Book Review-ish: So Many Olympic Exertions

Last weekend I finished Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympics Exertions. I picked it up after discovering it on Goodreads (which, to be honest, I am finding more of time-suck than Twitter these days, though the content is certainly more wholesome).

I’m too lazy to summarize a book that is better summarized by someone else anyway, so here’s the quick Goodreads summary:

"Blending elements of memoir and sports writing, Anelise Chen's debut novel is an experimental work that perhaps most resembles what the ancient Greeks called hyponemata, or notes to the self, in the form of observations, reminders and self-exhortations. Taken together, these notes constitute a personal handbook on how to live--or perhaps more urgently, why to live--a question the narrator, graduate student Athena Chen, desperately needs answering. When Chen hears news that her brilliant friend from college has committed suicide, she is thrown into a fugue of fear and doubt. Through anecdotes and close readings of moments in the sometimes harrowing world of sports, the novel questions the validity of our current narratives of success."

What I enjoyed most about the book was how closely I identified with the author/narrator’s mental and emotional experiences. The questions and thoughts with which she grapples throughout the memoir were intimately familiar, not to mention the more practical struggle she has finishing her PhD dissertation (read: my senior year math courses) while battling depression, grief, and anxiety. The “athletics and sports” lens through which she rationalizes these questions led me to reflect on the role that sports and competition have played in my life, and to more critically consider the relationship between our minds and our bodies.

I titled this post “Book Review-ish” because it’s less of a book review and more of a “here are the personal reflections this book incited.” Because it’s difficult for me to generalize these reactions, I’ll instead share some passages that resonated with me and a brief note on why:

Page 7: “I think being [at the pool] helps. The smell of chlorine does. The first blast of it when I come through the double doors. It’s the smell of anxiety, of anticipation, of the urgent need to perform well. That falling in love feeling: it’s the same.”
Besides the love analogy – which, of course, I love – this description brought me back to the running track that encircled the turf fields at our high school, the smell of it on the hot August mornings of field hockey preseason just before we had to run our “timed mile.” I found myself at the Stanford track in Palo Alto on a hot day last year, and with that first whiff drifting up from the red rubber, I could feel the butterflies return to my stomach, could almost hear our coach telling us to “line up behind the white line.” I had the same feeling – of anxiety, of anticipation, of the urgent need to perform well – each time the referee would place the hockey ball in the center of the pitch and ready her whistle to signal the start of the match. It’s funny how my early memories of anxiety are inextricable from excitement and anticipation; now, anxiety’s connotations are of stress and overwhelming negative feelings.

Page 19: “It is so exhausting to have to ferry around a body, a suitcase, and a head crammed with thoughts.”
Well, if that isn’t the most relatable passage I’ve read in a while. Thomas often says to me – after I’ve tried to explain to him whatever it is that’s been on my mind – “It must be exhausting in there.” Meaning my head, of course. He’s not wrong.

She expresses a similarly depressing sentiment on page 197: “This theater in my mind plays only one movie … Doesn’t it consume a whole lot of energy to keep this place up and running? I am the only spectator here.”
Again, LOL! IT’S ME!

Page 39: “As a child, I was always praise for suppressing desire. And so wanting took practice. Did I want this toy, or that bar of chocolate? My parents taught me to say no” … “Desire creates need and need creates action. Isn’t that just magical? Paul, a brand-new student of Buddhism, would respond: ‘Wouldn’t it be easier not to desire anything?’ Because the problem with desire is that it never goes away. I suppose that Paul is right. Was right? A lack of desire does reduce pain.”
I had to pause for a looooong time after reading this paragraph. What an interesting and loaded notion, that of desire. When I think of the roles desire has played in my life they’re often contradictory: I’ve decided at some times to be fully desirous; others, to pretend my desires do not exist. For example: Chen acknowledges the drive to compete in sports is nothing more than “untrammeled desire” and that all successful athletes share this quality. I am extremely competitive by nature and surely possess this “untrammeled desire” to win, to “succeed,” etc. But what about the parts of me that have tried to suppress my desires in the past? The parts who, at some point, decided (or were told?) that I possessed too much and I should temper them? The historically “eating disordered” parts of me must have striven to want nothing, to need nothing, to suppress my desires so fully so as to convince myself I didn’t have them. Did these parts coexist? Can they coexist? What do I make of my desires – or lack thereof – now?

… *calls therapist* …

Page 68: “If sports are nothing but a ritual sacrifice of expended energy, offered up to mitigate some self-inflicted grief, then perhaps modern obsession with sports is a therapeutic response to some unspoken fear, some presentiment of disaster that seizes us into movement.”
Well, this explanation adds up. It translates in my life to a fear of slowing down because…what happens if I stop?

Page 85: “My new philosophy is that I am just going to be confident about taking it easy. However, as liberating as this feels, it also feels deeply unsatisfying. Swimming this way feels like a waste of time. It’s only after I tell myself ‘one hundred laps’ that the time begins to pass more quickly and purposefully.” And she talks again about the concept of “purpose” on page 185: “Unable to sit long with feelings of uncertainty. Genuine ‘purposefulness’ is a feeling that’s hard to come by, like a rare ingredient that takes years to sniff out. A feeling of forced purposefulness, however, is cheap and fast and will do in a pinch. It can be achieved with coffee and uppers…”
Yikes, again. If that isn’t incredibly relatable! I’m reminded of a post I wrote a few months ago in which I grappled with feelings of “purpose” and noted how some days I am fully immersed in the brief euphoria that is “forced purposefulness,” while others I submit to the weighty pointlessness of everything.

Also, on page 189: “However, one does not advance when one walks towards no goal, or–which is the same thing–when the goal is infinity.”
It would be helpful for me to remember this sentence. My “goals” are always arbitrary and ill-defined (or extremely well-defined, if you count “the best” or “perfection” as definitions) and so I find myself in a constant state of disappointment and self-hatred. Having “perfection” as the goal has always felt more motivating – whatever that means – than having no goal, but my levels of happiness and fulfillment are probably lower as a result of these “infinite” goals.

Page 100: “Because what kid likes pain? If they seem to ‘like’ pain it’s only because another kind of pain is stronger.”
Another interesting hypothesis, one that probably explains my ability to push my body athletically and tolerate physical pain. For all the times I’ve been in physical pain, they’ve never hurt more than my worst bouts of emotional and psychological pain. I meant to write a longer post about this realization after my injury because, during the recovery process, when everyone was telling me how “strong” and “brave” and “positive” I was, all I could think was, “Battling suicidal depression was way harder.”

So, this was officially not a book review, and mostly a “read this book if you ruminate way too much” recommendation. But I loved this book for the reason I love most books, which is that it gave me a different lens through which to view my own experience and to explore what it means to be human.

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