Heaven’s New Coaching Staff

John Wooden at a ceremony on Oct. 14, the coac...
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Heaven’s New Coaching Staff

I am struggling to climb out of a deep canyon of mourning and mortality as I lament the loss of my friend, spiritual coach, and former Presbyterian pastor Gary Wilburn.

For the last year, his wife and best friend Bev has chronicled his temporal battle with ALS through a tender email communication across a continent of midnights. Their decision to move to a small town in Baja Mexico so Gary might spend his final days near his beloved Pacific Ocean and family, created a daily odyssey of joys and logistical challenges that left me feeling as though I was a spectator to some grander game of life.

I have written often about Gary, the way an adult might nostalgically reflect on a mentor, teacher or coach who had an influence on their life. We all have people who appear on our life’s path and sadly, it is often in hindsight that we come to realize the gift that was embodied in their ideals, spirit and lens to the world. He was my coach and I will miss him.

Gary Wilburn arrived in California as a young toddler clinging to the hand of a single mother. His father had left the family at an early age – leaving Gary forever wondering what the physical love of a father, a power greater than himself, was like. In a story that tracks remarkably to a biblical parable, he and his penniless mother arrived in Northern California with no place to stay and were shown kindness not by the pillars of society but by some women of ill repute – – spending their first evening among the working girls of a bordello.

His life’s journey would mold the man who would one day decide to become a compassionate educator for justice, equity and humanity. His life was far from ordinary. Yet, he was quick to avoid conversations about himself. He instead focused on those with whom he was entrusted. Occasionally, in quiet discourse and even once in a sermon, Gary revealed aspects of a childhood that was at once, filled with love and at the same time, a more complicated contradiction as his mother worked in a shadow world of government agents and individuals focused on keeping Hollywood and Los Angeles free of the divisive influences of communism and socialism. He would tell stories of a loving home filled with songs and compassion.  Yet across the street, a spook my stand in the dark illuminated only by the tangerine glow of a cigarette.  Gary’s world was a swirling whirlpool of political dogma and humanity – a mass of seemingly opposed forces.

Gary’s spiritual pursuits were sparked by his life experiences – -a recognition that we were all flawed and fallen but that within us, a divine spark flickers and cannot be extinguished. His mission was to free that light from its prison of self pursuit and self interest.

When we met for the first time, it was if Gary had already punctured through my well developed veneer of fair weathered Christianity and pegged me for what I truly was – – someone with good intentions who rarely acted on them.  Instead of lecturing me each Sunday with sermons berating my indifference or patronizing my lack of action in a world filled with inequity and suffering, he led me by the hand like the Ghost of Christmas Present sharing the joys and tragedies borne out of the bondage of self preservation and materialism.  Gary knew his flock.  They were successful people – CEOs, financial professionals, high performing men and women whose best ideas and self reliance had resulted in material success and comfort.  It was an infinitely harder community to convince to pursue a different road when so many had been rewarded in a temporal world for their focus and work ethic.

Gary was determined to share how affluence could become a trap and how believing in yourself as the source of one’s own success, erects your entire self worth on a mortal and inevitably unstable foundation.  He tried to teach that spiritual currency of personal worth was of a higher denomination than the temporal currency of net worth.  He attempted to show how epiphany could be found in the darkest corners of our lives.  Trial, travail, questioning, doubt and suffering were vital DNA for an advanced soul – a soul that understood that there are no burning bushes along this earthly path only people who choose to serve as a vessel for a divine light.

I viewed Gary Wilburn as my coach and captain – – the John Wooden of my spiritual life.  Not unlike my hero Wooden, he cared deeply for his “players” and his pyramid for success was built on a foundation of family, service and integrity.  His sermons preached relentless repetition of service in hopes that one’s acts of kindness might actually become embedded parts of a person’s character. He understood that it was our nature to be selfish and self centered athletes.   For many, we enter life’s parquet courts each day expecting to be the center of the offense.  We insist that someone “give us the ball.”  It was all about winning the game and the end justified the means.  It was up to this coach to redefine what “winning” really meant in an agnostic world that often played by a different set of rules.

Gary would often cry as he delivered his locker room sermons – angered by the inhumanity and indifference that he witnessed in the world.  Like children, we would sometimes sit and wonder, “why is he so upset? Is he angry with something that I did?”  Invariably, we would be gently reminded that most of our errors were not those of commission but omission.  Our fouls were apathy, indifference and a tolerance of the mediocre.  We could only win when we played together as a team –as a congregation that was bonded by values and common community.

