On Not Having a Live Arm and the Currencies of Passion

by Tom Jacobs

Replica-of-Myrons-Discus--008When I was sixteen or so I could throw a 12 pound spherical object, maybe, and on a very a good day, 47 feet. This was not something I ever really wanted to do, but I did it, perhaps to compensate for some vague and incipient form of masculine insecurity, perhaps to draw the interest of chicks (not that anyone ever sits and watches a shotput meet), or perhaps just to see how far I could throw something kinda heavy. This wasn't bad for high school; neither was it great. It was spang in the middle of mediocre.

There are people who have thrown a sixteen pound sphere nearly eighty feet. There isn't much to see when you witness this, other than a subtle unleashing of human energy, but it's hard to actually see: it all happens too fast. To watch someone throw a shotput upwards of eighty feet is not like watching the pas de deux of tennis, where two people seek, chess-like, to anticipate how to checkmate the other by thinking several moves ahead. It's not like that at all. But still there is something quite watchable there: there is an incredible confluence of torque and spin and speed and will that wind up and are released in a way that can be jaw dropping, at least if you know what to look for. Like watching the discus or the high jump or the long jump (none of which will ever really draw spectators in the way that less brief and intense performances ever will), there is something very blue collar but also quietly superhero-like about it. How, for instance, can someone jump over a bar that is actually taller than they are? And what ontological, metaphysical, or even just physical sense does that make or mean? It's a bit like jumping out of your own skin.

Here are some remarkable chucks over the course of many years (and apologies for the music…):

this kid threw a 5 kg (a little over 11 pound shot put) 23 meters, or roughly 75 feet.

Then there’s this kid:

There's something Emersonian about this sort of thing. You and yourself and the universe and this singular object, each conspiring against or cooperating with the other. Here's a heavy thing. How far can you throw it away from yourself? And how does this act make you feel, even if your results are mediocre?

Throwing a shotput for no particular reason on a fine spring day is the sort of thing that, depending on your body type and attitude and manner of being in the world, just made you feel better…to know that you can throw what is essentially a beveled rock a certain distance. And that you can get better at it. Or that you can up to a point. Some days will be better than others.

I suppose that we all kinda follow the paths that other people want us to follow. In fact, there is the distinct possibility that desire, the very thing that most makes us us, is a matter of wanting what others want for us, is what generates our sense of self. That's a possibility. There are other qualities of being, though, too. And throwing things just to see how far you can throw them is one way of figuring this out.

Standing under the shadowlessness of a noonday sun in the middle of nowhere, throwing a small sphere as hard and as far as one can, feeling perhaps a little bit as though one is involved in a kind of ancient or primordial competition…there's something that resonates on the deepest levels there. It's just you and the ball. You understand that there are others who are throwing the same ball, and that you must try to defeat them. And one rather quickly realizes that there are many who are waaay better at chucking this sphere into the sky than you are or ever will be. There were boys (and we were all boys back then) much smaller than I was who had what used to be called a “live arm,” dudes who could throw the same 12 pound ball over 60 feet. They simply had some kind of animate force that I lacked. An ability to quick twitch an object into the heavens and what seemed near oblivion. In such circumstances there is no way not to feel utter defeat, that you have been tested and found lacking. We are made of the same stuff, but then again, somehow we are not. Some people seem to be working with a different set of mechanics or wiring.

If you've never seen or experienced such a thing, a moment when you realize that someone possessing the same ligaments and tendons and general physiology as you do is somehow just incalculably better at something than you are, well, you've missed a key moment in human consciousness and experience that is not just about humility; It's one of those moments when one realizes that there is a long and fine but delicately varied continuum of human capability and possibility. And you come to see where, more or less precisely, you exist on that continuum, and for most of us it's not at the “gold medal” end of things. But that's not a bad thing.

The notion of the “median” or “average” often takes on a kind of unpleasant tang, but it is also one that allows for some small understanding that you are not who you had hoped to be. Which, as it turns out, is precisely right and as it should be. Superheroes must bear the weight of saving the world from evil; the rest of us are left to figure out how to fight evil from the modesties of living unpublic lives that don't seem to touch on the kind of greatness that lands people in newspapers or on front pages.

Yardsticks of Humanity

There are some things that are measurable and some that aren't. Most of the things that matter aren't. There's a passage from David Foster Wallace's excellent essay on Roger Federer (who seems to have succumbed to getting old, or at least to being 32 in a young person's game) that has always made me kind of sad:

Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere-fastest, strongest—and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record.

Wallace is interested in how the material and physical lean towards the immaterial and ethereal—how the tangible gives way to the numinous. And of course it does…how can it not? But how this works, how neural sparks give way to ideas or emotions or love remains a profound mystery.

