Sunday, August 18, 2013


Walking around the neighborhood, I’ve noticed a few new health-based establishments.  Right down the block from me, there’s a seemingly clandestine yoga studio that opened next to a small scrap-metal shop that’s been there for years.  You wouldn’t know this unless you saw someone walking in with a mat.  There’s a small sign on the door, but unless you’re right there, you won’t see it.

More surprisingly, along the avenue that leads down to the Con Ed plant and East River, nestled between a chicken-processing plant (mentioned parenthetically here) and a marble factory, a Crossfit gym opened recently.  You can tell: the front garage grate is always left open, and there’s usually a massive truck tire or two sitting on the sidewalk.  Walk by, and you’re met with a blast of hiphop and various gym members grunting and groaning through their workouts.

I’ve been reading a lot about Crossfit, as I’m always curious about different workouts.  A smaller gym space next to the laundromat opened up and failed within a year, although that wasn’t explicitly Crossfit, seemed more a like a place that personal trainers could rent out for their client sessions.  I took it as a nice sign that the neighborhood hadn’t completely gentrified when they went out of business … but a Crossfit gym and a yoga studio?  They make Starbucks seem like a bodega.

As it goes with Crossfit gyms, this one matches the iconography: bland warehouse space, no traditional gym machines, plenty of free weights, kettle bells, push sleds, gymnast rings and ropes dangling from the ceiling, mats, monkey bar contraptions.  I’m assuming there are no showers or any amenities like that.  The image is meant to be lowdown and gritty.  The guys who open these things must make a fortune as their overhead is so comparatively low compared to chain gyms.

And they charge a fortune, the assumption being the people taking the classes are going to achieve personal-trainer levels of fitness from their experience.  They probably will, but this is also a deal breaker for me: I won’t spend upwards of $100/month on gyms.  I assure you, most Crossfit gyms are charging far more than that per month.

The bigger deal breaker is the hernia and resultant surgery I recently had, and the realization that blowout regimens are not a good idea for me moving forward.  Working out, yes.  I’ve made my way back into my weekly boxing classes, albeit carefully.  I thought the boxing workout was hard, and it is, but probably nowhere near as hard as a Crossfit workout that encourages members to push themselves to muscle failure each class.  My boxing workout gets me winded routinely but rarely to the level of puking or passing out.

The weightlifting component of Crossfit also seems ill-advised, especially post-hernia.  I’m going to be very careful about incorporating weights into my life again and will do so only sparingly, with relatively low-strain workouts on universal machines where I can isolate muscle groups and avoid over-working abdominals.  My logic is related to the ageing process, that it’s a good idea to do some type of work with weights to maintain muscle and tendon strength.

That doesn’t mean these intense Crossfit workouts where you do X number of Olympic-style lifts or squats as part of a series of other high-stress, fast-paced exercises that will leave you exhausted before even touching the weights.  I’ve never been that into weights, simply because I’ve noticed friends who’ve lifted, even when they’re fanatical about form, injure themselves routinely.  There’s no need for me to lift that intensely.  There’s no need for anyone but professional athletes to do so, but I understand the psychology of weightlifting and why so many people enjoy the results they get.

But to do that sort of intense lifting in the middle of other intense aerobic exercises is just a bad idea.  It’s inviting disaster; I don’t care what positive results are possible.  At some point, everyone slows down and/or backs away from working out that hard.  For me, it was getting a hernia and realizing there’s no need to kill myself in a gym.  Surely a need to maintain some level of physical conditioning.  But not like that.  Not so fanatically.  You’re truly not competing with anyone but yourself.  The long-term goal is to maintain a reasonable level of fitness, not push yourself into roadblocks that could sideline you for months or permanently. 

I can see this is the crux of the issue so many people have with Crossfit: that mentality, not so much the workout itself.  It seems like there’s a whole culture tied in with this workout that, let’s face it, isn’t far removed from professional wrestling.  It’s probably more so the macho camaraderie associated with the military.  I’ve noted before how our culture seems intent on forcing men to either feminize themselves or go to the other extreme and present themselves as hyper-macho.  Give Crossfit credit: rather than emphasizing surface values like tattoos, shaved heads and bad facial hair, it emphasizes actually doing things that will make you physically hard.

In my 20s and 30s, I would have been completely sold on this workout.  It takes aim at the mirrored-walls/narcissist culture of weightlifting that has dominated gyms for decades now and replaces it with a better all-around fitness regimen.  In and of itself, barring the above-noted reservations about the weightlifting and “push til puke” work ethic, I think Crossfit is a great concept.

