A few weeks ago, I played a thrilling game of Ping-Pong with my editor, Tom the Butcher. I lost 22-20 in overtime. Afterward, Tom said he was worried I might be a little out of shape.
“Why ... do … you ... say … that?” I wheezed.
This had not exactly been Ping-Pong as played by those wiry Asian guys in short pants who stand 15 feet away from the table and launch blurry shots that look like rounds from tracer bullets. That made Tom conclude I was inappropriately winded. An interrogation ensued.
Tom: Do you get any regular exercise?
Me: I walk the dog.
Tom: That’s it?
Me: Uh, yeah.
Tom: So, basically you’re saying you might get more exercise than a person who cannot walk.
Me: Well, not a Paralympian or anything.
Tom: So, basically you might get more exercise than a bedridden invalid?
That is when Tom suggested I seriously consider going to a gym.
The last time I had been to anything called a “gym” was in junior high school. Everyone was afraid of the gym teacher, Mr. Gluck, and not without reason. This was back before mandatory sensitivity training for teachers. One year, Mr. Gluck was in charge of administering color-blindness tests; when one of the seventh-graders timidly asked what would happen if you failed the test, Mr. Gluck said, “We take you out back and shoot you.”
So, my memories of gym were not entirely positive. But, of course, this was a completely different thing — an adult gym, a health club, which was comforting until I walked inside and felt a strange sense of panic. It turns out this particular gym is a converted junior high school.
The clerk at the front desk gave me a form to fill out, with an elaborate checklist about my medical history. In answer to a question about why I was there, I wrote, “Ping-Pong wheezing. Tom T. Butcher is concerned.” This was accepted without comment or question. It occurred to me the gym didn’t really care about my medical history or why I was there, so long as I flashed plastic, which I did. I was accepted for membership.
The first piece of equipment I encountered was a jungle gym, a big colorful fuzzy one. It looked easy! I figured I’d spend some serious time on it and call it a day, until I realized I’d wandered into the day-care center.
A guy named Dale took me on a tour of the real machines. The first one we stopped at was something called the hammer press, in which you lie on your back and lift a barbell. I assumed the position, grasped the crossbar, braced myself, took a deep breath, and lifted. My arms straightened above me and locked at the elbow. I held it for five full seconds like I’d seen in the Olympics — one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc. — then brought it down again. Dale told me I had done real well, but I should have let him put some weights on the bar first. After he affixed 90 pounds, I tried again, but had to stop because I was turning red and making alarming little squeaky noises, like those automatic toilets before they flush.
Dale left me alone with the elliptical machines, in which you are forced into an unnatural motion that simulates riding a unicycle while punching people in the face, like Rambo the Clown. I decided I would do it for two minutes longer than the woman in front of me, who I guessed to be about 80 years old. She was wearing what looked like 1890s beachwear. When I gave up about six minutes later, she was still going strong.
My initial membership lasts two months after which, presumably, I will either be more toned and fit, or they will take me out back and shoot me.