In high school I had various nicknames. One of them was “Doug,” after the cartoon character, because for some reason at the time I decided it was cool to wear marshmallow-like, all-white sneakers, with khaki Gap shorts, and a green vest over a white short-sleeved T, the perfect ensemble to go with my twig-like, stick-bug arms. I was also named “Most Unique” in our senior superlatives (something I still occasionally fog up the mirror with, whispering with my nose touching the glass in a trance, “most unique, most unique, most unique…” while grunting and drooling). I was awarded this title due to my propensity towards hiding in trashcans or really just rolling around on the ground most of the time with my books. In other words, “Most Unique” was a euphemism for that-skinny-weirdo-that-slides-on-the-floor-a-lot.
There was one nickname that stuck with me the most though, and that was “Auschwitz Boy”; this one regularly occurred at the pool, or at the beach in our humble Florida paradise city, where the sea oats are protected and its town square is pretty, meaning Wal-Mart. My homemade hemp choker necklaces and obsession with Sun-In didn’t help my look either, which was far from what anyone would ever consider to be remotely manly. Let’s just say I was much less guns, n’ much more roses.
At FSU, I discovered the ever-so-oddly-named “Leach Center” – not a center for leeches, DON’T YOU WORRY, except for those who’d become addicted to its power, daily sucking the sweat and energy and sex from its walls on a daily basis. It was a glistening state-of-the-art palace of intimidation, a castle of healthy elite, and everyone knew it was the jewel of the campus – not our academics, psshhhht, and definitely not our football team at the time – our quarterback was doing meth and jumping on cars as “God,” which was the nickname he gave himself. As such, I was both fearful and drawn to it, this palace of leeches, as I knew it possessed the magic for building the muscles – any muscle – I so secretly desired for so long, to finally be rid of “Auschwitz boy, Auschwitz boy, Auschwitz boy…” fogging up the mirror, as in, you actually look like you’ve been starved to the brink of death from zeee Jermans, but hey, cool necklace.
Nowadays I am told I have “guns” and I am with-muscle, an amount I’m happy with at least. Like being with-child I imagine, my time as a gym-goer has been an up-and-down sometimes-creepy battle inside – a little parasitic demon sucking and kicking and shitting and sleeping inside you – as well as out – a cornucopia of observation of how we see ourselves, the weird things people do, what’s actually true, and what’s really healthy.
Among many others, here are 4 things I discovered:
1. Not All Gyms Are What They Seem
Many are something else disguised as a gym, and you have to make sure you pick the right one or else you’ll find yourself some place you really don’t want to be. Some are status symbols, with glitzy hotel-like entry-ways and glitzy famous clientele; what I found while frequenting these places was often those that pay top-dollar for trainers and health programs will remain homely-looking and ill-improved, even after months of being there “training,” because they care less about their body, and more about the halo associated with going to a place that costs $25,000 for a membership, more about exchanging business cards in the locker room. Others are whore-houses for gay men and for closeted slightly-gay men with wives; at these places there are DJ’s on the weekends, the lights are dim, and the steam rooms are big – so as to increase the amount of simultaneous blow-jobs given per day, and so men can spread their legs deep and wide and flash you their cock and balls like lures for hungry, curious fish – there’s a fountain of cum flowing deep and wide. Others are gimmicky and well-branded and purple and dumb and fun, attempting to trick or treat you with candy, leaving tootsie-rolls on the counter and offering free pizza slices to you after you just worked off the last one they gave you –and hardly any variety of machines, just lots of TVs and fake “alarms” you cannot actually push for when someone is being “judgmental.” These gyms are more cute than functional. Then there are those that require you to sign your life away, and will not allow you to leave your relationship with them for any reason, even death, even the complete annihilation of planet earth. As soon as you sign on that line, your life there is etched onto a golden tablet, and even if your house burns down with your family and pet bunnies inside, the monthly membership fee will be deducted from your bank account. Even if the entire human race leaves the planet so that Wall-E and the robots can clean it up for hundreds of years, that goddamn gym will be waiting for you when you are ready to re-colonize. There are rough-neck gyms too, the ones that pride themselves in having old, rusty equipment and never improving because that wouldn’t be right – that’s not our gym, we’re a gym for us locals. Like buying “worn-in” jeans in the 90’s, these gyms feel more authentic, as if you’re associated with a long history of working out even if it’s your first day. You’ve never lifted a weight in your whole life, but if you come here, you are automatically Rocky – we’ve got animal carcasses in the back too that you can punch, gloveless of course, so your hands always smell like ground chuck and blood. Ultimately, I’ve found that it’s best to find a gym that has a little bit of everything – both new and worn-in weights (mindful of improvement, but not obsessed with things just because they’re expensive), both a vast array of equipment rooms for most of the time when you seriously want to work out and also a steam room where some shade in the steamy shade goes down (for those times you just want to cum), all at an affordable but not laughably-candy-cheap price, all without having to offer your soul to Satan and the robots. These places are rare, but they’re out there.
