There, I've been able to simultaneously play Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Supine on the weight bench, endlessly replaying and interpreting episodes from my own reality show in my head, I'm simultaneously Dr. Freud and his patient. (The analogies to psychotherapy are rich in the gym – just take a moment to check out the heavy transference and countertransference between trainer and trainee.)
At any given moment at the gym, all the fissures and dissonances in that entire precarious edifice that is one's "manhood" are exposed. You're asked to spot for some prison-yard monster who's loaded up his bar with an impossibly heavy, almost comical amount of weight. You're both flattered that this reeking ox thinks you're actually strong enough to save his ass and terrified that, if in fact he does falter, you'd be about as helpful as a chihuahua in lifting this piece of space junk off his neck. As he hoists the weight for his first rep, you gaze across the gym at the tramp-stamped ass of some freckly, zaftig MILF on the StairMaster who's sweated through her Lululemon yoga pants. She smiles back at you. She winks! "I've still got it," you murmur under your breath, as you steady the drooping barbell that Boo Radley of the Aryan Brotherhood has hoisted above his massive chest, offering him the canonical and indemnifying spotter's exhortation "It's all you!"
Well, it ain't me, babe. Not anymore.
Incrementally, in a series of stuttering epiphanies, I have arrived at the somewhat stunning conclusion that – at my age (yes, 56 and not 26) and knowing what I now know (that life is not a joyous odyssey of self-discovery, but a grinding and futile struggle with death) – the time has come to officially renounce the naive, insouciant, and inane mind-set of the Gym Rat and assume the more dignified mind-set of the Man of Honor.
Yes, this is fundamentally about getting older. But to simply attribute the solemn passage from gym rat to man of honor to "aging" is a euphemistic dodge. This can only be appreciated in the starkest of terms. It's about the imminence of death. It's about your first glimpse of the Grim Reaper on the horizon, taunting you, cajoling you, flirting with you, wiggling his ass, flipping you the bird. It's about the first morning when you gaze into the mirror and see what appears to be a holographic simulation of what you'll look like as a cadaver. The transition from gym rat to man of honor begins the first time you begin to feel, under your feet, the traction of your fate. This is precisely the moment when the man of honor abjures the theatrical and specious "gravity" of the gym for the existential weight of the world. This is precisely the time when we heed the words of Ezra Pound (the poet whose very name exalts weightlifting): "Pull down thy vanity." We spend the first half of our lives trying to distinguish ourselves from each other and the second half being inexorably drawn back into a homogeneity of infirmity and senescence, into the bog of fungible humanity. The man of honor faces this inevitability with imperturbable dignity. He does the vanity pull-down (three sets of 12 reps) every single day.
My first inkling of this transformation was when I began to notice a subtle but unmistakable shift in the sobriquets I was using in my email valedictions and Twitter profile. I used to designate myself Jivaro Blowgun Assassin, Full Metal Los Zetas Hit Man, Piranha de Sade, and Pimp Apocalypse. But lately, I was using King of the Ants, Warlord of My Stoop, Yakuza Motocross Emeritus, and Lord Gym. What were the meanings of these new honorifics I was giving myself? I suspect that they were serving – without my even being aware of it – to distinguish me from my fellow gym rats, for whom I had lost respect.
Here's how I believe this works. At some point, you experience your shuddering intimation of mortality. You awaken from the dream world that's constituted your life thus far. And all the ineluctable equations and bleak verities come to the fore. You begin losing the people you most cherish and love. Parents, friends, colleagues. They begin falling to your right and to your left, like hapless combatants in the trenches of Ypres. You find yourself stalked by test results and diagnoses betokening all manner of illness and disease. Even testosterone, once your elixir vitae, curdles into a kind of poison that promotes the growth of cancerous cells in your prostate. You sit down, take a deep breath, and say something appropriately grim to yourself like "Recess is over." Or "Playtime is over." Something to that effect. And this is precisely the moment when you are born as a man of honor. And you realize that everything else has been one long pink and fluffy prelude.
