Tuesday, April 23, 2013

800 Words: The Gym - The Most Depressing Place in America

I’ve not had access to my bike for the last two days. So in the midst of this rare health craze of mine, I’ve found myself returning to that place I hate more than any other, that place which is everything wrong with America made manifest, that place whose neurotic narcotics double our direly needed necessity for healthy living, a place where our addictions know no bounds, and a place which stultifies our health and stunts our spiritual growth into heart-diseased automatons who lose any ability to distinguish the joys of living from disgusting engorgement. It’s not the fast food restaurant, it’s the gym.

I hate the gym. I loathe the gym. I abhor, abominate, detest, despise, disgustize, rancorize, revulse, resent, scorn and spite everything about the gym. It is the black beast of my existence. It clinicizes physical activity and bludgeons the joy of being in shape into the most excrutiatingly mind-numbing, irritating, boring activity upon the face of the planet. It forces us to stay indoors when we should be using our primal urge for physical activity to put us back in touch with the natural world. It forces us to watch the spectacle of people more in shape than we will ever be show off their muscular physiques for their glory and our despair. It forces us to watch the equally sad spectacle of people so out of shape that they can never get back into it make futile attempts to prolong their short journey to the cemetery.

Runs and bikerides, even pool activity, give us the solitude and slowness we direly need in our too quickly run lives. But at the gym you’re at the mercy of whatever inane conversation goes on around you - and inevitably there’s some right-wing pontificator who shouts his opinions to a captive audience. Every attempt to read on the treadmill or the exercise bike comes to grief, every attempt to feel good about lifting weights comes to ruin when some know-it-all tells you you’re doing it wrong, and then shows you another completely wrong way of doing the same exercise. At least some people can wear earphones to drown out the noise, but for a musician like me who already has tinnitus, that’s impossible.

I started going to gyms when I was thirteen. I was even complimented on my newly burgeoning physique by my grade school gym teacher, a teacher who watched me cry many times after accidentally getting hit by a ball I was far too uncoordinated to follow. She said that by high school I was going to be more in shape than anybody I knew. She was both absolutely right and absolutely not.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I started to go more and more often to the Owings Mills JCC. I loved feeling pumped, I loved that a nerd who was lucky not to get picked last in gym class could feel athletic, and I loved that there were the kind of older teenage girls there which a horny younger teenager (and horny old men) loved to oggle. I used to fantasize about talking to them, for I was a simple boy with little knowledge of the world and its miracles.

When I was about fifteen, I stopped going and found myself gaining weight at an alarming rate. I’d been taking ADHD medications since I was eight, and was often told that I was in danger of serious weight gain. My mother had heard that a friend of hers got a trainer for her overweight son at the gym of the Pikesville Hilton who helped him lose quite a bit of weight. I went to the gym, and that’s where I met Kathleen.

Kathleen was twenty-one, a petite blonde shikse from Glen Burnie, whom for reasons I could not fathom worked at the Pikesville Hilton. She constantly wreaked of cigarette smoke and had a giant, multicolored tattoo on the small on her back. She was constantly telling me how much she couldn’t stand the other trainers. Half-hour sessions turned into two hours as she regaled me with stories of her ex-boyfriends and how much her girl-friends slept around. I was in love.

One of the most heartbreaking moments of my adolescence was when Kathleen told me she was leaving the Hilton for a better job. Going to the gym after Kathleen as gone was simply pointless. Not that it mattered. A few months later, I was at Hyde School in Connecticut, and I would be whipped into shape whether I liked it or not.

Physical activity was Hyde’s default solution. There was nothing in their minds which it could not solve. If a student needed to be disciplined, they’d be coerced into doing regimented, military-level workouts for three-quarters of an hour. If a student didn’t do their homework, they were made to run laps around the building. If a student was disobedient rules, they could be made to do physical activities for hours at a time - along with any other student unlucky enough to be around at that moment.

It was illegal for Hyde teachers to slap us or use canes, so they used the pain from physical activity as a form of torture - and it was most certainly torture, torture was precisely the point of what they administered. But even though it was torture, some people thrived on this routine, and developed a lifelong (and no doubt rather morbid) passion for physical activity. For a little while it appeared to many that I might have been one of them. I was a svelte (though not sexy) one-hundred thirty-five pounds, and the immense amount of sweat gave me an acne-pocked face like a pepperoni pizza. There were many times in wrestling we were coerced into doing a ‘six-minute drill.’ For those who don’t understand what a six minute drill is - it is a period of physical activity so intense that it approximates the physical exertion one must exhaust in a six-minute wrestling match. In itself, that is not terrible, and doubtless exactly what’s used for wrestling teams around America. But one day, as punishment for a few students arriving late, our coach required us to a ‘twenty-five minute drill.’ The equvalent of four full-length wrestling matches in a row. At the end of the drill, he put the latest kid in the middle of the room - a kid from Hyde’s abortive Middle School who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. We were ordered to look him dead in the eye, strike the floor with maximum force with our arms and yell out “Thank You Kevin” every five seconds. The poor kid stood in the middle of the wrestling room, sobbing as we all directed our exhausted hatred at this poor little boy. Shortly thereaftetr, he seemed to undergo a personality change, no longer a happy-go-lucky boy but one of the most rebellious teenagers in the school. I often wondered what happened to him, but I can’t imagine he ever got over that day, it’s probable that here was yet another soul Hyde set irrevocably on a poisonous path.

