the diary thing 
sh - shoeIT'S BEEN A MONTH NOW since I marched down to the West End YMCA and took out a membership. Two memberships, actually -- one for K. and one for me, on the "family plan" -- and it was about time, since I'd been talking about it for, oh, maybe a couple of years.

The motivating impulse was simple enough -- my sister turning to me one day and, in a quiet voice, mentioning that heart attacks were unusually common among the men in my family. Getting winded when I took down the garbage and recycling every Monday night, three flights of stairs, up and down, twice in a row. That, and not being able to fit into about a dozen pairs of pants, most of them custom-tailored. And being all too aware of the spare tire around my middle when I bent over, or leaned forward, or lounged in my "man chair" in front of the tv.

I'm getting married in a few months, and I wanted to be in good shape -- prime goods, bought at their peak of freshness. I suppose I also didn't want to leave K. a widow at 40. So I buckled down, paid my money, and went out to look for workout clothes and a decent pair of running shoes.

SHOPPING FOR RUNNING SHOES is a great way of feeling like a mouldy old fig. A couple of months ago, I needed a new pair of runners for the summer, to replace a worn-out pair of Adidas Campus. I ended up finding a pair of "retro" blue suede Pumas in a club kid shoe store on Queen Street -- the only thing I could imagine putting on my feet that didn't make me feel like a ragged old punk (a pair of Converse high tops will do that nicely) or a middle-aged frump (nice Rockports, grandpa.) But the search was hard and long, and I ended up looking at too many pairs of over-engineered Nikes and Reeboks, shoes that look like they would be turned down by the costume designers of "Bablyon 5" for being too futuristic.

So here I am, looking for a proper pair of running shoes, the kind with real arch and ankle support, shock-absorbing soles, breathability -- the whole nine yards that these wild, forward-looking sneaks are supposed to provide, but at an extortionary price of about $120 a pair. I don't have that kind of money, and practically shuddered every time I picked up a pair of Nike Shox, but managed to find a serviceable pair of Reebok cross-trainers, in white with black accents, that were on sale after being discontinued -- for being too 1998, obviously.

"People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and in the subway."
- Simeon Strunsky
No Mean City

In which your humble narrator attempts to fend off mortality and discovers the touching plurality of the human condition.

And then I tried to buy a pair of shorts, some gym pants, t-shirts and socks. Good luck. The stores that sell the overdesigned shoes carry these lines of "sportswear" -- all branded, usually with the insidious "swoosh" -- that seem more suited to hanging out in the 'hood that actually sweating in. I mean, I thought I really didn't care how I looked while red-faced and sweat-soaked among strangers at the Y, but I just couldn't imagine myself in these shiny, multicoloured, space-age synthetic ensembles, looking like the unhip gym teacher at a second-rate private school straining vainly for some credibility with his sneering students.

Old Navy to the rescue -- the only place that sells simple gray fleece sweatpants and cotton t-shirts unfestooned with branding. And cheap, too. I have never complained about the Gap/BanRep/Ol' Navy empire, as it would be -- just root around my closet, I dare you -- the height of hypocrisy for me. And now I never will. Add the cheap ten-dollar shoulder bag from the fly-by-night luggage store in the former McDonalds on Yonge Street, and I'm gym ready.

WHEREUPON I DISCOVER how woefully out of shape I am. I mean, I didn't think I was any Greg Louganis or Mark Spitz -- hell, I'm not even Arnold Palmer -- but it was a real blow to my ego. Two circuits of the indoor running track and I'm gasping for breath. Five minutes on the step machine and I'm calling for the paramedics. Let's not talk about the ab-roller. It's hard to do sit-ups, even with the aid of a rolling frame, when your gut is getting in the way. Damn. I felt like I should have just tossed the Reeboks and Old Navy in the trash and set out to work on my Whittaker Chambers impression.

That was a month ago. I'm getting better, thanks to two or three trips to the Y every week. K. says I've lost a bit of the paunch, and I can manage fifteen minutes on the stationary cycles -- ten on the treadmill -- without too many concerned looks from the nearby gym rats. I've regained some muscle tone on the arms and shoulders. I'm getting addicted to the endorphin rush. Some days, I leave the Y itching for an arm-wrestling contest -- with Stephen Hawking. I still have to be realistic.


