No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Limits of the Universe

It turns out I know the cousin of the World's Third Strongest Man. We had drinks tonight as I welcomed him, the cousin, to the small town of the American Southwest I live in. In sharing this information with my friends via text message, I discovered that one of my closest friends, Christine, also knows one of the more famous of the previous World's Strongest Man winners--the one that held the title through the early 80's--Bill Kazmerirer, that is.

Bill was famous in the United States for winning power lifting championships throughout the late 1970's, and then, eventually, for going head-to-head with strong men from around the world, and beating them in various inordinate lifting, and pulling competitions in the World Strongest Man competition. Originating from Auburn, Alabama, he honored his home town by pulling a semi-truck through downtown Auburn after winning his title (he won three times in a row--1980, 81, and 82). He's since returned to Auburn and opened a fitness studio where others can train under his influence, or inspiration, if they so desire.

I teach at the local university. Each year new colleagues come in to test their meddle against the academic requirements found in a small mountain town. They face the rigorous demands of teaching multiple classes, lifting the minds of young American youth to higher learning. Having started here last year, I'm sympathetic to the adjustment of such a choice. So, I offered to spend an afternoon at the local wine, beer, and saki bar in drink and conversation as a kind of welcome token to a new faculty member. It turned out this new faculty member had not only his own thoughts on teaching to share, but his knowledge of the training demanded of top competitors of the Strong Man competition.

My family raised me in Alaska spending winters in the small town of Anchorage where my sisters and I attended school, and summers in the remote town of Naknek where we grew up commercial fishing for salmon. Until the age of nine I lived with my great grandmother while my family fished. She was born at a time when electricity did not exist in the area, and so daily needs had to be managed by hand. Laundry was washed in a swish bucket, and wrung out through a hand-squeeze wringer, then hung on a line to dry. When she eventually got a carpet for the sitting room, my great grandmother picked the lint and dirt from it by hand, afraid of the noise and suction of the too powerful electric vacuum cleaner. She managed her other household demands without electricity as well, prefering to operate in the manner she'd grown up--doing chores by hand. I would entertain myself with various projects I'd imagined up while she occupied herself with the demands of a life still lived without excess automation.

My life in Naknek included one television channel. We could only watch what satellite viewing offered. That included two hours of soap operas in the midday--General Hospital and All my Children--followed by the talk show Donahue, when I was very young, and then, later, also Oprah. In the late afternoon two hours of in depth weather analysis would air for the sake of the one-in-three pilots that populate the over-sized state. This weather was excessively boring for us non-pilot types, showing us wind vectors, and weather fronts for 100 non stop minutes. Then, in the evening, the nightly news, and, after, whatever hourly drama was popular at the time. Usually the television was turned off by then, for supper, so I can't readily report on what shows aired from the 6-8 p.m. television hours.

I can say, however, that in Minnesota, according to my new faculty member acquaintance, at least in the late 80's and early 90's, the International Strong Man competition aired. The cousin, and his cousin, the faculty member I met with tonight, discovered it simultaneously, and decided that if the cousin was to exert his skills in such a direction he would win. It turns out, I was told, the two cousins grew up comparable size but when the late mid-teens hit, the stronger man cousin buffed out in size, while the other turned towards philosophy--each power lifting their own sort of weight.

If you've ever watched the Strong Man competition, then you know the point of the effort is to test the limits of what a strong body can do. Men (there are no women, so far, that compete though there are U.S. National Strong Woman competitions) are asked each year to participate in events they can't anticipate. That is, the competition's referees intentionally surprise their contestants with various events so that the competitors can only train towards them in a limited capacity. Recently competitors pulled a cargo jet 100 meters across tarmack. The first order of determination was who had been able to pull the jet that far. Those that did were judged hierarchized according to how long it took them to pull the plane that distance. Those that did not succeed in the distance were then placed by how far the plane was pulled. There is also consistently a keg throw in which the contestants must toss a lead-laden keg above their heads the height of a volleyball net, and backwards as far as they can. They also regularly lift increasingly heavier weights of stone onto platforms. The winner is the one that lifts the most, pulls the farthest, and tosses the highest and further than any other. To train for such an effort one must not only lift weights, but also lift in accord with particular events they cannot quite anticipate. That is, they must actually populate their house and training facility with heavy items they regularly move that represent what the referees might choose that year for competition, but that also turn out to be things not-Strongman individuals simply don't lift.

Over drinks the new faculty member mentioned that he may consider taking a trip to Malta this October to see his cousin compete in an athletic competition. When he mentioned the trip to I had no idea he was actually related to an international heavy weight contender. But, something about his description made me ask, "he isn't going for Strong Guy of the Universe is he?"

"Yes! Strongest Man in the World! He's third!" was the answer. We discussed for an hour the training regime required to place in such a contest. It turns out the cousin has concrete rounds he's constructed of various weights that he lifts and walks across the backyard of his property. He also owns an anchor, with chain, of ridiculous size that he simply drags across the backyard of his brothers property (his brother's yard is longer). Better yet, he has constructed a spreadsheet that charts the diameter a stone of particular type would have to be to be the appropriate weight of increasing demand for lifting onto a platform. I love the dorky smarts this implies winning such a competition would require. It's not enough to be strong. You have to be smart enough to know how to plan. Apparently, too, being third strongest man in the world, and top strongest man in the United States means living off of sponsorships, and contest financial prizes. When you're busy dragging a ridiculous anchor, and lifting stones charted by weight-to-diameter ratios, you don't have time to hold down a job as a financial consultant to a Minnesotan bank, nor any other full-time demand that might be listed here.

The faculty member I met with will be teaching this semester a class called "Philosophy of the Market Place." The class he's designed under such a title will interrogate the constraints of capitalism, and examine the assumptions latent in contemporary economic theory. He'll teach much of the class by asking his students to examine the problematics of various business ethics situations. In listening to this account, I appreciate the constrast between a woman that must do all her housework by hand because she was raised in a way that did not so readily enjoy consumerism (she was simply too isolated to see the sorts of things a person could buy), and the man that is able to enjoy the boil-over of capitalist wealth living off the proceeds of people buying products associated with International Strong Man competitions. What would such products be, I wonder? Fitness guru staples, surely--shirts that show off muscles, weights that promise to increase your prowess. Strength increasing drinks, plausibly. Or, electrolite mood boosters, perhaps.

I will confess, I do not know what to say about any of this. I do not know, even, why I put in juxtaposition my great grandmother with the Strongest Man. It seems an interesting story to me these very different lives people can have. Each, in their way, proving the very different limits we, as people, can face, and the kind of mundane ordinariness most of us suffer beneath. I think of my great grandmother regularly when I feel my life is too much a challenge. Surely, if she can wash all our clothes by hand, and make meals out of raw food staples, then I can put a few things in the washer, and walk away from that machine to continue the work I have assigned to me. It is interesting to me too to imagine an entire life shaped by the commitment of facing the indeterminable tasks of lifting things too heavy to lift, of being so determined to succeed that you chart on computer what weights various heavy bodies of stone and cement would demand of you. I wonder in each life what other goals they must have. If they simply accept that facilitating the needs of the family, on the one hand, and facing the demands of the competition, on the other, are enough. Or, if they too have a measure for how their lives will look in the end of each life. This is me being melodramatic, perhaps.

Next week we start teaching again at the university. I'll be teaching an Introduction to Ethics class in which I ask the students to think for themselves what choices, what constraints, would make their lives valuable, meaningful, to them.

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