It’s been less than twenty four hours since I was sitting in a big easy chair at a friend’s house with two other guys on the couch beside me, all of us oriented towards the television while we traded stories in that half distracted way of guys watching a football game. I write while still in the grip of an epiphany I’d had when the new guy, the one I didn’t know, started talking about how he had come to be in such good shape.
I had vaguely noticed that he had sinewy muscles, and that his T-shirt was so thin it might tear if he coughed. There was a pleasantly depraved leanness to him, but I did not connect this to working out. If I see some heavily muscled guy I get that he has spent hours in the gym, but if someone is merely lean, even if it’s bulging veins and popping muscles lean, I assume that is how they are naturally and think no more of it. This in spite of the fact that I spend a fair amount of energy working out in order to play basketball, and then a fair amount of energy playing basketball. I know that as you get older, muscle tone, though still attainable, is an evanescent thing. Yet I fail to grasp that when I meet a lean person over the age of twenty five it is most likely because they are working out like mad.
This guy, however, had it both ways, apparently, due to his special sauce workout.
“It’s the seven minute workout, modified,” he said. “I do fourteen minutes.”
He went into some detail — twenty headstand pushups, front planks, side planks, etc — and even acted out some of the movements. I stood to demonstrate the great virtue of my workout, which involves squatting. If you had passed by in the darkness of Magazine Street and looked through the window into the lit room we would have looked like a bunch of mimes warming up, or mimes miming warming up.
It occurred to me that we had, in the room, three stages of Man. Not all of the stages, but three important ones. Stage II Man was our host, who did not leave the couch, and made a joking allusion to his own stomach. It wasn’t much of a stomach, but it nevertheless evoked a continental sense of leisure.
He had recently gotten married. He was not vigorously working out due, no doubt, to the happy trauma of the wedding itself. Even when they are totally joyous and wonderful (as mine was when it finally happened) a wedding will hit you like a truck. The release of anxiety in its aftermath is epic, once you release it. There is a feeling that now might be a time to slow down and enjoy things.
This post-marital softening, I should add, is not a conscious thing but instinctive, a hiatus of sorts, before that exciting and disruptive event that will take all your energy, time, resources, sanity: Children. So Stage II Man relaxes a bit, eats good food, even cooks it, and feel magnanimous when cleaning the dishes.
I was Stage III Man — which makes it sound like an illness, an undesirable condition, but, I tell myself, it’s not.
Stage III Man is privileged by busyness, that most ambiguous blessing.
Just as youth is wasted on the young, busyness is wasted on the parents of young children who can only vaguely recall the horrible boredom of childhood but haven’t the faintest idea of what horrors of non-busyness might await later on (I believe this is called retirement). The very busy wish not to be so busy without grasping what non-busyness involves.
One of the things that keeps me busy is the task of staying in shape.
A couple of months before my second child was born I started working out like mad. At the time, I thought it might be because we were having a boy. It had something to do with athletics, the need to keep strong long enough to be competitive when he is actually able to compete, but mostly I was working out in the hopes of not dropping dead. How else to explain the anxious adrenalin that lead me to extremely uncharacteristic work outs at 5:00AM?
I now have the distinction of being a pretty old dude who can dunk, though not in a game, though I did do that once at the JCC, about a year ago, while wearing a fake Latrell Sprewell jersey. The downside is sometimes the youth on the court say something to the effect of, “Pops, you must have been able to really crush it, once,” and in the spirit of disclosure I announce, “No, I have always been not good, a low level Division III player, and inconsistent.”
In some ways Stage III man has is the unsung corollary to the enormously commented on predicament of a women after giving birth — they are trying to get their body back.
I can imagine all sorts of indignant noises coming from the mothers, who will point out that they carried and grew a child inside their bodies for nine months and getting their body back therefore is a much bigger deal. No argument. I am simply saying there is some sort of use it or lose it imperative that comes over a guy, too, in the vicinity of a birth. It is undertaken not only in the context of having children but on their behalf — it’s a question of vanity, how could it not be, but also a matter of energy and stamina. You have to exhaust yourself in order to have energy.
I mention all this by way of contextualizing Stage I Man. Again, the atmosphere and ambiance of illness comes across when writing it that way, but in this case it does involve an affliction — love. Love and Lovesickness.
After the guy on the couch told the story of his workout he told the story of his break-up. They were entwined. He offered hardly any details. There was a girl. Then there wasn’t. It was abrupt.
Once you have children and start moving in circles populated by other people with little children, the emotional chaos of breakups becomes a distant thing. One becomes emotionally feverish, but not about romantic grief. At some point in your life you get invited to weddings with some regularity and then these invitations drop off; emotional distress doesn’t vanish, but the pageantry of romance, good and bad, becomes private.
“Young people spend too much time with their peer group. It shrinks their minds,” a friend of mine once wrote. (Bingham, “Soft-Money,” so charming and brilliant, you have to buy this ancient book to read it.)
I am well beyond public hysteria about romance, at least while watching Monday Night Football. But Stage I Man was right there. He described his workout in terms not only of the exercise, but the trauma of what had brought it on. He said nothing about the girl specifically, the story was not about her but her aftermath. His remarks about being lovesick, about starving himself, about being deranged, all resonated with me.
They reminded me of my own emergency yoga and my own physical and emotional emaciation, of how I once wanted to be light, and feel nothing, and thought I could throw myself against rocks and feel no pain. And how liberating that was. And how awful. I mean feel no pain in the sense of having maxed out on pain, as opposed to feeling nothing. Though perhaps they are they same thing.
It’s almost a whole a day since I encountered Stage I Man and his Lovesick Diet, which in his case involved moving from one city to another, and I am still thinking about it, amazed to note how far afield his experience is from the current spectrum of my emotions, which now revolve around the family with ever greater and greater centrifugal force. But I was there once. I remember the pleasure of self-starvation as a form of recovery, the thrill of being a hunger artist. By the time he put on his sweater at the end of the night and prepared to bike home, I knew how he had become the person standing before me.