Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Desperation in Five Pound Increments

After a four-month absence, I decided that today I was going to take myself to the gym, if it killed me.  And do a work-out.  If.  It.  Killed.  Me.

What a sad drive, on the way over.  I've discovered a route to the Summit YMCA, that takes me through Milburn, part of Short Hills, and then across the highway into a very upscale part of Summit.  For me, it's usually a dream-drive -- imagine living in one of these spectacular homes, separated from the road -- and real life -- by a great expanse of perfectly manicured lawn.  Today all I could see was the huge gulf between me and the kind of people who can actually live in homes like these.

There was more traffic than I'd expected, and it took longer than usual to get to the metered parking lot next to the Y.  I found a space, but I realized I hadn't brought any quarters.  I went in to beg a dollar's change, but the desk help said they'd just given out their last quarters.  They offered me some dimes and nickels, but because of the way the meter system is set up, even with a dollar's worth of coins, I wouldn't have enough time to do the workout I was increasingly uninterested in doing anyway.

I took the change anyway, and went to the vending machine.  Then I noticed that they'd finally fixed the credit card option -- and it amused me to think of running up yet another charge on my Amex account -- for an entire seventy-five cents.  The process took longer than plugging in quarters (note to self: bag of change in glove compartment, tomorrow!), and I was sure it would fail, but somehow I managed to get my receipt, and was actually cleared, now, for the dread exercise regimen itself.

Now, one thing that must be mentioned is the sheer improbability of me voluntarily, and at my own expense, approaching anything like a gym, and actually going in, through the door, to do anything remotely resembling exercise.  As a child, I was strictly an indoor, bookish boy.  The most athletic thing I can remember doing was an irrigation project I conceived, when I was about seven, and my father bought a small pile of sand for a home repair.  I didn't know what the sand was for -- and my father didn't seem to be doing anything in particular with any of it anyway, as such effort would have interfered with his much beloved naps.  So, there being a garden hose nearby, connected to an outdoor faucet, I proceeded, over the course of several days, to build one imaginary city after another.  Each one had a big lake in the middle, and a series of canals and little streams, and there would be accidents and buildings collapsing, and sudden floods -- I got pleasantly dirty, in a kind of sanitary way, and by the end of the week, the sand was all gone, having washed all the way down the back yard walk, and out into the brick-paved alley.

When I was older, the only athletic thing I liked to do was to run, preferably away from everything and anything.  And I was pretty fast.  But none of the schools I attended had any track programs, and of course, high school gym class was just torment twice a week for four years.  When I joined the military, and went through the compulsory day of training on the obstacle course (I spent the night before, praying for rain.  As so often happens -- particularly in Texas -- the weather stayed bright and fiercely hot)  I was the only one from my group to fall from the overhead-ladder bridge into a shallow stream of what turned out to be mostly mud, and was an object of soggy shame on the bus ride back to the barracks.

In college, thanks to my military service, I wasn't required to take any phys ed classes, for which I was deeply grateful.  I think I tossed a football five times during my college years -- I actually did it rather well, even though I didn't really care who caught it -- and there was an occasional game of badminton or something else equally undemanding.  I luxuriated in being, basically, just fit enough to get into my little red VW and drive where I had to go.

I didn't actually start taking any real interest in myself, physically, until I was in my mid-30's.  My first relationship-like experience was at its bitter end (I later realized that, with this first serious boyfriend, it was as if there were two movie projectors in a room, pointed at each other, and running at full speed, but showing completely different movies), but one thing this first boyfriend had introduced into our routine was some desultory weightlifting -- the kind you can do in the kitchen of a fourth-floor walk up in Hoboken.   The boyfriend and the weights soon left, but my interest was sufficiently piqued -- I joined a gym, and started doing what I considered serious work on myself.

Most of which was wrong, as it turns out -- but even wrong exercise can be beneficial -- if it's not positively crippling, that is.  What fascinated me most was the obvious change in my appearance, and in my own strength.  I'd felt, for so long, that I was more or less doomed to life as a tall skinny guy without much stamina.  But these new physical changes were indisputable, and gave me more confidence, and I even thought that they might herald the possibility of emotional changes as well.

