Sunday, February 04, 2007

some thoughts about the gym

oodles and oodles of dumbbells!
this picture not taken at my gym. [photo credit: yuan2003]

i've been meaning to discuss with all of you my feelings about going to the gym for a long time, but i've never been able to find the words. and, i've never been able to assemble all of my divergent thoughts about this locus of desperate masculinity within the constraints of a single narrative. too many things happen there, too many stupid, stupid things. and though i believed that i had seen many stupid things going to a gym frequented by professional adults and their idiot offspring, my experiences there in no way prepared me for the palpable cloud that suffuses every nook and cranny of the university gym where i work out now, generated, i can only assume, by a congenital deficiency of chromosomes shared by the majority of men under the age of 23.

though, please understand, this does not mean that my old arch-nemesis, the elderly, are not known to stalk the sweat-stained halls of the intramurals building. in fact, it is with a mixture of sadness and pride that i report that i have now seen more nude, old man ass than a proctologist in the urgent care facility of a retirement community in dade county. i do not know if such a place or position does, in fact, exist, but if they do, i believe i am qualified to perform those duties. this is perhaps why i have been approached to help with the casting of "retired rectum 7," the only series of homosexual grandpa porn to have ever made it to a seventh volume, mainly due to the commitment on the part of its manufacturers rather than any support from consumers.

nevertheless, young men, mostly guys in their late teens and early twenties, work out here as well, though by "work out," i mean, try hard to convince others that they are manly.

men, for instance, do not flush toilets. did you know that? it's true. it's made me have to go back to all those tired rants from the likes of elaine boosler about men and toilets and admit, she was right. that's when i'm not too busy adding to the multiple gallons of piss threatening to spill over onto the floor. this, by the way, is why there is an additional drain on the floor of a men's restroom. having given up on our ability to use a toilet, they've turned the entire bathroom into one. this is known as "male ingenuity." it's why we've had the power over the women since the dawn of time.

other indications of the brilliance of these future statesmen and men of industry abound once one enters the weight room. here one is treated to stimulating conversation; for instance, this comment that i heard earlier in the year: "the trojans aren't a good mascot, if you look at their history. i mean, the trojans got fucked. they only had, like, one guy. they should have been spartans." i wondered if he knew that the spartans got fucked, too, or if he knew how they got fucked. it might have changed his mind about the spartans as a mascot for a sports franchise. i didn't ask, and now i regret it. i also wondered who the one guy was the trojans had; the word being plural, and the general prohibition on women fighting in combat, suggests that they had, like, more than one guy. in fact, i am so confident, that i will go on the record to suggest that they had, like, way more than one guy. that's my hunch, anyway.

it's not uncommon to hear these conversations, because guys tend to work out in packs, but because they tend towards ignorance of proper lifting technique and have no knowledge of exercises that differ from the ones they were taught by, "like, that really buff dude that one time," they rove the gym like hungry animals, waiting with pained expressions for the machines or weights they need to become available, unable to improvise or vary their workouts. this gives them ample opportunity to tactically dilute the collective i.q. by speaking.

though, in their defense, i will say that it is difficult to get to use the machine you need to use when the person who is "on" the machine is never actually using it. when you ask, he says he has "one more set," but all he ever does is stand beside the machine with his arms across his chest, breathing intently, as though his performance-enhancing gel went down the wrong pipe and is now making every breath an agonizing fight for survival (which, by the way, if it did happen, wouldn't surprise me in the least). he's frequently staring, not at anything in particular, but simply to indicate to others that "i just moved a lot of weight, because i'm a man." no one has actually witnessed his feats of strength, hence, in lieu of having done anything impressive, he has to look like he just finished doing something impressive, and you missed it. and no—you cannot work in.

and there's always one guy working out who is the absolute fittest person in the entire gym. this person never does anything. every time you see him, he's getting a drink of water, while managing to stare aimlessly, to suggest that the burn was so intense, just the act of drinking water is almost too much pain for him to bear. occasionally, he does five crunches. never four, never six. always five. then he gets more water. this takes him 10 minutes—20 seconds for the water, and 580 for the breathing.

once, out of curiosity, i stopped one of these guys and asked him what kind of a diet he was on, and he put his hands on his hips like an apollo 13 astronaut, threw his head back, projected a bellowing laugh that echoed throughout the weight floor, and disappeared in a plume of white smoke that smelled vaguely of cinnamon and creatine.

