I was a pretty laid-back, easy-going kind of a lad. My mother claimed I was “too serious,” but that was as they say “code,” meaning that I read a lot of books. Reading was a great form of relaxation, so much so indeed as to be preferable to most officially sanctioned “amusements”. For that reason, perhaps, a similar hypo-tension characterized my years of higher education, despite their ostensible rigors. But then finally, aged twenty-seven, I found myself in Madison WI with a wife, a job, a prospect of paternity, an unfinished book manuscript, a clicking tenure clock, rent payments, and a car that kept breaking down.
I felt stressed. I suffered praeternatural fatigue and insomnia. I experienced, or imagined, an irregular heart beat. This sent me to a doctor, who administered my first-ever EKG, a procedure I supposed as probably of similar magnitude to a liver transplant. His diagnosis was that there was nothing wrong with me, except that I need to exercise and to relax. It was winter. This was the great Midwestern Tundra. Opportunities for health-giving winter sports were abundant, and he named a few.
I invested in a pair of ice skates. They cost $29—no mean figure, given that my annual salary was $7500. I bundled up, went to frozen Lake Mendota, put on the skates, and started gliding. Forty-seven seconds later I fell, hard, breaking my left wrist. That was the first of many experiences with health-giving exercise—tennis, squash, running, working out on machines--that landed me in or near a hospital. It took me a few years to discover swimming laps. As far as I can determine swimming laps is as close to risk-free exercise and relaxation as it comes. Of course I could drown, or I could die of boredom; but I’ll just have to risk it.
Actually, I usually get quite a bit of relaxing exercise around the house and garden. One of my things is building stone walls, an occupation requiring a certain amount of brain as well as a certain amount of brawn. First you have to drive around various slag-heaps in central Jersey scoping out appropriate detritus schist. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you come upon in the wilds of New Jersey. Many of the individual stones weigh a hundred pounds or more, and you have to dig them out and schlep them to the pickup. In the course of building you probably move each one another four or five times. And you don’t even have to have a gym subscription.
The walls I build are at best pseudo-functional, but in my opinion they really look terrific. Something there is that really loves a wall. And if you are going to put women on a pedestal, as I tend to do, the pedestal is just as important as the women.
Well, last week saw some pretty heavy-duty wall-building. My number-two son Luke (I refer to C.L.O. Fleming, Ph.D., the linguistic anthropologist) is with us at the moment. He is generally up for some good, health-giving, relaxing fun, and he helped to put on the capstone (approximate weight: 470 pounds) of a section of our latest effort, a new perimeter for an out-of-control compost heap at present contained only by an ad hoc brick pile.
The relaxing fun also includes removing the bricks and the concrete blocks by wheel barrow to a new, tidy, remote location. As some of you will be aware, the weather has been hot in the northeast, and after two or three hours I was apparently showing signs of fatigue. My affect alarmed my spouse. “You know,” she said, “you never relax. You’re supposed to be retired. Why don’t you lie down in the hammock? You never lie down in the hammock.”
It is not quite true that I never lie down in the hammock. I distinctly remember doing so on at least two occasions. But I do what I am told. I went over to the hammock and tried to lie in it. Unfortunately, I mismanaged the physics, maldistributing my not inconsiderable avoir-du-poids. The hammock went into a rapid spin and spilled me hard on my left side. Sharp, agonizing pain shot through the left side of my torso. I think I probably cracked a rib. Many bodily movements are now painful, conspicuously including those needed for the Australian crawl. So, forget swimming. Lifting even light stones is out of the question. Relaxation has struck again.
Changing the subject entirely, I need to do a little literary pimping for my number-one son Rich (I refer to Richard A. Fleming, the travel writer and journalist). Readers of his remarkable Walking to Guantanimo will want to know about his latest excursion in the Antilles basin. It is an essay accompanying Leah Gordon’s amazing photographs of Kanaval—a kind of Haitian Mardi Gras on steroids. One of the other contributors is the famous novelist Madison Smartt Bell, author (among much else) of Freedom's Gate: A Brief Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, not to mention a 1979 senior thesis “directed” by Prof. John V. Fleming.