In addition to decent runners, I've learned about the wisdom of sensible workout underwear, after making the mistake of working out in my usual boxers. (It you're not a guy, you probably won't get this.)

There's a spot on the male anatomy, a spot that tends to chafe and ache after an hour or so of running and fast walking. It's a spot that has no official name, as far as I know, but I've heard it called the "taint". It's an obscure spot -- a short stretch of skin you'll never see without a mirror -- between the rectum and the scrotum, an unsightly bit of anatomy that's gratefully invisible -- until it starts to burn, making the walk home from the gym a bigger ordeal than just aching muscles and gasping lungs.

Why do they call it the taint? Well, 'taint your balls, and 'taint your asshole. Hyuk hyuk. Ba-boom.

I WORK OUT FOR ABOUT AS LONG as it takes to finish off a one-litre bottle of water. That's about an hour and a half, most days. It's more time spent in the proximity of other humans than I've had in years. 

No one talks, or not very much, at the Y. Here in Toronto, the Y -- certainly the West End Y -- is a bastion of political correctness, full of academics from the university afraid to share the campus gym with phys. ed. types, writers and journalists, social workers, released convicts, and young Portugese girls from the neighbourhood. Everybody is painfully respectful of each other's "space"; there's little in the way of the sexual frisson that apparently dominates the downtown Y, with its high gay quotient. 

So you watch -- covertly. Unless you're at the stationary cycles or the cross-trainer, there's little to do but stare ahead, which usually puts another person, at another machine, right in your line of sight. You watch, careful to swerve your glance away into neutral space if your glance is met. You adopt a glassy eyed, thousand-yard stare if you don't want to know that someone is watching you back. It's all very civilized. And you learn a lot about people, in a kind of ambivalent-misanthropic way.

Well, you learn a lot about the surface of people which is what the gym is all about, isn't it? You recognize the regulars, develop a sort of unspoken kinship with people whose lifestyle resembles yours enough that they're at the gym at the same time, every week. You look for the "celebrities" -- the odd media or movie type still "proletarian" enough to use the Y and not a private gym. These are the people that have made the Y "hip", oddly enough. 

You start separating your fellow workers-out into categories, like the "Iron Girls" -- those absurdly lean women, anywhere from 25 to 40, with the sinewy arms and long legs, hips worked off to boyish proportions, whose body fat level has been pushed down to single figures. They dress in modest, even puritan shades of black and blue, in tank tops and shorts, hair pulled back in a tight knot, their face fixed into a hard, objectless stare, resisting all overtures in the neverending quest for the perfect body.

Then there are the older men, well into middle age, battling stiffening joints and cardiac flutters in their thin t-shirts and well-worn New Balance shoes. They've ignored the advice to use the weight machines for creating resistance, to set the weights to a manageable group in order to do as many reps as possible, and opt for muscleaining stacks, which they jerk mightily, like free weights, teeth clenched and eyes slammed closed. After an hour, they practically stagger around the room, a stiff, shuffling dance of the death throes of macho.

THE YOUNGER MEN are more attuned to the feminine vibe that rules the conditioning room, so different from the free-weight room downstairs, where the upper-body testosterone monsters dwell. They're about my age, sometimes younger; gay or straight, it doesn't matter. They carefully do their stretches on the blue mats around the running track, throwing in a bit of yoga or tai chi. They're preening, but carefully, and there's more than a bit of vanity behind their workouts, though they'll insist that it's "for my health", tapping their chest just above their heart.

Sometimes this evolves to a level of self-parody, like "Tai Chi Guy", pointed out to me by my friend Julie on my second day at the gym. He's a bit top-heavy, with over-worked pectoral muscles like a young girl's breasts, a trimmed beard and a long, well-conditioned mane of hair. He wears a t-shirt shrunken with washing, scanty running shorts and ankle socks that have shrunk till they barely cover his heels. He does his tai chi haltingly, adjusting his poses as he stares ahead into the mirror. "He looks like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now," Julie whispers to me. He constantly tosses his hair as he works out. "My God, he's so creepy," Julie says, with a shudder.

