Noe Valley Voice May 1998

Gym Virgin: A Personal Essay

By Nicholas Wellington

I WENT TO THE GYM for the first time today. Not for the first time this week, or this month, or even this year -- for the first time in my life.

Don't misunderstand me -- I'm no sedentary sofa snoozer. I take brisk walks up Twin Peaks and ride my mountain bike through the Marin Headlands. But going to a gym? That is an alien notion. At least it was until The Rains of '98, with one rainy day following another.

You see, I grew up with the view that exercise should be moderate, improving of body and mind, and integrated rather than segregated from daily life. My father walked to work early every morning. My mother walked the dog every afternoon. My family hiked -- for an appreciation of Views and The Land, not for any aerobic purpose. (I don't believe I heard the word "aerobic" before coming to the United States.)

In short, my family was not part of the athletic fascism that engulfed white South Africa in the '60s and '70s -- they neither watched nor played Sport.

At that time, rugby was supreme. Slightly lower in Pretoria's pantheon were cricket, golf, and boxing (especially when a white South African battled a black American). Next came soccer, hockey, and squash. But rugby -- playing rugby, coaching rugby, watching rugby, listening to rugby on crackling transistor radios -- was the bedrock of white South Africa.

When I went to boarding school, I developed an aversion to Sport. I hid in the piano practice rooms to avoid being corralled into the afternoon's sporting events. Sometimes I succeeded and spent a couple of quiet hours perched on a squeaky chair at the piano. Other times zealous prefects ferreted me out, yanked me off the chair, scattered pages of Schubert and Mozart, and conscripted me onto the loathsome playing fields and dusty roads. More frequently, I was betrayed by peers filled with righteous rage that I was daydreaming at the piano while they scrummed and rucked and tackled.

However, to say that I have never gone to a gym before is not entirely accurate. About a year into boarding school I discovered a way to avoid a large part of the reign of athletic terror: weightlifting. At this school weightlifting was a small and largely unrecognized sport -- so small and unrecognized that no teacher or prefect supervised it. I realized that I could sign up to do weightlifting three afternoons a week and no one would ever know if I actually did it.

On the first day of the next semester, instead of hiding in the music rooms, I signed up for weightlifting on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoons. Always prudent, I immediately took myself down to the gym where I believed the weightlifting room to be. And there, behind an elephantine mound of bulging heavy leather balls (known for some strange reason as "medicine balls") was a dark, stained door.

On the other side was an airless chamber. I went in and closed the door. The brightness of the late summer day was muted through the grime and cobwebs over the high window. I placed some weights on a metal rod and picked it up. The weights slid off and took out a good-sized chip of concrete floor.

The room itself was very silent, but in the distance I heard the percussive thump thump of bouncing basketballs. There was a shower room on the other side of the wall, and boys' yelps rose above the roar of the showers as they flicked each other with twisted-up wet towels. I examined the racks of weights and poles, memorizing the names of the pieces of equipment and the increments of the weight sizes.

This done, I felt adequately equipped to answer questions about weightlifting -- how to do it, where to do it, and what it smelled like. However, over the next four years no one ever checked to see if I pumped iron three afternoons a week (although one look at me should have made the answer obvious).

My closest shave came in a poetry class a few weeks after my weightlifting regimen began. Reading two poems from the textbook, one by Ted Hughes and one by Sylvia Plath, Mr. Farfield asked if anyone knew what a bell jar was. I shot up my hand, ready to show off my new expertise. Mr. Farfield nodded and I proudly explained that a bell jar was a long metal pole with weights at each end. Mr. Farfield shuddered hideously and my classmates sniggered into their desks.

"I think you're referring to a barbell, not a bell jar," he retorted dismissively. "Do you seriously think that Sylvia Plath named a book after a piece of weightlifting equipment?"

"No, sir," I answered, shamefaced. But more questioning followed, and I blabbed out that I pulled weights three times a week.

"Pulled weights?" he sniffed. "I can imagine you pulling a lot of things, but I've never heard of anyone pulling weights."

The classroom erupted in delighted mirth. From then on, Mr. Farfield referred to me as "our learned friend from the world of professional weightlifting."

* * *

SO IF TRUTH BE TOLD, I had gone to a "gym" before -- but only to avoid muddy melees of snarling boys, sunbaked wickets, and barking coaches with polyester safari suits and slicked-down hair.

Today I was entering USF's Koret Center. "If you're going to go to a gym," a friend advised, "then go to Koret. You won't regret it."

