My new body

I see a faraway look come into the eyes of many of you when I offer to talk about my new workout program, but on the internet there are no gatekeepers and you can’t stop me . . .

This is probably not the news you were expecting to hear from a essayist/novelist often pigeonholed as Jamesian, or at least wannabe Jamesian, but a few months ago I joined a Cross Fit box. There, I said it, I called it a “box”; that’s how you can tell I’m one of them now. A “box,” for the record, is a gym where people do Cross Fit, and Cross Fit is a workout program that combines elements of gymnastics, weightlifting, and aerobic training, including short intervals of high intensity. From day to day, the workout prescribed at a particular box changes, and as the New York Times recently reported, “from a purely motivational standpoint, variety matters” in exercise. I had heard several friends and one cousin extol the program, in some cases praising it for offering a workout so exhilarating that it even seemed to alleviate depression, and I was heading into a winter that looked like it was going to be kind of rough. It looked like an undertow was likely to follow the publication of my second novel. I wanted something to jolt me a little out of myself. My routine at the Y had gotten so mellow that between sets I was not only reading but taking notes on what I was reading. Not in the margins but in a separate notebook even. I was aware, too, that I was fifty-two (not fifty-three, as Google alleges!), and that if I wanted to try one last bout of athleticism, time was running out.

The somewhat paradoxical result, three months after signing up for a free intro lesson, is that I no longer feel with the same acuteness that time is running out. I’m in a pretty good mood, actually, even though nothing about being a writer has gotten any better. The mood alteration was confusing at the outset; my intellectual self remained fractious and grum while the animal organism beneath grew more limber and buoyant. A new kind of cognitive dissonance! Superstructure gradually but inexorably converged with base, knocked into shape by the animal carrying it, and one day, to my shock, I realized I was cheerful. Somewhere along the way my body itself changed, too. This remains disconcerting, if pleasant. The new body isn’t exorbitant or baroque or anything, but even so, I still don’t quite feel identified with it. It’s nice to have, and my husband is a big fan, but in a way it feels slightly beside the point—as if I’d just started a new job and it just so happens that I look sharp in the uniform but the uniform isn’t why I took the job. I also have no confidence that it’s going to last. “What if I write a blog post about my new body and then it withers away?” I asked my husband. “Then you can write a blog post about that,” he suggested. (Surely the cheerfulness won’t last.)

All of this seems very unlikely to someone who knows me as well as I do. Like most pre-gay boys, I was poor at sports. One of my elementary school nicknames was Butterfingers, as if to remind friends not to pass the nerf football to me, and by the time I reached high school, I dreaded gym class and regularly forgot my gym clothes—a desperate attempt on the part of my unconscious mind to get me excused. In a strange way this history turns out to be excellent preparation for Cross Fit, where, as a novice, I am almost always the weakest, slowest, and clumsiest person in the room. I don’t like being the weakest, slowest, and clumsiest, but since that’s who I was growing up, I probably mind it less than most other people would, and can stand it longer. I think I’m usually also one of the oldest people in my Cross Fit class, if not the oldest, and that, too, is a hidden advantage, in that I’ve had a lot of experience with failing at things and with learning from failure, and at my age I take it for granted that anything really pleasant is going to require work. I don’t want to seem to be underselling my grandiosity and ambition here. I’m not really indifferent to where I rank in a group, or in the world generally, as some of you have noticed. I’m a pretty competitive guy, and not only as a writer. All I’m saying is that I’m old enough to have gotten used to taking the long road.

Like many gay men, soon after coming out I started going to a gym, which was more or less required in the dating marketplace. My goal was beach muscles. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. A few years ago, Peter brought home an exercise book and looking through it, I realized that with my poor form I had probably been injuring myself for years. An impinged shoulder sometimes woke me up in the middle of the night literally screaming, and spasms in my lower back often caused me to hobble and wince—and it’s likely that I had inflicted these pains on myself. I had accepted them as part of my inevitable mortal decay, when in fact they were very likely punishments for mistakes I didn’t realize I was making. Since I started Cross Fit, I haven’t had any back spasms or shoulder impingement. All I feel is a more or less pleasant soreness for a day or two after a hard workout. I used to have to spend ten minutes every morning sitting at the edge of the bed, nodding my head in an effort to unkink the muscles in my neck and upper back. I don’t have that problem anymore, though (truth in advertising here) I do have to do fifteen minutes of yoga stretches every morning, for the benefit of my glutes and hamstrings.

The hard part of being a writer is the long spans of time alone. One misses company but can’t quite afford to belong to anything too tethering. I like the low-pressure camaraderie of the box. People bring their dogs and their babies. Everyone has been supportive and welcoming. One fellow member loaned me a weighted jump rope for a month; one staffer volunteered that he’d read one of my novels, to more than which no writer at a gym can aspire. There are no mirrors on the walls of the particular box I go to. I don’t know whether this is explicitly part of the Cross Fit philosophy or just an accident of architecture, but I like it. When I first started, I worried that without mirrors I wouldn’t be able to see whether I was doing a movement crooked, or in some other way wrong, but I’ve come to realize that it’s only through the eyes of a coach or a peer that you ever really “see” a mistake, anyway; the false confidence provided by a mirror would be a distraction. Also, without mirrors, I’m able to forget, at least for the first dozen burpees, that I’m not as young as the people around me. I think this is what I meant earlier when I said that the new body itself is a little beside the point. I’m hardly against exercise for the sake of vanity, any more than I’m against writing for the sake of money. But you don’t spend a Cross Fit class gazing at your reflection and thinking how much hotter you’re getting, and that’s not only because there’s no mirror there (at least none in the box I go to). You spend the hour trying to learn how to do something you couldn’t previously do—just last week, I finally had a breakthrough on the exercise known as the kipping pull-up, though double-unders and toes-to-bars are challenges that I have yet to rise to—or trying to persist through fifty sit-ups, or learning how to feel which muscles you’re activating in which way. Thinking about the firing of specific muscles feels uncanny, by the way, if you haven’t ever focused on and practiced doing it before—like trying to memorize music if you’ve only ever memorized words. I think in the end it’s the learning—of things that are physical—that has me most hooked.