I shall break with tradition this week; although I have a ranty column all prepared about the failure of moral absolutism, I'm going to hold on to that and instead embark on a light-hearted, witty discussion of weight lifting. At least, the goal is to create a light-hearted and witty discussion. If, instead, it turns out to be morose and depressing, do write and let me know, and I shall ignore you.
Since arriving in Maryland, I have gone to the gym every weekday morning, re-establishing a routine I had while living in Santa Cruz. For some reason, undoubtedly due to mysterious forces deep in my psyche such as a love of sleeping late (okay, not all that mysterious), I was almost wholly unable to go to the gym while at graduate school. Note that, while in Alameda for my summer internship, I worked out at the company gym almost daily. But I found the unstructured schedule of student life to integrate with going to the gym about as well as Catholics have integrated with Protestants in Northern Ireland. I just couldn't get out of bed and go work out, or finish work and then go work out. There was a gym not three blocks away. I even had a membership there. But without the "now is the time when I do this" mentality, backed up by a rigorous schedule of, say, working nine to six, I just couldn't do it. Flexus Impotentus.
A good friend and classmate, who is much more ripped than I, worked out the whole time he was at Anderson. He'd just go. In fact, while working at Morgan Stanley or some other investment bank (a career he came from and has gone back to, and is now making serious bank in addition to having guns that the USS Iowa would envy), he'd just go work out. Slow afternoon? Half an hour in the gym. No lunch meeting? An hour. And it's not that he liked it and I didn't - I like lifting weights. He just had the ability to get himself there at any point, whereas I need the crutch of a schedule. (Hi, Jesse!)
Anyways, I'm currently using Kathleen's work schedule, much like a remora uses a shark, to get myself to the gym. At least until such time as I am employed and can use my own job as a gym-going spine. It's been working quite well - by the time you read this, I'll have started my fifth week back at the gym. And, as someone who has faced the issue for years (I started working out in 1994), I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that there is no real desire for, or anticipation of, slack in the future.
You see, I like working out. Oh, I didn't when I started. Oh my, no. It sucked. I can vividly recall those early days. When first working out at Gold's Gym in Berkeley, I could only bench press the bar. That's it. Forty-five pounds. I weighed two-thirty. I couldn't even put a ten pound weight on either side without the bar crushing my chest like a spoon going through Cool Whip. Which is about what my chest was made of.
NOTE: please, please, put this in context. If you are unable to bench press forty-five pounds, this may be because you are a) smaller b) female c) ill OR d) a weak slob. I weighed two hundred and thirty pounds. Being unable to bench press twenty percent of my weight meant that I shouldn't have been able to rise from the floor if I were lying on my stomach. I couldn't do a push up. One. So do not use strict numerical value as a basis for comparison. If you were to commit suicide because you read this and realized that you couldn't bench press forty-five pounds, ignoring the fact that your situation was totally different, I would probably laugh so hard I'd lodge food in my sinuses and die. And we don't want that.
(Or, you could go work out. And that would solve the problem. Living proof, and all that.)
When I got back to working out after moving to Santa Cruz, it was after a hiatus of about a year. After my first workout (also at a Gold's Gym), I felt really woozy. I wound up on my knees vomiting in the parking lot. (Hell, if Cindy can confess weird things no one knew, so can I!) The effort of lifting weights (not big ones, neither) for the first time in a year had me puking my guts out as the fit people watched with concern - from a safe distance. I'm going to remember the shame of that when I'm ninety-five. I can look back at it and laugh now, of course. I'll remember only in the sense of being glad it's long over and everyone who saw it is dead (if I don't have hit squads working for me by the time I'm ninety-five, the pope will be a black jewish woman), not because it haunts me or anything. That was an earlier, weaker me. Yeah.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. No, it sucked. It does, when you start. Sure, a personal trainer or illicit narcotics can make it suck less, but it will always suck some. Unless they are particularly good illicit narcotics. And, to be sure, it did suck some this time, too - for about two weeks at the end of September I felt like a rubber band that had been in the freezer. I couldn't throw my arms across the back of the sofa because my chest wouldn't let me. My triceps were so tight (also sore) that I couldn't straighten my arms. I looked like I had been in a terrible and very strange accident forcing them to surgically replace my posture with that of a gorilla.
