Blame It On Books: This morning, starting at around 7:30, I jogged around my neighborhood for 40 minutes. Yesterday I lifted weights at the Silver Spring YMCA -- presses, curls, squats, three sets each of 10 or 12 repetitions. I alternate the aerobics and the strength training through the week. For most of the spring I've also taken an abdominal exercise class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That's now down to only Thursdays, since my Tuesdays are given over to a swing dancing course. Three times a week I swim laps at our local pool.
And this isn't all, by any means. Over the past five months I've lost 30 or 35 pounds. I now eat lots of vegetables and fruit, sip constantly on bottled water, ingest a multivitamin and a few other supplements daily, drink soy milk and nibble tofu, and no longer order dessert. Occasionally I do fantasize about glazed donuts, especially late at night.
As a result of this regimen, I've had to buy new clothes -- a mixed blessing. It's astonishing to be able to wear a size 33 waist pair of pants again. Sometimes it even seems I could get away with a 32. When I look in mirrors I see a slightly strange face, thin, with unwelcome lines around my mouth, and slight hollows in my cheeks. An El Greco look, I suppose, and a little gaunt for my taste. Perhaps I will get used to it.
What has inspired this obvious midlife crisis, this madcap attempt to stave off the ravages of time and recapture a few remnants of fleeting youth? Well, books of course. Books and magazines.
The initial impulse came from my trip last January to Florida's Atlantic Center for the Arts. There, as I walked along the beach, I felt like three of the lesser-known dwarves of Snow White -- dumpy, creaky and crabby. Ultimately, I resolved to amend my life and see what I could do to improve my physical well-being.
So, being a bookman, once I got home I went directly to the library.
Now, I'm pretty familiar with my local libraries. I can find my way blindfolded to the children's and art shelves, know where the classical CDs are kept, regularly check out audio books. But I was nonetheless surprised -- and ultimately pleased -- to discover that the health/fitness section must be second only to general fiction in the sheer volume of material. In Wheaton virtually all the genre's classics were readily available: the masterworks of Jane Fonda, aerobic workout videos by Fabio-like hunks, guides to male sexuality, polemics about various herbal supplements guaranteed to extend life, oversized paperbacks on skin care, yellowing books on turning back the clock, pamphlets on becoming a vegetarian, an ancient John Travolta exercise manual, weight-lifting bibles, and much, much else.
Fortunately, I'd brought a good-sized cardboard box, and -- don't you love libraries? -- the front desk allowed me to check out 20 books and videos.
As a result, during the next week or two, I devoted my bedtime reading to these self-help guides. Nearly all of them proved as unputdownable as a Thomas Harris thriller. Here, after all, was a new-found land, an unexplored continent. In my adolescence I had pored over treatises on proper etiquette and effective public speaking and even the development of self-confidence, but those inspirational tomes had been directed primarily at mental change. Now the focus was the body, never a subject that I had felt particularly comfortable with.
Like all self-respecting introspectives, I was mildly hypochondriacal, fearful of doctor visits, and ashamed of just about every part of my physical self. Locker rooms tended to fill me with envy, as I desired this man's lats and that man's pecs. On the rare occasions when I'd watch a baseball or basketball game on television, I'd admire the ease in Ripken's manner and the smile on Ripken's face, or the supernatural grace of a Michael Jordan. Having no recognizable athletic prowess myself, I had long tended to regard my body as a necessary evil, "the heavy bear that goes with me," the source of lifelong discontent -- bowed legs, poor vision, bad molars, weak ankles, blemished skin.
But suddenly none of this really mattered. Through persistence that would eventually be transmuted into daily pleasure (or so my authorities assured me), I could rejigger my food intake and lose flab, sculpt my torso, and gradually acquire the all-round spiritual buoyancy that accompanies regular exercise. There was no need to settle for a decaying physical machine when I might transform myself into an Iron Man.
Shaking my head, I called to mind -- not for the first time -- the motto of the library in John Bellair's juvenile thrillers: "Believe Half of What You Read." Still, why not give it a whirl? All these upbeat gurus had infected me with an unexpected exhilaration: I might discover the burn, the zone, the sweet spot in time. I might even go the distance, perhaps carrying a banner with a strange device: Excelsior! At the very least, here were new daydreams for a middle-aged guy.
Starting at the supermarket, I bought a vitamin book from the cashier and spent half a day carefully selecting groceries on the basis of their side-panels. Low sodium, low fat, high fiber. Reading has seldom been so utilitarian. No more Fruity Pebbles -- bring on the Wheetabix. Veggie burgers. Antioxidant green tea. Lean poultry. Enough kale, broccoli and spinach to feed all the rabbits in Watership Down. Rice cakes. Wheat germ. Soy milk (vanilla-flavored, of course). Bananas and strawberries. Kiwi. Sweet potatoes . . . My plump heroes, Falstaff, Stendhal and Dr. Gideon Fell, would have roared with laughter.
