So, I joined a gym. I was getting really claustrophobic being all cooped up during the winter so I found one that was a good deal and that you don't have to commit to a long-term contract or anything, so I'll be able to cancel my membership once I leave for the Motherland. The good thing about it is that I'm forced to go work out just to get my money's worth. Well, I use the phrase "work out" loosely. "Working out" the way I do it could just as easily be called "Avoiding Eye Contact for the Advanced Practitioner."
I am not a gym person. I told this to the "Fitness Counselor" who showed me around and got me signed up when I first joined. I was so clearly uncomfortable that he actually asked me at one point if I had ever even been inside a gym before.
"So, why do you want to join a gym?"
"Well, I'm 28 and I can't really run, like at all, and I don't really have any upper body strength. So I'd like to be able to be strong and fast enough to fight off and out-run a predator, like a rapist or murderer or something. I mean, maybe my adrenaline would get me to a certain point if I were actually attacked, but what if I'm out in the woods, ya know? I need the endurance."
"Um, okay... Do you ever work out?"
"[Laughter] I sometimes do yoga, which I enjoy, but honestly, I happen to be one of those annoying people who are naturally skinny and as long as I watch what I eat I can stay around the same weight until I'm probably about 40. I get it from my dad. He's hyperactive."
"Uh huh. What's kept you from joining a gym in the past?"
"I'm really self-conscious about working out in front of people, I don't know what I'm doing, it's really awkward and I hate spending money. Also, I'm intimidated by being in the same room as a bunch of huge men who are pumping iron."
That last point cannot be emphasized enough. The gym location closest to my house is filled with fit, healthy people in their 20s and 30s who are serious about working out. Going there is like walking backwards in time into a primordial jungle. I can, literally, smell the testosterone. Like entering the wild, all the animal instincts kick into high gear, and I suddenly become very aware of the fact that I am female. There is no doubt that the male creatures, whether they mean to or not, are tuned in to the presence of us female creatures in the gym. I'm kind of tall for a woman, but when I'm there I feel tiny. It doesn't help that there are lots of treadmills, elliptical machines, stair steppers, and other equipment that people are using which causes them to tower over me, so I really do appear much smaller when I'm walking around. But more than that, this is where men are in their element. Biologically, this is what they are meant to be doing. Lifting weights, running, doing pull-ups, increasing their strength because they have evolved to compete with each other to win the favor of a female, and therefore get the opportunity to mate and breed and pass on their genetic code. They're sweating, breathing, grunting, strutting, looking around, sizing each other up like a bunch of shiny, tight-shirted stags. And then in walks a little doe (like me, for instance): wide-eyed, vulnerable, obviously out of her element, estrogen-laden scent curling through the air in a long, invisible ribbon of femininity. They raise their heads, sniff the air, look around to locate the source, and then switch arms to do another set of bicep curls. I instinctively locate the nearest shelter and then keep my eyes lowered as I rush toward the women's locker room, where I am greeted by others of my kind, and find safety in seclusion and in numbers.
Of course right after I joined I caught a cold and couldn't go back for a week, so by the time I returned I had forgotten where everything was, and I'm too intimidated to figure out how to do the butt-crunching machine by myself, so until I can bring a girlfriend with me to laugh at each other as we try to discern what goes where, I either have to stick to the elliptical, the bikes, or... groan... the exercise class.
I took a class called "Muscle Max" the other day. Now, the room where the classes take place has one wall that is just glass, so the entire gym can watch you make a fool of yourself. To be fair, most of the treadmills and things are facing away from the window, but there is still plenty of visibility. I am not a fitness model, I don't have a trainer, I'm not one of those people who gets all the moves right and is really focused and does that well-timed breathing with each movement. No.
So I'm waiting outside the room and chatting with a few of the ladies who, like me, want to Max their Muscles, trying to figure out where I fall on the spectrum of ability here. Fairly low, I realize. So when we go in and start gathering our weights that we'll be using for the next hour, I get all the smallest and lightest ones, because I'd rather get a crappy workout than collapse in a sweaty, quivering pile on the floor after the first ten minutes because I got too ambitious.
