Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Aha! Symmetry!

I like symmetry. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because I was something of a math geek in high school. Math loves symmetry and I love math. Perhaps symmetry is the last refuge of cowardly scoundrels like me who take solace in the cold finality of a math proof. But more than just the satisfaction of a proof, symmetry has a moral component for me: that which is symmetrical is good.

Teresa, my wife, is more artist than mathematician, even though math and engineering run in her blood. She was even a professional in the art world some time back. As a result, perhaps, she is more sympathetic to asymmetry than I. It has even been an issue between us from time to time. Not a real issue of course, but the kind which might merit a joke but then make us seethe under our breath a tiny bit as we fell asleep later. This small difference might show up as we arranged furniture in a new house, for instance. Somehow the placement of that overstuffed chair became very important if it wasn’t counterbalanced by a piece of similar heft opposite. Thankfully, as we’ve aged, both of us have softened our antipathy for the other’s spatial preferences.

Only slightly less important to me than symmetry is health. I take my health quite seriously. I exercise a fair bit, vigorously. I used to get my exercise exclusively from things like soccer, biking and tennis. Two knee surgeries, one elbow surgery and one broken back later, I have moderated my activities. I still play those games, but much less frequently and much more delicately. In their place, I now ride stationary bikes and run on a treadmill.

Unfortunately, these kinder, gentler activities have disturbed the karmic rhythms of my life by introducing a befuddling and infuriating asymmetry. I first noticed it as I took my road bike onto a set of rollers in the basement a few years ago after my second knee re-sculpting.

I am a bit of a sweater - the liquid kind, that is. If I labor for more than about 45 minutes on the rollers or treadmill, the area around me becomes something like a rainforest, with high humidity levels and huge droplets of precipitation falling everywhere willy-nilly.

To my slight consternation, I noticed that my droplets of sweat were accumulating asymmetrically. The left side of my rollers had about five times more sweat droplets than the right. It happened on the treadmill too.When the rainforest was in deluge mode, I was generally exercising hard - really hard - so hard that it was impossible to tell from where on my body the beads of sweat were coming. But they were not coming evenly.

How could this be? I’ve looked at myself in a mirror more than a few times and found myself to be mostly symmetrical. No part of me was bent, and no part didn’t look like the same part on the other side. I am an Adonis, no? Uh, don’t answer that. Nevertheless, after much labored analysis, I finally concluded that it could not be my physical presence which was creating this abomination, this wrinkle in the space-time continuum. As imperfect and jiggling a specimen as I might be, I was still symmetrical.

That meant the culprit was my rhythm itself. This was a devastating notion. The only critique more penetrating than an insult of my form at rest is an insult of my form in motion. And yet here were God and the Universe regularly providing ample proof, even if only by inference, of my imperfection. I was crushed.

The matter was made worse by the fact that the evidence of these shortcomings, as it were, accumulated on the left side. Latin lovers out there will know the left as the Sinister side. Evil! Even as I labored to perfect myself, I was being mocked with signs of my failings. True, I have not always been a good boy! But how ignoble to have evidence of it collect on the rail of the treadmill for all the world, or at least the nearby members of my health club, to see!

On each successive outing, I set out to correct this imbalance. Perhaps my knee surgery imparted a hitch to my gait or my stroke? If so, then I’d fix it! I put more emphasis on my right step and my right stroke, attempting to even out the liquid flow. Alas, it didn’t work. The sweat kept accumulating on the left side. So I hunkered down even more on the right. I made it work, but only by turning my run or ride into something more like a fitful session chopping wood with a heavy axe. It destroyed the whole purpose of my exercise and robbed me of my desire to continue.

Finally, I gave up. I had to live with the fact that I am human. Imperfect. Un-perfectible. Sinister even, perhaps. I continued to exercise, but always with the bleak evidence of my sins burning into my eyes and disturbing my concentration.

Some years and many self doubts later, I stumbled upon a clue which provided the key to unlocking my mystery. I started playing squash. In a squash match, one is intimately thrust into a small enclosed space with one’s opponent while both are lunging, thrusting and jostling about. Squash is therefore a sport for gentlemen, where good manners are highly prized.

In such a situation, the aforementioned rainforest is to be avoided at all costs. It is incumbent upon the players to keep flying dollops of sweat to a bare minimum, lest they end up someplace unfortunate, like your opponent’s open mouth. Most heavy sweaters like me wear large headbands while playing squash. As I planned to play often, I acquired a dozen or so, and found them quite useful.

I even started wearing them on the rollers. Interestingly, amazingly, the first time I wore one, the ratio of left to right sweat stains decreased considerably. Hmmm.... My head. Wait, my hair! I part my hair on the right. My hair, or most of it at least, flops over to the left! The evil, sinister left! Could that be it?

Next time on the treadmill I performed an experiment. I awkwardly flopped my hair over to the right side. As I ran, it tried to sneak back, but I was ready and flopped it back. Lo and behold, as the wet part started, it quickly became clear that I had a new ratio. The drops were mostly falling on the right.

I turned off the machine, stepped off and breathed a deep sigh of relief. My flow - my rhythm - my karma - was still symmetrical, and good. The Universe was still ordered. There were no ripples in the space-time continuum. It was just my hair.

I walked upstairs and poured myself a Vodka Tonic. I took a sip and told Teresa that I loved her. Life was good again. I slept well that night.

The next morning I got up early and went to play in my soccer league. I had not played for several years. The game of soccer demands violent movements - sprinting, stopping on a dime, twisting - which are not consistent with the capabilities of a middle aged body. As a result, I pulled a hamstring.

I hobbled off the field in a decidedly asymmetrical way. On the ride home, I grimly noted that the left side wobbling of my body was counterbalanced by the right side wobbling from the bulge in my potholed car tire.

But it wasn’t perfect. In the end, I had to admit that both the Universe and me are, everywhere, a little bit crooked.

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