There is always tension when a coach is whipping his team into shape.  Some dislike the pace of change or the candor of the message.  A head coach has to deal with alumni and boosters who provide financial support and bring with their contributions strong opinions about the game,  how it should be played and what defines success.  It seems in sports and in churches, everyone has a different expectation of what the institution should be achieving.  Gary understood that an area like Fairfield County could serve as a beacon of generosity and compassion or be seen as the poster child for guarded self interest.  Gary was determined to lead his players into discovering the joy of this game called life and to become excited about the spiritual dividends of a life well lived.

Behind every great coach, there is often the partner that holds it all together.  John Wooden would tell you the greatest accomplishment of his life was not his winning record or national championships but meeting and marrying his wife Nell.  Gary Wilburn would not hesitate to convey his love for Bev who at the end, was clearing Gary’s  breathing tube every fifteen minutes through out the day and night so he might live to witness another glorious sunrise.  It was Bev’s loving chronicle of Gary’s final days that allowed many of us to grieve more softly in the knowledge that Gary accomplished everything that he had set out to do in life and was wrapped in love every step of his journey.

Someone once said, “the smarter a person is, the harder it is for them to change because they think they have it all figured out.  That is why sinners make the best saints. They bring a humility to their spiritual journey which opens the door to understanding. The humble man realizes that one must first seek to understand before being understood.”

I recall a coach in college telling me that I was “over-thinking” things.  He pointed to another player who was leading our team with RBIs with runners in scoring position.  “He listens. He practices. He does not think about new things as unnatural or different.  He repeats them over and over again until they become natural and a part of how he plays.  Face it, your best thinking only got you this far. You will never get better until you learn to take someone else’s advice on how to play the game.”

We all need coaches and teachers.  No matter how old we are, our life’s journey is one of constant self discovery and improvement.  When you are lucky enough to find someone who dedicates their life to helping you become a better person, it is the ultimate gift.  Not only do you become a better person for their counsel but you begin to understand that your life’s legacy is helping others compete in this difficult, beautiful game called life.

We lost two life coaches this month.  Coaches Wooden and Wilburn have joined a heavenly staff that still stands undefeated.  Their one wish is perhaps to keep alive their principles and for us to practice them in all our affairs.  We are, after all, their players and our greatest tribute to them is to that we go out every day and compete with integrity always with an eye toward winning the game the right way.  Perhaps, we may become a next generation of coaches so that their message might never fall silent in the locker rooms of life.

The Beautiful Game

Beckham prepares for a set piece. Wow: Beckham...
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Whenever the ball flew toward our goal and a score seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out and cleared the ball.  ~Author unknown, from an article in Rio de Janeiro’s Jornal dos Sports

Moving from Northern California in April, 2000 to the mist swept mud and daffodils of springtime London upset every aspect of my life.   I struggled to acclimate to slate gray days, congested urban living and 6000 miles of separation from all that was familiar.  We had crash-landed on a foreign planet that was a mass of contradictions – history, tradition, bourgeois gentrification and blue collar working class grit.  England was a fierce tribal culture whose allegiances were brilliantly imbued in the rich palette of its colorful football club jerseys.  In an ancient land of Saxon cathedrals and Norman churches, very few of its citizens actually attended Sunday worship service.  Football had become the theology of choice for this secular, post-industrial power.

Soccer had always seemed to me a boring half-sport of gnat like foreigners flopping and feigning injury at the slightest contact.  As a parochial American, I believed that time would bring the rest of the world to our standard of sport – American football and baseball.  I could not imagine powerful American athletes abandoning their shoulder pads and batting gloves to play a game that allowed a tie as a final score.  A tie to an American is the equivalent of kissing your sister.  Watching European football was as exciting as painting a fence.

We descended into a nation filled with great expectations.  The English were once again preparing to invade Belgium and Holland to compete for European bragging rights in Euro 2000. Sixteen countries participated in what many felt was the truest test of national capabilities and perhaps, a leading indicator of relative strength heading into the long awaited 2002 World Cup. England had qualified for the Euro 2000 tournament and was somewhat optimistic to have drawn Portugal, Romania and Germany in its bracket.  Only two teams would advance to the Knock Out Stage round of sixteen.  Midfielder David Beckham, captain Alan Shearer, forward Michael Owen and the ancient 36-year-old goalkeeper, David Seaman, anchored the British squad.  The majority of the national team played for the three most popular football clubs in the Premiere division – – Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool.

