Monday, July 27, 2009

Sweat, Muscles, and Starbucks: The Bizarre YMCA

About two years ago a tall, serious-looking Asian man walked into the gym at my local YMCA. He was wearing a full-length red sweatsuit, drinking a Starbucks coffee. He lingered for five minutes, staring, incredulously it seemed to me, at the people on the treadmills. I happened to be one of those people, so I stared back. He ignored me. Then, with sudden alarming purpose, he flung his leg, karate-style, into the open air. He repeated this high-flying gesture two or three times. Then he hopped, from foot to foot, like a boxer, for twenty minutes. Then he left.

The Asian man repeated this routine—same full-length sweatsuit, same Starbucks coffee, same karate chop— every day for nearly a week. Then, abruptly, he disappeared. A few members, I had heard, had complained. Some, I suppose, considered him a freaky nuisance. To me, he was a curiosity: I never once saw him sip his Starbucks coffee; nor did I ever see him put it down.

I’ve been a member of the Ambler YMCA for twelve years. I go three to nine times a week. I’m the tallish, skinny guy making an absolute scene on the treadmill: speed cranked to 10, sweat flying, lips pursed as if ready to shout, Fuck yeah! I get off the machine pouring sweat, lost in my own world, blaring Weezer on my iPod.

The Ambler Y, like most gyms, inspires bizarre behavior. I love it. My wife refuses to go to the Y with me. I embarrass her. I sing along to my iPod. I wear women’s t-shirts. I wear my sunglasses on the treadmill. The lenses make everything look bright and hopeful. Why is this so embarrassing?

What embarrasses me is the behavior of others. Just today, for example, a young, very thin girl grabbed the pull up bar. She dangled. Then she lifted her legs and started peddling, as if on a bicycle. Atrocious. I watched in wide-eyes anger and wondered: Who does she think she is? When she was done she hopped down, took a look at a notebook. The cover announced, ostentatiously, Penn Athletics.

Younger kids, college athletes, I guess, carry these official notebooks around they gym in open defiance of the Y’s unspoken commandment: You Shall Not Try to Look Cool. But the exercises these kids perform look so uncool, so senseless, really, that I wonder if there’s a conspiracy among coaches, a sadistic plan to keep athletes obedient to the rigors of team and sport. The plan is simple: Make athletes look repellent to potential boyfriends or girlfriends.

One kid, a Villanova stud (a stud, at least, according to his own swagger), grabs a 25 pound weight, plops down, and vigorously smashes the weight on the ground, to his right and left, for twenty, thirty repetitions. It’s obscene, a loud display of—what? Strength?

Last week, I sort of moped around, stretching, until Villanova Swagger showed up. He commenced his smashing routine. I stared at him until I caught his eye. We stared at each other for a few seconds before he turned away. Victory! Or maybe not: I think he turned to his friend and made fun of my shorts.

Anyway. I suppose athletic programs offer better guidance than Men's Health. Here's a real article title from the magazine: "Silly Exercises, Serious Results: These 12 exercises may look ridiculous but we guarantee they’ll build strength, muscle and stamina."

I can spot the Men’s Health guy immediately: He’s the guy performing the strange abdominal exercises on the giant red ball.

Does Men’s Health only advocate exercises that replicate the motions of sex? And why must Men’s Health Guy combine the red ball exercise with the gym’s most ostentatious object: the 45 pound weight? Is it really necessary to perform sit-ups while holding a 45 pound weight, not to mention: You’re on a fucking giant red ball?

If this is the way to get a six-pack it's not worth it.

I’ve accumulated many comfortable strangers at the Y. Last year, a blond girl I noticed from the Y approached me and my wife at a local bar. She was drunk, obviously, and she seemed to move in exactly the same way she did, sober, on the elliptical machine.

"You sweat a lot," she said to me.

"I know," I said. "I’m a sweaty man."

"It’s sexy."


"Your wife sweats too."

She was one of the two or three most famous Y members. Apparently, she had also approached our friends Charlie and Trish. "You sweat a lot," she had told them, and then proposed an ménage a trois. She was pretty in a did that girl just propose a threesome? kind of way, but the night we met her she was wearing a pair of last season’s UGGS. When I saw her the next day at the Y she ignored me. She fascinated us for a few weeks before she disappeared, a la Karate Chop Man.

I go to the Y before dinner. I determine my work-out based on the presence of this one guy—a guy I’ve met and talked too. I’ve forgotten his name. He greets me amiably ("Hi, Seth!"), yet the relationship has devolved, on my part, to a nod. I determine my work-out based on how best to avoid this guy. If he’s lifting weights, I’ll run on the treadmill, and vice versa.

