Fighting Words

In search of brawn, courage, and enlightenment

Jan 17, 2007
Outside Magazine
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American Shaolin

American Shaolin

EVERY BOY DREAMS of the day he'll be buff enough to deal out a major ass-whupping. Few of us get there; either the bloodlust peters out with adulthood or we shrink from the work it would take to become a world-class tough guy. And even those up to the physical challenge, two new memoirs reveal, learn that fighting has more to do with the mind than the fists.

In American Shaolin (Gotham, $26), Matthew Polly, a self-described "overprivileged Gen-X twit spending daddy's hard-earned money trying to find himself in some exotic locale," takes a hiatus from his Ivy League education to study at China's fabled Shaolin Temple, the ancient training ground for Buddhist kung fu masters. "I didn't just want to be a badass," writes Polly. "I wanted to be an enlightened badass." Determined to overcome a checklist of self-loathing adjectives—cowardly, boyish, spiritually confused—Polly spends two years under the tutelage of the Shaolin monks, who teach him the secret of "iron kungfu": beating select body parts until they become virtually indestructible. Watching a master who favored iron-crotch kung fu "was like watching a porno version of the World's Strongest Man contest on ESPN2." By book's end, and his return to Princeton, not only can he throw a wicked roundhouse; he's learned to appreciate his own existence. "It was like my head opened up and a light was shining down upon it," he writes. "I would only get to be Matt once."

If you like your adventures lighter on philosophical humor and heavier on bloodied noses, Sam Sheridan's A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25) chronicles the author's gonzo exploration of the art of competitive face-bashing. Harvard grad Sheridan spends three years training and competing with ultimate-fighting champions in Japan (think caged rings and no rules), Brazilian jujitsu stars, and a fighting-pit-bull trainer in Bangkok, in an attempt to answer the question "Why make a life out of fighting?" Why, indeed? Each of Sheridan's subjects offers an answer: It's about ego, or clout, or "It's natural, everything fights." But the most enticing is the author's own: "By doing something repeatedly... you can diffuse and defuse the fear. This is true for sailing, riding motorcycles, asking girls out—even getting hit in the face by a man who wants to kill you."

IDLE WORSHIP Americans take their playgrounds—the man-made ones, at least—pretty seriously. And so does Massachusetts-based aerial photographer Alex S. MacLean, who's spent nearly three decades shooting swimming pools, golf courses, and theme parks across the country from the cockpit of his Cessna. The Playbook (Thames & Hudson, $25) collects 81 of MacLean's bold, whimsical images, revealing both the surprising beauty of our leisure landscapes and, as MacLean notes in his introduction, the design and construction efforts we've invested to "expand the opportunities, places, and times we can play."

Filed To: Culture

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