Annotations: So Many Olympic Exertions


I do not generally love novels described as “genre-blending”/”genre-bending” or “experimental.” I am not interested in sports (I bring novels to sporting events). I do not read self-help. And yet, Anelise Chen’s experimental novel blending elements of memoir, sports writing, and self-help dazzled me. The prose is accessible but gorgeous; the “reporting” on athletes and sports psychology is riveting; the narrative is emotionally taut. I loved this debut—I can’t wait to read whatever Chen writes next (yes, even if it’s a memoir told from the third-person perspective of a clam).

Favorite words.

To get to the conference, I take an airplane, a shuttle, then walk .21 miles to the hotel.
It is so exhausting to have to ferry around a body, a suitcase, and a head crammed with thoughts.

The only reason Ellen and I get together anymore is out of a sense of mutual obligation. After you’ve known someone enough years, it doesn’t matter if you even like them. Liking or enjoying their company is beside the point. They are a part of you, like a tattoo you can’t wish away.

Pessimists perform best when the world lets them down.

Bodies and what we do with them. The life of the body, the life of the mind. When there isn’t a balance between these two lives, things go wrong. Our well-being is such a complex mechanism of weights and pulleys.
For example, in recent years, I’ve noticed that whenever friends write to me, they tend to include a few sentences about what they’re doing for exercise. They probably think it’s an easy way to relate to my research. They say things like—”If I don’t exercise I feel off-kilter,” or “I like to get my ass kicked.” The crazier the person’s life is or has recently been, the more they need their ass kicked.

Those times when I would be brave enough to make the trek and swim in the pool undisturbed, completely free, I would feel both immense gratitude and immense loneliness all at once. It was beautiful and unshareable, and I wondered if it was beautiful because it was unshareable. Sharing it with someone would have fragmented a moment of pure perception. On the other hand, perhaps it was only beautiful because I was sharing it with an ideal, hypothetical other. This other person would undoubtedly find this sort of thing beautiful, and therefore I did, too. But since that hypothetical other person was not there, I was really just sharing the moment with myself, divided or projected.

Goals are relevant only if they manage to establish a proper distance between ability and desire, encouraging intrinsic motivation. Note that a goal is not the same as a want. Most children do not have a goal when they start a task.

Both the doctor and Alain’s best friend Dubourg believe Alain’s lethargy is caused by lack of will. They call Alain “mediocre” and then “spineless.” For these goal-oriented optimists, minor obstacles are like temporary problems to be solved as you travel from one point to another point. For the goal-less pessimist, however, there is just terrain. Where should I walk to? When a goal-oriented optimist does not act, he very well may be spineless. But when a goal-less pessimist does not act, he is simply making a rational choice.
For instance, when the doctor says to Alain that life is good, Alain replies: “Good for what?” The doctor is unable to answer this very simple question.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca believed we’d all be less angry if we lowered our expectations and demanded less from life. Anger, he believed, was caused by the disappointment that occurs when reality doesn’t conform to one’s expectations. Of his pupils, only the rich would throw a fit over a spilled cup of wine. The wise, on the other hand, understood that fortune was fickle and promised nothing. “No promise has been made for ever this hour,” Seneca once told a grieving mother who’d lost her son. “Stop pretending like death is a weird anomaly, and won’t ever happen to us.” (I paraphrase, but that’s the general idea.)

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