Thursday, October 26, 2017


She was one of the prettiest girls in a high school full of pretty girls. Somehow, per capita, my tiny high school, comprised of 6oo kids from all the small towns around a valley of maple and pine trees, had the most and the prettiest pretty girls around. Thank goodness for the beautiful people of the Ottawa Valley, and all their roughneck romance that made the women that made my high school a torturous dream.

Anyway, she was pretty.

Thankfully, though, this is not about how pretty she was. That would be a boring start to a worse story, and no one really cares anyway. All the women in my life are pretty. You should see my lady, first thing in the morning, at 5am, sleepy and pulling on her kit for another sunrise interval session. Gorgeous. You should see the daughters we made. All big-eyed and freckled and game to try anything. Stunning. But right. This is not about pretty. This is about shorts.

See, my girlfriend in high school was very very pretty. This was not the only thing about her, at all, really. She was extremely athletic, very academically successful, and generally a nice person. And she could suffer. She raced cross country, see, and that's all about suffering. She also was extremely determined, in a subtle (but not resigned) kind of way. I used to watch her stretching in the grass before she began her daily run home from school. It was 7k. I didn't run that much until last year, two decades after she was already immersed in her own trial of miles. But this is not about determination, or guts, or a subtle, never-ending drive to put in work to become better. This is not about miles. This is about shorts.

So when my first girlfriend ever and I were going out, I never saw her body.

We used to lie on a tacky mesa-themed duvet cover on my collapsing double bed in my room in my parents' house, with the light on, with the door slightly ajar, and spend hours kissing. It was amazing. She was 'my first kiss', and I had never been in such delight in my life.

Anyway, it was winter in Ontario, back when that meant snow by October, and snowbanks by December. I had my first kiss in a snowbank. Nevertheless, sub-zero temperatures do very little for the effectiveness of school kid groping. And then we were at my parents' house, and I was a scared little fifteen-year-old, and I lusted for so much more, but could only ever muster a meager hand on a fully-clothed hip. Sometimes my entire sensory system was focused on that hand. And then my leg would fall asleep, and we'd move, and that was that. But this is not about a hip covered in flannel. This is about shorts.

She was a great athlete. While I was learning how to play a sport with some kind of precision, she was already a clutch player on all parts of the court. She came to a game or two and I tried miserably not to screw up in front of her. I went to her games and watched her move with grace and power. We even wore the same shorts. They were navy blue, made out of indestructible Supplex® nylon, and hit magically mid-thigh on everyone's femur. I felt that they were short, but I jumped high and ran fast in them every time. I ran cross-country, and eventually track,  and always wore those shorts for events that would count. I was never a great athlete, no threat to any competitor, but I dressed like the rest of them, and it made me feel fast.

We broke up that year, at school, in a snowstorm. I went home and cried. She went to put in some miles on her skate skis. I wrote bad poetry for years. I never got any better at volleyball.

One day, I walked into the gym, to cheer on a home game of the girls' volleyball team, and my jaw dropped. There were all those pretty, pretty girls, wearing their usual custom jerseys, but now with spandex booty shorts. I don't actually know what they were called, or what they are called now, but they needed no formal introduction as all formal thought process had already ceased. Gulp. I was not actually sure how I felt about the kit, mostly because I had never seen so much of these beautiful women's bodies and now anyone in the bleachers could see everything ever, and I was jealous. But fascinated. But reluctant. And drawn. Now this is about shorts.

The next thing is a difficult thing to admit and to explain, but it's the best I can do, and it's why there is so much backstory.

My first girlfriend did all of the sports. She aced all of her classes. She was kind to all folks, even lowly freaks like myself with bad hair and big pants who still had kind of a crush on her. She owed no one anything, except she retained humility. And as I watched her in the volleyball game, that beautiful, gorgeous human who had held my heart for so many months, as I watched her move to the ball and plant her feet and execute, I forgot that I could see her body. I forgot that she was wearing practically nothing. I forgot that she was a person I desired, moving around in an object I desired. She was an athlete. She moved. She was strong. She did action with purpose.

I remember being at a track meet later that same year. Everyone was wearing whatever would make them go fastest and farthest, which usually meant wearing very little at all, and spikes. Spikes usually get worn without socks, for maximum lightness, and maximum connection to the machine: the body. Spikes are fast, and spikes stink. In a system, the fewest interruptions between force and object result in the maximum received output. Foot to track with only a thin, spiked platform in between means maximum output, which means speed, which is what racing is. So no one wore socks with their spikes, or shirts under their singlets, or underpants under their shorts. Everyone removed as many interruptions as possible, so as to maximize the body's interaction with the environment, and maximize its force output.

See there? 'The body's'. Not 'their'; not 'their body'; definitely not 'them'. The body. Because one of the most beautiful things about sport is that it contextualizes the body in a function without socialized misrepresentation. And in a sport as simple as track, a body is reduced to its essential nature: machine to do work. It is not sexy or beautiful or desirable or ugly because of how it looks; it is amazing or frustrating because of how it works. It is a thing. It is a wonderful thing, and its function is in its form and they are one, so beauty results. But this beauty can only exist as a pearl, a thing from goop on one side and sand grit on the other, neither particularly amazing in and of themselves. Together, though, there is a pearl. That long leg is fine and that high hurdle is fine but watch that long leg ease swiftly over that high hurdle in an eternal second and tell me you've not witnessed something cosmic.

So my former girlfriend was dressed for success. And she was not dressed in very much. And I remember thinking not about her body that I might desire, but about her body that could so gracefully and smoothly round laps of the track, faster than so many others, faster than I. I thought about her machine. I wondered what fuel she gave it. I wondered how she took care of its ligaments and tightening muscles. I thought of the miles she had to put it through to put it through this one so fast. I did not want to hold it. I did want to understand it and bear it witness.

She took off her shoes after the race, and carried them around while she walked barefoot through the grass. She had one pair of webbed toes. Her race flats probably smelled, as race flats do. Her singlet probably was no longer super fresh and delightfully aromatic. She may have had a runny nose and sweat dripping down her temples. Her hair looked like hair in a nondescript ponytail. She offered to go for a warm down run (more running?) with a snaggle-toothed boy still coughing up his effort.

And all this time, she was an athlete, with her own mind, her own race plan, her own outfit, her own choices, her own preferences, her own power, her own questions, her own dreams, her own skin, her own heart. At no time would anyone around presume to tell her what to wear.

The whole point here is that athletic endeavour transcended prejudiced body condemnation. She didn't worry about the appearance of her body. Others didn't worry about the appearance of her body. The body was there to perform movements with strength and grace and grit. And as a witness, as a lusty, hormone-riddled, visually-stimulated adolescent, her endeavour took precedence. Regardless of her outfit, her athleticism outshone and outweighed most other consideration of her or her body or the machine she had made of it and how it looked.

So when the girls toe the line to thrash their legs and fire their lungs and hearts and minds with the heat of striving and competition and teamwork and other-centeredness and all things beautiful about cross-country running, cheer. Do not consider the length or tightness of their garments. Do not judge them for their appearances. Admire their courage. Witness their audacious endeavour. Cheer.

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