This morning, I went to the hotel gym to get my workout in. I don’t play in the gym. You should come with me sometime. I was doing these things called tabatas, which is a type of what’s now being called “high-intensity interval training.” In a tabata, you exert fully for twenty seconds and rest for ten, and you do this eight times through. One tabata takes four minutes, and since I didn’t have much time, I decided I’d bang through three of them, stretch, and get out of there. And after I had warmed up—I went for about five minutes real hard on the StairMaster to get loose—I jumped into my first tabata of burpees.
Burpees are the shittiest (best) exercise in the world: from a standing position, you drop into a pushup (if you’re going quickly you might end up jumping in one motion from upright to the bottom of the pushup, which might be cheating a little bit, I haven’t checked the rule book), do the pushup (not flopping on the ground, but a real pushup), jump your feet back up to your hands, and from that squat, you jump in the air (and you can clap your hands if that makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something).
As I was in the middle of my burpee tabata, going at a five-or-six-burpee-per-twenty-seconds clip, from the side of my eye I could see on the trillion televisions (one for every bike, elliptical, treadmill—god forbid we had to exercise in visual silence, hard enough to quiet the soundtrack of our minds) just to my right, above the stretching station (two televisions there)—something happening again and again, from the perspective, I could tell, of a cell phone camera. I kept on my tabatas though, so in the first four minutes, I only glanced toward the televisions, toward the cell phone footage being shown again and again. It’s little wonder that cell phone footage on the television or YouTube makes me nervous. I could quickly tell that there was both a cop and a black person in the footage, which, even while intentionally not looking at the screen, I could see in the mirrors in front of me and to my left and right. By the end of my first tabata, breathing hard, that little bit of burn in my stomach from the exercise, I figured it had happened again.
And in my minute of rest, I went to a television on one of the bikes and watched as Walter Scott, an unarmed African American man, was shot in the back repeatedly by a police officer in South Carolina. And watched it again, and watched it again, and watched it again. And watched it again. And again watched it. And again. And watched it, again. Again. Watched it. Again. It. Watched a man be shot in the back again and again, shown on nearly every television in that gym, all the mirrors doubling and quadrupling the watching, the injuries. Watched him be shot five times, be shot ten times, twenty. Watched him be shot so many times in the space of the minute of rest, in the space of my rest, while I had been acting as though my own body had a value, working that body, loving that body, imagining that body possibly long on the earth, pretending our bodies are not murderable, when here, before my very eyes, I watched a man be shot so many times that it’s hard not to believe—if it weren’t for the serious and precise and wild interruption I long for in our writing, in our imaginative lives—that’s not just the way it is. We get shot. We get killed. We go on.
And this is what I want to ask today: What does it mean when in the popular imagination—in the images we all are exposed to, all of us—the fact of our murderability is again and again and again held before us? I don’t mean that we needn’t see or know of every act of violence—I don’t mean that at all. More what I mean, or wonder, is how the American fascination with our destruction—insidious, subtle, repetitive, mirrored, invisible—stitches itself into our imaginations. How does it determine what we might create? What we might dream. When we try to love ourselves and dream loving ourselves. When we try to imagine ourselves living long lives. There’s some profound and wretched violence begin done to us, all of us. I know that. I don’t know exactly what it is or how to name it, but I know that part of my job is to join in the imagining of something else, something besides that violence. Something bigger. And truer. And to belt out the song that imagining makes.