On the designated days of the national football matches, the entire emerald island of England shuttered its doors and opened its pubs.  It was standing room only as bars spilled raucous patrons out on to the uneven cobble stoned sidewalks.  Enormous roars and gasps could be heard echoing down every mews, court and close as 70M people were united.  It was as if it was 1939 again and the country’s honor and security must be defended at all cost.

Within weeks of our arrival, my eldest son was suddenly wearing a Michael Owen jersey with its prominent red cross of St George.  Our neighbors across the close Paola and Arnaud were a house divided – as her Italian and his French banners competed for the affections of their two-year-old son. The city of London revealed its complex DNA as legions of immigrant vendors, shopkeepers, workers and ex-pats brazenly broadcast their loyalties and predictions.

The English team had a disastrous first round – falling to a surprisingly talented Portugal, recovering to beat an aging but tough German squad 1-0,  only to collapse in a must-win game with Romania 3-2.  England had not won a major championship since 1966 when Bobby Charlton led the UK to its last World Cup at Wembley Stadium. Euro 2000 was my walk across the pitch of national football mania and with it came the yawning maw of a carnivorous UK press that devoured their struggling national squad with the precision of Jack the Ripper.

Despite seeing their team not advance into the round of 16, British fans stayed glued to their tellies as they focused on the remaining teams – -many of whom were populated with personal fan favorites who played professionally in the UK’s premiere division. The French, anchored by Arsenal’s Thierry Henri and Juventus striker Zinedine Zidane pushed their ways into the tournament finals with a win over Cinderella semi-finalist Portugal and their prolific scorer Nuno Miguel Soares Pereira Ribeiro aka “Gomes”.  Italy, on the feet of Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi, danced, flopped, gesticulated and headed its way through Romania and a thrilling overtime win over Netherlands on penalty kicks.

The stage was set for the Euro 2000 final match between the Gaelic greyhounds and the animated Italians.  On July 2 in Rotterdam, the Italians struck first on a Marco Delvecchio bullet past the bald and brawny French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. France tied the game in the final minute of the match vaulting the two clubs into overtime.  45 minutes into overtime, French striker David Trezeguet became a national hero as he took a crossing pass from Robert Pirès and won the tournament for France.

The tournament had been an unmitigated failure for the English.  British soccer fans were next to feel the sting of European media criticism for street brawls initiated by a few drunken hooligans. While it was a nadir moment for English football, it marked the beginning of my appreciation European football. I was hooked.

Over the next year, England fought to qualify for the upcoming 2002 World Cup in a series of matches and non-ranked, tune-up games known as “friendlies”. France had been guaranteed a spot and it was up to the English to grab one of the other 13 slots that were to be contested in over 100 matches across Europe.  In the year leading up to the World Cup tournament, 193 countries played 777 matches across five continents in their quest for a berth.

England’s chances were fading. In a final do or die match, the Brits had to depend on a German tie or loss to Finland and a tie or win against Greece to join the tournament.  The nation held its breath.  The press began digging a deep grave for the stoic and cerebral imported English coach Sven Goran Erickson.

The game did not proceed as planned. After a late goal by Greece put them back on top, 2-1, England was trailing deep into post regulation injury time.  As the press whetted their knives, midfielder and captain David Beckham unleashed a free kick that took off like a curling bullet – – defying physics as well as a confounded Greek goalie.  As the shot arced over the wall of Greek defenders, its topspin bent the ball just under the cross bar and England was in the World Cup.  The island shuddered and the popular phrase, “ Bend It Like Beckham” entered the world lexicon.

Two years later, the World Cup lived up to its incredible billing with 32 of the greatest teams vying for a shot at the champions finals match in Yokohama, Japan.  England made it through bracket F, known as the “Group of Death” – – Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria.  Across in Group D, a debutante United States fought its way into the quarterfinals only to lose to finalist Germany.  However, it was in this tournament that I became infatuated with a tanned squad of green and yellow clad boys who attacked the pitch with the speed of cheetahs, the grace of gazelles and the joy of children at play during a twilight alleyway football game.  They were the Brazilians – – a free spirited, handsome clan of kindred spirits weaving through opponents, precisely passing through keyhole lanes and moving like phantom winds that swirled down through these magnificent Asian football stadiums.

