Twenty Push-Ups

Sit-ups are worse: the position is uncomfortable, unusual. You’re on the floor, on your back, going just a little bit up and back, and if you hunch over or strain or let your feet fly up, you’ll hurt your back.

Push-ups give you a pumped-up sense of accomplishment while you get to know the floor below your eyes a little more intimately than you’d like. That patch of carpet, tile, wood or dirt intrudes and recedes as you go up and down, breathing in and out, but before you feel absolutely ridiculous, your pectorals firm up. It’s not quite the same as devouring too much pizza, sawing through a 32 ounce porterhouse or feeling your brain freeze as you lick the last spoonful of that super-premium ice cream pint.

No, when you do twenty push-ups, you feel like you’ve done something.

A writer I once knew–a product of Ivy League schools who ran marathons and resembled a Nietzschiean ubermench–once wrote an entire article in a highly respected newspaper about how doing push-ups made him feel “manly.”

I envied him, not because of his educational pedigree (I went to a small but significant liberal arts school in the middle of rain-soaked Ohio cornfields), or his ability to finish a marathon (the most I’d gone was about fourteen miles, when I was living at the Jersey shore and put some terrific music on my Sony Walkman, set out on a blissfully balmy day and trotted so far from my home that the only way to go back before sundown and some fool in a pick-up truck on a typically badly lit beach island causeway turned me into roadkill, was to run all the way back) or the way he would turn the heads of so many female journalists when he strode through a newsrooms.

I was jealous because he was a staff writer, that is, a full-time newspaper employee with benefits and privileges and a little head-shot above whatever he wrote, while I was a self-employed freelancer, which meant I couldn’t just dash-off a blithe-and-easy first-person piece about the blood-pumping joys of a single exercise that I had hated for most of my fat-kid existence. If I wanted to write for that newspaper, or any of the other 40 or so publications that printed my work, I had to come up with ideas that were more difficult or more interesting than what the staffers churned out, sell them to jaded editors, do the work and hope the publications paid me on time, if at all.

I also had a secret: push-ups were once MY thing! Me–a former fat kid who lost his flab by running and refusing to eat carbs for seven months–used to do as much as a hundred a time. I even won a few bets with them.

It started where many obsessions do, in college. For most of a semester I wore a cast on my arm after wrist surgery to fix an injury I had several years previously. When the cast came off, I had to prove to myself that my wrist was okay. It had stiffened up somewhat–I’d never be able to bend it in every way that I liked.

So went down on my knees, planted both hands flat on the grimy, gray tile dormitory floor and could barely do one.

I eventually worked my way up to well over 100, got bored with it and stopped doing them.

Some months ago, as part of an effort to say “no” to the aches, pains and despair that can

I went down and could barely lift myself off the floor. The next day I did two push-ups.

Lesson learned, and easily forgotten: most achievement consists of little things done regulary that accummulate to reveal unexpected strength.

Many years later, after I had let go of the reasonably good physical condition I had built up over the years, I gained weight, became more than usually grumpy, and then suffered two heart attacks.

That was five years ago. At the beginning of this year, I decided to do something about it. I went for a run every day. Now I can do eight miles at a stretch. I began to watch what I ate and lost 22 pounds. I’m hoping to shed more weight in the future.

I asked the cardiologist why, if I could run so many miles, I would quickly tire if I dug a few holes with a shovel in the garden. He said I needed isometric exercise and suggested push-ups.

You know that first one was even harder than the one I did a half century ago when my cast came off.

On the next day, the two I did after that were even harder.

You can guess the rest: I’ve finally been able to do do twenty push-ups. I don’t feel “manly.”

I just feel good.

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