The problem is when concept becomes culture.  Look at it this way: I recognize my boxing workout, which I’ve been doing since the mid-90s, as a highly-beneficial hobby.  Not a culture.  I suspect that line has been crossed with many Crossfit aficionados.  I do understand the appeal – I feel the same with my boxing buddies, many of them hard-assed women who seem as geared to handle the workout as most men.  There’s a certain kind of bonding that occurs when you do something that physically demanding with a group of people: a mix of endorphin-related euphoria and the simple pleasure of surviving a hard physical challenge.

It makes you feel strong.  I imagine something as harsh as Crossfit might make you feel invincible.  There’s a lot to be said for achieving that level of physical confidence.  I know, because it’s the crucial thing I lost with the hernia, and what I feel like I’m slowly recovering almost two months into re-establishing my boxing routine.

That’s the overwhelming vibe I get from Crossfit, at least poking around the web, reading the commentary to articles, stopping in on Crossfit sites, that sort of supreme physical confidence … that I now know is bullshit.  I was lucky enough to be proven wrong by something as harmless as a small hernia.  “Lucky” and “harmless” are relative terms that take into account life lessons like disfiguring/debilitating accidents and diseases that completely destroy people’s lives.  They are coming, if not for you directly, then for someone you know.  Everyone gets touched by this sort of rotten luck, sooner or later.

It surely makes sense to keep yourself strong to face the world, but there’s a difference between that and believing this state of physical grace is going to last forever.  You’ll hit a point, most likely in your 40s or 50s, when that belief will be tested, and more than likely damaged.  Damaged in ways that you may recover from, but with a new knowledge that there’s just so much you can do with your body to feel invincible.

I really don’t mind the kind of braggadocio and chest-beating I come across with any workout, but it’s just not the sort of thing you indulge in after having your body fail you in a very real way.  Even if you come all the way back physically.  In my readings over the past few months on hernias, another hallmark is the gym nut who comes back to the gym and declares himself “stronger than I was before” in terms of the physical challenge he’s overcome.

Shit, man, not me!  I’m hyper-aware of this hernia, knowing it won’t fully heal for at least a year, and that I need to be careful with how hard I workout, and the things I choose to do with my body from now on.  I have no intention of being stronger than I was before.  I’m happy enough to have lost a truckload of weight in the past few months.  If it means I’m less physically imposing than I was before, so be it.  I am healthier in that sense but am overly cautious with my body and will be for awhile.  You would be, too, if you had your body cut open and dealt with all that implies.

Assuming I hadn’t dealt with this, would I be into Crossfit?  Simply based on my age, no.  A decade or two earlier, I’d be game.  And I suspect I’d do fine at it, too.  Just as some soldiers in the army don’t fully buy the military rhetoric, I’m sure there are plenty of people doing Crossfit who don’t swallow the culture whole and simply enjoy working out.  All gym cultures are essentially childish.  They rely on constructing a sort of fantasy world around the given workout and believing this is a shield of superiority wielded as protection against the world.  Boxing surely has it.  Weightlifting, too.  I’ve seen fanatical women in step classes.  And people who take multiple spin classes daily.

The concept is to align yourself with a gang of people and take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone.  Which is pretty much how I look back at my youth, that feeling older people get when they “miss” being young.  A large part of what they’re missing is that sense of camaraderie kids and young adults have because they spend so much time together in groups.  Whereas you age, you have to work more, people get families, kids, other responsibilities and spend much more time on their own than in these comfort groups.

Getting into a workout routine with regulars at a gym taps into that feeling again.  Same thing happens with bars, as drinking is such a totem of college culture and our 20’s.  I’ve seen with my own experience in gyms, it’s a good feeling to have that, to see familiar faces and make these floating friendships in gyms.  I really like a lot of the people I work out with because I can see some very positive things in them, mainly the discipline and resolve to keep showing up and doing what we do.

The biggest criticism of Crossfit I’ve seen is that it doesn’t prepare the student for anything, i.e., the best you could hope for is to be in some type of ESPN-sponsored Crossfit games.  But this is bullshit.  As far as I’m concerned, unless you’re a professional athlete or highly-ranked amateur, any workout you do as an adult is a means to an end.  It’s good in and of itself, whatever it is.  It keeps you occupied, healthy and sane, and gives you a sense of structure that most people could use.  I’m not going to be a professional or amateur boxer.  I’m not even going to spar or take any sort of contact self-defense class.  The workout, in and of itself, does enough for me in terms of keeping me fit and connected in many senses.  Any good workout will do that.

