Plato’s Gymnasium

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

[The management would like to introduce this week’s essay with a clarifying aside. The theme of the piece is “Jeff’s return to the gym following a long absence”. It behooves me to point out that I am not going to here discuss the Gymnasium popularized by the ancient Greeks, an institution whose classically nutty mixed-bag curriculum of physical training and Socratic instruction in ethics and morals helped lay the foundations of western culture. The essay will rather concern that other gym; a place for making the abdominal ridges more pronounced and strutting in tiny tiny shorts.]

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I’ve been out of the workout game for years, though you wouldn’t know it to look at me. To look at me you would be stunned to learn I’d ever been inside a gym at all. Taking me in at a glance you might accurately summon the image of a guy in Ye Olde Donut Shoppe, hunched like a slavering morlock over an apple fritter the size of a steering wheel. But there actually was a time my ex-girlfriend (“wife”, in the common parlance) and I would arise at 4:45 every weekday morning to pump iron, endlessly climb the SisyphusMaster and make gasping, incoherent small talk with the other wee-hours damned.

Jack taught us that jumping jacks and leg lifts and barbells and herniated coils of intestine springing out like colored streamers at a surprise party—these pleasures could be had by you and me, too.

This was many years ago at the storied Santa Barbara Gym and Fitness Center, then located at Garden and Cota where now a stand of whitewashed faux Mediterranean condos mock the very idea of isometric exaltation. So this is an important and long-anticipated return to exercise for me. I believe I can rightly describe this grand re-entry into fitness as The Return of the Wing (abject apologies to Messrs. Tolkien and Jackson). The occasion will indeed be attended by some of the same misery and tumult that accompanied Frodo’s flaycation on Mt. Doom.

Gym Dandy

As my tone may suggest, I am not running back to the gym in a gauzy, wildflower-strewn spirit of reunion. This is purely a business decision—the business of remaining technically alive and more or less ambulatory. When one’s limbs begin to resemble those of a toy Gumby—which is to say “thin, rubbery, and greenish”—it’s time to bite the bullet and re-enter the church of Jack LaLanne; the curly-haired, eternally buff fitness pioneer who lived to the age of 96 and was likely interred flexing his undiminished biceps. Jack LaLanne (pronounced “La-Lane”) changed everything.

Jack: row the boat ashore. 70th birthday celebrant putting his feet up.

Jack taught us that “working out” was not just for Charles Atlas types; that jumping jacks and leg lifts and barbells and herniated coils of intestine springing out like colored streamers at a surprise party—these pleasures could be had by you and me, too. Jack publicly celebrated his 70th birthday by lashing himself to a like number of rowboats (many of them peopled by awed volunteers) and dragging the flotilla across Long Beach Harbor via breast stroke. To honor Jack, I aspire to a related feat of strength. I would very much like to be able to lift an oar (or anything, really) without becoming light-headed and nauseous. So I’ve set the bar pretty high. In the run-up to this new fitness epoch I have developed an iron-willed mantra to see me through. I shall say it to the mirror every morning on rising. “By gosh, I can probably do this for a little while.” Yowza!!

Natural Selection Reconnection

Why do we do it? What poignant Darwinian programming has us strutting ceremonially about the Leg Extension machine like pigeons walking an anthropologically foreordained figure eight? We are but animals, and nowhere is this clearer than in the community gym. There the men and the ladies circle warily in their ritual garb (some of it regrettably translucent), dancing an ancient minuet around the Abs Cruncher, Calf Rotator, and Torso Tormentor, affecting sidelong inspections of one another in the inescapable mirrored walls; a choreography as striking as the mating prance of the Blue-Footed Booby. In the workout room we are once again protean, base animals. We are the Dung Beetle proudly rolling his outsized ball of crap through a steaming rain, we are the ghastly Hagfish, an undersea denizen so repulsive its natural predators have to cover their eyes when they eat. The daily obeisance to vibrant “health” is in fact the elaborate care and feeding of our animal natures.

We are, after all, cocooned in our office towers, besieged as by an attacking army of beige office machines, slotted into our cubicles like factory-farmed functionaries. We no longer chase our food across the veldt, no longer hurl heavy stones in self-defense, no longer sit recklessly astride talking dinosaurs to which we have perilously attached English riding saddles. What wild glory is left to capture in this denuded world finds its contemporary incarnation in the gym. We rejoin the spirits of our primordial elders in the gym—find our spirits in the strain and pull of the purely physical, a tendon-ripping, capillary-bursting Hero’s Journey of reconnection with the Ur Self. And some days they give you a little terrycloth towel when you walk in, which is pretty cool.

Morning is Broken

How to describe the early morning gym routine? You leave the house under watchful starlight, giddy at your own fortitude. You arrive at the gym as birdsong begins haltingly to greet the gently rising sun. From the salve of dawn twilight you blearily enter a jarring fluorescent chamber alive with the scent of hormonal exertion and the clanging of metalloid collisions. The regulars there are already in the throes of self-improvement, staring into the mirrored walls with tanned, terrified expressions and dead-lifting momentously heavy metal, every exposed inch of flesh a crazed craquelure of distended pulsing veins, jugulars bulging on either side of the neck in hydraulic distress—pipes about to fail in a submarine disaster movie.

Stepping gingerly around the vibrating muscle-folk, you silently take your place on the cardio machine and open your little magazine. Before work begins on your own muscle groups in their various states of atrophy, one must get the lifeblood pumping throughout the cathedral of the body, and this means finding and maintaining that doctor-recommended cardio sweet spot you’ve noted time and again on the brightly colored poster in her office. With your physician’s help you have identified the optimum workout heart rate for your age, weight, and body mass. Now it is just a matter of pushing a few buttons and climbing a hellish electronic stairway to delirium.

In short order your heart muscle is ululating like electrified jelly, agony radiating out from the chest and into the deepest corners of every extremity you own. The medical establishment recommends maintaining this state of pain-maddened panic for 20 minutes, or until you begin staring wildly about, waving your helpless stick-arm for help and hoarsely screaming through a gaping, seemingly toothless pie hole. There. You’ve done your cardio. You will devote your remaining dregs of energy to the muscle groups, once you’ve shakily crawled to the weight machines on all fours and frightened your workout compatriots with your high-pitched, ghostly moaning.

This is the path to vibrant good health. There’s a lot to look forward to and I am raring to go, baby. Here comes the determined, metabolically unstoppable new Jeff. It’s time to take my health seriously, time to act as though I know I am mortal and fragile and temporal, that my loved ones are counting on me to get healthy and stay healthy. I’m ready to roll. I can hardly wait till a week from Wednesday. Or thereabouts. Uh..you done with that?