So -- what is it, 30 years later now?  During which time, for the most part, I've managed to keep some kind of exercise regimen going, for the most part.  But of course, we do live on this annoyingly time-centered, gravity-laden planet, in these bothersome fleshy bodies.  And just this past summer, while on vacation on Block Island, while I'd been feeling especially fit (in spite of a twisted knee), and thought I noticed some admiring glances from other tourists, John was taking photos of the trip.  And there I was, to my amazement, looking more like a sofa than a director's chair.  Maybe I should have laughed it off, but I found it shocking, that I'd been so deceived by my own perception.  Beautiful though this little get-away was, on the trip home, I felt strangely sobered.

And then, in October, I turned 65 -- just one year younger than my father when he died.  My youngest brother has died already.  My father's older sister died long ago, at the age of 57.  And where am I, in all this... living, and then not-living?  When did I reach whatever might be considered an apex?  When did I achieve the most I will ever have done?  When was I the strongest?  How long can I keep the inevitable decline at arm's length?  This has been a very difficult, difficult time.  Going into an environment where lush young men, totally and maybe necessarily unconscious, are coming into full bloom, was just something I couldn't face.

Until, I guess, today.  Today, in spite of teensy little annoyances and what amounted to having a handful sand thrown in my general direction, I did manage to get myself into the necessary clothes, and borrow a pen (I like to keep track of my little accomplishments), and walk into the exercise room, with all the 'Strive' equipment.  I found my workout chart, with its last entry in late August.  I put today's date in the next column, and started the cycle.

And then, an hour or so later, I was finished.  I am astonished to say that it wasn't as bad as I had feared -- I didn't have to reduce the weights by half, or anything like that.  I did a bit of walking on a treadmill, cautious still of that twisted knee that's still nagging a bit.  I wasn't as bothered, oddly enough, by the youths strutting through and throwing massive amounts of weight around.  Instead, I was interested in the men with the greying hair -- what are they doing?  How do they look?  How long do they think they have?

In my sad, losing desperation, for today all I can seem to muster, in the way of self-motivation, is a kind of grim determination to steel myself, to remain calm but alert and disciplined, and in a way that I can only glimpse out of the corner of my mind's eye, turn myself into some sort of coldly angry missile, living to the fullest extent I can manage, in spite of the treachery of the very corporeality with which I'm forming these thoughts, and seeing this screen, and typing these words.

I'm remembering two things.  One is a slogan on a t-shirt that was a gift for my 50th birthday:  "Youth is a gift of nature; middle age is a work of art."  I want to add to that something like, "Old age is a triumph of will."  The second thing is a bit of advice, given by a therapist to her patients, all of whom were struggling with one major life grief or another: "If you live long enough," she told them, "you'll lose everything."

The rest of the trip veers, it seems, between two pole stars -- fallible will, and inevitable loss.


  1. Hey Walter Congrats on actually going - and starting again - and finishing the (hour) workout. It is soooooooooo hard to start again - I've had to do it a few times here and there. But so worth it. Whatever it is you choose to do - walk - jog - bike - lift - twist - stretch - your body and spirits will respond in a good way. Forget about the numbers (age-weight-reps) and concentrate on the feelings, the pulse quickening, the sweat, the endorphins. Float in a pool. Fly a kite.
    Feeling the breeze, the sunlight, the rain on your face - even the cold is a reminder that you're alive !

    My dad's dad passed away at 50 and my dad spent most of his years expecting/dreading the same.
    He actually lived into his 70's but failed to enjoy many of those years because of the numbers.

    Quality of life is the goal - doing what we love and being loved. You do and you are.

  2. Walter, you are truly inspiring. I need to get back to exercising. Dooctors orders. I just cant get motivated. Its not easy. Thank you for sharing your thoughts,trials and tribulations.

  3. 65?? YOU?? I swear to Bob I thought you were 50. *raises right hand*

    How about this...I'll be joining a gym very soon. I'll motivate you if you motivate me?