when i got home, my refrigerator was filled with met-rx bars and vitamin water. i'm not even kidding about that. i think he was an angel.

and before i forget, i want to clear something up. you do not have a right to arrive at the gym with a funky odor. before you comment, pay attention to the wording. when you work out, you sweat, and when you sweat, you stink—granted. but this does not mean that you can import a foreign stink from home and pass it off as the reek of hard work. once, a guy hopped on to the elliptical machine next to mine, and though he was barely in his 40's, he had that distinctive "old person smell." i could only conclude that he had slept inside of one the night before for warmth after being badly injured by a snow creature on hoth. worse, every time he exhaled, it was as though he had launched a salvo of funk directly at me, also smelling distinctly of unwashed grandfather. i immediately cast him in "retired rectum 8," soon to be in production, as the activities director of a retirement home in dade county.

about the only population attending the gym i have any praise for would be those future stateswomen and women of industry, the girls. i do not mean to suggest that all guys are like the men i have described above, nor do i want to suggest that all girls lift with proper technique, put their weights back when they aren't using them, and always flush the toilets. just the ones i have seen, from a hidden vantage point somewhere in between the men's and women's locker rooms, and from various points within the ductwork above the weight room floor. where the guys seem to be more concerned with looking manly, the girls are actually focused on the workout itself, because they know that being healthier, when combined with binge drinking, is the best way to score multiple times in a single weekend. boys, you could learn from their example.

now, if you'll excuse me, i've still got one more set to do on the bench press. and for the last time, no, you cannot work in.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

new year's, part 1

i have had only two great "new year’s eve" experiences, and they both took place on the eve of 2004. that was the year that my then-girlfriend was out of town, so while my vcr taped the dick clark’s rockin’ eve special, i spent the evening with my friend tony, watching the sci-fi network’s twilight zone marathon—switching back to abc as midnight drew near, of course. my apologies to the other networks, but the association between dick clark and new year's eve has been written into my dna; were the man actually to die, i’m convinced we would have to create new months to prolong the year.

nevertheless. i’ve been a fan of the twilight zone since i was a kid, and spending the night with one of my best friends, without the expectation that something wild and crazy had to happen for the night to be a success, made for a satisfying end to 2003.

however, when i try to remember how i spent my new year’s eve that year, watching twilight zone with tony isn’t what pops into my head, despite the fact that it’s the truth. for me, the new year started when my girlfriend returned, one week into 2004, and we watched the doubly pre-recorded dick clark ring in the new year from times square. we even made sure to start the tape so that the ball would drop at midnight. it’s my happiest memory from that relationship; it was one of the few times i really felt a connection with her, that i felt like we were truly together and that our togetherness made sense. that closeness never returned.

as i write this, i’m in sacramento, where the train has parked in order to exchange passengers with the station here. i’m sure that somewhere in the capital city, there must be some kind of state-sponsored revelry, but hell if i can see it from where i’m sitting; the only lights i see are the sodium lights of parking lots and street corners. amtrak, perhaps in keeping with its policy to provide no entertainment of any kind for free, has refused the opportunity to announce the new year, but that hasn’t stopped the passengers in the observation car upstairs, who have been steadily getting inebriated all evening on expensive bottles of alcohol that look like they were stolen from hotel mini-bars and overpriced domestic beer, from loudly marking off each second as it drops out the bottom of 2006 and into the gaping maw of 2007.

downstairs, i sit alone, and listen, and write.

this is a fitting way to spend this night, i think—in between my old home and my new home, the moss gathered from the old one not quite gone, the moss from the new one not having had the chance to take hold; in between the old year and the new year; and travelling within what is tantamount to a habitat in (relatively) constant motion. the train never stops for long, and even then, it’s only for the smoke break and the shuffling of feet, and then it’s off again for the next stop along the way. for some people, this kind of existence is tolerable, desirable even. me, however, i’ve always wanted to be a part of a place; i’ve always wanted to put down roots. ironically, that’s the one thing i refused to do the entire time i lived in san diego. for four years, i seemed to leave and return to san diego as though i was taking part in a ritual, and when i wasn’t leaving or returning, i was preparing to. i never hung pictures on the walls, i kept all of my boxes, i never tried to take on a job that could be mistaken for a career, and all of my romantic relationships bloomed like weeds in loose soil, if not as frequently. i did the best i could to be ephemeral, a ghost in the flesh. and tonight is no different.