The Brazilians’ Ronaldo scored a remarkable 8 goals over the course of the two-week event, followed by an even more youthful and perpetually grinning teammate, Rivaldo who registered 5 superhuman goals.  It was in this tournament that our Brazilian baby sitter and part time journalist, Elaine Medeiros, shared that the Brazilians had an expression to describe football.  They simply called it, “Joga Bonito” or the beautiful game.

As the Brazilians went on to win their fifth World Cup, I came to appreciate the beauty, youth and brilliance of soccer.  It could ignite a nation and eviscerate its soul – all within a 90-minute match

My lens to the world changed across those endlessly pink twilight summers in England – watching this beautiful game.  As I attended Fulham and Chelsea football matches in the fall and winter, I became caught up in the sheer fanaticism of English soccer.  On the continent, I attended a game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid to watch Real Madrid play archrivals, Barcelona. It was not just the teams competing but it was the hearts minds of the Catalan and the Castilian states.

As the World Cup builds to its crescendo over this week, I am excited and at the same time, homesick for Europe where entire countries stop and linger, smelling and reveling in the deep fragrance of youth – – its skill, passion and its mistakes – – all played out across a single soccer pitch.  Its beauty is in a perfectly executed header.  It is a magnificent diving save.  It is a blind pass and a misdirected shot on goal.  It is one man, possessing brilliant feet weaving between adversaries toward a crouching sentinel.  It is errors, yellow cards, flags and banners.  It is a child in an aquamarine jersey that simply says “Messi”. It is the grabbing, pushing and posturing of a corner kick.  Above all, it is the emphatic, glorious echo of an announcer in a foreign tongue screaming the universal call to open the pantheons to another national hero – –  “GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL!!!!!”

It is time for another FIFA World Cup.  So grab your channel changers and set your Tivo. Soccer, like the world in which we live, is magnificent, messy, inconsistent, sad, brilliant, and unpredictable.  It is an anthem for our planet as hundreds of millions follow for a fortnight the rotation of a single ball as it courses toward a net.

It is, as they say, the beautiful game.

To The Class of 2010

The first appearance of the concept of the &qu...
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It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.  ~Edmund Hillary

Gang, you picked one heck of a year to be released into the wild – – and I do not mean your first frat or sorority party.  I’m talking about a hot, flat and crowded world that suffers from serial hubris and an inability to learn from history.    In the past year, we have seen many people at their worst and best. You eventually learn that everyone is imperfect – except the Dave Matthews Band.  It’s hard to believe, but in time, your parents will actually get smarter as you receive higher education.  It sounds counterintuitive but trust me.

We are all souls moving along a human continuum that is at one end, anchored by ignorance, self worship and tanning salons and on the other side, is love and humility.  Think “Snookie” from “Jersey Shore” at one extreme and Mother Theresa on the other.  We each rise and fall along this silk thread called life. It is impossible to be young and not suffer from self obsession, especially when you have a pimple.  Many of the mistakes we make, we commit out of self centered fear – – fear of rejection, fear of not getting what we believe we need, fear of fear, fear of not having at least 3 gigs on our cell phone or personal computer.  The “Fear List” goes on and on and is normally released once a year by the same people who make the Farmer’s Almanac.

We learned in school about people who have dedicated their lives to leaving the world a better place than when they found it.  We found out that conceit and fear have destroyed entire civilizations.  Sadly, most of us give up wanting to be President (some of you will eliminate your chances for public office at your first college party). As we grow older and slow from the weight of responsibilities, material pursuit and Krispy Kreme donuts, we lose our ambition to change the world. Churchill once said, “If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart.  If you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.” Right now, it’s all about heart. Later, it will be about heartburn.

This is your time to indulge all of life’s possibilities and remember that the only doors that are shut to you in life are the one’s you choose to close by your actions or inaction. The French have a term, “raison d’etri”- – translated it simply means: “reason to exist.” What will be your reason to exist?  As you head into higher education, gap years, travel, jobs or a period of life exploration, never lose sight that everyone comes off the same spiritual assembly line.  We all hail from the same maker – – some of us just choose to become higher performance vehicles, while others succumb to their own self imposed limitations. A few crash and need some time in the shop.

