Monday, October 29, 2007

Good Idea: Go to the Gym

A couple of days ago—maybe it was yesterday; frankly, I don’t remember—Kara opened the door to the garage and Elsa made her escape into the big wide-open neighborhood. To her, the breakout was probably a stellar and crafty move she had been planning all day, but it was quite unremarkable: the door was merely open too wide and nobody was paying attention to her, as usual.

Years ago, when this happened, I usually worried about her running into traffic and getting hit by a car (which happened) or running away and getting lost (which almost happened). I would chase her down, corral her in some neighbor’s yard and drag her back to captivity by the scruff of her neck, much to her complaining. I’ve even driven down the street to find her, as she always jumped in the truck as soon as the door was opened, and as much as I’ve said that I wish she never existed, ala It’s a Wonderful Life, I know I’d miss the fur ball.

On the other hand, I really don’t care if she gets out or not anymore. She’s going to come back, and I’m tired of chasing her. She always comes back, so there’s no sense in being too concerned…unless she starts to wander too far from the house. Usually, she just goes across the street and sniffs around and comes running back as soon as I pretend I’m not paying attention to her or go into the backyard or into the house. Then she comes running, as if she’s going to miss out on something fun that I’m doing, and I learned that if I ignore her, it’s not as much fun being out… but “My God! What’s he doing in the house without me! I must run there as fast as possible and greet him with my tongue until he gives me that loving smack on the head!”

This time, she made it half way down the street before I decided to go after her. Long story short, I ended up running back to the house, hoping that she would chase me. Instead, she sprinted on ahead and beat me there with plenty of time to spare (she can never pass up a good run).

Me? I was winded, which doesn’t describe the level of out-of-shapeness I am in. I ran the distance of three houses, approximately 250 feet at most, and I felt as though I climbed 40 stories of stairs with an anvil in my pocket.

What happened to me? Sure, I know that I’m getting older, but for God’s sake, it was 250 feet and I wasn’t running that hard because I was in sandals. And I had to sit down and catch my breath.

In high school—yes, I understand that was nearing 20 years ago—I ran. That’s what I did. I ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring. For three years, I did nothing but run for a couple of hours after school, every day. Miles and miles of streets, every day. In college and soon thereafter, Kara and I would exercise. We belonged to 24-hour fitness then and would meet every day after work to exercise together, and if we weren’t doing that, we could be found at Mt. Sac running the stairs of the stadium or at Cal Poly’s track, doing laps. Even later, we went for nightly walks around the neighborhood of our old house in Glendora, always choosing between the big loop, the really big loop or the really, really big loop which included a stop at the library and the added luggage of carrying books home.

I was fit. Granted, I weighed probably 30 or 40 pounds less than I do now (which explains the anvil feeling in my back pocket), but I was in great shape…not Mr. Universe great shape, but running a couple of miles wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities for me.

The more I thought about my run down the street the other day, the less I could remember the last time I actually ran…or had the reason to run. Maybe it was when Matthew started down the driveway toward the street before he realized he hadn’t learned the abilty to stop himself yet. I’m sure I ran then, all of 15 feet.

Then I thought about the gym, and last night before I hopped into the shower, I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “Why not? You’re currently more marshmallow than man and gym couldn’t hurt, right?” Kara and I have a membership to LA Fitness; we’ve had it for a number of years, and before the kids, we used to go a lot. Kara was a daily fixture there, and I would show up a few times a week to run and lift some weights in a half-assed attempt at looking good naked, but what’s worse: a 150-pound naked guy or a 210-pound naked guy? Moot point, I know. Then, things changed in my life and looking good naked wasn’t the top priority anymore; in fact, it was the reason things changed! Natalie came along and then Matthew, and I haven’t been to the gym in probably two years, if not more. Yet, I’m still paying for it, like an idiot.

So, today I decided to return to the gym for two reasons: 1) I’d like to be in better shape, have more energy and be better able to focus my attention on things, to prioritize my life somewhat better than it is now; and 2) I paying for this so I might as well use it or cancel it. So, this is my last chance to once again look good naked… Yes, I want to see how many times I can say the word “naked” in this blog before my mother calls to tell me to knock it off.


Back to the story. I flung open the door of the gym with determination and confidence and took in a deep breath of stale fetid air, rank with the sweat of 100 people, each with their own goals and dreams and motives. Seriously, the place stinks, and I instantly think it might be me, but how could it, I just got there!

It was the most expensive day at the gym for me since I started there, figuring that I hadn’t been in two years (at the least) and each month is $22, totaling $528 in one day. I am LA Fitness’s dream client. I pay my dues and never show up, like probably 90 percent of its members, all of us with good intentions and lofty objectives.

