I have wanted hunky shoulders and arms -- really wanted a whole new body -- longer than I want to admit.
The nagging started with a patch I had my mother sew on a shirt when I was in the first grade. It was a large red "S" purchased at Dupree's Five and Ten.
I collected Superman trinkets and comic books avidly until that patch. I don't think it was the beauty of muscles that attracted me to the Man of Steel, but the fact that he was strong and invulnerable to bullies; I had felt frail and, worse, had recently drawn the attention of a bully named Lawton.
Lawton didn't beat me up much, but he threatened to all the time, occasionally using his right center knuckle to raise a frog on my arm and constantly standing too close to me, reminding me that he could invade my territory at will. If a very young person can feel impotence, I felt it then.
The feeling was especially strong the first day I wore my Superman "S." I ran to the small wooded area where Lawton and his friends held their secret meetings, hoping that they would accept me, knowing that belonging to the group would protect me. But the boys were not impressed with my shirt. Lawton laughed first, and then he punched me once in the stomach, at the very bottom of the "S." I buried the shirt that day and gave my comics and trinkets to a kid much smaller than I.
After that I decided that muscles and strength were not as important as personality. I smiled a lot. By the third grade I was glib, friendly, very gregarious, and by the end of the third grade I was elected to my first class office. Vice-president of Mrs. Dasher's homeroom may not be very important to the outside world, but to me, it was a heady, powerful moment.
My body said very few negative things to me for several years, until puberty arrived on a dark horse, or more precisely in the person of Lawton again: He asked my first great love, Felicia, to attend the seventh-grade dance with him. When I had asked her, Felicia had perhaps unknowingly glanced up and down my body and begged off. She also looked at Lawton's body, slowly, and said yes.
Looking back, I think that incident was pretty much an epiphany for me. learned to dress to be comfortable with my arms and shoulders. Long-sleeved shirts rolled up just right gave an impression that muscles might be lurking under the folds. Short-sleeved shirts, when they had to be worn, couldn't have elasticized sleeves.
I avoided sports that required performing in front of others and became a water skier and scuba diver and, occasionally, a sky diver -- things that were a little exotic and conversationally interesting.
But I never could put away my dream of shoulders and arms. Last year, when those professionals who know muscles said I really could have honest-to-God, rippling muscles, my heart skipped a beat, like the flutters brought on by my crush on Felicia 30 years ago.
Last week, when one of my doctors said matter-of-factly my dream could end with too many shoulder injuries, it skipped -- lurched is more like it -- again.
All the old memories -- the nagging -- came back because my right shoulder isn't taking well to weight lifting. I tore a ligament, and haven't been able to work it at all for a week.
Now, intellectually, I know the shape of my body isn't important. I am happy my life has been guided more by the meatiness of the mind than the shallowness of muscle tissues. I know how very trite it is to be bothered by surface things, and, hurt shoulder or not, I'm living an exotic year.
But I'm still very capable of a trite and shallow thought or two. As I sat glumly nursing my shoulder after visiting the doctor, a friend tried to perk me up by pointing out the plusses in my life. "And I suppose," I snapped, "you're going to tell me I have a nice personality, too."
Things got worse. An acquaintance who had recently returned to Grand Bahama stopped me outside the Underwater Explorer's Society with a, "My God, Remar, you look awful! Stringy." The word took me back years, to the days of Lawton. "You know," she continued, "you should take up weight lifting." This to a man who had lifted more than 500,000 pounds in the last two months.
It's a mile from the Society to my house, a pleasant walk even when things aren't going well, past tennis courts, three oceanside hotels separated by large open spaces, and dozens of large, mushroom-shaped banyan trees.
I stopped under the banyan before the Holiday Inn and bought a styrofoam cup of conch salad from the small native stand there. The tree virtually surrounds the stand, roots touching its roof and sides, attaching there in places.
Bertha, the proprietor, good island psychiatrist that she is, sensed my mood. "Give it away," she said when I told her about my slight depression. I blinked. She was right. Right then, under the banyan tree, I decided to form my own exercise class.
I called Lauren Hunt-Manning. Laurie and her husband are both instructors at the Explorer's Society. She is also a certified aerobics fitness specialist. During the past 10 years, the Mannings have lived, exercised and scuba dived from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to the Taiwan Straits, the Gulf of Siam, the island of Barbados, New Guinea, and finally back to Grand Bahama. Laurie is slightly built, a wisp, and blond. For a awhile there, she dyed a small shock of her hair pink.
Laurie looked me straight in the eyes without blinking when I asked her to form an aerobics class at my house. "Why do you want a class, Remar?"
"Well, I thought it would be good for my book, you know" . . . "You mean," she interrupted, "the principle of misery loves company?"
We met for the first time last night. Five other scuba instructors have joined, all under 30. Three women over 40 have also joined. None appear overweight to me, but all say they feel that way. Doc Clement, my island doctor (a Britisher with way too much hair for a man over 40), has agreed to participate and serve as our official medical attendant.
Everyone in the group says they want to slim down and firm up; everyone says they want more energy. Those under 30 seem to want more energy to party. Those of us over 40 want more energy to function.
The men, at first, were hesitant to discuss specific body goals, but when I told the group about my desire for muscles enough to bring swoons from the opposite sex, the men in unison said yeah, that's it. Keith, considerably overweight, was the most honest and most touching. "I want," he said quietly, "to feel better about myself."
The men are also a little nervous about the thought of aerobic dancing itself, of doing those "funny Richard Simmons" movements in front of others, as one put it. I laughed, for Laurie had already shown me how much work those funny movements are.
I go back to the shoulder doctor in a week. If my shoulder hasn't improved, he's sending me to the States to a specialist. If it's better, I'll be working shoulders that day in the gym. The difference between "stringy" and "hunky" in inches is very small -- perhaps three more inches on the biceps and a couple of inches over the shoulder.
But I'm beginning to realize how far those distances may be.
Muscles and Health,
NEXT: Escape from paradise.