Two chapters in, I was confused. This wasn’t what I signed up for.
I expected this book to be about Me.
Not literally, of course. But certainly the more exciting version of Me I imagined the author to be: a woman who takes up boxing in midlife, becomes transformed and then triumphs over all life’s obstacles large and small.
Instead, I’m reading about schtetls in Poland and mafia showdowns in the name of true love.
Oh my. *Sips tea, pulls up chair*. Suddenly things just got way more interesting.
Part sports history, part gangster chronicles and part cultural odyssey, Binnie Klein’s memoir Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind is a masterfully woven story of one woman’s physical, emotional and spiritual awakening after age 50, when she slips on her first pair of boxing gloves.
So it’s utterly new to feel my power, hear the propulsive sound of my own grunts, and experience such a delight in making this kind of physical contact. My body is bringing me joy. I’m also blinking desperately because my eyeballs are sweating. That’s how serious an initiation I’m enduring – my eyeballs are affected (Klein, 2009).
Drawn by the promise of 800-plus-calorie-burn workouts (and the chance to hit something really, really hard), more and more women have been stepping into boxing gyms and classes all over the country. Among them are those aged 40 and above, who can – finally! – see words in print capturing their unique experiences. Like the trial boxing workout that leaves you bent over, nauseous and gasping for breath. Or the first time you enter a ring, terrified, to spar with your boxing instructor…with “spar” loosely defined as you alternating between running away and chasing him down in the ring, throwing jabs, hooks and straight punches that mostly meet air.
“Women are actually better students of boxing,” John once said to me while we were training. “They listen better, and because they realize they don’t have brute strength on their side, they approach it in a much more cerebral fashion than men do.” (Klein, 2009).
You can be a strong boxer and still be feminine…because femininity is about confidence. (Klein, 2009)
You don’t need to be a woman, though, or even a boxer to appreciate this book. In fact, the boxing action often takes a back seat to a much broader and compelling story. The only readers likely to object here are those who insist on being told tales in linear fashion. To follow along Klein’s journey, the reader must be mentally limber enough to turn on a dime, repeatedly, between multiple time periods and their unique sets of characters. (LOST fans should feel right at home.)
The author makes it work, and for those who can keep up, the payoff is a rich, humorous and beautifully-written account. Klein, a psychotherapist, is brutally candid about her childhood pain and struggles as a young Jewish girl navigating 1960s Newark, New Jersey. She moves deftly between that past, and her present journey as an eager initiate into the world of boxing with the help of John, her coach. Along the way, Klein doles out basic sports history, including lesser-known facts around the role, impact and cultural drivers of Jewish boxers.
Since few (if any) of us are untouched by some measure of dysfunctional family baggage, the author’s narrative is a comforting reminder that certain struggles are universal. Almost every family has generational conflict. Lives and dreams that didn’t quite pan out. Festering resentments and misunderstandings. Boxing becomes a cathartic means through which Klein can work through those issues that have shaped her views on the world, her place within it and, most importantly, her own innate capabilities. In the end, a final discovery hidden among the possessions of her father – a man she obviously adored but also feared and resented at times – brings gratifying closure to both the author and her audience.
And if that’s all there was, readers would walk away more than satisfied. But Klein delivers another powerful message not lost on those who recognize themselves in her story.
Ours is a society where athletic prowess and competition is almost deified. On any given Saturday morning, kids barely out of diapers can be found on open fields all across America, racing around in manic circles as their coaches and parents yell from the sidelines. What? Your child is already four, and you haven’t enrolled him in pee-wee soccer? What kind of parent ARE you?
Some of us, however, never got on this early track. For whatever reason, we became sidelined as spectators…and stayed that way. Over time it became easier to simply announce to ourselves and others that we “just weren’t the athletic type.”
As Klein’s coach tells her, boxing forces you to face your fears. Blows to the Head is not a tale of sports glory aimed at the lifelong jock, or star athlete. It’s a lesson on midlife second chances for the rest of us. The ones last picked for kickball. Or who recoiled during gym class at the sight of that giant rope swaying from the ceiling like a drunk serpent. Afraid of what our limbs might do – or fail to do – in full view of our adolescent peers.
Later, we’d expect or demand little else from our bodies except enough energy to make it through a 40-plus-hour workweek, and the increasing demands of family life. But as Klein proves, no matter how long it goes untested, the human body is always ready to do more. Be more. Give more. But it’s only when you get your head in the game, by developing mental toughness, that it all comes together.
At the end of the day, that’s really what boxing did for Binnie Klein. What it does for all of us.
As I’m sure it will for so many others, this book inspired me to look past the birth date on my driver’s license, continue reaching beyond my fears, and keep stretching myself beyond what I think I’m capable of. Like Binnie, I fell in love with boxing, but it only came about because I couldn’t bear to let an impulse Groupon buy go to waste.
With the coupon’s expiration date looming, I dragged myself to the fitness boxing gym in the hopes of just losing a few pounds before the holidays. My world would never be the same. I became exposed to the disciplined teachings of real trainers, martial artists and old school boxing coaches. I got my first black eye when I didn’t move fast enough to avoid a sparring partner’s jab. I met a group of wonderful women close in age, we formed an Over-40 crew, and went on to support each other both inside and outside the gym.
Longtime blog readers can tell from my posts here, here and here that boxing and kickboxing as a theme still reigns supreme in my physical life, even as I go on to discover and enjoy a variety of other workouts. For as long as these aging joints allow, I’ll keep reaching for my gloves. Coming across Binnie’s story reminded me of the exhilaration, self-discovery and joy of a sport that once helped get me into the best shape of my life. And which, I’m convinced, can do so again, as long as I proceed safely.
Above all, Blows to the Head made me wish that I could travel back in time to the Argyle Junior High School gym circa 1979, where a certain awkward 13-year-old-girl with glasses stood gazing up in terror at the rope climb, and say:
Kid, chin up. You won’t believe all the stuff you’ll go on to face. And you’ll conquer them all, one grab at a time.
You can buy Blows to the Head on Amazon or your local bookstore. Also, turns out Binnie Klein has an awesome podcast going on over at her website. Check it out today!
So when people hear I’m boxing and say, with a mixture of curiosity and concern, “Oooh, how can you do that?” I wonder, how can they ask that? Compared to the grotesque excesses of the larger world, boxing is an elegant containment of aggression, a stage for dramas both universal and exquisitely personal, and I’ve come to love its clarity. Most surprisingly, it got me out of my head and into my body, and there, in my body, I got smarter, and I met my family again. (Klein, 2009)