In the last 12 months, you have witnessed a year of firsts – – a new President, landmark legislation attempting to fundamentally change our healthcare and financial systems, record unemployment, environmental disaster, unprecedented human suffering and the acoustic shadows of improvised explosive devices killing American soldiers half way around the world.  Amidst this chaotic age of hope, blight and frailty, your lights are shining like head lamps of climbers in a dark storm.  Each of you is a candle in the dark – a catalyst for change where ever you go.  You do not have to travel to the edges of Darfur to find the marginalized, the underserved, the hopeless and the inhumane – you can actually do this by visiting Congress.

You just have to get out of your self interest long enough to notice need and chances to be of service.  It’s like the movie “The Matrix”.  Self interest is the blue pill.  You can take it and continue to move along life’s path insulated from the ugly truths that lurk on the edges of our lives or you take the red pill, descend down the rabbit hole and see where it takes you.

You always have choices although sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude.  Feeling sorry for oneself is one of the more overrated indulgences in life. It’s a waste of time.  A Czech Holocaust survivor, Sir Frank Lempl, tells a story about his procuring an extra pair of shoes at Auschwitz and having to decide which of his two closest friends (both shoeless and suffering) would receive them.  The shoes meant life as winter meant long hours of work in the snow, frost bite and eventual death in the gas chambers when one could no longer walk.  Lempl stared deep into his soul, made his decision and saved the life of one friend and could not prevent the death of another. He called it his “Shoe Decision.” In relating this story to a friend, he shared that most decisions in life “are not shoe decisions ‘.  Pray for guidance.  Try to ensure that your choice is not made out of self interest but human interest, and then get on with living.  To Sir Frank Lempl, there is no place for regret or feeling sorry for oneself.  Pick yourself up, make your amends and get on with life.  It is worth noting that Sir Frank came to London penniless when he was 50 years old and founded one of the largest construction companies in the world, Bovis-Lend Lease.

Your best lessons will come in the form of pain – – physical, emotional, intellectual and psychic.  These moments of clarity are difficult and at the times, you will not see the forest for the trees to realize you are getting exactly what you need (BTW, this will always be different than what you wanted).  There will be days when it seems like the entire cosmos has turned its back on you.  Remember that you are only given what you can handle and strife is the ultimate compliment from a God who has a wicked curveball and a highly evolved sense of humor.  Your essence of being a person, along with gray hairs – will emerge from these trials.  You will discover a lot about yourself and others – who your real friends are and who were only hanging around for the free food.

To learn to forgive is like learning how to eat right, you will never regret it.  Resentment is junk food – it only creates emotional fat and has no value.  I have to admit vindictiveness tastes good but it ends up giving you reflux – (ask your dad what that is). Pray for your enemies. Praying that the idiot who bugs you gets whatever they need is hard.  Understand though, that by forgiving, you take away people’s power over you.  It is true.  Trust me.  I tried it once and it worked! It’s hard to do – sort of like learning to juggle or riding a unicycle.  However, once you get the hang of it, you suddenly realize that no one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.

Whatever you have done up to this point, it does not really matter.  That’s bad news for the social X-rays and drama queens but great news for those of you who remain undiscovered or ended up in the police blotter.  You are all equal sized tadpoles and will now be swimming in a bigger ocean.  Sorry to break the news to you amphibians but we are all here but for a brief period of time so make the most out of it.  Dance with your hands outside the safety zone.  Risk rejection knowing that somewhere out there, someone beyond your wildest expectations is waiting to be your partner – you just may have to travel through Slovenia to meet them.

Do not get depressed about the way you find the world.  Your job is to change it and our job is to try to stay out of your way while you pull down some of our grand monuments to self interest.  Don’t blindly accept a two party system. Crank the music but invite your neighbors to the party so they do not call the police.  Write thank you notes.  Do something nice for someone every day but do not tell a soul – – it is the ultimate overture of selfless service.  The good news is the most important person – you – will know what you did and 365 acts of kindness later, you will be changed for the better.

The people who seem so important today may not even show up to your 30 year reunion because high school was their life’s high water mark.  Other less visible classmates that did not appear to have it going on will end up doing some very interesting things. Some do not ever return so cherish your time together. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, you may not like the answer.

Above all, enjoy these years where your bodies are strong, your ambitions are boundless and your belief that anything is possible is amplified in every cocky little thing you do. Just remember humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is simply thinking of yourself less of the time. It is also occasionally taking out the trash without being asked.