Of course, that's over now. One of the benefits of working out again versus doing so for the first time is that you know what to expect. Now I'm a bit sore (and inflated! Nothing like that second-day blood-in-the-muscles repair-and-grow thing. You have the pump of Schwarzenegger and the strength of Po, the Teletubby.) the day after, and then back to normal by the following afternoon. And I'll tell you something - it feels good. It's the damndest thing, and it's hard to explain to people who have never worked out (or played sports in a serious way), but the ability to squeeze a muscle and get feedback from it (in the sense of "Yes! I'm Here! More Powerful than Ever! Let's go Break Something!") is so much fun. It's a bit misleading, inasmuch as the feeling indicates not that you have a muscle there but rather that you have very recently used that muscle, hard, and it's just now rebuilt itself. It's a feeling of newness, not a feeling of presence. As I said, hard to explain.
That's where the title of this article comes from, by the way. It's how I once described the sensation of having muscles, which, by the way, is really only euphoric when you know what it's like to not have any muscles, or rather have only the sort of muscles that get sand kicked in their fibers by the muscles of guinea pigs and small lizards. After a few weeks of working out, you develop these things all over your body that respond to your will. And they just weren't there before. Steve Martin once observed "I could never be a woman; I'd spend all my time playing with my breasts." Now, as any woman could tell you, you only play with your breasts some of the time. But there is a similar sense of enjoyment with muscles. They're just fun to have. "Hey look! A mirror!" *Flex flex flex* "Tee hee!"
But enough about the joy of muscles. I just figured you might want to know that yes, it does become more fun after a while. After only about three weeks, in fact. Not that I work out because it's fun. No, I work out for two reasons unrelated to the actual working out. Reasons I have in common with most folks who do work out. First, I want to look good. And working out is a good way to do that. Although I personally find muscular women really attractive (no, not the steroid-using mutant ones), this is particularly true if you are a man. And, despite the weight-lifter's focus on the bench press, it's not the chest that does it. It's the shoulders.
As long as you're still reading this (both of you), let me be more specific. It's the shoulders. For women, the "ideal" shape is (right or wrong - I'll let someone else tackle the "body image" issue) an hourglass. Out at the hips, in at the waist, and back out at the bust. For men, it's a trapezoid. Fairly narrow at the hips and waist, and slightly larger at the shoulders. If a man were to work out nothing but his shoulders, he would in fairly short order look appreciably more "manly". Women don't have that option - one's bust / waist / hips ratio is tough to adjust. But you, fellas, can actually change your profile through exercise! (And for women who say "It's not fair!", I'd like to offer you some cheese with your whine. To be really hot, men have to excercise and diet. Women just have to diet. Well, to be hot as far as most guys think. I've already stated my preference. Of course, our society is a lot more tolerant of less attractive men, but I don't have a retort for that.)
And the second reason I work out is because I want to be able to whup ass. I want to be strong so that when I hit someone, they break. Please realize that I would be perfectly happy to never have to hit someone in my whole life. Frankly, I'm an incredibly mild-mannered guy. But I am a big man. I always have been. And being large means that people expect in you the ability to be violent successfully. Nobody says as much. Your friends may joke about it at parties. But, and I know the larger folks reading this (which, this far down the column, is probably just one person), you are nonetheless the person who is expected to answer the door when there are dubious strangers outside. To escort the rowdy drunk from the party. To walk folks home at night. So, in addition to being male, which gives us all a deep-rooted caveman need to be able to beat up anyone who dicks with you, I'm expected to do the fighting, or the heavy fighting, for my social group.
This is all at a very emotional level, mind you. It's not the sort of thing people talk about, yet everyone can feel it. The fact that certain emotions are silly renders them not one jot less valid. Shit, look at the way people get riled up about professional sports. Anyways, when I work out, part of me is getting positive feedback because if I am making it so that if I hit someone, they're going to drop like a poleaxed steer. Because that's my job, see. Some other caveman gets to cook the meat. I get to ram the spear into the giant sloth, and I'd better be able to kill it. Failure, well, failure is the scary thing. The giant sloth is just a cipher.
Okay, enough amateur psychoanalysis. Let me see if I can come to some sort of coherent conclusion. I'm working out again. I like working out. Yes, it sucked to do when I started, but now it is enjoyable. I don't work out because it feels good, however, but because I want to look good and because I like to have reason to believe I can successfully beat down any punk-ass bitches who be loco enuff to step they wacked-out asses up.
Now I need to find a local Kung Fu academy, and pick that back up, too.
P.S. Although nowhere in this column have I said in so many words that you should go to a gym and work out, you should.
Columns by Sun Ra