One of their favorite exercises was what they called the ‘block’. You keep your feet running in place at full speed, and then you dive into the floor with your hands being all that stops your head from hitting the ground while your feet remain the air until a half-second later. You’re then expected to get up from this - all in less than a second. One day, for our perceived inattentiveness, the entire wrestling team was made to do five-hundred of these in a row. If that doesn’t sound so bad, try doing twenty of them in a row and see how you feel. At the end of it, the captain of the Varsity Wrestling Team, still the most impressively muscular person I’d ever met, came up to me and said ‘Holy shit man, that was not right.’

Another technique of theirs was called the ‘wall-sit.’ A wall-sit in itself in no way terrible: physical therapists use it to help their patients stretch and build up endurance. However, fifteen minutes to an hour of wall sits without a break is most definitely is a form of torture, and bears an eerie though admittedly curtailed resemblance to the Bush Administration’s Guantanamo technique of not letting prisoners sit down for twelve hours at a time (at least they could stand comfortably if they liked).

If we were wrestlers, we were often expected to go on mid-winter runs at 5AM. If we were disobedient, we were expected to have 5:30 military level workouts - come winter come summer. Exposing prisoners to extra-cold temperatures has always been a favorite technique of authoritarian organizations.

But even now, I expect there are some people who will see all this and say ‘this is not so bad and certainly not torture.’ It’s not surprising, these techniques are designed for people like you to say exactly that - just as the Bush administrations techniques were designed to do and no doubt just as many, many organizations in charge of discipline design themselves around the ‘civilized world.’ Like those at Guantanamo, I suppose it’s possible that we deserved no better than we got, but people should still be aware of what transpires in their back yards, and I don’t think they are.  

I’ve gone over the next part before. I swore many times at Hyde that nobody could ever make me do physical activity ever again. And I stayed all too true to that vow. Six years after I left, I was a hundred pounds heavier than my wrestling weight. I suppose that one could argue that perhaps Hyde was a special case and not indicative of larger problems in the society that allowed it to exist, but I would argue that what went on at Hyde was simply a byproduct of a macho society grown fat with ill-gotten muscle on its own testosterone. We’re a culture that caters to sports - American industry may disappear tomorrow, but professional American sports leagues have enough money from overpriced tickets and merchandise to outlast the rest of America for a hundred years. And we’re bombarded with so many airbrushed bodies on television and the internet that many Americans assume it profits them nothing to get in shape if they can’t look like Arnold Schwartzenegger or Kate Moss. Our country’s turned into the physical equivalent of the Eloi and the Morlocks. It often seems as though everybody who doesn’t look beautiful topless looks like a living room sofa. Can you blame us fatties? What hope have we of getting in shape when we’re told that if we can’t work a miracle with our bodies, we might as well stuff our faces on Chipotle?

I don’t ever want to be in wrestling shape again. I don’t want to be an athlete. I have no physical ambitions beyond the ability to play senior-league softball in my mid-seventies should I so choose. I want a normal body. I want to weigh somewhere in the area of one-hundred sixty pounds, and I want to weigh that before I’m incontrovertibly bald.

Two summers ago, I lived in Bethany Beach Delaware. I was between places, and needed to move in with my parents. But my parents’ heavy plaster ceilings were caving in. We had to move to my parents’ beach house, and since I’m in the family business, I had no reason not to move with them. Not a single friend came to visit me that summer - and in the long run, that didn’t matter much. For the first time in ten years, I was physically active in a meaningful way.  We had two bikes, and I would ride them all over the Delaware Coast. To Ocean City, to Rehoboth, to Bethany Bay, to Georgetown, Milford, Delmar, and Millsboro. I felt as though I knew every streetcorner within ten miles of our beach house. After the ride, I’d come home and we’d eat fish every nigh - hardly a single land animal consumed for nearly the entire time I was there. I was suddenly thinner than I’d been since my year in Israel.

When I moved to Baltimore, I blanched at buying my own bike for months. The expense was simply staggering to me. Who is going to pay $9-1200 for a decent bike? Day after day, I would walk outside to find a gorgeous, endorphin releasing day, and mourn how easily this could be enjoyed with a bike. In June, I finally balked, and I found a halfway decent bike for $400. And it was on that very day when I took it out for my first ride that I bumped into my old friend D-------’s running group, thereby causing the chain reaction which caused the ever-increasing social life I now have in my new city. The riding season for beginners was practically over, and I swore I would do better this year. Unlike last year’s March, the weather was dingy, grey, and forever 40 degrees, a true Smarch if ever there was one. Finally, April came and the weather warmed, and I’ve been out virtually every day.  

Suddenly, the joy is rekindled. On that bike, I’m ten years old again, riding on the Gunpowder Trail in Hunt Valley at speeds faster than any ten year old should ever go. I have literally shouted for joy in crowded streets on that bike. In just three weeks, I’ve bonded to that bicycle to the point that it’s become like a symbol of freedom and hope to me. On Saturday, I biked across the city - a distance I thought impossible a mere day before. I’m outdoors, I’m mobile, I’m seeing Baltimore - truly seeing it - for the first time, and for the first time since I was sixteen, I’m enjoying physical activity. I don’t know if I’ll feel that way in early July, but come rain or shine, cold or hot, I want to be on that bike.