Dispatches | March 02, 2011

“They all are gone, and thou art gone as well!

Yes, thou art gone!”                            -Matthew Arnold

“Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?”


Can we get back to basics?  Back to the oral roots of poetry, back to good-old straight-forward narrative, plot?  A good old-fashioned lecture?—on something from the canon?  Can we count some syllables, write (and teach) essays with a thesis?  Let’s explicate, shall we? Can we please go back to when a C was average?  When good writers (well, famous ones) got to do pretty much whatever they wanted because they were awesome?  When people threw them parties for making such an uncomfortable scene at the last one that people had to be asked to leave?  I’m not asking to go back to the cave or anything (though those bison drawings pretty much beat all).  Typewriters are extinct, I get that.  I’m just saying, where, in the land of letters, are we all so busy to progress to?

Calisthenics.  This morning I suited up in bun-hugging, navel-high coach shorts and ran down to the park at dawn to beat my personal best on the Wells Fargo Fitness Challenge Course.  You can find these challenges thoughtfully placed in a number of public parks in Columbia.  I’m talking basic equipment here, people.  A pole with a peg.  Pull-up bars, an inverted board.  And simple, friendly, attractive instructional signs.  I figure it was pretty much like this for the ancient Greeks in their gymnasium.  In fact, I feel like an ancient Greek out here every morning in flat-soled sneaks and a beater, going station to station sidle-hopping, stretching, lifting my basic human weight against gravity.  And every time I do an inverted sit-up and swivel, I see that coach in an ump hat on the sign giving me the thumbs up, and I know I’m in the right place, in the old country of the human heart.

—I do this even as others in the writing world follow each other to the land of Fancy Effects and Advanced Procedures of Networkogenics, which I figure is pretty much like your school’s Rec Megacenter, with a machine for every muscle, not to mention yoga classes, a sauna, steam room (there’s a difference), tanning bed, water park, grocery store, movie theater, night club.

Remember the Presidential Fitness Test from grade school?  Remember the shuttle run (two erasers raced back one-at-a-time from ten yards out)?  It was the pinnacle of athleticism, as far as I’m concerned.  Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m reliving my race against Chucky St. Clair, end of gym class, 5th or 6th grade.  Coach Rush had said it was time to settle things.  We were the top shuttle runners and now were going to race the length of the gym and back.  The thing is, Chucky only ran to the baseline under the basketball goal while I went all the way and touched the wall – an obvious case of poor instruction.

Erasers, indeed;—but Chucky, it was we who were being erased!

The cedar creaks under my shorts, the gymnast tape on the monkey bars ravels wildly in the wind. What if I told you that here at the Wells Fargo Fitness Challenge Course the boards are rotting, the signs fading (after all, they were built in the early eighties)? This, in a town with three working cobblers!  Would you care?  You certainly shouldn’t be surprised.

Still, I kick it old school.  Back to square one: the word.  While you’re doing spin class and lifting to the sterile beats of your school’s personal pump room laptop DJ, I’m out in the ancient Greek wildlife getting fit for the President of the United States, shuttling between challenges that require nothing more than a little wood and metal and good basic technique.  That, and a lot of heart, a lot of get-up-and-go.  It’s just my muscles vs. the elements, Chucky.  The breath of carefully crafted words against the air.  While you’re in there mixing up your metabolic genre milkshake, I’ve got the Eye of the Tiger, I’ve got hustle, those damn erasers have nothing on me.

Along with writing satire, Austin Segrest is a PhD candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of Missouri, and an intern at the Missouri Review.