Pumping iron

This was written shortly before the author’s 40th birthday

Sam Smith, 1977- I have been quietly pumping iron for about twenty years. I began weightlifting in college at the end of a long, miserable association with youthful sports that had left me alternately indifferent to and afraid of my body. I learned to ignore it, convincing myself that the vehicle that carried my brain was of no import, that my wits would flourish no matter how rickety or soft their platform. By the end of my sophomore year I had hit 240 pounds of free-form corpulence. Some of my friends called me “Fat Jolly Sam” (“Fat Jolly” for short) and with my late night fourth meal of a roast beef sandwich (with Russian dressing) and a milkshake before or after impressive rounds of beer, and with little attention to either sleep or exercise, I did nothing to disappoint them.

I viewed exertion like French. One of the advantages of going to college was not having to take French anymore. Another was not have to exercise. Arriving at this point was not difficult in mid-fifties America. Nor is it today. Our school sports programs remain skewed towards those who need little encouragement to be fit or active. Those who lack skill or desire find themselves falling farther and farther behind those who early in life have demonstrated some athletic ability until the system simply throws up its hands and says, as it does in academic matters of slum children, “they are uneducable.” If one is dubbed a “bright student” the neglect is magnified, for who needs to run, hit or throw if one has a brain? The rewards, enthusiasm and assistance are in the classroom, so you go where the appreciation is and learn to view athletics as an intellectual rather than a physical test with the examination consisting of such questions as:

  • What is the least amount of time I need expose my flaccid spastic form to my peers and still get dressed?
  • Which position in soccer is least likely to produce a ball hurtling my way? And if it comes, which position is least likely to demonstrate to everyone my total lack of skill? I opted for goalie since my size gave me some advantage, I could touch the ball with any part of my body and usually did, I didn’t have to run much, and since everyone else’s mind was on scoring, my failures were minimized by the other players’ chagrin at having permitted the ball to arrive so far back in the first place.
  • Where does one stand so you get marked for attendance but are then for gotten by the coach?
  • What novel excuse can you come up with to avoid having to go out on that grizzly, mine-filled field at all?
  • How does one look nonchalant when teams are being chosen and you are the last one to be picked? Do you move towards the team that had the bad luck to choose you before or after the captain says your name with-disgusted resignation?

As far back as I can remember I was that last kid. The one they sent out to right field and then moved centerfield sharply over your way. When a stray ball would stream towards me, it came as a bullet. I could not catch it; I didn’t even want to catch it yet I had to try to act in a way that would conceal my feelings, if not my lack of coordination.

Winter sports were not so bad. Clearly incapable of playing basketball and with no one hinting the possibility that I might have been trained into a decent wrestler, I was assigned to calisthenics squad with the other eggheads, goof-offs and fatsos.  Neither we nor our instructors took this business seriously. We went through the motions and soon were safely back in class.

The closest I came to enjoying sports in school — I liked soccer but wasn’t proficient enough to enjoy it — was in the spring. Our track team was not all that good and the nature of track and field events suited my situation. What humiliation existed was mercifully brief. At the shotput I was sufficiently skillful to avoid being noticed. And most of the time you just stood around, which was my idea of the ideal sport. The shotput should have been a clue that there was, even in me, some untapped physical potential, but neither I nor my coaches caught it. It wasn’t important. After all I was meant to write, think and get good grades.

I went to college determined to put the nightmare of athletics behind me. I made the sailing team; that was sport enough for me. In the first two years of college I gained fifty-five pounds and with it a still greater aversion to physical activity. I even gave up sailing.  Then a doctor scared me. Tentatively, cautiously, I began visiting the gym and lifting weights.  There was so much else going on and I had so little hope of any shape other than that of an humanoid Goodyear blimp that I did not take it too. seriously at first.

But even the token effort helped. The pounds began to disappear as quietly and inexplicably as they had arrived and within one year after college I was back down to 190. It was, in my own view, an amazing achievement, perhaps the most impressive thing I had been able to accomplish in my first couple of decades, but it was not on my resume nor did I dare mention it too often, for while it was acceptable to boast of a promotion, new job, girl- friends or psychological traumas, it was not fashionable to speak of one’s body, even if you had just rescued it from a near certain cliff job. I kept on lifting anyway.

Instead of avoiding exercise surreptitiously, as I had before, I now partook of it the same way, for just as society rewarded the high school athlete, it was indifferent or even somewhat critical of the post-college jock, except for such socially approved endeavors as tennis. Then, while serving in the Coast Guard, President Kennedy declared physical fitness a Good Thing. The military snapped to, and out at the St. Louis head- quarters of the Second Coast Guard District they looked around for a physical fitness officer and settled on the kid from right field. For the first time in my life, three years out of college, I was actually helping someone else learn how to do something physical because I was better.

Putting creaking commanders and beer-bellied petty officers through those sessions, I would sometimes grin a at the thought of what my fellow fatsos, eggheads and goof-offs from high school would think if they could see me now. Returning to Washington and writing after the Coast Guard, I dove into a pleasant marriage and a tumultuous political era, neither designed to maintain one’s condition. By the end of the sixties I had put on 40 pounds again. I decided to try to beat my metabolism into submission one more time before middle age. I began working out more seriously and when I hit 35, started running for the first time, something I had decided back on the high school track was a psychological impossibility for me for lengths greater than 100 yards. The weight dropped again, although far more slowly than before, and my heart beat more leisurely. And sometime between then and now I decided that if I were not to have to go through all this again — would I have the will?— I would have to regard myself as a proto-plasmic junkie, that because of my pituitary gland or other internal mystery, inactivity acted upon my body like a tire pump and that I would have to choose be- tween a high level of conditioning or simply bloating up.

I was no more secure than the abstaining alcoholic. Only premeditated remission from corpulence and sloth would, work. So there you have it.  A nice tidy justification for weightlifting and running down Connecticut Avenue with a back- pack instead of driving with my attache case stowed next to me or an occasional game of tennis.  Reasonable and prudent. Only there is one thing I haven’t told you. I like it. You don’t push heavy weights around for twenty years or run in twenty degree weather when you’re almost forty just be because it’s good for you. Or at least I don’t. It is true that by the time you are forty, weight control can add five years on the average to your life so if you figure it out you’ll find that even if you were to exercise two hours every day you’d still end up with more time to do what you want to do then if you had let yourself age and fatten normally.

It is true that running has all sorts of cardiovascular benefits and that, contrary to many sports, running and weightlifting are two activities that can be engaged “in well into one’s years with any diminution in strength and speed still leaving you far ahead of the general populus years younger. And it is also true, as the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports noted, “that 50 million adult Americans never exercise; that youth fitness test scores have not improved since 1965; that the number and quality of school physical education programs are declining; that the rejection rate for volunteers for military service is far too high, and that degenerative diseases associated with obesity and physical inactivity have reached the epidemic stage.”

All that’s true, but I wouldn’t keep pumping iron or running on the basis of that alone.  Fortunately there are other factors. I like being muscular and in good shape. I like pressing against stubborn objects, political or iron. I like sweating and tiring myself out at a physical activity. I like trying to do more than I could do last week. I like feeling a physical being rather than just a bipedal brain. I used to think of my brain as the boss of my body but now I view my body as more a collective with the various parts working, hopefully, as a happy commune. I no longer view exercise as time out from the important things. I like to think of writing as a physical as well as a mental act and of actions making words possible as well as the other way around.



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