I went to the Payne Whitney Gymnasium this week after a six-month sabbatical. Last semester, somewhere between classes and “Gilmore Girls,” I lost all motivation to hit the gym. My decision to start an exercise regimen this semester stemmed from post-winter break guilt — but not the kind you might expect.
You see, my newly retired mother, has this winter begun a conscientious program of self-improvement, including — with piano lessons and French classes — working out with a trainer (male, young) three times a week. She looks forward to her time with him and has learned much; she is now comfortable using gym jargon in any setting, regardless of whether it is appropriate, which it never is. She even tried to sell me on Pilates as a pathway to total well-being.
I love my mom, but I found her newfound knowledge irritating. This most recent winter break felt to me like a perpetual Opposite Day where cats bark like dogs and mothers are more macho than their sons. When at the dinner table she blamed a sore shoulder on one too many “sets” of the “incline chest fly,” the part of me that is fiercely competitive emerged and seized the last pork chop. I knew it was time to visit the gym and do some improvement of my own self, if only to save some face. I refused to be shown up by the ladies who lunge.
So on Monday, my first full day back at Yale, I sprang out of bed, threw on some sweats and flailed my way to the House of Payne, thoroughly terrified — all for fear of being found out. I didn’t belong there, as anyone in the crowded weight room who was paying attention could see from the moment I began the hunt for the right machine. It showed in my walk, which was frenzied and aimless until I attempted to correct it, and then it was too stunted and artificial. I felt like a self-conscious drag queen. As I mounted an elliptical machine with more computing power than most public schools, I was sure they had all spotted my Adam’s apple.
It didn’t take long to realize that I had every reason to be terrified: at Payne Whitney, they were all paying attention. In fact, in the gym, there is nothing else to do but pay attention. Gossip and gab, camaraderie and companionship — integral parts of putting on the pounds — play little to no role in taking them off. At the gym, you’ve got your headphones on, and you’re left to yourself. As I traced ellipses with my feet, I thought how nice it would be if the machines were arranged in tight circles, like at a cocktail party, instead of in straight rows. We could all get to know each other, like where we are from and where we’re headed. In the straight-line configuration, we can only guess.
I’m guessing about the girl in front of me, who has a book in front of her. She’s getting a head start on “Russian Novel,” by the looks of it — but she hasn’t turned a page in 10 minutes. She’s too busy checking out the guy at the lat pulldown machine, the one with the exquisitely shaped body but the unfortunate face. She wonders, Does it matter that he’s got a mug like Yasir Arafat if he’s got a body like Brad Pitt? I wonder, Is she undersexed and insecure, maybe both? Yasir looks at me and wonders, Who is this kid on the elliptical kidding? He won’t stand a chance. It goes around and around.
Well, Yasir, you’ll be happy to know I haven’t given up. Since that tentative Monday afternoon, I have spent at least an hour in the gym every day. And you know what? I am beginning to like it. All I required, it seems, was a reason to go, and reason to stay. Mom’s reason was having a lot of (too much) time on her hands; mine is that I am, above most things, a writer. Hitting the gym appeals to my natural tendencies: observation and lying. At the gym, I can pretend to be entirely into myself, my music and my CNN broadcast, when in reality I am dissecting everyone I see.
A few feet in front of me, a girl steps on a subscription card for The Economist that has fallen to the floor, and my pulse instantly breaks out of my target zone. Could this be a metaphor for animalistic human nature — the healthy body is ultimately more important than the healthy mind? Or perhaps it represents Ivy League perfectionism, how we cannot escape the intellectual even in the gym. I love elaborate metaphors, and I begin to scribble my thoughts on the pad I have been trying to pass as my “Fitness Diary,” only I struggle. It seems my arm is sore from too many incline chest flies. I smile, knowing that Mother would be proud.
Eric Eagan is busy getting huge.