2. There Will Always Be Someone Stronger; There Will Always Be Someone Weaker
Upon entering the great palace of sweat for the first time, I found myself checking people off in my mind. Oh he’s weaker. Oh that one I could take. Oh look at him, look at that little pussy-tart-fart, I could definitely beat him up – all to tell myself I deserved to be there, among the real men. This, I soon found out, was all based on a lie that my purpose in life is to compare myself to others and that manliness equaled muscles. When I was sucked-in to believing this one, I would always leave the gym feeling invigorated, yet still quite depressed, from all the weight of all those men on pedestals above me in the hierarchy I thought was so important, all those men who could rip my dick off with the flick of their one hairy, veiny finger, pulsating with more testosterone I could produce in my lifetime, even if I had fourteen nuts between my legs that collectively rumbled and clanked together like a Harley engine. This is how I approached the gym for a time, until I realized that the gym is really a microcosm of how you approach any test in life. Do you focus on what everyone else is doing, their skills, their bodies, their histories, what they should do and can do, and how you measure up to them, basing your value on the result of the comparison? OR, do I only focus on what I am, what I alone can be responsible for, what I’ve been given to start with, my body, my brain, my balls, valuing myself with my own internally-set rubric? Once I focused inwardly, grabbed the balls I was given, paying less attention to the reality of a seemingly-inevitable default of cock-and-muscle-sizing that goes on among men and focusing more on an approach that was much more sustainable – honesty – I finally felt like I got somewhere close to improvement, even the enjoyment of that process. The fact of the matter was – and still is – I know this guy named Jack, and his last name is Shit. Even after 13 years of going to the gym, I know I still need to learn truck-loads of unopened, unburned books on how to improve myself, proper form, appropriate rest, nutrition, how much is too much, how much is too little. At first I would kind-of mosey around and attempt to replicate what others were doing, which lead to my obsession with using the “neck machine” that all the football players were using. I’d come in, sit down, place my face into the massage-chair-like pillow, put my seatbelt on (there was actually a seatbelt), and then jut my face forward with the face of being electrocuted, proud of my weight increase each week. This of course resulted in an “Auschwitz Boy with a particularly rock-hard and veiny neck” – not very pretty. I’m not sure when it happened; maybe when I decided to stop rolling around on the floor, but eventually I learned how to bait and tackle the problem. Like the 10 hitting the 15, something clanked and I changed. I bought books about anatomy. I studied what machines do, to what muscles, and why. I began cooking my own food – actually deciding what to put into my whore mouth – instead of relying on chicken nuggets for every meal. And, I walked up to the front desk of the Leach Center after months of “working out” (my neck) and simply said, “Heyyyy, sooooo, yeaaaaaaaaaah, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” For that moment I’m forever thankful, because it’s applicable to just about everything, that one moment – choosing to start where I truthfully need to start, instead of attempting to start where I wished I could start.
