I finally found that feeling you get when you lift, of pushing back, and pushing out, of creating a space from inside out. When the sweat streaks down your face and your shirt sticks to the bench, the space becomes yours.
The feeling eluded me for most of my life. For me, exercising was an escape from being the fat kid who couldn’t catch or throw a ball. I discovered if I offered to run the track, the phys. ed. teachers would leave me alone. Only during football season did I find some pride. As a center, I was too massive to move. Kids tried to run into me and knock me down. They bounced off. This wasn’t enough for me to be accepted on a team.
After more than enough self-hatred for being fat, made me buy a set of weights. After a month in our dusty garage, I could put on larger plates. Firmer muscle lurked below the flab, but the flab remained.
I forced myself not to eat the bread, pasta, potatoes and ice cream that was a staple of our family meals. It took me five months, but I lost 50 pounds when I entered high school. Not long after, a girl gave me her telephone number. She is now my wife.
But lifting was still a strange, noisy, clunky thing that didn’t seem to take me anywhere. Holding the bars felt strange. The weight was an intrusion. The gnurled collar on the bars dug into my skin. In college, I wandered into the weight room, and dropped a few plates on the Universal, but I mostly went for long runs down flat, two-lane roads in the surrounding Ohio farmland. I’d discovered that runner’s high, and I liked it. I also took yoga back when it was uncommon. The class was taught by an American graduate student who grew a beard so he could look like a mountain man, or, more likely, an Indian yogi. After a while, I’d get that loose limbed yoga high, the blissful relaxation that freed memories or helped me really enjoy laying on my back without a pillow.
I also heard about aikido, and became interested in the martial arts as a way to blast through writers block when caffiene didn’t work. It would take a few more years before I took lessons in aikido and shotokhan karate. I also exercised in a nearby gym, crashing plates on the Universal, going into the zone on a step machine and, later, an F/X. I finally achieved that perilous state where you believe you are “in shape.” I could do pull-ups. I could do more than 1,000 crunches. I could run from one part of the city to another, arriving at a restaurant, an editor’s office, or a classroom to teach writing–in a sweaty mess.
But I never quite felt that I had achieved anything. I didn’t have the cut and shredded torso of body builder. I wasn’t thick and beefy like power lifters. My body ached in different places at different times. When I hiked the Inca trail in Peru I had such a severe case of altitude sickness that I couldn’t carry my day pack. My knees began to swell oddly, leading to the first of several surgeries.
Lifting was still a chore. It didn’t feel good and, if anything, the numbers on the stacks reminded me that, yes, I could move this much weight, but, somewhere was another person who could lift more.
So I stopped lifting, remaining with karate and the occasional long run. Then I had surgery on my wrist, two heart attacks and another orthoscopic clean up on my knee.
I stopped exercising. When I’d do the run or the karate, I’d hurt. When I didn’t, I still hurt.
What got me back in the gym were a few days when a steaming temperature inversion turned the outside air into stifling miasma of auto pollution and the parching odor of evaporating lawn treatments that the HOA provides, whether you want them or not.
I put the headphones on, started on some of the lower weights, and those awkward feelings returned. I was older and, possibly wiser, but I still felt like a fat kid in a garage, hoping to lift himself into a different person.
That went on for another few weeks. At least the gym’s air conditioning filtered away the pollution. Somehow I stayed at it.
And then, on a day when I was quite actually going through the motions, I felt as if pushing those weights was creating a new space. The space had always existed, but, this time, I owned it.
It happened the next day, and the day after that. I’m sure I can find a biophysical, neurological explanation for this but….
I’d rather go to the gym and lift some more.