forward to a match. You don’t get the adrenaline rush of scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run.

(Please, I know many love to wrestle. They think it's the best sport ever created. Otherwise they wouldn't devote their lives to it. Just don't tell me how you'd rather wrestle and lose than play basketball, or I'm an idiot, etc.; I know this already.)

Now, more than 20 years later, I’ll see NCAA or Olympic wrestling on television, or hear tales from my brother, a far superior grappler than I ever was, and I’ll think, “Why did I ever quit? I might have been good.”

Talk about delusional. Not only was I simply average, I never loved wrestling, a prerequisite if you want to take this sadomasochistic sport seriously. As a 15-year-old, it wasn't a good time. I quit after a couple of years, preferring a full buffet and less pain, and never looked back, until now.

Because wrestling is a noble endeavor of sacrifice and toil, I forget just how hard it is. I like telling people I wrestled in high school (for two whole years! wow!), as it makes me look like a tough guy. Wife sometimes mentions my wrestling past to others, which is cool.

Having returned from the AWP convention, I’ve also been having fits of selective memory about writing. I wonder why my work didn’t fly when I was in my 20s and early 30s. I think: Damn, if I’d just not been so headstrong and actually listened to teachers, if I’d taken writing seriously instead of treating it as a lark, I wouldn’t have wasted all those years writing full-fledged drek.

Instead of writing stories that were a series of jokes strung around a silly plot, lacking whole characters or evocative prose, maybe I would have actually published stuff earlier.

Here’s where the selective memory comes in. The above version of events leaves out several important details. My 20s were largely a lost decade, spent grappling (ha) with bad relationships, bad geography, and a bad job. I was profoundly unhappy, which manifest itself in my writing, bitter and cerebral and bad.

Nor did I get the “wacky” thing out of my system until I was in my mid-30s. I finally got the idea that it was fine to have normal people doing normal things and normal emotions, and my writing improved appreciably. (Having Wife around didn’t hurt, either).

But I’d like to think that things weren’t as bad as they seemed, and I could have been a great writer at 25. Selective memory plays its rotten tricks.

All I have to do is read some of my early work to realize this. Too bad I’ve burned it.