Go get ‘em.  Breathe deep and scream at the top of your lungs.  Never give a ride to a hitchhiker with a prosthetic hook. Don’t party too hard – all you are doing is medicating your ability to live life. Hendrix, The Doors and Dave sound just as good without losing control and you are much more likely to sing on key. Try to change your bed sheets at least once a semester and remember not to mix colored and white clothes in the laundry. Exercise regularly – – the “Freshman Twenty” is real!( ask your mom). And yes, according to Dr Fessler DDS, you still must floss.

Vaya Con Dios!

Tom and Steve’s Most Excellent Ab Venture

The word “personal training” came about when the gym instructors got together and said, “If we’re going to charge $100 an hour, we can’t call it jumping up and down.”  ~Rita Rudner

I am watching my 14 year old son with his POW ribs and washboard abs as he meanders into the kitchen and in the span of 10 minutes consumes about 15,000 calories of junk food. I am in awe of his metabolism.  I am certain that if he did not keep eating all day his body would simply turn on itself and he would be gone by midnight.    It is so depressing.  It is also highly unfair – – this shiny race car they call youth.  I mourn my own sputtering 1961 engine.

Like the DMV, middle age carries its own rules of the road.  Do not eat after 9pm unless you want to wake up feeling like someone has just poured hydrochloric acid down your throat.  Don’t drink or consume anything before you exercise or you risk sounding like one of those bus doors belching your way down South Avenue. Do not eat Fiber One bars prior to interaction with any human being. Watch your salt intake. Eat a big breakfast.  Eat only protein.  Eat only complex carbohydrates.  Eat 6 -8 helpings of vegetables every day. (Are green cupcakes a vegetable?)  Take Omega 3 fatty acids.  Take 5000 grams of vitamin C. Eat nutrient rich greens. Eat kale (Kale is the name of an ex-con from Alabama not a leafy green)   Eat like a caveman.  Eat at South Beach.  Eat like a Southern European living on the Mediterranean. Don’t eat.

Food is now fuel and not a source of pleasure, medication or escape. How many grams of fat does that have?  I don’t know.  It says it has only 100 calories per serving. But, wait! Damn, there are 144 servings in this bag.  My mantra of “more is better” has been supplanted by “less is more.” The answer to every question is always the same, “exercise and moderation.”  It is the definition of hell for an obsessive personality.

For the last several years, I have been waging a battle of night and day – faithfully going to the gym each day to engage some militant muscle group with a regimen of weights and cardio. I then drive home and eat everything that is not nailed down.  As a creature of habit, my workout routine became a highly regimented and predictable series of exercises that helped me build strength and in the right light, delude myself into thinking I was still worthy of becoming a second string tackle for a local junior college.

My self deceit included multi-tasking while presumably “pushing myself to the limit”. I found I could actually write on my blackberry while using the elliptical which allowed me to cover multiple priorities at the same time.  I mistook sweat for physical fitness. and of course, discovered my appetite had increased. I was just a bigger monster to feed.

One day rumors began to swirl around the Smith Press. “Our” Fitness Club was getting a new owner, management and a much needed facelift.  I was secretly distressed.  I was a privileged member of a dying tribe  – many of whom had joined NCAC when Reagan was in office.  My workout partners and I would have never met except for our masochism in refusing to quit a club whose facilities had not been updated since Jack Lalanne was in spandex knee pants.  We were a union of odd bedfellows that was as hard to get out as the stains and marks that tattooed the club’s ancient ash gray carpet.

The gym had been frozen in time, inconsistently managed and finally, unable to pay its bills.  A week did not go by that something did not break, snap, burst or explode – including a few wobbly  patrons who faithfully arrived each day to curl 15lb dumbbells and then fall asleep in a stained leather armchair that even my dog would not sit in.  No one really actually knew who was a member as anyone in spandex could wander in off the street and begin using the equipment. My friends extolled the virtues of other clubs with their progressive hours and contemporary fitness equipment.  I was too stubborn.  My club was like an old tattered shirt that one refuses to throw away.

