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Nerdstrong, part 1

This is one of a series of posts about my health/fitness journey. The first one is here.

Part 4. Nerdstrong (part 1)

Nerdstrong Gym
Before this year, the thought of going to a gym was akin to the thought of singing “Oklahoma!” to the clerk at the local 7-Eleven. It wasn’t in the cards. So was the thought of taking my shirt off at the beach (or even going to the beach, really). My rare physical activity was restricted to walking and hiking — activities which had no negative emotional baggage for me. At different points in my adult life, my legs were in pretty good shape, but fitness stopped at the hips.

I really only had one thing to compare a gym to, having never been in one — P.E. class. Specifically, elementary school P.E. class where I was routinely bullied by more physically gifted but emotionally challenged peers, and occasionally by a barrel-chested, crew-cut, aviator-wearing gym teacher of another generation who implored us not to “run like girls.”

Mr. ManningMr. Manning, was probably not a bad guy. He was an adult male, single, who lived with his mom, in our small town of Ringoes, N.J., and liked to flirt with the elderly lunch ladies, who flirted right back. He coached a successful regional elementary school basketball team, and was beloved by many of the kids and families at the school. When he died a few years ago, I saw they wrote a nice obituary about him, from which I saved this picture. As a teenager, I remember going back, and having a friendly conversation or two with him. This was the beginning of a long and difficult process of making amends with my relationship with physical fitness and sports.

I suspect that a lot of the kids who struggled in P.E. class, like me, didn’t have strong fitness role models in their lives. In particular, my parents divorced when I was 4, after my dad had been attending night school, and my mom worked most of the time, so my only real exposure to sports and games was via the kids in the neighborhood and my older brother. Like a lot of kids of my generation, we ran wild, unsupervised, through the neighborhood, playing massive games of hide-and-go-seek and cops and robbers. When it got dark, we would go home, and watch black-and-white TVs.

When I was 7, My mom remarried a man who turned out to be authoritarian and abusive. We moved from West Orange to Ringoes, a small rural town, and I entered the 3rd grade. This was the age at which kids start playing more formalized sports, other than say “Duck Duck Goose”. I was surprised to find I was not particularly good at them. I remember a particular game of kick-ball, my first or second day in that new school, where I repeatedly failed to kick the ball a sufficient distance. “He’s not very good” I heard one of the other kids say. This was the day I became “the kid who’s not very good at sports”.

In older grades, as we were introduced to other games, like basketball and touch football, I found that most of the other boys already knew the rules, and the gym teacher assumed we knew the rules. I remember a game of basketball, in which one of my team-mates chided me as he ran past, “Get in your position!”. I had a position? This game has positions? It’s not just a bunch of people scrambling to get a ball and put it in a basket?

I learned to read before Kindergarten, and was devouring books as a child. My brother and I slept in bunk beds and the bottom book was my fortress of solitude. Every day after school I would climb into bed and read fiction. “A Wrinkle in Time”, “Stranger from the Depths”, “The Hobbit”. My favorite books were juvenile fantasies, in which a boy, his brother, and an annoying neighbor girl would stumble upon a hidden portal in the woods that transported them to a magical land. These kinds of stories came in many varieties, and there was always one or two in the monthly Schoolastic catalog. I loved escapist stories. My mother often complained that I spent too much time in the summer indoors reading, while my brother spent too much time outdoors playing, and that we should switch places once in a while.

My reading level was always high for my age, and in English and math class, I excelled. My hand was up first often enough that the teacher would sometimes say “Anyone? Anyone but Jim…”. The local farm boys who struggled in those classes, the ones who were called upon for an answer and failed to come up with it, especially the ones who were good at sports, became my tormentors in the locker room.

In eight grade I read “The Lord of the Rings” for the first time, and then reread it, and reread it. Nine times, I think. I was a huge Tolkien nerd in high school. I attended a very nice private Quaker school that didn’t have general P.E. classes. Things got a little better, although I was still required to enroll in a team sport each semester. The first one I tried was cross country. I was totally out of shape and unprepared for running such long distances, but I occasionally tried. The nice thing about cross country was that there were long moments of solitude, where we ran alone through the woods. Then I was free to stop running, and I would walk, and feel guilty. Occasionally I would lop off a section of the track, and feel guiltier, and I was never caught, or so I imagined. I hated competing, and felt a flush of shame whenever I was cheered from the sidelines. In subsequent years I tried my hand at swim team, gymnastics, track and field. I was jealous of the female students, who got to take “fun” sports like archery, field hockey and horse-back riding.

In high school, all the “elective” classes happened during the same period, and it was your choices which determined if you were going to be a manly man (wood shop, metal shop), or an artsy man (theater, choir, band). I was a musician, of course, and struggle with basic carpentry skills to this day. I associated sports with manliness, and I didn’t want to be manly. I didn’t want to watch westerns. I still don’t like video games that feature musclebound behemoths with flame throwers.

And then I was out of high school, and I went to CalArts to study music, a school which suffers from neither a fraternity nor a football team, and I was never again subjected to a P.E. requirement of any kind.

I had survived.

At this point, I pretty much detested anything that I associated with organized sports. Particular team sports with balls. I could tolerate running. I enjoyed hiking because nature and all that. I enjoyed the occasional game of frisbee because hippies played it. I played a softball game once, in my twenties, at a company picnic. Everybody sucked at it. I didn’t feel bad, but I still struggled and felt enormously self conscious.

As I aged, my relationship with sports mellowed. I attended a Lakers game and enjoyed it. I find things to enjoy about the Olympics and X-Games. The Paralympics this year are pretty amazing, and I’m DVRing the whole thing. But I’m probably never going to be a died-in-the-wool football fan or basketball fan.

So, after I started losing weight in March, I contemplated maybe going to a gym. I knew, logically, that it would be good for me. I knew, logically, that my self-consciousness was all in my head. That the gym was full of fat awkward people like me, and that I would be just as invisible at the gym as I would be at Starbucks.

But it still didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know the dress codes. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t want to encounter bullies (even imaginary ones).

Still I looked on Yelp one day at a few gyms within the local area. They were big box gyms full of exercise bikes and treadmills. A lot of people in the reviews talked about impersonal they were. I encountered a common attitude, that the gyms almost wanted you NOT to go. Their business model worked best when you bought a membership and didn’t attend. Huh.

Still, I might have gone to one. It might have been fine. But then I looked at Yelp again, and I noticed this other gym that I had somehow missed the first time.

Nerdstrong.

Next: Nerdstrong, part 2

2 Responses to “Nerdstrong, part 1”

  1. Mibm Says:

    I know your childhood reading preferences aren’t what this post is about, but the phrase “stumble upon a hidden portal in the woods that transported them to a magical land” grabbed me because I powerfully drawn to that type of book as a kid. The two masterpieces that rocked my world as a kid (before I was old enough for Tolkien) were the most incredible examples of this genre I ever read but are no longer remembered by anyone I know, which bugs me. And they’re decades out of print. You and I are the same age — I wonder if you read them? Red Moon and Black Mountain, by Joy Chant. The Mural Master, by Adrienne Jones. Good stuff.

  2. jbum Says:

    The titles don’t ring a bell, but I read a LOT of these, and most of the titles are hazy or lost…