Friends thought it was strange when I became a dog person, but not as strange as when I took up boxing

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A long, long time ago, when I returned to the East Village from three months on a Costa Rican farm and announced that I couldn’t live without a dog, my friends all thought I was crazy. Of course, they likely thought I was crazy already, but in a different, less appealing way. More recently, friends were similarly aghast when I started taking boxing classes. It was, admittedly, a leap. I hadn’t really exerted myself in years, after being removed from the New Orleans Athletic Club on a stretcher. In between, there had been a million unrealized resolutions. My heart was still only pumping at half its capacity. The only way to get stronger was to push it somehow. But I was afraid. And then I sprained my ankle. And then I moved. And then contracted lyme. And then I broke a toe. Finally, in January of 2017, I took a class at Rumble, because they had just opened, and if nothing else, I might have a chance to meet Oz, the resident dog. (Dogs are the connection between everything.)

It was tough. But it was also fast and invigorating and for forty-five minutes I was moving and never bored. I was the oldest person there, and the only one who wasn’t wearing black athleisure wear. Glad that I went, I also. left thinking I’d never return. But a few days later, my body wanted to return. So this became my new habit, and when I traveled to Dublin, I found myself taking classes at SBG, where Conor McGregor trained. In London, I took boxing yoga at Total Boxer. In Paris, I went to classes at Temple Noble Art, where the instructor worried that he couldn’t speak English. By then, I knew boxing is a language all its own. And then in December, I spent.a week in Havana working one-on-one with an Olympic trainer. And I’m still terrible at it, but it doesn’t matter.

At the end of a lesson in Havana and my arms are like noodles.

In the midst of all this, I checked in with my cardiologist for my annual tests and he called later with some news: my heart was pumping at full capacity for the first time in a decade. I let him take credit for my recovery, but the real secret was boxing. The benefits weren’t just physiological — my mental health improved as well. Boxing — even if you do it badly — requires a focus, a sense of presence and place that is incredibly therapeutic, particularly if you suffer from PTSD, a disorder which often makes us feel literally out of place.

For now, my budget has me sticking close to home, where I now have a boxing room off to the side of my office. But I miss the strange mix of panic and acceptance that I found by wandering into those boxing gyms, where I felt at home in spite of being completely out of place. Vicki Hearne once wrote, “I rather strongly suspect that I would not like a dogfight. But I like fighting dogs, their spirit, their élan vital, their refusal to respond to any but honest, straightforward training methods, their courage. Their hearts, above all their deep hearts.” I’ve always loved this quote and its intentional, messy contradictions. Now I find that feel a similarly regarding the art of boxing: in awe of the discipline, the focus and community that forms around being a fighter, even while seeing the strength that can be found in avoiding the fight itself.

Author of fiction and non-fiction; dog guy; bad boxer. New book, City of Dogs, is just out now from Avery/Penguin.

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