Ignoring their imagined guffaws, I proceeded to the checkout counter and naturally passed by the magazine racks. Normally, I'd glance up, maybe even pause for a moment, hoping for a cover photo of supermodel Heidi Klum or a feature on this year's pretty brunette ("As dawn breaks, Coco stretches her tawny limbs, gently pushes aside the cat curled up beside her, and sleepily heads for her morning whirlpool . . ."). But this time my eye was caught by a picture of a big, tooth-filled smile affixed to a body flexing its even bigger biceps. There must have been at least a dozen periodicals, perhaps more, devoted to various aspects of physical culture. Such plenty. I tossed a couple into my cart. As my groceries were being totted up, I noticed one of those small, digest-sized magazines, broadcasting fitness at any age. I bought that too.
Once home, I distributed my edible goodies into cupboard and fridge, blithely ignoring the "yuk, what is this?" comments of my offspring, and then retreated to the bathroom.
There may be one or two greater sensual pleasures than reading magazines while soaking in a deep, hot bathtub, but none more reliable or innocent. As always, the ads in my magazines were at least as mesmerizing as the articles: Renova cream for wrinkles, the latest high-tech running shorts, sex videos guaranteed to transport my partner and me to hitherto unscaled heights of rapture, vitamins by mail, outfits from Hugo Boss or Giorgio Armani, sports cars and SUVs -- all the stuff that midlife crises are made of. Aside from the regular features (a doctor answering questions about the prostate or the G-spot, a smiling Irish bartender proffering good advice about various moral dilemmas, e.g., whether to date the ex-girlfriend of one's best friend), most of the actual articles tended to address the same familiar, but perennially fascinating, questions: How to execute various classic exercises, how to buy a pair of running shoes, how to eat while training, how to dress with style, how to make love more thoughtfully, how to take care of the various parts of your ever-better body.
Now the trouble with reading, an anonymous showgirl once observed, is that it just puts ideas into your head. As Emma Bovary and Don Quixote found out years ago, such modern "romances" -- in book, periodical and video form -- soon made me increasingly dissatisfied with my bland, provincial self. Couldn't I be as cool as these wafer-thin guys in sunglasses, lounging by the pool in Cozumel? Couldn't I get as "ripped" and "cut" as these Arnold wannabes? Well, maybe not that thin or that musclebound, but somehow better than I was? I didn't want to look like a guy who spent most of his time turning the pages of books and writing about them. Instead of dusty antiquarian M.R. James I could be debonair Mr. James . . . Bond. All I had to do was work at it. That seemed straightforward enough. Besides, I had all this printed matter to guide me.
And so I started, adapting various prescriptions to my own needs, ultimately settling on 45 minutes to an hour of exercise a day and a fairly Spartan diet. A couple of weeks later, when I returned my first batch of material to the library, I remembered that one could check out old magazines, and left with past issues of Gentleman's Quarterly, Runner's World, Men's Health -- as well as a selection of books from another section of the library hitherto unknown to me: the shelf reserved for guides to sartorial fashion. Soon I was learning that paisley goes with nothing, that one shouldn't wear button-down shirts with classy suits, that linen jackets are hard to care for, and that everybody should have a personal style. What was my style? Blue jeans, flannel shirts and gym shoes. I had always vaguely aspired to be -- as James Salter described the hero of his novel Solo Faces -- a guy who looked good in old clothes. But maybe I could be a little more daring, a little sleeker. . .
And so it went. From body to apparel and then on to toys. Surely, the new me would require a new car. The family Dodge Grand Caravan just didn't fit the vision. Maybe a little forest green Miata. Another stop at the library and newsstand was soon called for -- and home I went with Consumer Reports annual car issue, copies of Road and Track, etc., etc. In the end, a residual sense of practicality led me to settle on a Honda Accord. But still I got the V-6, not the smaller, less peppy four-cylinder. Never dies the dream.
Ah, books. They are so wonderfully various, whether you need a copy of Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso, Virgina Woolf's historical jeu d'esprit Orlando, or even a vacation guide to Orlando and Disney World. Recently, for instance, I've been thinking about my pool game and my half-forgotten poker skills. Surely, my suave transformed self should be able run the table like Fast Eddie or make that inside straight like the Cincinnati Kid . . . . It's clearly time to visit the library again.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.