One evening after work, while watching TV, Michael decided to relax. He breathed in, he breathed out. Breath in−his expanding chest stretched the muscles in his back. Breath out−those muscles needed stretching, apparently. Breath in. Breath out. The Bruins were playing in Florida. He started by trying to relax his face. He clicked on the sofaside lamp so that he was not squinting into the TV's glare. He tried not to squint. He imagined flattening the crow's feet that framed his brown eyes. His will was a steamroller, his flesh was soft asphalt. He found that his face presented two difficulties. First, faces were complicated. Where did sinuses end and muscles begin? Could sinuses relax? They certainly ached. He was congested and his sinuses swole and throbbed. And muscles, likewise, ache, especially when tense. He imagined taking a needle to his face, popping the tissue that was bloated and taut, relieving the tension, or sucking out the mucous(?) that was clogging his sinuses' tubes(?). The second problem with relaxing his face was that he caught his reflection in the TV's dead space, and the zombie slackjaw terrified him.
So he tried fingers. Fingers were simple, simpler. He imagined tension as barbed wire coiled around his bones. Breath in−tiny gnomes assembled, clippers in hand, ready for their task. Breath out−the gnomes were deployed, hacked at the wire, pulled it off his fingers, piled it by the sidewalk for pickup on garbage day. That night he learned that these things take time. Michael had embarked on a project. Having cleared the wire off his left hand's index finger, he moved to his left hand's middle finger, but a half dozen breaths later he noticed that the wire had snuck back onto his left index finger. It was already the third period and the Bruins led 1-0. He focused on small, stable victories: he got the area from the tip of his left index finger to his first-left-index-joint completely calm, completely soft. Loose, relaxed, pleasant. Holding onto past gains was a prerequisite for moving onward. Progress needed stability. In the early weeks of his project, Michael's goals became more and more miniscule. He wanted 'One step forward' instead of 'One step forward, one step back' or, God forbid, 'One step forward, two steps back.'
Social relations with his coworkers started to degrade. It was apparent as early as the next day. 'Mike did you see the game last night?' they would ask, and he would say 'yes', because he had watched the game. 'Chara's play was sick. So sick. I'm stoked to see him in the playoffs,' they would say. Michael would only nod, because he had not noticed. The call-and-response of a mutually shared interest was quickly becoming the flat talker-listener dynamic of dull small talk. Coworkers' conversation moved on to Luongo, fan riots, Canadians. Michael was thinking about fingers. Fingers were surprising. When relaxed they were neither folded nor curled nor completely flat. Relaxed fingers were mildly bent in an elegant, beautiful way that reminded Michael of the f(x)=ln(x) graph from long-ago calculus courses, right after it breaks the x-axis. He thought about relaxing while at work. He planned what he would do each evening, each night. He spent the first month learning just how slow progress would be, and, since he would be working on the same area for days in a row, Planning was replaced by what he thought of as Preparing. 'Preparation' was inspired by his yoga teacher, who had said that you could practice breathing while on the bus, at work, browsing the internet, grocery shopping, etc. Preparing was different from really relaxing. It happened in public, during spare time and stolen moments. Really relaxing took hours, whole evenings. Preparing meant isolating the areas he would focus on that night and bringing them to a state of mild calm, as much as was possible in a couple minutes or a couple of breaths. Then the areas would be limbered up, so to speak, for the real relaxation. He told his coworkers that lately he had been trying to relax, and after a quick back-and-forth, they were talking about the pros and cons of pre-sleep-shower temperatures. Hot showers relax your muscles, but cold showers make your body burn calories(?) when it tries to warm itself back up. So the dilemma was that both could, theoretically, help you fall asleep. Showers did not seem relevant to Michael's project. Being wet and hit with water and either muscle-softeningly hot or calorie-burningly cold did not sound conducive the sort of relaxation he wanted.
One and a half years ago, Michael had taken a hatha yoga class with his then-girlfriend. He had enjoyed it−meant to go again, didn't−but the instructor's metaphors had frustrated him. 'Imagine your arms as branches as they reach, they uncurl slowly up towards the sun.' The class was indoors. 'Spread your legs out into a squat, sink towards the ground and let the negative energy, the stress flow out through your hips and into the dirt and the earth.' The class was on the sixth floor. Michael had wanted mechanics: where was he supposed to feel the stretch and the strain? Was his posture good? Was he posing correctly? Now, however, metaphors were a prominent tool in his arsenal. Tension was a lamplight throbbing through his fingernail and he focused on making each throb less pronounced than the last. It felt like turning the volume down on the TV. Tendons were vines and they were curled and tangled around the bones, which were trunks, and Michael's project was to pull away the vines so that they could not strangle the tree. His goal was to straighten things out, to let them live.
He kept a journal of the areas he had tried to relax each night. 'Feb 18: left-hand: index finger & middle finger.' 'March 4th: left-index-finger: flesh under fingernail, down to the first joint.' 'March 21st: left-index-finger: down to the second joint & left-middle-finger: down to the first joint.' Flipping through the pages, as he did every two or three weeks, he felt his progress was slow. But, he reminded himself, he was being thorough. His project could take a lifetime. During his yoga class, two people had farted and the windows' sweat steam had blurred the outside sky blue. On his couch each night, Michael heard his breath. His lungs were bellows stoking a satisfaction or euphoria that never quite filled his chest.
Michael was given inspiration by a picture of Tyler Seguin, perched on an inflatable exercise ball, weights in hands, biceps curled. He saw it in a newspaper while in line to buy bananas, tomatoes, milk, chicken, and salsa at the grocery store. Michael thought: Seguin is a professional hockey player−his goal is hockey−but he improves his hockey by doing things that are not hockey. Michael wanted to engage with his project like a professional. He read about the training habits and daily schedules of the obsessed and the dedicated: athletes, ballet dancers, orchestral performers, doctors, academics. Michael imagined batters swinging three bats to warm up, versus just the one they used when up at the plate, and adapted this image to his project. Relaxation was a muscle he would work out by trying to remain calm in tense situations. Compared to giving presentations to famously-irritable customers, stumbling through early-stage tango lessons, breaking the ice with more than moderately attractive strangers and offering coworkers constructive criticism, sitting on the couch with the TV on felt like swinging one bat. It was a cakewalk, stress-wise. Telling someone he had just met that 'relaxing' was his hobby generally went OK. Conversation would turn to trying to let yourself do less, bingewatching Netflix, the stress of technology and modern life, the glory of going all night without a work e-mail. Michael thought progress improved. Tyler Seguin had inspired him.
Despite continuous and systematic progress, in month eight, Michael's project sprung a leak. His office was welcoming four new co-op students with a Friday night post-work trip to the bar. Over the third pitcher of peach-colored beer, one of them, Anna, her smile arcing towards the puncture of a dimple, challenged Michael to a game of pool. That month, new plots were taken up in his journal: 'Sept 18: left hand: upper-left part of palm. Pool: don't be shy. Stout: the smell of coffee, bitter, dirt (in a good way).'