SOUND BODIES

 

"If you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter!"
Eve Arden as Principal Lynch in the movie "Grease"

 

ONE

The Olympics are finally over, and my reactions have been complex; my visual cortex and pleasure centers are coping with disappointment and withdrawal, while the rest of me has collapsed in exhausted relief. I need little excuse to stay up late as it is, and the constant coverage from Athens proved a more than sufficient pretext for sleep deprivation.

I wish I could give in to visual memory and recount visceral reactions to the beauty of the swimmers, the power of the gymnasts; however, if I did, this column would quickly degenerate into the textual equivalent of drooling, "Wow!" and "Yum!" filling my screen repeatedly and uncontrollably. What watching the Olympics has triggered instead is a partially-submerged memory path, one which forces me to confront my still-evolving notions of masculinity and physical capability. Let me take you back.

TWO

During my childhood, my parents wanted me to contend with my disability, not so much to eradicate it as to subdue it and thereby make my life much easier. They arranged strenuous physical training for me, a regimen that would find me churning through the waves and soaring through the air. Was this some Navy SEAL school for spastics? No, just swimming lessons and gymnastics lessons. I hated the former and loved the latter, and only now do I realize why.

My parents, neither of whom knew how to swim, had been told by physical therapists that swimming would be great for my strength, endurance, flexibility, and long-term health. So on Saturday mornings when I wanted very much to sleep in, I was instead dragged to a series of teachers. My interaction with many of them was ridden with conflict that was in some ways similar to our internal family dynamics, but the swimming instructors infuriated me far more. I used to say with no little pride and considerable accuracy that I had driven several of them from the profession entirely. One of them was a particular offender. His two main rhetorical strategies with me were: "Come on, this is easy!" and "What's the matter? Do you think I am trying to hurt you?" When faced with such words, I would simply grunt and growl, but all the while I was thinking, "You schmuck! Don't tell me this is easy; if it was, what the hell would I need you for?" and "Don't you think I have enough Jewish guilt tossed at me already without you putting in your two cents?" As this level of antagonism might indicate, I never finished learning to swim.

Gymnastics was, however, a pommel horse of a different color. I was taken once or twice a week to a gymnastic studio near the beach, where a former Danish Olympic gymnast had set up a special program to teach gymnastics to disabled kids as part of their physical therapy and rehab regimen. He was tough, a taskmaster, and I fought with him too, but I remember feeling a special sense of accomplishment when I did my routines. Perhaps this was because our practices were not just geared to physical improvement; we were expected to perform in public on a regular basis.

I never got the telethon vibe from any of our exhibitions, but maybe that's because we were performing at schools and malls just like other kids, or maybe I just felt more like a part of a troupe and less like a spazzing performing seal. Since I was already singing and acting in school, tumbling or being lifted was just another skill, a new arena of show biz. Our teacher's glamor helped underscore this identification, and so did the audience one very special afternoon, when we got to perform for Gene Kelly and some of his assistants. None of them got all sappy on us; they just watched, and learned, and showed us respect. That felt good, and unusual.

THREE

As a result of gymnastics, physical therapy, my abortive attempts at aquatics, and hours of stair-climbing at school, I entered junior high school in the best shape of my life. I should have thanked my parents, but my prowess was expanding at the very time adolescence was making me feel the most terrified about social, romantic, indeed physical acceptance. My schoolmates saw me on the stairs and assumed not that I was buff, but that I was struggling. So I resorted to subterfuge. I would sucker other guys into tests of strength. Either Mercy, which involved quasi-sadistic abuses of an opponent's wrist, or plain old arm-wrestling. I taunted them: "Come on, I can't even walk! How tough could it be?" I didn't always win, but I won often enough to have them re-evaluate me, often enough that I should have played for money. I would do my best to turn victories and draws into a joke so people wouldn't get ticked at me, and it became a running gag for me to try my con on new students.

During my teenage years, hard work and sheer stubbornness turned me into a widely-feared competitor and a regionally-high-ranking decathlete. True, the competitions were spelling bees, and the decathlons were academic ones, but still.

I have written before about my high-school electrification process and its impact on my life. Zooming around in a noisy machine rather than on crutches made me less of a physical presence for others and more of a mechanical one. This bothered me on some level, but since I was already hanging out with people who generally neglected their bodies and cared mostly about the massive computers inside their heads, I did not do anything to challenge or change this evolution. I think I only knew two or three people in high school who played sports, and I was actively discouraged from taking many of them seriously. College, however, constituted a far different competitive arena.

FOUR

I was part of a seriously geeky crowd throughout most of college, but just as with theatrical talent, I realized that the bar had been raised without my ever knowing it. Suddenly, many of the smart kids around me manifested physical strength, athletic skill, physical beauty; conversely, I had classes with intimidating godlike athletes who were genuinely interested in stimulating conversation and the world of the mind.

True, even in this Nirvana, there were intellectuals who had no sense of themselves as physical beings, and athletes who conformed to the worst monosyllabic grunting stereotypes; as I identified with the former and feared the latter, I began to realize a special and evolving kinship with some of my friends who competed for our university.

I think we all realized this common ground existed when we would talk about workouts and exercise. For them, conditioning was neither ordinary fitness nor vanity, but something serious and structural, something professional. Bluntly, their bodies were their jobs, and contending with those bodies, compelling them into often unwilling action, coaxing them back from injury or forward into greater mobility, was the current focus of their lives.

As someone who had been trying to dominate my body my whole life, who had been schooled not to let it hinder or defeat me, I felt I understood their view of the world, and some of them sensed that I understood, and bonded with me. The nature of our connection was not the stereotype of old; I wasn't some helpless bedridden creature they would bring souvenirs or win games for. I was instead a fellow striver in the lifelong contest of the body, my goal neither domination nor record times, nor Olympic glory, but instead a collaboration, one that would not only help me manage my disability but also define and maintain both my nature as a physical being and the extent of my independence.

FIVE

I have gay friends without disabilities who play on special sports teams, just as I know people with disabilities who are now getting ready to compete at the Paralympics in Athens. Sometimes, I regret the disappearance of my buff self, especially when I notice flab or feel tired after exerting myself, but I don't know if I have the motivation or the energy to get any of that physical ease back. I don't think I could be in the Paralympics or on a gay sports team, except as a cheerleader/psychologist/masseur.

While they haven't died out, my competitive instincts have definitely shifted, mostly into the realms of work and advocacy. Sometimes, when I'm lucky I feel them revive when I write or speak, or even when I am pursuing a particularly marvelous guy. I no longer value the drive that tells me I need to win, but I still care about doing well. Whether this embodies maturity or middle-aged fatigue is open to question. I don't think life has been a disappointment because I couldn't be Michael Phelps, but I do wonder what might have changed if I had stowed away in Gene Kelly's car on that one particular Saturday afternoon.

©2004 Danny Kodmur

 

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Danny Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the Bay Area. Should you or your sports team require his wisdom and talents, write to him at at dkodmur@comcast.net. His work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Haworth Press), a 2004 Lambda Literary Award winner.

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
Fortress of Solitude ~7/04

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2004