Indeed, it was another world. The young woman at the front desk smiled as she took my money. Just the sight of her -- a woman -- in a gym -- was disconcerting in a "what's wrong with this picture" sort of way. Gentle music rather than stampeding schoolboys followed me as I joined serene members walking to the locker rooms. Daylight poured through glass walls and skylights, even on this bleak gray day.

Before, Sport overwhelmed me with anxieties about how to catch a ball and keep my collarbone intact. Now I was overwhelmed by the idiosyncracies of the combination lock, the complexity of the locker room regulations, the arsenal of exercise hardware, and the array of flickering buttons that faced me when I sat down on an exercise bicycle.

I think of cycling as a challenge between rider and road, but in the gym the challenge was in the programming. I needed a working knowledge of C++, Java, and who knows what other computer languages to make a selection among "random" cycling, "hills," and "fitness testing," and then to choose the duration, the degree of difficulty, and a host of other variables.

While everyone else plumped down, easily punched in a few numbers, and got pedaling right away, my attempts unfailingly ended with "ERROR" messages. The truculent programming box finally accepted one of my selections, and I found myself doing the Markleeville death race: I could not move the pedals without standing up and heaving down. The pedal-strokes-per-minute counter plunged to dangerously low levels. I swabbed sweat from my eyes with one hand and stabbed at the buttons with the other. Each button beeped noisily, distracting the other bikers from their novels and magazines, and every beep advertised my incompetence: "That man has been on his bicycle for 10 minutes and he still hasn't programmed it!"

After a few more error messages, I was unexpectedly and inexplicably released from the uphill portion of the death ride. The pedals started to spin faster -- 80, 100, 120 rpm. Free of all resistance, my legs spun wildly, a two-wheeled equivalent of a Twin Peaks condo sliding in heavy rains from Corbett to Castro. Once again, I punched feverishly at the keyboard, hoping to slow my pace before my scapulas separated.

Finally I found myself in the "random" option, which is like bicycling through a San Francisco in which the seven hills have been sculpted into 700 mini hills. I settled for this peculiar pattern, and my pedaling cohort, relieved from my incessant beeping, returned to their reading matter.

It had not occurred to me to bring a book to go riding, so I could only look around. My fellow bikers appeared detached, mysteriously transported by the New Yorker or Esquire to a place of mind very distant from their sweating bodies. I began to resent them, to despise their smug self-absorption.

In the distance, across the road from the gym, I watched a plump woman sitting in an armchair reading the newspaper. Occasionally she'd stretch out, pick up a large mug of coffee, and take a gulp. I became consumed with envy for her good sense and comfort. Forcibly averting my eyes, I looked up at the dull sky and the rain beating down on the glass skylight, and finally down at the only other object in my field of vision -- the wretched programming box.

Virtual hills and digital dales fluoresced before me. Flashing counters deluged me with data about my heartbeat, distance traveled, miles per hour, pedal rotations, calories per hour, total calories, and more.

The sign above the exercise bicycles limited their use to 30 minutes, and I was relieved, after exactly 30 minutes, to feel duty-bound to dismount.

I looked at the stairmasters and stepmasters, the treadmills, the rowing machines, and the skiing machines -- casually curious, but unwilling to embarrass myself again. Instead, I returned to the locker room and reread the regulations. I decided that swimming was the least hazardous and humiliating activity.

With some difficulty, I unlocked the combination lock, stripped, stuffed my clothes in the locker, locked the locker, showered, dried, returned to the locker, unlocked it, put on my swimsuit, put away my glasses, locked the locker, and alarmed several hirsute men by stumbling through the locker room and showers, peering (without my glasses) for the way to get to the pool. I eventually found it. At least swimming hadn't changed much since my last acquaintance -- no buttons to select.

By the time I returned home, over three hours had passed. I had driven seven miles in my car, walked six blocks to and from parking places, cycled 10 miles on an exercise bike, and swum one mile.

If it had not been such a miserable rainy day -- the umpteenth in umpteen days -- in that time I could have gotten on my mountain bike and ridden 40 miles down Valencia, up to the Panhandle, through the Presidio, over the bridge, into the Headlands, out through Tennessee Valley, and back through Sausalito.

But the rain keeps falling. Tomorrow I might have to get in the car and return to that gym. And it won't be because of the culture of boarding schools and white South Africa. Instead, it will be just one more thing to blame on El Niño.

Nicholas Wellington has lived in the Bay Area since 1984 and in Noe Valley since 1991. He writes and bikes and has been back to the gym twice since he wrote this essay.