They say that good health means that you’re taking the longest time possible to die, and here I am, at a place that will either help me or kill me. I opened the compartment in my wallet that has held hostage my yellow membership card all these years, moths fluttered out, and as the woman behind the counter swiped it, she gave it a second glance, like I was trying to pass foreign money.

“Does it [the computer, I meant] tell when the last time I’ve been in?” I asked, hoping to better quantify my absence.

“No, has it been a while?” she asked.

“I don’t even think you guys issue these types of cards anymore, it’s been that long.”

She replied: “There’s still a couple of them floating around. Welcome back.” She said that like I was 100 years old, coming back from space to an Earth I don't remember.

I went upstairs to the treadmills, like I always have in the past, and belted out three miles before my body knew what I was doing to it and tried to stop me. After about 10 minutes of running at six miles per hour, my left knee started to hurt, which didn’t surprise me because my left knee always starts to hurt when I run (or walk quickly for a while)…it has for years. It is one of those pains that people have had for so long, you don’t know what it is like not to feel it. Predictably, the pain went away at about 15 minutes into my run, and I got to forget about it and take a look around and what kind of people come to the gym at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon.

As it turns out, it is the same kind of people that come into the gym on any afternoon, and it felt as though I had never left. Gazing over the railing of the loft that the treadmills are on, I have a command of the whole place, and it is easy to see the comings and goings of everyone below, a much better form of entertainment than the blowhards on CNN or whatever news is on the six TVs hanging over our heads (as a side comment, I really feel sorry for deaf people that have to read closed captioning, because it is the worst typing imaginable. There were sentences I couldn’t even make out because of the errors, omissions of words and just plain random string of letters. I don’t pretend to know the technology, but it is horribly ineffective at conveying the dialogue, and my favorite is when they’re playing music, they type in little musical notes, as if that should suffice).

Anyway, looking down there, I realized that I would have trouble being friends with most everyone in the gym, as it seemed filled with a collection of hopeless Type-A individuals bent more on vanity than good health, and with the exception of the guys playing basketball and those trying their best at racket ball, I don’t think I have much in common with any of them (not that I play basketball or racket ball, but at least they’re at the gym for an honest reason).

Generalizing, there are four types of people at the gym:

1. Old People: These are the grey-haired people that I would never expect to be in a gym, especially in the condition most of them start with. I would have to guess that their main motivation is to lose weight, because most all of them are overweight, and it’s a noble goal, but they’re probably doing it wrong. I expect most of them, once they get back in their cars and head for home, they veer toward the drive-thru at KFC or go home and scramble up some eggs in lard.

Most of them, I noticed, don’t stay very long and don’t do much while they’re there, aside from a couple of machines and maybe they’ll flop their legs around on the lifecycles, out for a Sunday ride by the beach while reading a magazine (does AARP have a publication?) instead of making an effort. And they drink a lot of water.

Some of them, I applaud. Good for them. They’re trying, and that’s what’s important, but most of them—like most of the people at the gym—are merely there to placate their conscious into acquiescing the Twinkies later or the Double-Double for dinner. That's not health; it's just diluting yourself. They think the gym has some magical properties like a Fountain of Youth that will keep them alive if they merely stop in for a visit twice a week after Bingo. The Baby Boomers are the last generation that really worked hard at everything they did and they’re the last generation that was wise with money, and the ones that would pay good money for a gym membership and not use it are neither wise nor hard working. Hence my contempt.

2. Strippers and Attention Whores: Look at me, look at me! What can I do to make you look at me? Some guy I met in a bar one time said I was hot… so that’s confirmation and my self-judged hotness masks both my ability and desire to achieve and my overly inflated self-esteem (why try when things are handed to me?). There weren’t that many of this category in the gym this afternoon, but usually there are a number of women prancing around, trying to see just how many muscle-bound jocks will look at them…. just like in junior high school. They’re the meat-market exercisers, only there because someone suggested that it was a good place to met men, and the less you wear, the more that will fawn over you, in turn pumping up their self-worth. For the most part, they wear skin-tight spandex, some cutesy leotard and a sweatshirt around their emaciated waist so nobody stares at their butt (but they secretly want people to which is why the sweatshirts never stay on that well).

They rarely touch any of the machines or do any actual exercising, which in part is funny, but instead settle into lavish, complicated stretches, lunges and anything that involves the display of as much cleavage as possible to as many people as possible. It is the equivalent of opening up the shop for business, and usually these kind of women know everybody and spend most of the time talking with the trainers. A favorite apparatus is the giant medicine ball (which is just an inflatable ball you’re supposed to contort yourself over)…and these activities only take place near the free weights, where category three usually hangs out.