yet despite one’s best, if unconscious, efforts, communities form. now it’s morning, and the train is stuck between klamath falls and chemult; there’s a broken rail somewhere up ahead and we’re waiting for a crew to repair it so we can go on. delays are so frequent when riding by rail that i’m surprised they don’t just add three extra hours into the schedule. i’ve met an extraordinary woman through absolutely no effort on my part and we’ve spent the better part of an hour talking about ridiculous nonsense. i’m thrilled because this means i have a chance to realize one of my goals for this trip: to have a relationship, from start to finish, within the duration of a single trip from one city to the other. it didn’t happen for me on the way down, but it looks good for the trip up. in my head, it's really funny: it would start with the honeymoon phase, when you’re always witty and smart, giddy and goofy, never picking your nose or your ear or your teeth or… anything, really, since society has a thing against picking; soon, i’d ask her to move into my seating area with me, but then we’d start fighting a lot, and ultimately i’d find out she had been sleeping with some other guy who had a reservation on the sleeper car. we’d have a massive fight just in time to disembark, at which time i could call the people over at guinness. quite unexpectedly, i almost got my wish.

[to be continued]

new year's, part 2

as before, i wish to begin with two moments. moment number one, rutger hauer’s final monologue from the movie blade runner.
“i’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” he says. “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of orion. i watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the tannhaüser gate. all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. time to die.”
it is difficult to determine if the dove that flies heavenward upon his demise is meant to be an ironic statement that underscores the plight of the replicants in the movie, or a sincere indication that replicants actually possess souls and will have a share in the western promise of the afterlife. this lack is what inspires their revolt; for them, there is no promise of eternal life, and hence the urge for intimacy. i interpret hauer’s decision to save harrison ford’s life at the end of the film as one motivated by the need for an other person to validate his existence in his final moments. hauer realizes that someone has to hear his story. sadly, words are incapable of doing his memories any justice, and the full richness of his history will die with him, leaving behind fragments, at best.

though the film explicitly compares hauer to jesus, this comparison underscores not only what is missing for the replicants, but also what is missing from our culture after the death of judeo-christianity as a master narrative governing our understanding of our world and our place in it. that harrison ford’s character may be a replicant should be no surprise; we’re all replicants by now. gone—long gone—are the days when one could take for granted the existence of the soul. this is not to say that there are no longer those who believe in it, simply that this belief sits alongside many other beliefs which are considered acceptable if not correct.

moment number two, the ending of virginia woolf’s book, mrs dalloway, an extended meditation on the urge for and possibility of communication in the fullest sense—being completely understood by, and therefore revealed to, the other. dalloway’s obsession with communication is linked with her obsession with death, evident from the following:
“All the same, that one day should follow another: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitebread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!—that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all” (122).
like hauer in blade runner, dalloway laments that all the words in the world will never be enough to share her experience of this life; worse, she worries that she will never be able to get as close to the present moment as she wishes, generating fantasies in which she inhabits the present fully:
“Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there—the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings” (36-7).
both moments reveal a transcendent reality that tantalizes dalloway, and the gaps that prevent her from reaching them. unlike a good post-modernist, however, i take the final words of the novel at face value: “For there she was” (194).

is this ending ironic, or sincere? how complete is this final revelation of her self? the beauty of ending the novel this way is that it presents the reader with the same difficulty dalloway herself is perpetually faced with: is she only surface, or is she something more than that? has she presented us with but a material body, or has she somehow managed, by the end of the novel, to reveal herself fully to us?

a good post-modernist would probably say that there is no transcendent knowledge available to us, and that the fact that we believe it exists is nothing more than the by-product of escapist fantasies in which we imagine ourselves whole or complete. though i believe that people can connect beyond and outside of language, implying a whole host of assumptions that would give a post-modernist hives, i agree with this assessment. i believe it is possible to connect with another human being in a way that bypasses language, but it isn’t easy and it will not unlock that person to you like some kind of apocalyptic revelation of the human soul.

consider romance, for instance. most of us, myself included, are looking for “the one.” carrie bradshaw: “i’m looking for love. real love. ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love.” the whole point behind this kind of love is that it never goes away, it promises eternal happiness, and it’s easy. ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming love promises to unlock a part of the universe/your self you always knew was there but couldn’t get to; it promises to unite you with another person in a way that is absolute, so that the two become one person. the gap that exists between you and everyone else dissipates between you and the object of your love. most of us realize that what we’re looking for is, well, ridiculous, but the desire for it probably continues to damage marriages nonetheless.

