Practice In Spite

Let’s go on a trip to in the Way-Back Machine to a date in 1988, to eavesdrop on a telephone call between a young man, not quite twenty, who is trying to Do the Right Thing by asking his pregnant girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage:

“And how do you expect to be able to support a wife and a child?”

“I’m enlisting in the Marine Corps. They will give us housing, food stipend, insurance…” The young man’s voice trails off at the sound of scornful laughter coming from the other end of the phone.

“You? YOU? You’re going to be a Marine? You’ll never even make it through boot camp!” The older man was former Navy, and was absolutely certain in his tone.

“I believe I will. I want to marry her, and raise our child together, and…”

“Yeah, right.” The older man cut him off. “Sure. If that’s your plan, I’ll agree with it, because you’ll never do it. You make it through the Marines, you can marry her. Because I know that will never happen.”

Fast forward about five months, that same young man – a little skinnier now, with much shorter hair, is sweating in the middle of a gravel road somewhere in the hills of MCRD San Diego. He was a squad leader, and one of his men had screwed up. Exactly how the guy had screwed up doesn’t really matter; they were a squad, and all five of them were being disciplined together.

In this case, the “discipline” involved them all being ordered by the drill instructor to assume the “prone firing position.” This was flat on the belly, legs spread wide for stability, and elbows on the ground as if holding a rifle. It was a position well-known to them all, having spent two weeks of intensive marksmanship practice. In this case they were miming it, of course, but the body remembered.

He was sweating not because it was hard. He was sweating because it wasn’t that hard. And that meant the Drill Instructor had something worse coming.

“Now, recruits!” the man barked down at them. “Get your bodies off the ground!” For a moment none of them understood what he meant, and he crouched down in front of the young squad leader. “Did you not hear me?” he growled. “I said get your body off the ground. Hold yourselves up with your toes and elbows! Now! Now, I said!”

Instinctively they all tried to obey. In terms of core strength, it was not a problem – they were rock-solid in that department. And their boots protected their toes just fine.

But the elbows…the elbows were on the gravel. The elbows were bare skin and bone supporting most of his weight. It was agony. Worse pain than he’d ever felt. Weeks of conditioned obedience made him keep trying as the Drill Instructor yelled at him to assume the position. Pride made him try over and over to lift his belly out of the dusty road, to hold it. He could hear his men behind him, trying as well, or in some cases just giving up. He was their squad leader, he had a duty to set an example…but he couldn’t hold the position for more than a few seconds before the pain got too much, and he slumped to the ground again.

“What’s the matter?” taunted the D.I. “You got something wrong with your hearing, recruit? Am I going to wash you out for failing to obey a direct order? I said TOES AND ELBOWS!” This new threat lent new motivation. Washing out? Not graduating boot camp? He was doing this for the noblest of reasons, a woman and his child were depending on him to make it. He loved her, as much as a man of his age knew of love, and he would do anything for her. Resolutely he lifted himself from the ground again…and the ground-glass road dug through his now-bloody elbows into his resolve and collapsed it, utterly.

It was a good thing he was sweating, because that meant that the D.I. didn’t actually notice that he broke then. Utterly broke. Simply wept the tears of one who has tried, given their all, and been crushed. He collapsed in the dirt and let his body just lay there. He was done. There was nothing left. Any romantic notions of his love or his pride carrying him through the barriers had just been taken down. The D.I. was busy chastising one of his squad, but in a moment he would return, and order the young man to “TOES AND ELBOWS” again. And the young man knew he would just lay there. He would simply wash out, go home in disgrace. His never-to-be-stepfather had been right after all.


That last thought. To have that man – a man who had been worthy of a Capulet or Montague in his machinations to try and keep the young lovers apart – to have him be right. To let him win. That…that was intolerable. That could not happen.

The broken young man realized that while his pride and his love might not be enough to carry him on…his hatred of that man, and his unwillingness to let that man be right was an energy source. Like the Millenium Falcon under Han Solo’s thumping fist, suddenly power flowed through him. He didn’t rise up then-why waste energy? But when the D.I. came back around and yelled “Toes and elbows!” the young man lifted his body and grimaced even as he wept from the pain.

He was going to make it through this. Not for pride in himself, not for love of his fiancée – but just to prove that pompous ass wrong.

And that’s exactly what he did.

A Cause

There’s an old political saying that if you can’t find someone to vote for, you can usually find someone to vote against. Sometimes motivation to practice works that way too. For some, affirmations and leading questions and self-reflection just isn’t enough to make them pick up that pen, start that workout, set that timer as they pick up their instrument. That’s certainly how I felt this morning – I knew I should work out, but damned if I wanted to. The “Why bother?“‘s filled my head. Who would care? What difference would it make? How would it really improve my life any, at all?

But then I imagined certain someones – doesn’t matter who, as they were entirely created in my imagination – who would take that lack of practice as a confirmation of what they’d suspected all along. Never really thought he had what it takes, they didn’t say except in my head. I always knew he’d finally just give up.

I let out an expletive or two, got up off the couch, and a few moments later was deep in the Plyometric Cardio Circuit workout. Sometimes the secret to motivating yourself to practice is not the happy positive results. Sometimes you do it simply because: success is the best revenge.

Anything you use to push against when you can’t seem to find a way to pull yourself forward?


1 thought on “Practice In Spite”

  1. Bit of a nerdy example, but Mr. Hovey, the high school calculus teacher told me I couldn’t take adv pre calc and AP calc in the same year because ” You can’t do that and pass both classes.” Well, F’ You, buddy! I took both, aced both, went on to get a degree in math and now have a decent career that I love. When I need to light a fire, I call up his smug face. Nobody tells me what I can’t do, damm!t.

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