"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Contortionist–God’s Infinite Irony And Sense Of Humor

Most of us cluster around the mean – ordinary, predictable, unremarkable people born and raised to standard with few deviations and surprises.  Of course one could never have predicted Great Grandfather Alfonse’s jaw, or ancient cousin Magnus’s temper, so interwoven were they into the family’s double helix; nor the tics and quirks which had no apparent ancestral origin or parentage.  These slightly off-kilter irregularities were unnoticeable except to the particularly observant; and even so quickly filed away as insignificant markers. On most days, there are no surprises, nothing outlandish or perplexing.  Life goes on largely unnoticed – predictable in its same ordinariness.

On some days, however, a stranger comes in and makes himself at home.  Someone who fits only on the margins, peculiar enough to be noticed but not so distorted in looks or behavior to cause alarm.  The Contortionist was one such character.  Ordinary in appearance, middle aged, middle class, only slightly out of proportion (a head too large for its frame, too stalky on a long neck, and unusually mobile), and well-within the spectrum.  His behavior was equally unremarkable – moderate, respectful, considerate and in no way offensive – and it was only when he began his elaborate warmups in front of the large floor-to-ceiling gym mirror did one take notice.  As he shook his limbs, twisted his head, and bent his torso, and pranced and danced to loosen his ankles and metacarpals, he looked like a skeleton in a danse macabre, all joints and bones rattling and shaking without ligaments and connective tissue.

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There was nothing particularly frightening about him, and despite his awful dance he seemed harmless enough; but as he went through his routine, methodically stretching each joint in his body – first his fingers and thumbs, then elbows, wrists, neck, pelvis, femur, shins, ankles and toes – his body seemed to disappear and only his skeletal bones remained, loose and jangling, his joints forced into oblique and radically acute angles.

This was only a prelude, however because when he raised his legs, first the left then the right high up on the exercise bars, his body returned but only in a freak show form.  He became a contortionist – a fakir, a side-show freak with disjointed joints, India rubber tendons and ligaments all stretched to the breaking point – and before he was through his legs were high above his head, crossed, and bent backwards in a tortuously distorted deformation.  He looked like a giant spider in a web, a spider man, an elegant, balanced creature but an insanely contorted man.

He was hors-série, the square peg, the one-in-a-thousand bits pulled from the assembly line.  It wasn’t so much what he did, nor how he did it – circus contortionists have stretched their bodies to far greater limits – but why he did it.  What made this otherwise ordinary man climb the monkey bars and stress his joints to the most exaggerated obtuse and acute angles?

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Where did he begin and where did he end? What was up and what was down?

Might he have been in gymnastic training for some arcane X-treme event? Or a dancer in Piloobolus?

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There is a California cult which deifies the body; or more accurately sees it as an expression of God’s infinite creativity.  More than just a temple of the soul or a vehicle for procreation, or a reminder of Jesus’s human suffering on the cross, it should be seen as a miracle of physical nature.  The more its limits can be tested, the greater adoration of God.   The cult’s contortionists were its high priests and priestesses.  Could the sports club member be one of its members?

Or was he simply deranged? A screw loose somewhere in the machinery that produced an exaggerated, obsessive sense of health, looks, and strength? Was he testing asymptotic theories?  Perhaps he could in fact defy physical laws and turn his body inside out.

Perhaps more importantly, what was he like outside of the gym?  Were his rituals confined to one time and place – a daily cleansing puja which prepared him for to meet the infections and viruses of the outside world? Or was he somehow a contortionist in his regular daily life.  A good liar, for example, who could construct layer upon layer of lies and deceptions until the truth had become so distorted that it was unrecognizable and something new.  Was he capable of escaping the Houdini-like chains and fetters that he himself had put on?

It is hard to imagine that he went to an office, went home and played with his children, went to bed, snored and fussed, woke up irritable and unpleasant before going to the gym to readjust himself; but perhaps he was simply a blip on the psychological radar, always tracking low and suspiciously but of no danger.

The gym contortionist was a reminder of how ordinary and pedestrian most of us are, falling in the middle of the bell curve or in the fat part of the spectrum with permanent invisibility, meaninglessness, and total anonymity.  Or he was a reminder of just how distorted and creepy we can become.  If the contortionist at the gym had a paid membership, worked in downtown Bethesda, and had a wife and kids, then who knew what awaited us; or more to the point how creepy we must seem to others.

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The gym has always had its share of oddballs – The Man Who Polished His Balls, Jabba The Hut, Death, The Barking Scarecrow, and The Creep – and all were cause for sitting up and taking notice.  Where, out of the pleasant homogenized blend of Suburban Washington, did they come from? What made The Man Who Polished His Balls strop them like a shoeshine boy; or the neurasthenic Barking Scarecrow collar and harangue any comer about the welfare of elephants? Or the grey woman who raced Death on the treadmill?

Life is very precarious; and it does not take much to push very ordinary people off the rails.  It makes one more and more certain that God had a sense of irony and and twisted humor when he created Man.  He could have made us all a lot more intelligent, attractive, and inventive; and instead decided on a race of misfits, irregulars, and unaccounted for.

So, the gym contortionist – regardless of what fevered passion twisted him so impossibly – had a purpose after all.  To give us spiritual pause and reflection.  Most of us have difficulty in understanding John 1:1, logos, the Word, and the origin and purpose of the universe; but we all get God’s point when we go to the gym.

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