Then, everything changed.  Someone from the spinning group confirmed that “we have been bought.” The new owner was a triathlete and fitness author named Tom Holland.  Tom’s success as a triathlete, trainer and fitness motivator made him an ideal candidate to breathe some spontaneity back into our rigid routines. Tom’s business partner,  Steve “Baz”, an ex-martial arts specialist, looked equally conditioned and possessed that unnerving gaze of a sculptor when he is first examining a mound of useless clay.  I was not sure if Steve was a former Special Forces operative or a spy.  However it was clear both men had boundless energy and spoke in a strange dialect of physiological, biochemical and psychological terms. They used clinical terms like “body composition”, “basal metabolic rate (BMR)” and ” hypertrophy”.  While it was apparent that we had been ” liberated”, this was one POW camp that was not sure it wanted to be found.  Within days, it was clear that these fitness gurus had come to save us – whether we wanted to be or not.

Weird accountrement started appearing at newly renamed Tom Holland Athletic Club — elastic ropes, harnesses, long flexible rolling pins, colored metallic handled orbs called “kettle bells” and a massive vibrating lectern called a “Power Plate” which resembled the personal hover-craft of George Jetson.  I could see how all these gadgets might improve your sex life but was skeptical of their fitness value.

Our new owners prowled the floor and engaged members with seemingly innocent questions about routines, goals and physical histories.  When they were not getting to know their new clients, they were running, biking and sprinting in very public places with their clientele. I was wary.  I did not trust anyone with a 5% body fat.  It’s unnatural.  How can I depend on them to vouch for me when I was really at Dunkin Donuts?  The answer was simple – I could not.  Yet, my own curiosity finally got the better of me and I requested a private session with Steve.

He handed me a jump rope.  I had not seen a jump rope since the third grade. I rolled my eyes and  balked, “When do we get to bench press? ” Steve smiled.  “Let’s warm up and jump rope for 30 seconds. You then rest for 30 seconds and then jump for 30 more.” It was insultingly simple.  I rolled my eyes. After ten seconds, my legs started to tighten and heart did the conga.  After 20 seconds, my chest appeared to be giving way to an alien trying to escape.  My heart rate monitor indicated that I was now a human hummingbird.  About 35 minutes into my first Steve workout, I started to experience sensations similar to the bird flu.  At the end of the 50 minute routine, I was reduced to a quivering mass of jello and allowed to fly home. The following day was an eight Advil affair.

One brutal session led to another.  I determined that my new coach was engaged in the most deceptive of all practices – turning my own body weight against me.  Suddenly I was not lifting 235lbs on a benchpress.  I was lugging my own 235lbs through push-ups, pull-ups, bear crawls, squats, box jumps, and running.  Seemingly benign household objects became part of sinister drills designed to induce total muscle failure.  A piece of string, a ten pound weight, athletic tape and an elastic band could be combined to burn 2000 calories and my self esteem . Running was soon reintroduced as a precursor to the weekly work out. “Let’s do three miles and then come back, work your core and finish with 5000 meters on the rowing machine.”  I looked at him as if he was in league with Satan.

“Why” I asked.

“Why not?” he replied.

I now understood why they call it muscle confusion. My glutes did not if they were coming or going.

I met Charlie, a 6’6” ex-athlete who was determined to get back to his football playing weight. Charlie and I became Professor Steve’s experiments.  We were perfect lab rats – middle aged men carrying excess baggage, nostalgic for days of fast cars and fast metabolisms and highly responsive to praise and punishment.  Eventually, we were pitted against one another like gladiators. One day, we would be pulling each other across a floor using a massive tug boat rope.  The next day, we would be jogging three miles and then racing on rowing machines.  We were clearly a source of amusement for many in club.  I am sure Tom and Steve considered developing a video called the “The Paleo Workout: So Easy A Caveman Can Do It – foreward by Jane Goodall.”   In a span of ten weeks, Charlie dropped an amazing 40lbs discovering he had ribs, feet and even a third child.

We started simply referring to our rehabilitated habitat as Holland’s House of Pain – – “When you finally decide to get serious about being sore.”

I am now months into my routine and as a serial masochist, I pay for the privilege to enter the House of Pain. It is an addictive and never ending assault on my metabolism and dignity. Yet, I love it.  I have not lifted a heavy weight in months but am more fit than I have been in years.  Yet, Steve is not satisfied.  He wants my BMI under 20 and my body fat percentage in the teens.  He argues that I have only begun my journey  – – one that will extend my life, improve my stamina and best of all, keep me ensconced as alpha male in my pride.

For any Turpin teen who crosses the proverbial line in the sand, I am considering a 50 minute workout with Steve in lieu of grounding, loss of cell phone or confiscation of the personal computer.  This will be the Marine Corps equivalent of  “drop and give me twenty!”

The best part about it is I will probably join them.