3. There Will Always Be Misinformed Weirdos
By its nature, a place of self-improvement, the gym attracts a variety of people who know what they’re doing and people who are afraid to admit they know Mr. Jack Shit, and everyone in between, which creates a glorious kaleidoscope of memorable characters, each fitting for a comedy movie role. It’s these characters that sometimes help with my motivation on the days I don’t want to exercise, because, if I go, at least I’ll encounter some hilarious dumbasses. The first one I ever noticed was this guy who clearly injected testosterone into his arms and perhaps applied tourniquets to his shoulders nightly so that the testosterone couldn’t permeate to the rest of his body; every time I saw him, he was working out his arms, on the same machine, for hours. You know how fibrous a butternut squash is after you bake it? Well, now, pick a clump of those orangey fibers and rub the mess all over two basketballs – those were his biceps. They were the veiniest, most disgusting, bulbous things I’ve ever seen — a chunky mutated baby growing on each arm. He has got to be dead at this point, you know, from that day each of his arms with-child finally delivered and all the windows blew out from the basketball-pop wind. So there’s those folks who pick one body part they think is most desirous by someone, or by themselves – only arms, only the neck, only pecs, or only the right butt cheek – and they make it their reason for living, to make that part bigger, supposedly better. Then there are the creepy voyeuristic floaters, which is what I was for a while too – those that hover about from machine to machine, longingly looking at those with bodies they wish they had, lazily shifting the weight pin from 10 to 15 on the neck machine, hoping they’ll improve everything by osmosis. Recently one of these, a young little pimply blonde lad, followed me around and he didn’t even bother to hide it; in the mirror across the weight room I could see his two eyes and forehead right above me behind the weights of the pec deck, just looking down with googly-shifty cartoon eyes, breathing all heavily. Each rep I took would cover up his face in black weights and then expose his eyes and forehead again as they lowered. And then, when I got back to my locker, he was actually INSIDE my gym bag. And then, when I got home, he was actually INSIDE my refrigerator, looking up at me all happily, hyperventilating and violently shaking a bottle of protein for me, spilling it everywhere and then slowly handing it to me wide-eyed. “Uhhhhmmm, theeeenks,” slowly dialing 911, “Yeah hi there’s a little man insi…” Then there are the unpleasantly plump types, the ones that don’t even enter the exercise area; while I commend them for coming to the gym, taking control, I’ve noticed that often the fattest of our brothers seem to think sitting in a hot tub and talking for hours – frickin’ loudly – will make their bodies less prone to heart disease, thinking they can sweat out the fat by sitting in hot stinky swass water for the entire evening. Your souls are lovely, and your hearts are beautiful, my brothers, just not all that fat suffocating your hearts in a polluted coat of digested fried chicken nuggets. Like it or not, an “obese is beautiful” mindset is, if I may, the same thing as being in denial about how we humans collectively affect our environment, this thinking that our actions have no impact whatsoever (and haven’t for years), this thinking that each individual has no impact whatsoever on their own body (including the smoggy lard-cloud that covers it). Then there are the multitaskers, sometimes wearing their normal clothes since they’ve never needed to wear anything more comfortable, because they’ve never focused enough to work up a sweat – god-forbid they take some time away from work or their friends or their mom. One time I overheard this animated Italian guy on the treadmill next to me call his mother to talk about, “paaaaasta, maaaaaa, pasta,” then lead a riveting conference call for his day job as a Staples manager, how “we reeeeally gotta clean the carpets better, I know, too much gum,” then talk to his night school study group about how, “Sasha just isn’t pulling his weight,” and then also break up with his girlfriend because, “you never, ever, make enough time for me; I always find the time,” and how his mother agreed that she, “shouldn’t come for pasta tonight, sorry” – all within about 20 minutes, on his Bluetooth. He also had a magazine, a Harry Potter book, an iPad, an iPhone, and headphones – and an orchid, and a live baby sloth. Or the grunters and screamers, those that no matter what they’re doing, will grunt, or scream, or huff-and-puff and try to blow the gym down; they can be simply drinking from the water fountain, and as they’re walking away, there will be a grunt – sometimes just a feint little one, but ohhhh it’s there, you just heard it, a little sound-burp of a grunt– mission accomplished. It’s a necessary punctuation of communication for them, like, like, like, “like” and like “literally,” or “I can’t even” – just throw it in there before or after everything you say and somehow everyone will just accept it, even enjoy it. Nope. And then there are those folks that are admirably zealous, but somewhere along the way they’ve been unfortunately led astray doing everything completely and dangerously wrong. My favorite was at a gym in Korea, where the older men would spank themselves very lightly, repeatedly, while their faces matched that of being the victim of a days-long crucifixion. Later on they’d be using the lat-pulldown machine, which simulates the motion of a pull-up by pulling down on a horizontal bar, while sitting. They, however, thought it would be better purposed as a weighted monkey-bar hamstring pull, hanging upside down on the bar, slowly lowering to the ground as the weights rose up, and crawling away from the bar, backwards – basically doing the backstroke, left arm, right arm, left arm, reaching for anything behind them, still with that crucifixion face, until their membership was revoked for physically violating the machines, and for letting the bar go when they hit the ground –impaling the other gym-goers. I really do love these people though; they’re a good reminder of how everything changes. There will always be misinformed weirdos and that’s okay because, if they keep at it and don’t murder anyone, one day they’ll be more-informed weirdos.
