Crossfit, A Swedish Pen Pal, and Office Jobs

Summer of 2014

Thursday night, it’s pouring rain, tapping fast on the windows and the air-conditioner. There’s some distant thunder and our dog Bear is worried, pacing a bit, looking at me. “Lie down,” I say, and he does a double twirl, then flops onto the rug. This is how the day is ending. Very cozy, as I pointed out to Mary. “Go. To. Bed. Listen to this rain! It’s perfect sleeping weather!” She finally falls to sleep at around 9:30, an hour and half past her bedtime. She’s six.

This morning, because our car couldn’t be driven due to a huge cooling fluid leak, I signed out a car-share car, a Prius that’s always parked by Thompson Park by Gimme Coffee. The ability to rent—via a very simple phone app—a snazzy new car occasionally, at $12 per hour, when you usually drive a 20-year-old Volvo stationwagon with warped brakes and no air-conditioner, is an exquisite treat. It’s like borrowing a younger, thinner body to walk around town in, with which to gather admiring glances for a change, and also get where you’re going faster, with no fear of breaking down.

It was seven-thirty in the morning and I zipped to the edge of town to try Crossfit. Have you heard of Crossfit? It’s a wildly successful national exercise franchise that trades on the appeal, I think, of the Kidnap Aesthetic. Their gyms look like the places where you would be held, maybe gagged, by skinheads, in some slick and dismal movie from the mid-1990's: giant plywood boxes for stepping on to reach the pull-up bar. Bare floors. Lots of empty space. Weight bars like implements of torture. Because if an underground cell of fanatics like it, it must be powerful good. It’s an example of when no-frills becomes a frill in of itself.

At first I passed the place, thinking that that couldn’t be it, because it was in a shack of a business building that still bears the signs of the previous occupant—a carpet and tile business—next to a gravel parking punctuated by a single, rusty dumpster. I parked and walked in.

The owner, Jared, was lifting weights. I pegged him for 24-years old. Handsome, with wavy hair and a pretty face, a muscular body—but not to a crazy, bulbous bodybuilder extent, thankfully. Just fit. So that seemed good. And his eyes were guileless. Big, round, pretty hazel eyes fringed with dark, curly lashes. A salesman’s manner: open, tinged by nervousness that itself might be part of the whole persuasion game. “I really believe,” he said, “in building a personal relationship with all of our clients. So I’m going to ask you how you how you’re doing, how your daughter’s doing.”

He demonstrated the exercises and then asked me to do a circuit of them as fast as I could—rowing machine, squats, sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups. I did it in 9:39, which he said was respectable as a starting time.

After school, Mary and Marshall and I sat on our back porch and Mary showed us a letter from her Swedish penpal. The Swedish girl is one of three children. Her favorite sport is some inside ball sport that we don’t even have in America. She has no pets. I survey my kingdom — my daughter with her exotic Nordic correspondent, my handsome husband with a head full of tasks and secrets and worries, our porch with its dilapidated wooden box crammed with new flowers purchased by me at great expense and with great wastefulness at Lowes, our yard, the panorama of sage green hills dotted with houses and university buildings, and I feel like an adequate squirrel who has gathered, gathered, gathered and now finds herself in a little den crammed with whole and broken nuts, moldering but sufficient.

Spring of 2015

A year later, we still have the old Volvo, which is delicate and creaky, but still running — thankfully, because I can no longer afford car-share cars, at least not this very second. Maybe my money will start rightfully and auspiciously pouring in very soon. I think it will. And I think that thinking it will will will it to happen, possibly.

The Swedish penpal is forgotten. That never went anywhere. Just three letters were exchanged between Mary and the Swede, with no international peace advancements brokered. Just a nice thing. My fantasy, in retrospect, was that the letters between the two girls would continue and deepen in intimacy. Maybe the Swedish girl would send photos of a bare house with a baby blue grandfather clock in the living room, next to a fireplace made of white tiles. Maybe Mary would send a photo of our family standing on the shore of Cayuga Lake at Stewart Park, next to a showy weeping willow, with miles of glacial lake stretching behind us to a mountainous horizon, a bend in the lake. Maybe Mary and the Swedish girl would plan a visit, which we would happily fund, and we would fly to Stockholm and stay for four days, having two dinners in the home of the girl. Her blonde parents would be wry and funny and friendly. Marshall would charm them, making a good showing, as he always does in the best places. He really shines in lofty circumstances, with good company.

And a year later, Crossfit has come and gone in my life. I stuck with it for nearly a year, with the following results: I became much, much fitter, and more energetic and more confident in myself. And I got to know and love Coach Jared and Coach Nina and lots of other characters, fellow Crossfitters, and I got into a nice routine of waking up at 5:00 a.m., arriving at the gym by 5:30 a.m., working out, driving home and often stopping for two large coffees and cooked bacon from the breakfast bar at Ithaca Bakery, to the tune of around $8, arriving back home by 6:45 a.m., making breakfast, showering, getting Mary and Marshall fed, walking to work (late almost every day — I just couldn’t bear to get there on time).

At work, I would sit at my desk and type and put stuff off and do work in spurts and wander the hallways looking for friends to chat up. Sometimes I chatted up people I wasn’t that interested in, in the spirit of someone panning for gold. If I ask enough questions, or just listen long enough, or offer enough of myself, something will glint up at me from the river, a spark of connection, a glowing bit of precious metal. And that worked. But socializing at work was tiring, too, like missionary work.

