Being What You Don’t Know How to Be


One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “write what you know.”  It makes sense on one level, because the most compelling writing is typically the most authentic.  This advice has never worked that well for me though, because my first reaction is to immediately decide that I don’t know anything, and my second is to feel irritated and think, “If you already know something, why would you need to write about it?”  So with that not-quite-a-disclaimer disclaimer, I’ve decided to write about something that I know absolutely nothing about and yet feel very attracted to, and that is: living as an athletic person.  To that end, I’ve made a little list of 10 things to keep in mind if you are not an athletic person and wish to try being one.


(1) Do not watch cooking shows while exercising, especially shows featuring chocolate or how to deep-fry things. 

(2) If you are using a locker, try very hard to remember the locker number, because when you come back to the locker room you will discover that all of the lockers look exactly THE SAME. 

(3) A surprising number of people do not have personal space issues, and they will expect you to not to have any either. 

(4) Most women do not look better naked than you do.  No, not even the young ones.  Trust me on this. 

(5) The sports bras that cost more because they have more support are worth the money.  And not just for your sake either. 

(6) Do not drink a protein shake 15 minutes before working out unless you want to see it on the floor of the gym 30 minutes later. 

(7) Do not work out without eating anything at all unless you are comfortable passing out in public and coming to to see the trainers snickering in the corner. 

(8) Looking up exercise moves on YouTube does not equal actually learning how to do them.  

(9) The fact that your heart pounds because you are exercising does not mean you are having a panic attack, even though it feels exactly the same. 

(10) Even athletes are afraid. 


I learned this last one from a guy I work out with, a lovely 20-something fellow whose dad played pro football.  He himself almost played professional basketball, but something bad happened to both of his knees.  Their family runs a small training and rehab place, and it’s the best place ever to work out because when you do really stupid things, not that many people can see you.  Also, they are incredibly smart and kind.  One day after running, my back spasmed so badly, I had to crawl in there and beg them to help me, and they did.  

I told them that I had been running and pulled a muscle while stretching afterwards, but what really happened was that I had gone running in the park, it started to rain, and I thought, “I am a real athlete because I am running in the rain.”  Then when I finished my run, feeling like I was all that, I put my arms over my head and did a little “I’m fabulous” dance to the Black Eyed Peas song, “I Gotta Feeling”, and a horrible pain seized up my back.  I couldn’t stand upright and I thought I was going to die from the pain.  I had to crawl/crabwalk back to my car past a team of juvenile delinquents who were part of some state-sponsored reformation program, and even though they were being overseen by a big person in a bulletproof vest as they picked up park trash, I still said a silent prayer that they wouldn’t try to kill me as I hunched by, wet and sniveling: obviously a weakling.

The one thing about the folks who run this gym is that they are very Jesus-y.  Like extremely Jesus-y.  I find this quite comforting, except for when they start talking about “the end times,” but it does make for some interesting encounters.  One time, I made a bad eating decision before my workout and passed out about 30 minutes into it, and when I “came to,” I heard a voice in my ear saying, “Let her bring it all up, Lord Jesus, just bring it all up, be here with us, Jesus, thank you, Lord,” and even though my eyes were closed and I was puking into a white plastic trash can, my internal writer’s eyes snapped wide open, trying to memorize every second of what was happening. 

Afterwards, I got to lie down on a massage table in a dark little room, and my lovely 20-something workout fellow came in “to see how I was doing,” except mostly he was trying really hard not to laugh. 

“I saw you in the corner laughing at me, ” I said.  “You’re a terrible person.”

“I wasn’t laughing,” he said.  “I was trying not to laugh.” 

“Because I’m such a wimp?” 

“Because this kind of stuff happens all the time and it’s funny.  And because I knew you’d be really embarrassed.” 

I told him that I often feel very nervous working out, like I never know if I am going to be able to make it through the workout.  He told me that he always felt like that when he was playing basketball.  He said that he didn’t know anyone on his team who didn’t feel like that.  He said, “After my knee surgery, it took me two years before I didn’t feel scared coming into the gym.”  

This was an absolute revelation to me.  I had always thought that people who were athletic and strong didn’t feel afraid of physical things.  And I don’t think they are afraid of being in their bodies in the same way that people who live in their heads are afraid of being in their bodies, but still.  It was a whole new realization.  

The realization contained thoughts like: “Being afraid is normal;” “This is not supposed to be easy;” “When it does get easy, you can do more than you’re doing;” “and “Your body often listens to your mind, not the other way around.” 

Today I was on my last tricep curl and my arm started shaking and I went to use my other arm to help myself finish the move, and the trainer said, “Stop that.  It’s okay to struggle sometimes.”  Then I finished the move with my one shaking arm.