in short, we’re all looking for something to sweeten up this existence of ours, but i don’t know why. from my examples it looks like i’m leaning towards two unavoidable realities: my inevitable death, and my limited connection with both the other and the “nowness” of the present moment (i.e., my inability to ever use every moment to its full potential). what was a joke—to experience a relationship from start to finish while on the train—is both an expression of the urge to connect, that is, to put roots down (pun intended), but at the same time, the desire to avoid that connection. it’s “for me” that i wanted it, and furthermore, it would have been entered into with the expectation that it would end. it was escape and not commitment i was looking for, and in that sense, i almost got my wish. but communities form despite our best efforts, as i said.

so, why all of this talk of transcendence, limitation, and love? in between klamuth falls and chemult, i ruminate on loneliness; i see myself putting distance between myself and others, remaining aloof. i see the train as a metaphor for this kind of existence, and i interpret the fact that i haven’t gotten to know any of my fellow passengers as evidence of this. i even imagine including detours into film or literary analysis, and see them delaying the inevitable moment when i reveal something true about myself....

[to be continued]

new year's, part 3

unlike the abstract cityscape from the night before, of sacramento submerged in darkness, save the orange beacons signaling that, yes, there is something out here, the twelve hour difference and the change in latitude delivers us unto the pine-studded snowscape of the pacific northwest. i would love, at this point, to spin this into yet another indication of my isolation (“oh, i get it—the snow is cold, like the cavity where his heart should be”), but i’m prohibited from doing so by the fact that this was easily the most sublime scenery since santa barbara, the last time any of us would see the pacific for the duration of the trip. as such, many of us were drawn together around the windows, to remark upon the beauty of the snow as much as to bitch about how much longer this god damned trip was going to take.

if i am to believe her, the reason she chose to sit with me was not so much the snow but because i asked her to. she came down the stairs and into the café car looking comfortably disshelved (as opposed to me, rocking the “hobo-chic” look at the time) in pajama pants and a white tee-shirt and got in the line that had formed to enter the concession cubicle; seeing me scribbling my little melancholy notes, she asked what i was writing. “come back when you’re done and i’ll tell you.” she held up her end of the bargain, so i gave her the capsule summary of a paper i’m working on for school. next she tells me about her boat, that she taught herself to sail; about teaching the piano to young kids and how she loved children; about her decision to go start college, at almost-30, because she was passionate enough about what she was studying to dedicate herself to the subject and not just to the grades.

fast forward to eight hours later. we’re in washington state now, near vancouver. the decision to name a city in washington “vancouver” was impish at the very least; the confusion between vancouver, washington, and vancouver, british columbia, can be alarming, as when a conductor says, on a train, for instance, “in five minutes, we’ll be in vancouver.” have i been asleep? no, that’s impossible—because i’m on a train, silly. among the great questions of our age—will we ever be able to organize ourselves in order to feed everyone on the planet; is there an energy source cleaner and more abundant than petroleum or nuclear power; and how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop—is the question, how many continuous hours can a person sleep while riding on a train?

and the answer to that question is, none. trains are engineered so that you can in no way be comfortable. trying to sleep on a train is like wetting yourself without an available change of clothes—at first, it’s warm, even pleasant. suddenly you’re cold—your legs try to shrink away from your jeans, but there’s nowhere to go, and ultimately you can only reconcile yourself to the discomfort.

then the burning starts.

i digress. where was i? right—vancouver, washington. i’ve spent the last eight hours hanging out at various places on the train—my seat, her seat, a crawl space formed by the back wall of our car and the backs of a couple of seats occupied by a mellow older man and his bitchy wife—and to be honest, i really don’t remember what we’ve been talking about. i remember discussing knitting. and math. and music, and teaching, and welding. did i mention that she welds? she welds. pours bronze. and i will be honest with you—very few people actually impress me. and no, not because i’m so goddam great—my friends would attest to the fact that i really don’t impress me very much, either. but i will say this for her: she is one of those remarkable people who wants to do something, and does it, and that is quality that i respect.

and then, things take a turn.