So I can’t criticize Crossfit for providing people with the same thing I feel towards my workout.  The macho swagger?  The weird culture?  The quasi-religious rhetoric so many followers espouse?  If you spend time around gyms, all these are standard issue.  I’m paying good money every month to keep myself in reasonably good physical condition, not conduct sociological research or measure myself against anyone else.  Crossfit will come and go, and so shall I.  The day will come when I’ll no longer go to gyms and most likely view walking every day as a good workout.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Brown Paper Bag in the Trunk

I’ve often written about nostalgia and the role it plays in our lives.  Some would say to indulge is a bad idea, but it’s not.  We would be lost without memories, whether they serve as marker points in our lives or simply instruct us on how to live.  I would say to live a life overwhelmed by nostalgia is a bad thing, but most of us are so wrapped up in simply trying to survive day-to-day that it just isn’t possible to live in that fairy-tale place of cherry-picked memories.

Since I’ve been on such a weight-loss regimen over the past few months, I’ve hardly gone drinking, probably not since early March or so.  I’m far from a big drinker but do like the occasional happy-hour indulgence.  A micro-brewery opened up a few blocks from where I live in Queens earlier this year, which had me thinking, oh, boy, this is great.  But the few times I was there it felt like hipster wonderland, and I’m just feeling too old for that scene anymore … a good kind of old.

We all have drunk stories.  I wrote a piece for way back in the 90s, My First Drunk, that did a good job of detailing what it was like to go out and get bombed as a teenager, that sense of intrigue and lawlessness despite just being a sloppy teenage drunk on a doomed bar crawl destined to end in vomit (and my mother seeing me naked with an erection).  A crusty, lowdown experience, but life-altering at the time as it was all new to me.  That story never gets old because I rarely tell it anymore.  Seems like you pass over a bridge some time in your late 30s or early 40s where lionizing your misspent youth just becomes a lost cause.  Or more likely boring because you’ve hashed it over so many times in the preceding years with your other ageing friends.

But I feel an urge now to tell one of Brother M’s amazing drunk stories, as it underlines so much of what went on between him and our father, that weird dance a parent does when the oldest sibling of a group of kids goes off the rails.  I can see now as an adult that this must have scared the shit out of our parents: the oldest son, formerly a straight-A student, falls in with the drug crowd (which constituted an alarming number of driving-age teenagers in the mid-70s in our small town) and immediately starts fucking up on levels that are shocking and new to them.  They could handle kids being prickly and combative … but a kid driving his car into the side of a hill and appearing like an stoned ogre in the living room at three in the morning, covered in dirt and weeds, the cop who escorted him to the door, telling them, “He gets a free pass this time, but not next.”

That’s not even the story I’m thinking about.  There are quite a few.  We always say Brother M broke our parents in for the rest of us, but the rest of us never got anywhere that out there, which must have been a huge relief for them.  I shied away from drugs as a teenager and college student simply because I saw my older brother get so nuts on them a few years earlier.  Of course, I experimented in college, but I can count those experiences on two hands … or one hand that looks like two.  And I have to admit, those were some wonderful nights, particularly when magic mushrooms were involved, but I just never picked up any sort of habit or social structure that encouraged prolonged drug use.

The one I’m thinking of ended unceremoniously.  On a summer day, my father was working on some minor issue with Brother M’s car.  He needed to get the jack out of the trunk.  He went back to the trunk, opened it, stood there for a few minutes looking into it, started shaking his head and muttering to himself, left the trunk open, but decided it would be a better idea to skip working on the car and mow the lawn instead.

The end.  But that ending was just a beginning.  I watched all this happening from the back porch, can’t recall exactly what I was doing, but I do recall Dad muttering to himself, small curse words like “god damn” and “son of a bitch” and phrases like “I’m getting too old for this shit.”  Since he left the trunk open, I couldn’t help but walk by a few minutes later to see whatever had set him off.

I was met with the smell of stale beer.  The whole trunk smelled that way.  There were no beer cans or bottles; the trunk itself looked like any trunk: spare tire, jack, crow bar, small tool box.

And a brown paper bag that had split open enough to reveal a pair of deeply soiled underwear.  Clearly a pair that had been shat in, full on.  The smell of stale beer was so strong that I didn’t pick up on any sort of shit smell … but, boy, not since kindergarten or so had I dealt with any sort of pants shitting episodes to rival something like this.  Generally speaking, you shit your pants at any point in your life, it’s one for the ages, something you will never forget.

I knew Brother M was sleeping off his stew, but later that day, he needed to hit the record store at the mall, probably to pick up a new Todd Rundgren album on eight track, and I asked if I tagged along.  I told him about Dad’s situation with the trunk, and his reaction, which had Brother M laughing his ass off.  It was then that I got the back story on the paper bag, the beer and the soiled underwear.

As usual at that point in the 70s, he had worked a shift at the Acme supermarket in Shenandoah.  (Coincidentally, he often told another story of shitting his pants there one day when one of his coworkers played the prank of locking all the men’s room stalls from the inside, forcing him to attempt crawling over the top, which is where he lost the battle and dropped a load, forcing him to go back to work with a meat-butcher’s smock to cover the fact that he was wearing no pants.)