4. The Gym Is A Healthy Addiction, But An Addiction Nonetheless
I’ve hurt my back three times now. I’ve torn my ACL and meniscus (playing soccer actually, but just imagine it happened at the gym so my point is better illustrated). I’ve torn shoulder muscles, hamstrings; I’ve rolled ankles. I’ve slipped on tile in the showers; I’ve actually choked on vitamins and glutamine supplements in the locker room. And I keep coming back for more. It gets me high. Whenever I have a oh-what-the-haaaaaaaaaayle-am-I-doing-here moment, like when the sun is shining and there’s a cool breeze, and the park and a cupcake party is calling me, and there I am lifting a piece of metal up, and then down, and then up again next to a variety of stinky people, I just tell myself, “well, at least I’m not a meth addict.”And, and, and, I don’t smoke either! Now, I definitely have my occasional dance-and-drink binges, ending the night CLASSY behind a diner in Astoria throwing up a prosecco bottle (glass and all), with arugula salad chunks and 1-buck oysters (I really don’t know where we got the oysters), and all the other drinks I shouldn’t have mixed with that entire bottle of bubbly at Malaparte, a delightful little Italian place in the West Village with the most delightful shoebox-sized portion of tiramisu (we had that too), but I don’t need those nights. At this point in my life, it often feels like I actually need the gym to survive, a leech. And when I feel like a gym leech, sucked-in to its power, seemingly unable to flee, I’ll think, comparing myself to others again, “well, at least my addiction is better than your addiction,” my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, not your milkshake – until I hurt myself again. This too can be a trap, a lie, this thinking that resting equates to failure. As such, going to the gym has become less and less about a checking-off of who’s weak, who’s fat, who’s not, or even seeing if I’ve personally gained or lost, externally or even internally, or a checking-off that I simply went – no matter what I may feel – as if by my not attending I’d be failing somehow – and much more about taking on the responsibility to just listen, to everything. When I do that, I usually hear that it is okay to rest. It is okay to recover. It is okay to stop sometimes. It is okay to not go to the gym on some days and enjoy the day in other ways – like eating a carrot cake cupcake in the park on a blanket and listening to Roadkill Ghost Choir’s Beggar’s Guild on repeat, all day, “I fear no one, I fear no one . . .” because it’s a pleasant, healthy thing to be reminded that the gym isn’t everything. It’s indeed wonderful, but if you think it’s everything, if you think you have to have it, walk out right now. Throw up behind a diner after being slutty and flirty until 4am at Barracuda Bar, where you had many delightful conversations about double-penetration and architecture. Read naked on your roof the next day with whatever fat or muscles or lack of muscles you have. Let your back rest. Remember that manliness is just as much about being gentle as it is about being strong, for yourself as well as others. And since you’re man enough to know it’s okay to work hard as well as relax hard, proudly let the neighbors see your two coconut-oil-covered and glistening, sun-cooked, man-nuts. Not the squirrels though. Or the birds. Or really just any hungry, curious creature that might mistake your delicious, precious balls for cheap sustenance.