Answering the bell:
For Binnie Klein, learning
to box at 55 changed everything
“I softened toward my family ... I got back in touch with my heritage ...
Monday, January 11, 2010
By Sandi Kahn Shelton, Register Staff
You wouldn’t immediately look at Binnie Klein of Hamden and see her as a woman who loves to put on boxing gloves, step into a ring and throw punches.
Klein is, after all, in her late 50s. Also, she’s a psychotherapist who spends most of her days listening to the nuances of her patients’ stories, carefully sifting through their narratives for threads that can help them sort out their lives. And she is, by her own admission, not built like an athlete.
And yet, at the age of 55, Klein read an article in the AARP magazine about women in midlife taking lessons in boxing — and suddenly she knew that was what she, too, wanted to do. Never mind that most people might consider boxing an uncivilized, brutal sport that results in dementia and people’s ears being bitten off.
Klein wanted to get fit, to feel younger and to get exercise — and boxing was her sport of choice.
So she sought out John Spehar, a real-life, authentic boxer who had been featured in the magazine article. Spehar is so authentic that back in 1983, he’d been Connecticut’s middleweight champion, and he’s trained most of the boxing coaches in the state. Today, he runs a gym in Orange called Fighting Fitness, where he trains men and women in authentic boxing techniques. It even has a ring.
Spehar isn’t the type to just take on anyone; he started boxing as a 12-year-old kid, at a time when boxers had to prove themselves by getting hit, taking it, and coming back again and again for more. But after he finally agreed to meet with Klein and give her a workout, he says he could see that she had the necessary ingredient to become a true boxer.
“Binnie showed me she had heart,” he says. “She was up front about not being athletic, but it was clear she wasn’t going to give up. I thought, ‘Well, you don’t know what you don’t know, but OK.’”
And she didn’t give up. She learned to sweat, to be hit and to hit back, and to put away her fear. She watched boxing movies, read biographies of the old-time champions — and felt exhilarated each time she entered the ring with Spehar, learning the lessons of jabbing, punching, weaving, bobbing and sparring. Over the next couple of years, she lost weight, grew more courageous, and — as an added bonus — learned more about her family’s Jewish roots. She says boxing made her become more empathetic toward her late father’s rage and her mother’s passivity, in ways that she’d never been able to do through psychotherapy.
“I softened toward my family,” she says. “I got back in touch with my heritage. It was important to me to learn that there were Jewish boxers. Between 1910 and 1940, there were 26 Jewish champions, in fact.”
Now she’s written a book about her experiences. “Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind,” was published last week by the State University of New York Press. The book, with humor and self-deprecating wit, explores the unlikely friendship that blossomed between her and her 200-pound coach (who also just happens to be a student of the French Revolution), as well as the unexpected treasure of learning something new, something that other people think of as dangerous and forbidden.
“People say to me all the time, ‘YOU do boxing? But why?’” she says. “I often ponder this. I think I needed something that contrasted with my daily work. I needed to let loose. With therapy, you are there for the other, you’re in service to someone else’s journey, and it requires a lot of holding of feelings, for them and for you. It requires patience since people grow and change at their own rate. Boxing is almost the opposite. It’s immediate. And it challenges the brain. Also, the quick decisions you make in boxing have more potentially volatile consequences.”
Spehar agrees. He also says that boxing is a cerebral sport — like a chess game. “It’s the ultimate way to think on your feet,” he says. “I can tell from the start if somebody’s going to make it by the way they approach it. If they’re timid or worried about getting hurt or what will their friends say about them hitting something, then it’s not for them. But if they can let go and enjoy it, it can be good. Most people get more hurt playing softball than boxing. It’s chaos, sure, but it’s controlled chaos.”
Contact Sandi Kahn Shelton, author of “Kissing Games of the World,” at firstname.lastname@example.org, and check out her blog at www.sandishelton.com/blog
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