But not that night.  As with most nights, he hooked up with some friends, with beer and whatever drugs were handy at the time, to cruise, which simply meant listening to rock-and-roll eight tracks while driving around all night.  Doesn’t sound like much, but we all did it eventually (usually sober in my case), as teenagers back then simply loved to go out in groups, be in cars at night, amongst their kind, listening to rock and roll … and generally doing nothing but driving around for hours.  I can’t recall how many times I did this as a teenager … hundreds.  I can look back now and see that we were reveling in that sense of spare time we took for granted back then.  Even when I get spare time like that now, it doesn’t occur to me to hook up with guys my age and listen to music while we drive at night.  I wish it would, because I sort of miss those sort of casual, goofy fun times we often had.  Everything I do as an adult seems to be so weighted down with intent and direction, and I can see being directionless in small increments has its merits.

As the night wore on, he found himself driving alone while killing a six pack, surely too drunk and high for his own good, much less while driving.  We should note here that drunk driving was not the crime of the century back in the 70s.  Guys would often get into cars with beers and just drive – probably not drunk, but the simple act of getting into a car with a beer is a bit shocking now.  We all drove drunk at least a few times in our youth back then – a cop was just as likely to tell you to go home and don’t do it again back in the 70s and 80s, unless you had been in an accident or drunk beyond comprehension.  I’m not saying this is right or wrong: just noting how different things were back then in this light.

Well, strange things happen sometimes when you get that loose … and in Brother M’s case, he somehow shit his pants again.  Just happened.  Probably sharted, and things devolved from there with the loosened reflexes.  He pulled over in a Burger King parking lot and thought, “How am I ever going to go home like this?”  He was wearing his white pants, a snazzy dresser at the time, and the pants were luckily not stained.  But the underwear looked like a road map of hell, where the rivers ran brown.

So, under those harsh parking-lot lights, keeping a keen eye out for cops or other sane humans, he opened up the door, took off his pants, stood up, shook out a few lumps and got his underwear off.  The smart thing would have been to just abandon them right there, but our parents were raised in the Depression and had drilled into us that nothing must be wasted.  In a way, it was heroic that Brother M had tried to save his irreversibly soiled underwear – he was paying tribute to our parents, even if they could never see it that way.  But he seemed to be thinking, “I can salvage this horribly shit-stained pair of cheap white underpants.”

Well, he couldn’t, but he tried.  He poured a beer on the underwear and scrubbed, hard.  Another beer.  He must have sensed some kind of progress as he kept them.  What to do with this underwear.  He had the paper bag for the six pack.  Why not put the underwear in the paper bag, put it in the trunk, and the next day, go get it and see if there was any way to salvage it or at the least throw it away.  Again, the only possible explanation I could have for why he didn’t just leave that shitty underwear in the parking lot was that he was so high that some sentimental sense of honoring our parents by not littering or abandoning a piece of clothing our parents had paid for kicked in, and he just couldn’t do that.

You do strange things when you’re high.  One of those strange things is often adhering to some gentle code of morality that would escape you while sober, but because you’re high, you feel a type of yearning to be good in some higher sense, so you convince yourself that if you do something honorable while you’re high, that means you’re still striving to be a good person despite being hideously wrecked.  I’ve been there – we all have.  Some people get mean when they get drunk or get high, but I know I’ll often get gentle and overly agreeable – almost always sentimental.  Alcohol is a depressant, and I’ve never quite understood people who get out of their heads when they get drunk.

Brother M could be a prickly kid and was surely hell on wheels as a teenager.  But I gather a moment like that, alone in that parking lot, trying to figure a way out of a hellish situation, the better angels of his soul came shining through.  In ways he probably thought were enlightening and honorable.  I’m willing to bet he was listening to this song on the eight track and feeling spiritual.  Not quite realizing, his version of being an enlightened human being … meant our father, a few hours later in the harsh morning light, opening the trunk of his car and having a deep WTF moment decades before WTF moments were noted as such.

Dad never mentioned the situation to anyone.  Had I not been on the back porch, the whole thing would have quietly passed as opposed to entering into teenage legend.  I felt like that tree in a forest that hears another tree fall – it happened, and I was there to prove it happened.  But I suspect there were many other odd little instances like this in Brother M’s teenage years where there was no one or nothing else around to verify that the falling tree had made a sound.

This all seems so silly now, years later.  Dad passed on, we all grew up, Brother M eventually got his head on straight and became an adult, as I have, just as rule-bound and rigid as our parents were.  Or not.  If they had been that rigid, the insanity they went through in his teenage years would have turned into a full-on generational war, and it never happened.  So I gather our parents were a lot more hip and patient than we gave them credit for, despite our tendency to picture them as the opposite.