Those of us who have entered the period of our “mature years” are well-acquainted with the nature of bodily aches, and we are also familiar with the equally painful fact that culture changes constantly, a truth that can sometimes make us feel even older. Events occasionally conspire in ways that force us to endure both sorts of bruising simultaneously, and I want to describe one such trial in my life. I know that many other people have had similar experiences of time’s ungentle passing, and so I dedicate this posting to all of my readers who are “aging gracefully.”
About three years ago, harassed by my sensitive and supportive sons, who kept referring to me as “Mr. Decrepitude,” I decided that I needed to become involved in a disciplined exercise program, and so I joined an athletic club.
My only previous involvement with such an institution occured during my teen years, when I regularly visited a local YMCA. But nothing in that earlier experience had prepared me for the discovery that there are immense differences between the gym of my boyhood and a modern athletic club.
At the entrance to the locker room of the Y, sitting behind a grease-stained counter, was Jimmy, the elderly attendant. Jimmy had cold, fish-like eyes, and he always smoked a cheap cigar; he was not an especially friendly person, for despite the fact that I went to the gym almost every week for five years, he never bothered to learn my name. When I arrived, he would stare at me through a cloud of tobacco smoke and ask, “Want a locker?” My athletic club is clean and bright. The friendly young people who work behind the counter of the service desk always greet me by name. The air is clear, partly because no one smokes.
To call the locker room at the Y dingy or dank would be to compliment it; the place always exuded the heady bouquet of rancid socks. The lockers looked as if they had been made out of boilerplate, and they had not been cleaned since the days of the Harding administration. It was best not to look at the floor. The locker room at the club is spotless, and the well-scrubbed lockers even smell clean. I can sit on the floor and do stretches without fear of contracting a disease little-known outside of third-world countries.
Workout clothing has evolved in remarkable ways. When I exercised at the gym, I donned a plain t-shirt and gray cotton sweatpants, there was no such thing as “athletic footwear,” and no one bought a second pair of “running shoes” in which to jog. In those days, everyone wore generic sneakers, and no one “jogged” – he did “road work.” At the club, almost everyone wears attractive workout wear that sometimes looks as if it had been created by fashion designers. Embarrassed by what they call my “troglodyte look,” my sons convinced me to buy more contemporary athletic clothes, but they still don’t want to be seen with me at the club, since I purchased shoes and shirts that bear the logos of “low status companies.”
The gym at the Y was decidedly “no frills”; an aspiring athlete could choose between dumbbells and free weights. There were a few ancient machines with pulleys and weights, but they were always broken. If anyone told Jimmy that something needed repairing, he’d glower and say, “Then fix it yourself.” The club not only has free weights, but it also has incredible cybex machines. I cannot imagine what Jimmy would think of treadmills and exercise bikes, though I am certain that he would never offer to fix a broken one.
If a person had a notably masochistic nature, he could ask one of the YMCA coaches for advice. My coach made just two suggestions, which he screamed at every possible opportunity: “You need to sweat more,” and “I don’t see no bone, and so you can’t be hurt much.” When he wasn’t repeating these coaching mantras, he was blowing his whistle. The club has trainers who actually know what they are doing. None of them has ever yelled at me. If I pull a muscle, one of them kindly offers, “No strain, no pain,” and no one carries a whistle.
And what would my coach make of the new exercise vocabulary? He would understand the “card” part of “cardiovascular,” because he loved to play poker. Yoga? “Nah, anything made of milk gives me gas.” Jazzercize? “What size?” Isometric? “I don’t know no tricks.” Creatine? “You’re callin’ me a what?”
I know that there is one change that neither my coach nor Jimmy could possibly accept: there are women at the club. People of the female persuasion, coach. Those are girls, Jimmy. I saw women at the YMCA only once, during a Christmas food drive run by a local mothers’ group, but females were never permitted in the gym. The atmosphere at the club is sociable; men and women sometimes talk casually while they are working out, and, in consequence, they occasionally fail to sweat. My coach would not approve: “These people are lackin’ in focus.” The club even thoughtfully provides child care for mothers who wish to remain fit. I am sure that Jimmy and my coach would view these changes as proof positive that Western Civilization has entered a period of irreversible moral decline.
When I finished my workout at the gym, I’d head for the showers, if they were working. The showers at the club are, of course, splendid, and an attendant provides everyone with a towel. Before my shower, I can relax in a sauna or soothe my weary muscles in a whirlpool bath. Afterward, I can spend time on a tanning bed. I doubt if my coach had ever heard anyone speak the word “sauna.”
I cannot imagine what Jimmy might say about some of the other items in the club locker room that had no equivalent at the YMCA, but in my imagination I like to ask him provocative questions: “Jimmy, do you think that we should change to a shampoo and conditioner that has more citrus nuances?,” or, “Didn’t you notice
that we’re running a bit low on hand lotion?” What he would reply to my final question does not bear thinking about: “Jimmy, I’m stuck with wet hair; when is someone going to fix the blow-dryer?”
There was a Coke machine beside Jimmy’s desk, but it was usually empty. Naturally, no one dared complain to Jimmy about it, and you never asked him for change: “What do I look like – a damn bank?” The club offers its members bottled water (Jimmy: “Bottled what?”) and a variety of diet soft drinks (Coach: “Dye it what?”). There is a snack bar at the club, and I would rather not speculate about Jimmy’s possible response to the question, “Could I interest you in a banana-mango-kiwi smoothie?”
Occasionally, odd things will revive memories of my days at the YMCA. I’ll spot someone at the club wearing gray sweatpants, or I’ll overhear a person saying, “You need to sweat more,” and I suddenly feel thirty years younger, at least in spirit. But occasionally I feel the tectonic plates of time shifting deep within my psyche, as when a youthful clerk at the desk innocently greets me with, “Do you need a locker today?” I know that the club is immensely superior to the YMCA gym, but sometimes, inhaling its clear, refreshing air, I grow whistful for the smell of a cheap cigar.
The facilities at the club are first-rate, but time has diminished my own “physical equipment” to the point that it is about as run down as the “weight machines” in the Y’s prehistoric gym. I confess that sometimes, when I leave the club, I will ask the attendant to give me change for a dollar, even though I don’t need it. Such is the power of nostalgia to affect the human heart, that when he smiles and graciously hands it to me, against all reason, I am saddened.
This posting first appeared as an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.