At a prepubescent 10 years old, I happily still sported baby fat and had no issues with my body image. My innocent lack of self consciousness was shattered one fateful summer afternoon at the local community pool when it became very obvious to me that my breasts were larger than the 16 year old female lifeguard who I secretly admired. Like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, I was suddenly aware of my pear-like physique. I could not deny other signs of my flagging vitality. The annual Presidential Fitness Test that was visited upon elementary school coach potatoes each fall was an embarrassing reminder that I did not possess the ” right stuff”. The test revealed in a very public setting my most carefully guarded secret : I could not do a pull up. My inability to hoist my 130 lb, 5′ body over a metal bar that was less than 18 inches above my chin, was devastating.
My thirst for strength and fitness led me into an amusing phase of self obsession. I became keenly aware of physically fit athletes. I marvelled at Olympian weight lifters. I obsessed over the Mr Universe contests as Austrian Schwartzenegger and American Lou Ferrigno competed for the most perfect body. I worshipped NFL defensive giants Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and Dick Butkis as they prowled offensive backfields breaking quarterbacks like dry kindling. In Pro Wrestling, Freddy Blassy epitomized the brash bravado that came with pectoral muscles. He denounced all “pencil neck geeks” and made it clear that no bully would kick sand in your face if you were sporting biceps that could crush walnuts.
As with many seemingly benign adolescent obsessions, there was a dark secret leavened in with my enthusiasm, energy and determination. This closet shame led me to develop a secret gymnasium in our garage – fashioning weights from paint cans and broken rakes, dumbbells from sledgehammers and a pull up bar from a spare curtain rod. My first workout was a train wreck as my 50lb bench press of paint cans slid off my makeshift bar and dented my Mom’s Ford Pinto. I attempted a bicep curl with the hammer and dropped it over my back, barely missing my dog Max who had come to watch my covert self improvement with confused amusement. He fled the garage yelping. The final indignity was taking the spare curtain rod and fixing it between the beams of the garage rafters. The wooden ladder creaked mockingly as I climbed to attempt my private chin up. I grasped the narrow rod and hung for a moment in the air. I squeezed every ounce of energy from my arms, arching my back whipping my legs for momentum. The rod bowed for a moment and then slowly lifted me to eye ball level. My first pull up was within my grasp. I strained and heaved. I did not notice the strain on the metal until it snapped, catapulting me into a lawnmower which ripped a foot long tear in my new levis. The mower’s leaf catch was crumpled beyond repair as was my fragile ego. I was convinced that I was forever ” fat boy”.
Years later, despite stretching to 6′ 2″ and playing competitive sports at all levels, I still winced at those memories like a loose rock in my shoe. Like so many paintings in the private galleries of our lives, we sometimes circle back to complete unfinished works. At 43, I decided to reattempt body building in hopes of defying nature, gravity and Kelloggs food products. As with all my obsessions, I attacked my new regimen with relentless gusto. I did not realize it but excessive weight lifting does odd things to a person’s body. New muscles appear in unintended places. The odd hump forms on your right shoulder. Success is very uneven. New undiagnosed aches and pains play tricks on your mind. Clothes do not fit. Buttons pop off pants and dress shirts at an alarming rate. Yet, despite the Kafkaesque symptoms, everything feels a little more in control. Your inner twenty-something begins to stir but struggles to escape its forty something prison of padding.
I found myself at the Fitness Club of New Canaan every day. I bought a lycra garment that squeezed me tighter than an English sausage. I fell deeper into the abyss of self obsession. On business trips I found myself asking if the hotel fitness center had free weights. On vacation, I would scour the area for the only gym within 100 miles the way others drive for hours trying to find an espresso drink in the Adirondacks. I was hooked.
I began to feed the obsession buying shirts one size too small. This fashion detour caused my spouse to wince with embarrassment. “It’s just a phase,” she kept repeating. Despite my promotion back to size LG shirts, she continued to buy me XL clothing. Did she not see what was happening to me ? The guns ? The pecs? The hump on my back ? I sensed her distain for my new found passion but ignored it figuring it could be worse. I just knew that if I kept up my routine, it would be impossible for her to mock me with here black belt diminutives. I was not lifting “little” weights at a “little gym”. I was no longer a “little” obsessed. Nothing about weight lifting is small. It is big. You are big. Everyone should be big.
I wanted to be even bigger. I was too afraid to try steroids as they were a) illegal, b) known to cause severe health problems and c) drive you insane once you run out of things to lift. All I could think about was what were these exercise leviathans in Flex magazine eating and where could I get some of it. If I could replicate their diets, I would be flexing well into my 90’s. It was on a routine visit to a fitness club retail store that I got my answer and had my eyes opened to a vast universe of nutritional supplements. As I walked the aisle of power powders and amino aids. I was confronted with grand promises and testimonials to the ultimate power of these products.
The first row of items trumpeted the amazing powers of whey. What the heck was whey ? Didn’t Little Miss Muffet eat the stuff ? Perhaps, if she had just eaten “Mega Isolate High Performance Whey” or Whebolic” she would have smashed that intrepid anachronid while in a whey rage and then followed his drooping silk thread back to wipe out his 2000 other family members. There was an entire shelf of items that should be regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Musl Blast clearly targeted extreme athletes and soldiers of fortune. After two scoops of their powdered stimulant I could be a rippling machine of destruction, climbing Mt Everest in the morning and perhaps toppling an Asian junta in the afternoon.
Nitro protein drink should be illegal in 12 countries. It’s explosive combination of natural and synthetic supplements can transform even the meekest of weaklings into a time bomb of testosterone. This lean muscle maximizer utilizes Chernobyl strength doses of protein and induces anabolic insulin production for maximum creatine saturation. Wow! I want that. Each serving is the nutritional equivalent of eating nine bison. Freak Fix, Pit Bull and Anabolic OD were my favorites. I mean we’re all adults here. You are a freak and you need a fix. Drink this and go personally move your house to that new lot on Weed Street or get picked up by the police for chasing a UPS delivery truck. It’s your life.
At this point, I was becoming a supplement junkie in a creatine haze. I then had my moment of clarity. The obsession with weights stemmed from my inability to do one stupid, lousy pull up. I drove home and grabbed the chin bar that regularly bumped my head as I entered my son’s room. I hung low and hesitated. My body started to raise. The biceps strained and my back arched. My chin rose above the metal finish line and a lifetime of “fatboys” fell away.
Somewhere in the weightlifter universe, the Force shuddered. Another potential “juicer” had just gone to the Dark Side.