It was the first intimation of my mortality.
"You're in perfect health," my physician told me. That was certainly the news I had expected to hear. But I never expected to hear it after a strenuous electrocardiogram with exercise -- and probably as much exercise as I'd had in the previous week.
Neverthless, the good cardiologist warned, my cardiovascular system stood the risk of going as flabby as my jowls.
"You need exercise. And forget jogging. You're just not the type to get up at 6 a.m. in rainy or snowy weather to trot by Rock Creek," he noted. He was right. I am not the type to get up at 6 a.m., not event to see a beautiful spring day dawn, let alone to exercise in inclemency.
"Buy an Exercycle," he commanded. "Put it in the basement, bring down the television set and pedal away for a half-hour while you watch the 11 o'clock news," was the medical advice. I might have taken it, too, if my furnace weren't so loud. I'd never have been able to hear the news.
So the search for the perfect exercise began. It must have taken 15 or 20 minutes of my time over the next six months. Basketball was out. I wasn't good enough, even if it did have the team dimension I find so painfully lacking in jogging. I'd never played tennis in my life and my ego couldn't stand the thought of losing terribly to my colleagues, many of whom take their tennis game more seriously than their sex life.
I rejected one sport after another. Some were too boring, some were too brutal. Most were just too difficult to fit into the erratic schedule of a journalist. But my months of dogged search for the perfect sport (and my refusal to play a second-rate one) paid off.
"You want to be on our intramural volleyball team?" one of my students asked. (I am a part-time "faculty adviser" to Catholic University's student newspaper.)
I thought for a second. I hadn't played volleyball in years, but seemed to remember that I'd liked it. Since it was a co-ed league, I knew the chances of getting seriously wounded were small and I had six inches on everyone else on the team. Furthermore the first game was not until 9:45 on a Friday night. Even Secretaries of the Treasury go home by then.
"You're on," I replied, and three weeks later donned a tee-shirt and blue jeans I purchased for the occasion and went out to lead the co-ed volleyball team to the first of its four losses that season. We ended up 2-4, the wins coming off two forfeits.
The early going was painful. The last time I leapt as high as a volleyball net I had been smoking four packs a day and had 35 fewer pounds on my frame. My knees reminded me of that fact for weeks.
But the exhilaration of leaping high over the net (or, at first, barely extending my hands above it) to block a shot or spike one at the opponent kept me playing hurt.
And volleyball is a sport made exactly for me. It requires quickness but no sustained bursts of speed. It requires agility but not great strength. And it's a sport one can enjoy without being an expert, yet also a sport one can get better at rather quickly.
The intramural season ended, but as I was about to retire my jeans and tee-shirts, I ran into an old college buddy who told me a group of miscreants like myself were playing Tuesday and Thursday nights at Turkey Thicket playground in Northeast.
Then a game opened up on Wednesday nights at Stoddert School playground. As long as it stayed light late I was fine. The congressional liaison officer at the Congressional Budget Office made me an offer to play on the CBO team that takes on the Brookings Institution every Monday in fair summer weather, but I had to decline. They played too early, for one thing. For another, who wants to spike a source in the face?
By the end of the summer I was actually getting in shape. I was no longer winded after two games. In fact, with lights, we were able to play until 10:30 p.m. or later at Turkey Thicket. Since the same crew played together night after night, we even began to get good (in our definition -- no one else's).
When cool weather hit again, the 12 or 14 of us began to play in Catholic University's old gymnasium. But with varsity basketball and intramurals, the gym's availability to alumni and staff was constrained.
Then the paper reported that the D.C. Recreation Association was taking entries for co-ed volleyball teams at Gordon Junior High. We hastily assembled a "team" meeting and entered the Gordon League as "The Really Machine," a name that was unanimously rejected at the meeting, but submitted to the D.C. people anyway by our cavalier organizer, who was also our best player.
Gordon's girls' gym is not the perfect place to play (nor is Wilson High, where there's open volleyball on Monday nights and where we often go to home our meager skills). The ceiling is low, the back walls are so close to the court that unless one is careful, one's hand can hit the back wall while winding up for a serve.
The lighting is bad and the referee often does not call a carry. (In volleyball, the contact with the ball must be momentary; any longer and it's a carry.)
We also play under co-ed rules, which usually, but not always, mean that if the ball is hit more than once on your side of the net, it must be hit at least once by a man and once by a woman. The ball must be hit to the opposing side of the net within three hits or the point is lost. Only the team that is serving can score a point.
The Really Machine won its first game. Then its second. Then our best player got a job and couldn't play anymore. It took a few games to compensate for his loss: three, in fact. But we won our next five games to end the season 7-3. The tournament starts next week, when the Really Machine takes on Boulevard. We are confident, we beat Boulevard already.
Meanwhile, the student newspaper reorganized its team and its all-purpose adviser led them to a 3-3 season. As usual, its first two losses occurred because the other teams showed up and its first two wins because they didn't. But the team also won its first game on the court in January and apparently has a shot at being in a tournament, too.
Of course, exercise is not always an elixir, as I have discovered. Knees suffer terribly in dives, but knee pads can be constricting. I have hit upon the perfect solution. I tape Pampers to my knees (underneath my jeans, of course, so no one can see them).
During a recent Gordon game I severely jammed my thumb, a major injury for a journalist. The space bar on my typewriter and I still are not on speaking terms.
Despite lingering thumb-pain, I felt vindicated by my choice of exercise when I interviewed a congressional economist who had the same post-pubescent longing to be in shape that I did. As I sat there carefully shielding my thumb (which was three times normal size) from contact with my notebook, he sat there on a table, a lead shoe strapped to his foot, agonizingly exercising ligaments or tendons or whatever he had damaged in a hockey game two months earlier. He'll not go back to the ice. I was on the court the next week.
My energetic friends, especially the joggers, look with disdain at volleyball. It's fun and all that, they sniff, but hardly the exercise out of which cardiovascular superiority is derived. I looked it up on the physicalfitness charts and they're right. Playing volleyball is not as good for your heart as jogging (although it's a lot less boring and probably better for your psyche). It only burns up 350 calories an hour.
But I always compare that to my other favorite sport: beer-drinking. That adds 350 calories an hour.