I look around and find the Perfect Spot in the room where no one out in the main part of the gym will be able to see me: between two mirrored columns. Perfect. I'm nestled safely in the exact middle of the room, where I can blend in and do a less-than-awesome job of lifting weights for 45 minutes. The music starts (a mix of techno and hip hop with a lot of moaning and, I'm not even kidding, lyrics that include phrases like, "You nasty girl," and "Oh yeah, give it to me.") and I realize the first flaw in my plan to go unnoticed. The class instructor stands directly in front of me to start the warm-up phase. I am, for all intents and purposes, somehow in the front and center of the room, and the instructor (a cute, petite red-haired girl) makes eye contact with me as she's calling out the moves.
Why are the warm-up moves always so stupid? Why? Do aerobics instructors go through a special class where they learn the most ridiculous dance moves possible to inflict upon their students? "Leap from side to side while swinging your arms in the air! [eye contact with me] Higher! Come on, higher! That's it!" Then there's the marching in place. Then they always have some kind of weird shimmy of their own that they really enjoy. Then you've got to reach up and grab some imaginary object (a rope? a gun with one bullet in it? nachos?) over and over again. It's horrible. Can't we just skip straight to push-ups, or do jumping jacks, or go back out into the gym and run on the treadmill for five minutes and come back? Do we have to do the butt kicks again?
The good thing about the muscle class is that it's basically just lifting weights. However, I was amazed at how many positions from the Kama Sutra you can incorporate into weight lifting. The first thing we did once we had warmed up was stand with our legs wider than hip distance apart, and bend all the way over. This is where I realized my second mistake in choosing my spot in the room. There, bent over, I came face-to-face with... Myself, staring back at me through my own legs, my head dangling below my ass in front of the mirrored columns. Which is worse: The whole gym seeing me like this, or me seeing myself like this? I'm still not sure. Then we had to do a whole series of moves where we just bend over at the waist and stand up again while holding our weights in various positions. At another point I was lying on my side, with one leg bent and in front of my body, the other leg stretched out underneath it, and then the instructor says, "OK now try to touch your nose with your straight leg while simultaneously lifting it as high as you can off of the floor." What? I don't know what I did, but apparently I did it right (or just less wrong) because she smiled and said, "There ya go!" As my fellow exercisers and I twisted our legs into unnatural and pseudo-erotic positions, the music still pulsing with a voice moaning something about being naughty, I found myself glancing around and wondering if there were any hidden cameras in the room, and if the gym was charging people on the internet to watch girls strengthen their inner thigh muscles. I'm not even going to get into what went on when we had to lie on our backs, but let's just say that the guy who was sitting on the weight bench that faces the classroom is probably still having sweet dreams after seeing it.
But I think I will take it again because I was sore the next day, so obviously I got some kind of a work out from it. Next time I will stand somewhere else, though.
Mostly I just do an hour on the elliptical (all the machines have TV screens attached so you can watch your favorite shows and the time flies right on by), during which time I also get a fair amount of thinking done. Plus, if I'm on a machine then I'm not walking through the Forest of Man Scents. Anyway, I've decided that I would like to produce a series of exercise videos called "The Sweaty Tomato Work Out". I do not look good when I work out. As soon as my heart rate goes up to anything much higher than nap-level, I instantly turn red and start sweating. I'm told that this may decrease once I actually get in shape. But nevertheless, I want a work out video where people don't have on cute exercise clothes, where they're all red and sweaty, grunting and groaning, and every once in a while from somewhere in the back you hear someone shout, "Ow! Goddammit! I just tore my groin! That's just great, that's just what I need. Get my ice pack! Ya happy now, Gladys?! I went to your damn exercise class and look what happens! Oh god, is it bad? Is it bad?" and they're carried out on a stretcher while the rest of the class continues doing doggy-style butt crunches.