looking back on it now, i can’t say for sure why things turned out the way they did, but i know that the alcohol did not help. over the course of eight hours, i watched her drink one bottle of wine, 15 ounces of vodka and orange juice, and eat exactly nothing. the rise and fall of her inebriation had the elegance of a parabola; she ascended into the heavens like a bird catching a thermal, and she rode it joyously for miles of track, until, at last, the currents changed and nothing was left to prop her wings, and she descended as quickly back towards the earth. her descent was smooth and steady but heartbreaking, all at once, and the grace with which she slipped from those heights distracted me from what was happening until she had touched ground.

but they never just touch the ground, do they? it’s as though the landscape is entirely different for them when they return, as though they touch down at a darker, colder place, and their whole being suffers because of it. she mixes up my name with that of a guy she had dated a month ago, and that apology becomes multiple apologies—apologizing for the mistake, apologizing for drinking so much, apologizing for taking me for granted. i ask her about the guy and emotions overtake her, which begins a new round of apologies. i’m sorry to burden you with this, she says. this isn’t me, she says. of course it isn’t, i tell her; it’s the alcohol. it’s like feeding a child pixie sticks and caffeine and then accusing him of being hyperactive, all the way down in his very soul.

i’m doing what i can to help—i’m asking everything i know how to ask, i’m listening for any detail that might shed light on what else is going on, that could illuminate another source for the pain she’s feeling. i’m so used to thinking in terms of rules and theories, and i’m trying to figure out how they apply to this situation, how they can help me help her, but it’s not working—there’s just nothing, i think, to explain this, besides the alcohol maybe, and then, three times in a row she repeats, i don’t want to be alone, through streaming tears. i don’t want to be alone—i don’t want to be alone—i don’t want to be alone.

you can take comfort in those things you do for yourself, i suggest, weakly, but she bats it down. i’m strong, she tells me, but who do i have to give it to?

i don’t know why people need other people. i don’t know what drives us to seek out companionship and love. there are cynics who believe that what we’re seeking doesn’t exist—that the feeling of a connection with another person is nothing more than lust, a variation on the argument that it’s the biological imperative to mate. or maybe it’s the feeling of worthiness we get when someone else sees us the way we want to be seen? or perhaps it goes back to dalloway’s wish to get beyond this world, to transcend its limitations and feel connected to the universe in ways impossible to imagine. maybe it’s all of these things, maybe none. as i said, i don’t know.

being human is both beautiful and tragic, because we will never be able to know enough to avoid the heartbreaks that follow the miscommunications, the missteps, the mishaps; and these heartbreaks will be minor for some, while they will incapacitate others. we will always exceed explanation, and that is magical when so much of this world has submitted itself to totalizing comprehension. for those who wish to theorize the human, i submit that humanity exceeds formulae and material practice, just as the richness of human experience exceeds language, and the possibilities for connecting with others exceeds rational analysis. the connections we seek, always exceeding our ability but worth pursuing nevertheless, require sensitivity, subtlety, and most importantly, commitment. community can exist wherever there are people, but if the commitment isn’t there, what you get is more loneliness per capita. as for theory, it’s useful in that it gets us close, but our willingness to commit ourselves to others, and to listen to them without trying to frame their sentences inside of theoretical constructs, gets us closer.

looking back, i see that the rules and strategies i have engineered as a means of navigating my daily life are useful but also detrimental, for they serve as a means of creating distance, both from others, and from the present itself. to be without my rules and regulations is to approach the world without guidance; it is to be exposed to it, to be vulnerable. it requires me to accept my limitations, my flaws, my self. it is to become comfortable with fear in hopes of eventually becoming less afraid. it is the hope that ultimately, i can trust myself to handle situations as they unfold, without a list of directives, and without subjecting every moment of my past to ruthless analysis. and by moving through this fear, there is the possibility of giving oneself to a person, to a group of friends, to a place, even if it won’t be your home forever. being rooted means being affected; it means giving up the ability to be in complete control of yourself. and for all of this, i know i'm still afraid.

back in 2004, celebrating new years one week into january, we sidestepped the calendar’s stranglehold on time, and for an evening, i sidestepped my vicious inquiries into the why’s of our relationship—i was there, which is where i wasn’t, three years later, when i was sitting by myself in a car on a train in sacramento. but it was where i had to be, eight hours later, as the train left vancouver washington in the dust.

for, you see, there she was. and there was nothing beyond this simple, yet monumental statement: i don’t want to be alone—and what theory can respond to that? what reply can there be? every reply fails to alleviate that pain, no matter how well it is understood.

we hugged, and she cried.