I think of how Descartes was convinced that the pineal gland was the very site at which the material and the immaterial converged and interfaced. In a not-totally-crazy idea, at least from a 17th century point of view. Even if in his own time the notion that the pineal gland was the medium and aggregator of animal spirits, it's pretty to think that it is or might be. It's actually kind of a shame that it is not.

I love the notion of “brain sand,” the calcifications that build up within it and were thought to be, pre-Descartes, the residues of thought. Also, there is the notion that it was named after its resemblance to the pine nut. That is somehow beautiful and humbling—that the seat of the soul looks like and is named after a nut, full of some kind of mental sand.

Descartes was not alone in his thinking. A 13th century natural philosopher observed how people's heads moved when they were remembering things versus how people who were thinking behaved slightly differently and said this:

people who want to remember look upwards because this raises the worm-like particle, opens the passage, and enables the retrieval of memories from the posterior ventricle. People who want to think, on the other hand, look down because this lowers the particle, closes the passage, and protects the spirit in the middle ventricle from being disturbed by memories stored in the posterior ventricle (Constantinus Africanus)

So there are no animal spirits besanded in the pineal gland, no point at which body and soul intermingle in some way that we can fathom or make sense of. But then again, I think there might be. And where I think it might be is the ear drum.

A friend of mine gave me a book called “This Is Your Brain on Music,” and in this book the author, Daniel J. Levitin, says the following, speaking of the definition and meaning of “pitch:”

The vibration of these strings displaces air molecules, and causes them to vibrate at the same rate—with the same frequency as the string. These vibrating air molecules are what reach our eardrum, and they cause our eardrum to wiggle in and out at the same frequency. The only information that our brains get about the pitch of sound comes from that wiggling in and out of our eardrum; our inner and our brain have to analyze the motion of the eardrum in order to figure out what vibrations out-there-in-the-world caused the eardrum to move that way.

This is precisely how I thought of the pineal gland when I first read Descartes' thoughts about it. It's about how immaterial things are translated (via electrical, neurological networks that I can't pretend to understand or describe) into actual material phenomena. THIS is precisely what the eardrum does; it takes ethereal waves and translates them into something our brains can materially understand, or at least feel. And what is more soulful than music? Nothing, that's what. That's the only answer. Nothing. Music is the soul dematerialized and rematerialized in our ears and brains. But it's not language, and its meaning, if it is to remain music, must remain beyond words and our ability to quite conceptualize it.

The Dull Throb of Trying

I've been thinking a lot about the kinds of contributions I make to the world in which I live. Are they helpful? Do they make any difference? And if so, what kind of difference do they make—what is their quality, their grain, their significance?

Throwing a rock 47 feet is not going to set the world on fire. To be mediocre is to feel your essential averageness. To understand something of your place and depth in the world. Which is not entirely a bad thing. In a way, learning how far I could throw the rock was not what I really enjoyed about those track meets, which were all about physical competition. No, what I really enjoyed about track meets was the time I would spend with my elderly shotput/discus coach, who had recently had a triple bypass. He was old but he contained in the envelope of his body a kind of vibrating vitality. He would sit on a little stool way out in the field, well beyond where anyone could throw anything, observing the proceedings quietly but with a kind of distracted interest. He was fascinated with Japan, where he would travel whenever he could (he was also my junior high history teacher). I would often go out there to hang out with him and discuss all manner of things, but often our conversations turned to what it meant to grow old.

I don't know that I ever understood or expressed at the time how much those pastoral moments chatting with him at the remote edge of some field in rural Nebraska meant to me. I don't even know if he's still alive. But they did mean a lot to me and they still do. I know that I felt the now familiar vague intestinal pains of nervousness as I waited to throw the rock, waiting to find my measure amongst my peers, but I also know that our conversations about what it meant to live a full life, about the value of doing things that matter to you, of finding someone to love…I know that all of these things allayed my anxieties about having to throw that rock, to learn of my mediocrity, and to learn that none of those things really matter. Those conversations made me understand in some way that it was never about how far I could throw the rock, or about how many times I could shoulder some Sisyphusian boulder. It was and has always been about how we find ways to talk with others while we're waiting for something, for that great thing, the thing that will make us great. Greatness is, I think, wildly overrated. What is not is the feeling that we are all waiting and desiring and that the time of that waiting and desiring opens up to what I think can potentially be the greater greatness. There is the world in front of you. If you forget what you are doing (as another football coach once taught me), don't worry about it. It's right there—the thing that is going to try to defeat you—it's right there. And if you forget your plan or schedule or calendar, all you need to do is drop it all and kick its ass.