Twenty-five years ago, my ass was round and high, like the cotton they sing about in Porgy and Bess. I worked out back then, vigorously. I turned down invitations to picnic in Central Park, missed seeing Kurosawa films at art houses and denied myself dates with cute drummers all because I would never skip the gym. It was my opinion that anyone who did not exercise for at least two hours a day was a jerk. Then again, I was 19. What did I know?
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I don't work out anymore. At all. It's quite possible that if the exerciser I was back then met the slacker I am now, I would kick my own ass. But my daughter is only at school until 2:45 p.m. during the week, which means I have 6 hours and 15 minutes each day to fill the cupboards with groceries, cook, clean, shower, do laundry, tidy up, earn a living and exercise. It turns out that I'm the jerk who can't get it all done.
The first thing I gave up was exercise, but I was still overwhelmed and behind schedule. I needed more time, so I carefully examined my life: Obviously, we could not forgo food or clean underwear; my bathing routine was down to the bare minimum as it was; and I did the least amount of housework possible. I looked at my days from every possible angle. I agonized. And then, suddenly, it was clear — the only thing to cut back on was being nice to my husband. We have a good relationship, so I didn't keep my decision from him. I said, "Honey, I have so many things on my list. I have to stop being nice to you. It simply takes too much time and effort right now."
At first, not being nice to my husband was relatively easy. I was out of shape and pudgy anyway, and, in the pursuit of efficiency, my showering and shaving had dwindled to the point of my feeling furry all over. I didn't want him to touch me, and I didn't want to touch him, lest he get any ideas. I rationalized that the trade-off for our lack of physical intimacy would be getting more done. But the situation was depressing. And depression, I knew, would eventually cut into my productivity. Plus, I started to feel bad for my husband. A friend said, "I think you should start exercising."
It shouldn't have been hard. After all, my husband, daughter, two cats and I share our apartment with a 7-foot-long, blond-wood machine known as a pilates reformer. I lived with it when I was single; at one time, it was my best friend. My husband has never been crazy about the thing — something about it taking up half our square footage. Even I admit that it resembles a modern Danish version of a medieval torture device, complete with ropes and pulleys. Worse, I haven't climbed aboard for five years, except to dust something behind it.
So I decided to join a gym. When I told my husband, he wasn't encouraging. "You can't even get yourself on that damn contraption, and we trip over it every day! The gym is four blocks away. Will you go?" He had a point. But my heart needs aerobics. My body needs to get strong. I gamble on a one-month trial membership. January Jumpstart calendar: New year, new you
I discover I don't like the gym. It's beyond me how I could have spent so much time in one when I was younger. Thanks to the glories of modern living, I am running in place on a machine that simulates outdoor activities, while listening to assaultive music, under unflattering lighting, beside all the mothers from the park I usually avoid. Still, I try to make polite conversation, usually along the lines of "Hi! How are you? How's Ethan? Really? You bought another apartment? No kidding! Yup, we still rent. I know, we should buy, but we can't afford a place big enough for the pilates machine." It's enough to make me wish I lived in a time when people got their exercise by farming and churning butter.
I am intrigued by a beret-wearing man at my gym who, every morning, tells his trainer all the foods he introduced into his diet the day before. Plus, I think his lunges are divine. I decide to hire his trainer for a session.
As it happens, his trainer, whose name is Ted, is also buying an apartment; the graceful lunger is giving him tips on up-and-coming neighborhoods. Maybe I would like some tips, too? Ted asks. "No, thanks," I say. "I can't afford to buy right now."
"That's too bad," Ted says. "It's a very good investment."
"So I hear," I say, and then, finally, Ted shows me how to lunge. After that, he shows me five different types of sit-ups. He has me using weight machines, an ab bench for crunches, the mat. He teaches me tricks with a big silver ball. Even though I feel like a trained seal, Ted promises these maneuvers will tone my butt. He shows me chest presses and some side bends that will get rid of my love handles. As I work out, I can see my muscles responding under my stretched-out tent of a midriff. The hour flies by. When I get home, I bound upstairs in record time. I shower. I shave. I put on clean clothes. I feel great. I want my husband to touch me.
I return to the gym the next day. While stealing a glimpse of my ass in the mirror, I fall off the elliptical trainer and nearly land on the treadmill to my left. I could've been run over by a speed walker and gotten killed. Frightened and ashamed, I slink over to the mat room to continue the work Ted began. I mount the sit-up machine. I can't remember what to do. I dismount and begin my work with the big silver ball, which I do remember, while waiting for someone to use the sit-up machine so I can copy. I work on my chest, my abs, then do some lunges and make my way home.
My body feels sore in a wonderful way. I move different limbs throughout the day just to feel my muscles. I shower. Again! I'm certain my jeans look better already. The exercising thing is going so well, I decide to write about it for work. Funnily enough, during the three weeks I spend writing the article, I don't make it to the gym once. I don't have time. Laundry piles up. We eat takeout. I desperately need to vacuum (and shower). I do squeeze in some at-home sessions on the pilates machine, which I am now strong enough to maneuver. It's an improvement.
My life, it seems, is a balancing act perpetually on the verge of tipping over. Exercise is one of the items on the scale, along with work, chores, eating and making contact with other humans; all of these things threaten to throw everything off kilter. What's changed is that now I accept this idea. My foray back to the gym has made me more flexible, physically and mentally. My two-hour workout sessions may be over, but getting a reasonable amount of exercise now and then feels doable. On the days I do go to the gym, I can't write as much, and we may well run out of toilet paper. But everything has to give a little, even muscle tone. What's important is that exercising here and there has made me feel stronger and more energetic. I'm also nicer to my husband, if you know what I mean.
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