I like to get in and out. Sometimes I’ll see Trish, end up gabbing for twenty minutes. I’ll see Charlie and we'll recreate our high-school athletics days, on the swim team: throw-downs, squat-thrusts.

Sometimes, the nice man with the mustache talks to me. Sometimes, he follows me around from exercise to exercise. He flirts and I tell him: I’m married He doesn’t believe me.

The only way to deal is to strap on my iPod, blare Weezer, and exercise, mutely fascinated, maybe a little scared of all the sweat and muscles.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Great Writing Speaks from the Heart

Last January, just after I came home from winter residency, I fell ill with bronchitis. My doctor prescribed antibiotics. I suffered a gripping moral dilemma. I called my doctor.

Antibiotics are harmful, I said. I'm not taking antibiotics.

She said—she actually said: Okay, but you risk death.

I took the antibiotics. I flopped on the couch for five days, recovered from the bronchitis, and suffered the side-effects of the treatment: low-grade fever, chills, stomach cramps, massively high blood-sugar, and a feeling of despondency. I Googled, too. My antibiotic, ZITHROMAX®, I learned, is the one antibiotic that might cause mental imbalance.

I also read books. I read Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I read Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men.

A passage in Gessen’s novel (about a literary hero named Morris Binkel)--the passage, not the novel--struck me:

"Binkel called for a renewal of an adversary culture – the young writers of today, said Binkel, were social climbers, timid and weak; they stood around at parties in New York waiting to be noticed, waiting to be liked. He reserved his especial scorn for his own people, for young Jewish writers, who had once been the bravest and the most outrageous, and now were the most timid, the most polished, kow-towing to their elder’s ideas of orthodoxy and demeanor…No one spoke anymore from the heart, said Binkel, and it was a shame."

I wasn’t sure whether Gessen was actually making fun of the “adversary culture,” at least in the way Binkel talks about it (Binkel, in the end, turned out to be an embodiment of abject unhappiness). But the idea spoke to me as a worthy pronouncement: great writing speaks from the heart.

Roberto Bolaño [Source]
Reading Gessen’s book after Bolaño’s book I felt different forces at work--different voices speaking from different places. Gessen’s book, engaged eruditely with politics, sex, and the modern slacker milieu is product of a keen, wry mind. The sentences are compact; the chapters compact. The novel reads briskly. It seems carefully planned, executed, revised: a calculated affair. Bolaño's book, on the other hand, engaged with politics, sex, and its own (strange) milieu, is a torrent, sloppy in places, ugly in places, sometimes maddening.

I adored The Savage Detectives.

Gessen’s book wowed me. I was impressed with the pacing, the intellectual rigor. In the end, though, the writing was lifeless, as if Gessen were following some formula he had learned at the great institutions he had attended.

Natasha Wimmer writes in her introduction to The Savage Detectives:

“For Bolaño and the others, rejecting a career in poetry was a way of taking poetry as seriously as life itself—and vice versa. If the author lived what he wrote in spirit, Bolaño liked to say, the reader would naturally feel the urgency and live it too:” If the poet is caught up in things; the reader will have to be caught up.”

To me, Gessen’s book is just too smart, too polished. The moments of introspection and passion come off as hackneyed.

I like messiness. I think you find that in great books: in Bolaño’s book or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Life of Oscar Wao. To call Diaz “messy” might seem ridiculous, but I mean that as a compliment. the courage to be messy, to put the mess of life on the page, with its quirks and idiosyncrasies (the characters in Gessen’s book are NOT weird) and let it stand, despite what it might do to the pace, the plot.

Now I’m reading (fighting?) Bolaño’s 2666. For vast stretches of pages I’ve found myself utterly absorbed. Recently, I had to take a break from the book to read Peter Benchley’s JAWS. 2666 crushes me; JAWS entertains me (even as it freaks me out). As the reviews on the back cover suggest it’s “tightly written”, “tautly paced”, “a fine story told with style, class, and splendid feeling for suspense.”

2666 is often tight, taut, and suspenseful, but it’s also tedious (and it’s often the opposite of tight: unwound, massive). And yet, the sole review on its book jacket calls it “one of the cornerstones that define an entire literature.”

Why do the messy books always end up defining an entire literature?

I like what Bolaño himself has to say about it, in 2666, in the guise of one of his characters, Amalfitano, who has just asked a young pharmacist: What books do you like? What books do you read?

"Amalfitano asked him…just to make conversation. Without turning the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Christmas Carol…there was something revelatory about the taste of the bookish young pharmacist…who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no real interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."

What is that something?

I call it heart: bloody, wounded, reeking of mess. Great books, to me, show something of the struggle of the writer and craftsman, but they also show the struggles of a human being, the messy, ugly (and beautiful) life. Of course, not every book has to be about real combat. But really, if you're not fighting why write?