Monday, May 28, 2007

Alone With the Iron

ON THIS MEMORIAL DAY, I all but had the gym to myself. The number of cars in the lot was closer to what one might find at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon in early December . . . when most folks are huddled next to heaters for warmth, cheeks red but knuckles white on their armrests, while the Giants or Jets clash with some foe in late-season battle. The only reason to venture outside in the brittle late-autumn air would be to fetch more wood for the fire. The gym can wait until Monday morning, before work, if they can get up that early . . . depends on how late the Late Game runs. . . .

If I have done nothing else right since my layoff — and I believe there are a few things I have done right — I have logged almost 3 months of consistent gym attendance. At the one-month mark after my layoff, I reported that my next step, after establishing regular gym attendance, was to get my eating habits into better shape as well. I have mostly succeeded, with few deviations from a more thoughtfully planned diet. I was right about avoiding the morning bagels; it's made a big financial and caloric difference. Though my weight chart has not shown a steep plummet, and I don't look grossly muscular or rail-thin compared to when I began charting my weight, I can tell the ratio of fat to muscle tissue has changed. My clothes are getting just a little looser each week. My stamina is higher, whereas around this time last year, it was a chore to walk the two long blocks from my subway stop to my workplace. I don't get as freaked out by the spikes that occur on my Excel weight chart, because I know they are either due to slight variations in muscle or water weight, or are the result of a long weekend, big dinner, or scheduled binge, like a wedding. On the day of each month that corresponds to my birthdate, I disregard all limits and eat what I want. You need a break once in a while.

It's not a matter of looking good in swimwear. Though I'm not one of these monstro-guys who you see on TV being removed from their house through the wall, on a shipping flat, I've carried 30 to 50 pounds around long enough to render public toplessness a nonstarter, no matter how much fat I eventually lose. I'm always gonna have some sort of gut, I fear. Rather, I am trying to lay the foundation now for long-term heart and sugar-level health into middle age and beyond. I can minimize the likelihood of heart disease and diabetes now, or I can wait — like I suspect many Americans are foolishly doing — until I get whatever ailment strikes and assume health care at that point will bail me out.

I can't make a guarantee that I will have comprehensive health care that far in the future. I have to invest now, in more healthful food intake and regular exercise, to stave off as long as possible the cancers, heart attacks, and joint erosion that will swamp the Baby Boomers and their children (and grandchildren if no revolution of health spares them) in the coming years. I've gotten to the point where making these investments is easier. I avoid having crap in the house. I don't eat out much, and when I do, I try to keep portions and food choices reasonable within that day's intake context. I minimize refined sugar and sweetener intake. It sounds bland, and perhaps motivated more by long-term hypochondria, but little decisions made now, reflexively, along with the occasional controlled deviation — a poker spree in Atlantic City that includes a trip to the Borgata Fatburger, a chicken parm hero, or a dessert with my mom's home cooking on Sunday — keeps me motivated.

Motivation drove me out of bed this morning. I awoke before my alarm. My sleep is more shallow in warmer weather, so when I drifted to consciousness and couldn't fall back asleep by 7:00, I decided not to fight it. I got my gym togs on, made up a bottle of "fruit punch," and headed out. I noticed that, during the bottom third of a workout, I get bone-tired. Not wanting to choose some overpriced, chemical-packed energy drink that will give me kidney failure 5 years from now, I decided to make my own. In the fridge, I have a big glass bottle of green tea, about half strength, and a jug of Trader Joe's 100% cranberry juice with no added sugar. Into a Poland Spring bottle I pour a quarter cup of the latter and a half cup of the former, then fill the rest with water. This I sip while lifting, which gives me some blood sugar and antioxidants along with the hydration (and just a bit of caffeine to rev the engine). Unsweetened. It makes me angry. Good angry; motivated to fix my busted ass angry.

My apartment complex lot was nearly free of cars, as were the roads. Aside from a couple of folks staking chair space along the Memorial Day parade route, and three soldiers standing next to a Humvee tricked up with Army recruitment branding, the town was dead. This was nothing compared to the vehicular desolation at the gym lot. Beautiful. I could proceed from one set of weights to the next without pause.

What few patrons were there were split evenly, if thinly, between the aerobic machines downstairs and the upstairs weight floor. I logged a 10-minute warmup on an elliptical trainer and then toted my clipboard to the second floor, where a mere handful of people were coming to grips with the iron.

I am by no means a bodybuilder of Schwarzeneggeresque dimensions, nor am I ever likely to be. But I think I have tapped into the right attitude, the honesty and simplicity of challenge to which Henry Rollins alludes in "The Iron," his essay on weight training. When I grab a dumbbell, 40 pounds is always going to be 40 pounds. The task is simple: Pick it up and move it, then put it down. Conscious more than ever of my inevitable physical breakdown, I focus on those steps to the exclusion of all else, taking a second to check the feel of the bar in my grip, the position I'm in, before budging it from its perch. Good form counts for more than heavy weight and keeps you out of the ambulance.

I try to screen out the distractions that other members bring. I do sometimes bring an iPod when I use the aerobic machines, because that can be a long hour with nothing to accompany one on the trip, but I recoil at the sight of them on the weight floor. I especially revile goons who stride about the floor with a cellphone — or, even more ridiculous, one of those fucking wireless Borg rigs on their earlobe. Pick an activity: chatting or lifting. Do both at once and you chance failing at them both as well. I also try to ignore the ill advice and poor form that some of the so-called experts exhibit, which sadly includes some of the staff. What I need to learn, I can ask of those who have made more of a life of this than I have, either in person or through the written records of their success via the bookstore or the Internet. When the gym is empty, however, the distractions are absent.

When I eventually snag a job, I hope to move my workouts back to the morning, at the very opening hour of the club, while preserving the anticipation I feel for them now. That I let this habit slide while at my last job typified the imbalance plaguing my life. This time away from work, though not a permanent or truly desirable circumstance, has allowed me to lift the veil on the rest of my life . . . shining light on areas where I need work. If I can begin fixing these now, I'll have a better shot at maintaining that balance once I start with the new 9-to-5. If nothing else, though, I at least want to keep moving forward with my weight training. This has been the most positive stretch of work in that area for years. I can't stop now.

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