Stop that.  It’s okay to struggle sometimes.  Stop the panic, stop the obsessing.  It’s okay to struggle sometimes.

These are things that physical activity is allowing me to learn in ways that just pondering them never will.  A few days ago, I was texting the lovely 20-something fellow about our next appointment, and I asked him what I frequently ask: “Do you think I’m a wimp?”  (I’m sure he loves this).  He texted back: “no, but u let things get u down too easily, u are ur own worst enemy.”    

That was not the first time I’ve received this feedback (though it was the first time I got it in only partially spelled words), and on a scale of 1-10 of Helpful Things to Tell Someone, it’s about a 3 (sort of like, “You’re too hard on yourself.”  “Why, thank you.  Now there’s something else I’m doing wrong…”).  But still, it caused me to think.  Anne Lamott writes about learning to be “militantly on her own side.”  I’ve often interpreted this as being kind and accepting of the parts of yourself that you would normally view with criticism.  But what if it could also mean believing that you can be fantastic?  Strong?  Powerful?  What if it means believing, without question, that you simply ARE those things?  That being some parts wimp does not mean that you can’t also be equal parts kick-ass?  And, what if, eventually, the kick-ass part of you could even become your default, instead of giving it all away to the wimpy part, which does not deserve it? 

My friend Ann taught me the phrase “leaving it on the field.”  As in, when a team plays their hardest, they’ve “left it on the field,” they didn’t hold anything back.  A few months ago, I decided that when I die, I want to be able to say that “I left it on the field.”  That would be my measure of success.  Of course, that means that while you’re here, you have to get out there and play.  Like you mean it.  That’s the hard part. 

Two poetic items today: 

First, the last line of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses: 

“Yes I said yes I will Yes.” 

Joyce said that he wanted to end his book on the most optimistic word in the English language: Yes. 

Second, this Michael Jordan video.  It’s his Nike commercial on “Failure.”  I’ve shown it to tons of students and love it every time.  It’s inspirational, and the way Michael Jordan moves is, of course, pure poetry.  Have a look.  It’s 31 seconds, and I promise, it will make your day!

art by Ugo Rondinone

4 thoughts on “Being What You Don’t Know How to Be

Add yours

  1. OMG, Leslie. I know you’re making serious points here, but I swear I laughed so hard when your described waking up to “Let her bring it all up, Lord Jesus,…”. OMG. And I love the MJ video, LOVE it. (Even though I’m not really much of an MJ fan.)

    The notion of being militantly on your own side reminds me of something the great philosopher Oprah has said “What you really want to be is so full of yourself that your cup runneth over, so that you can give to other people. “… An altruistic variant of being militantly, kick-ass powerfully, on your own side.


    1. Ann,

      I LOVE this quote! It also reminds me of the benefits of having enough “slack in the system…” 🙂

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.



  2. The title of today’s post really caught my attenion! I really think that it takes much thought, work and determination to ” be somebody I dont know how to be!” However, after some thought, I realized that every day I think that I really want to DO something that I do not know how to DO. I laughed at your ten tips for working out at the gym…. Sounds like my gym however my gym is more like a wellness center. There are no “20 somethings” who frequent the place. I feel very comfortable there because I am one of the few who is still walking without looking like the letter “S” I hate going to the gym (though I know that I am supposed to like it) however I feel like a Queen in this place because I am in “great shape” according to my fellow exercisers :)) I never really wanted to be an athletic person however the reality for me is that if I dont keep moving, the aches and pains control my life…. so I move on to my other thoughts. I really want to learn how to do something that I do not know how to do. This is a little bit of work, some thinking and some determination. (If I cant do it within a reasonable amount of time, I just move on to the next new thing that I might learn)
    But I also wanted to point out something that I did today while reading this post………. I signed up for “Twitter”. I thought that I needed to do this in order to access the video! It took me awhile to navigate myself throught the sign up process but I now have a name and a password for “tweeting” I don’t know the purpose of “tweeting” however I just learned how to do something new so I feel like I accomplished something today…. good feelings. Now, I hope that I can remember my name and password the next time that I decide to tweet. BTW I was not able to see the video of Michael Jordan. I still think that I have more things that I need to learn how to do :)))


  3. Thanks so much for your post. I recently spent one month in physical therapy. I experienced shaky muscles and having my therapist laugh at me (ours was a love-hate relationship), because I talked back to him. On my last day with him, I apologized in case I had offended him with my comments. He told me he knew that when I started getting snarky with him, he was doing his job. It was an interesting and humbling experience.


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