Then there are the fat people, some of them truly, tragically obese. They're here for a good reason. You can imagine the doctor's appointment, the solemn advice that "no diet will help you as much as regular exercise". If this doesn't work, it's the stomach stapling. They're already sweating mightily as they do their preliminary stretches. On the treadmill, or the cross-trainer, they get ambitious, and try to slice away two or three hundred calories at a session, while everyone casts concerned glances their way. They sit at the weight machines, faces red and chests heaving, resting between reps. You see them maybe two or three times, then never again. 

There are the "Earth Mother" types, with thick middles and heavy breasts and huge, frizzy heads of hair, networking on the mats with the soft-spoken neuter males who sit on committees with them. And the "Hot Mamas", in their unitards and spandex, reading parenting magazines on the cross-trainer, dominating the leg and torso machines. There's "Workout Boy", who wears two or three layers of nylon, and sits at the "abdominator" for twenty minutes at a time, aching from multiple sets of reps, the weight stack groaning at well over a hundred pounds. And "The Ascetic", who works out in Teva sandals and marathon shorts and a tank top he got in Costa Rica; he'll book the treadmill for the thirty minute maximum, and stay on it till someone finally notices. When he's sitting at the lat pulldown machine, you can see his pecker.

THEN THERE'S THE SHOWER. It was the shower, probably, that secretly kept me from doing the Y thing for so long. Back in high school phys. ed., in an all-boys school, I dreaded the shower. Like almost every other unwilling member of gym class (phys. ed. was mandatory till grade 11), I never made the walk from the change room to the showers. It was the domain of the jocks, the bully-boy taunters, who'd wrap themselves in a towel and disappear into a cloud of steam. If you sat too close to the shower entrance, you could glimpse pink and tan through the mist, and hear their loud, barking taunts. They called you disgusting when you changed back into your school clothes, still sweating from running the track, but nothing could have convinced you to enter that steamy fug, naked and afraid. 

Once in a while, some skinny boy, unaware of their eminent domain, or simply and sensibly disgusted at his own stink, walked carefully across the wet tiles and turned on a shower jet. Then the taunting, the snap of a wet towel, the word "fag", which seemed powerfully ironic to us skinny boys, even then. "Hey, he's looking at my cock," the tight end would shout, mimicking outrage, to the goalie. "Are you looking at my cock, faggot?" and it would be a year before that skinny boy was relieved of the burden of "queer boy" and "butt bandit", before the relentless taunting would settle on some other, newer, unfortunate boy. I thought it was strange that the truly gay students -- secretly but, to me, since they were often my friends, obviously gay -- were never chosen for this torture, as it usually fell on the skinny, unathletic boy years from his first date, the smart but defiant geek, the proud misfit.

It's a shame that two years of St. Mike's phys. ed. should have kept me from the gym for most of my adult life. And so it was with faint curiosity -- and perhaps a touch of dread -- that I finished my first workout, stripped off the sweaty clothes (still, amazingly, redolent of that sweet-sour, sweat-shop sizing, "new clothes" aroma) tied a towel (barely) around my waist and headed for the showers with my shampoo and squeeze bottle of liquid soap. 

There's no cloud of steam, but with my glasses off, the effect is much the same. Shades of skin tone ranging from fish-belly white to sunburn livid to deep brown, sometimes on the same blurred body. Older men, men with foot troubles, European men more used to public baths, wear plastic shower sandals and sit in the steam room or the whirlpool. Not me -- five brisk minutes of washing and I'm padding back across the cold floor to my locker. 

With my glasses back on, an occasional glimpse around the room will make me feel, well, not so bad about my sorry state of health; sad paunches and pale, toneless flesh so clearly outnumbers the hardbody.

It's all so powerfully unsexual, and I imagine for a second that it was this kind of spectacle -- so humbling, so diverse, so basically banal -- that helped inspire and enforce ancient Greek notions of democracy. Naked and sweating, struggling to push back the borders of age and mortality, we're all essentially pathetic, in precisely the same ways.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
...the past
back to diary index
send me mail
the future...