3. Muscle-Bound Blockheads: They are there for the weights, pure and simple, build up as much muscle as humanly possible and put it on display. They drive big trucks, have a boat at The River and pride themselves on how they knew who was going to win the NFL Championship before the season began. And the muscles they focus on are never the muscles that are the slightest bit useful in real life, they’re just for show, making them all look like they’d topple over if they had to balance their disproportioned bodies with their feet together. Impressive? Sure. Elephantitis of the testicles is impressive too, but I wouldn’t want them either.

There’s only one reason to have aggrandizing biceps that force you to walk like Godzilla with a severe underarm rash and that is to pick up chicks, especially the ones with the fake racks whose sweatshirts keeps “accidentally” slipping off their waists showing off her lower-back tattoos, aka “Tijuana License Plates.” These particular guys come equipped with cut-off sweats that are in dire need of washing, sweatshirts advertising “tough guy” gyms (most typically Gold’s or Bulldog’s, neither of which have they been to) with the sleeves ripped off, giving the impression he didn’t tear them off or cut them with his mother’s sewing scissors, but instead they burst into threads under the immense pressure of his arms. The hands are usually covered with supple leather Isotoner gloves with the fingers cut off, and a brown leather weight belt keeps his hernia from poking out again. They grunt, sweat and leer. You don’t look at them or engage them in any way, much like caged rabid monkeys, lest you want to spot them on the bench or have them cut into your workout, where you’re forced to share their space and possibly their sweat.

4. The People That Shouldn’t Be At the Gym: I rather feel that I fall into this category, as I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. All the machines look like different forms of cold cut slicers in the deli and most times I can’t make heads or tails of the instructions. Plus, I don’t want to be that guy that has to look at how to use a machine.

Upstairs, the attitude and clientele is slightly different. People are friendly on the cardio machines, almost light hearted, as we all know that running a few miles on a treadmill won’t put us in any better shape than taking the stairs at the office. Who are we kidding? We’re a bunch of hamsters and we all seem to know it. However, down the floor, why that’s man’s land. You straighten up when you’re down near the free weights and the mirrors and the excess testosterone; there’s no screwing around, no smiling unless someone told a joke or you’re making fun of the guy who just tore out his ACL trying to bench 250 with one arm tied behind his back. When you’re on the machines and you’re a guy, you look straight ahead and only look at anyone if they walk into your field of vision, and the only conversation you have with someone you don’t know is: “Are you done with that?” or “Can I cut into your workout?”

And I’m not alone.

While I was upstairs on the treadmill, I watched a guy walk around the rows of machines with his towel and bottle of water, stopping in front of a machine to look at the directions. He passed on a couple and I could tell that he wasn’t working out for the sake of his body because he had no plan of attack, but he was working out for the sake of working out, thinking that it makes him more healthy. Which, incidentally, is how I tricked myself into going to the gym today. So he stops at some contraption that I myself probably wouldn’t have attempted because it looked like some Tower of London torture device, and he scrutinizes the directions. The big sign on his back that says, “I don’t know what I’m doing” is evident to anyone who looked at him. He pauses for a moment, looks around with some apprehension and then sits down on it… facing the wrong way. After realizing the seat didn’t feel all that comfortable, he adjusts it lower, then higher, then takes the peg out of the weights and puts it at the lowest possible amount, probably 10 pounds… or a gallon of milk. Then he tries to lift the bar, and since he’s facing the wrong way, he’s lifting the wrong way, which is impossible to do.

At this point, I started to feel bad for him and I cursed LA Fitness for not having a program for all new members that takes you around to each machine to show you how they work. Instead you sign a wavier saying that if you rip off a leg because you were doing it wrong, they’re not libel. I also hoped that I was the only one that noticed him, with everyone else absorbed in their own workout, but that was not to be. A trainer—usually the most useless and overpaid person in any gym—stopped to show him the right way. He did five reps for a show of good faith and left, probably never to return. It’s too bad, but most people don’t belong there. They don’t know what they’re doing on the machines and they especially don’t know what they’re doing to themselves.

Not like I do either. Which is why I like to run, because I used to be really good at it and I know how to do it right. So why then, you ask, do I have a gym membership when I can run anywhere? Good question. And I’ll add this: If I had canceled my membership (and Kara’s) two years ago, I could have taken that $1056 and bought a really nice treadmill.

But I didn’t and here I am, justifying a membership to a fitness club I have no business going to with people I loath to be around in a building that smells like gym socks, sour milk and mostly the stench of failure.

Then again, maybe I should let Elsa out more often and, when I do, tie a leash to her and get in shape the old fashioned way. But then I’d have to find another way to make fun of people and inflate my own sense of superiority.

Either way, I’m going to feel this in the morning.

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