I did marvel at how much better I felt, because of Crossfit, in my clothes. I felt like a super hero in regular-person disguise. Underneath the stupid black pants, the stupid blazer, I was taut and strong and more capable than the average person of lifting something really heavy from the ground, not that it ever came up really. But I leapt up out of my chair and strode powerfully to meetings.

I returned home at the end of the day feeling that I had donated seven or eight hours of my life, of myself, for no good reason, to an ungrateful billionaire asshole with bad taste in everything (people, campaigns, processes, systems, decor). I was always resentful to find myself with less energy than I’d left the house with in the morning. By the time I arrived home, I would realize how little of the day was left for things I might care about, and how I had rowed my dinghy back to a moored ship that had dust in the corner of every room and old furniture I was sick of and dumb pictures nailed to the walls. And my little girl was growing up, raised by school teachers and extracurriculars, with nothing at home but a bitter mom and a messy room. How was I going to take my family anywhere, in this boat? How would we explore the world and discover treasures, discover ourselves?

Just be good, you ingrate! That was my response to myself. Be satisfied, for you are indeed so fortunate. And just clean more. And get a raise, or a promotion, or a new job. Buck the fuck up! Live in the moment. Stop always wanting something else. This is how things work in our modern economy. Which is true.


Fall 2015

I quit my job back in July. Now I am happy. I am happy and panicked. I write every day. I had to quit Crossfit because I can no longer afford it. Our daughter’s private school, which facilitated the pen pal relationships with the Swedish children, is waiting for our tuition money. My back is painful and stiff. Sometimes I can barely walk. Sitting hurts. I meditate every day for fifteen minutes. The pulsing black and red behind my eyes is interesting, distracting. I’ve had several important revelations, revealed to me through meditation: 1) Without breath/life, plus all the other life around you (which makes itself known during meditation mainly through noises — car honks, birdsong, dog barks, traffic whooshing, workmen banging), all that you’d have would be the thoughts in your own fucking head, and there would be no possibility of peace. Because thoughts cannot arrive and sit and be in the moment. Only a living body in a living world has that luxury. 2) A few solid minutes picturing an ideal future for yourself is calming, centering, and instructive. It turns out, the ideal future is mostly made up of happy daughter, happy husband, happy friends, love and being in the same room with each other after a day filled with work and accomplishments. So many billions of ways to achieve that, really, and the kitchen counters or car interior or shoes don’t matter MUCH (they matter a little, though).

It’s hard to stay with your breath and not think things. Our house is clean today, because I spent all morning cleaning. It’s a pleasure to survey a gleaming floor covered with an assortment of oriental rugs you’ve acquired in times of plenty. It’s a pleasure to fold soft, warm, fragrant laundry, or to make a hearty tuna salad chock full of chopped vegetables for your husband for lunch, when he rushes home from his adjunct teaching job on his way back to the office.

Where will I take my family now? I am being towed on a long line by my husband’s boat. The waves are sharp-peaked but low, nothing to worry about. I spend all our money on groceries. I’m taking stock. I’m getting my act together. I’ll help take us somewhere.

There is a prevailing obsession now (in this country, or just in my Facebook feed?) with platitudes and the pursuit of happiness. Facebook is about 30 percent advice about how to “live in the moment,” “count your blessings,” “grow your gratitude,” “embrace joy,” whatever. This all seems right! That it is being pushed at me via profitable social media empires, with the help of sanctimonious and unhappy acquaintances and coworkers, should not automatically invalidate the message.

I am so fearful, I realize, of being in error! I don’t want to be erroneously inspired by sentimentality or wishful thinking; I don’t want to erroneously and self-deafeatingly eschew the right path, on the other hand, by being too skeptical or cold or closed off. I want to be awake to the voice of God. But I don’t want to confuse my own thoughts with the voice of God, or worse yet, to confuse bullshit with God. I don’t want to let important chances slip by, but I don’t want to be grasping at chances. I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.

Winter 2015

In a month and a half, I did two dozen gorgeous cartoony portraits of friends and family and strangers from as far away as San Francisco and Utah. I love them, my portraits. I love the money I got for them. It wasn’t a lot, but enough to avert disaster, enough that we paid our rent in December and I bought some Christmas presents. And now I am back to my book, speechless, worried, hopeful. Planning on re-joining Crossfit before the month is out. Marshall and I are on Day 4 of doing 100 burpees every day for the entire year.

Mary told me last night that whenever she reads the phrase “the deserted street,” (which must come up pretty often in her reading) she imagines a street littered with cakes and cookies.

In Florida, where I was over Christmas only very reluctantly, perhaps a bit ungraciously, where I was attacked by noseeums and my legs were turned into a seeping, oozing mass of sores and bumps, there was one superb hour in the surf playing with Mary and Kathy and Carl, and later Audrey too. Mary, the swaying green water nearly to her chin, was so happy she couldn’t stop talking and singing and sometimes squealing and shouting for joy. The waves came fast and just high enough to give a thrill. They came at angle and the current tugged us left. There was our big blue umbrella stuck into the sand at an angle and our three folding chairs and little heaps of towel and bags and belongings. I used the umbrella as a gauge of how far the current had moved us, although really, Mary pointed out, it doesn’t really MATTER if the current tugs you one way or the other. You can always walk back to your spot when you get out.

Read more by and about Emily Hopkins, and see her drawings and portraits, at