It's almost impossible for me to now observe the young gym rats – among whose ranks I would have included myself as recently as a month ago – without bursting into laughter. When one becomes a serious, embattled man (i.e., a man acutely aware of his inevitable demise), the cultivation of biceps and abs, all those vain and preening compulsions, seems fatuous and effeminate. We live in decadent times when cyberporn, divorce, and estrogenic chemicals in our environment are turning us into effete, nihilistic gossips.
The paradigmatic Man of Honor is suffused with latent malevolence and duende, his two requisite qualities. Duende refers to a type of death-inflected soulfulness and solemn fortitude exemplified by Andalusian flamenco music and bullfighting. The difference between gym rat and man of honor is probably too nuanced for most people to even recognize – like distinguishing among subgenres of metal music (e.g., black, doom, death, thrash, drone, grindcore, crust punk, etc.). It chiefly manifests itself in scheduling (strict adherence to a workout routine for the gym rat, unpredictably erratic appearances by the man of honor), demeanor (gregariousness for the gym rat, sullen insularity for the lord), and attire (hacked-up pajamas for the gym rat, street clothes for the man of honor). Certain behavior perfectly acceptable for the gym rat (like aping the fluttering shrieks of female Slavic tennis phenoms on every rep) is, for the man of honor, unseemly and undignified. Even though the gym is an egalitarian social milieu, the man of honor is reluctant to socialize indiscriminately. All that gregarious, fist-bumping, "It's all us!" camaraderie that's so congenial to the gym rat does not befit his dour, solitary, and introspective personality. He suffers from several fatal diseases at once, even if he doesn't know it. He is, of course, imbued with duende and accompanied by death at all times. At the gym, only the Grim Reaper may spot for him.
Unlike the gym rat, the man of honor never smiles. He assumes a perpetual grimace of dyspeptic malaise or postcoital tristesse. He forswears any attempt to maintain a youthful appearance. He has jet-black pomaded hair, a gaunt, wizened visage, and metal teeth. He eschews beer, drinking only whiskey, brandy, ouzo, or grappa, now and again a Spanish red, and, on rare occasions, like the violent death of an imaginary adversary, an iced liqueur. He maintains a spartan diet. The man of honor disdains internet pornography, believing that one must only ejaculate within some reasonable proximity of a live woman. He is extravagantly uxorious. He is brusque with his mistresses, but indefatigably solicitous with his wife. If you aspire to honorable manhood, get your wife a boob job and a black Mercedes to drive around in. Every woman of a certain age – I don't care if it's Madame Curie, Michiko Kakutani, or Twyla Tharp – wants a husband who'll get her a boob job and a black S-class Mercedes. And surprise her, every now and then, for no special reason, with a shrink-wrapped brick of cash.
When he does work out, the man of honor never listens to music on an iPod. Ambient sounds suffice for him. He is immune to whatever horrible music they play at the gym. Even if it means listening to a continuous loop of the song "We Are Young" by the band Fun for an hour and a half. The man of honor couldn't care less. Whether it's a burbling brook, the wailing of a colicky infant, the clatter of pins at a bowling alley, or the rabid antiphony of a bunch of Blackshirts at a train station in Genoa, the man of honor accepts it all with the same stoic forbearance. It's all the same to him.
And when the man of honor comes home from the gym, he doesn't shower. He puts on his dark suit and white shirt, unbuttoned to the sternum. He must smell like death. This is his macabre dignity. And he sits on his stoop, fingering his worry beads, smoking his cigarillo. Passersby address him as "Maestro." As the man of honor turns increasingly inward to cultivate his florid paranoia and confront his inner demons and imagined antagonists, he withdraws from the gym for long periods of time. He retires to his stoop, tending to his ants, where he remains for weeks at a time, plotting vengeance on his enemies. (I've always felt a profound affinity for ants – for their fanatical esprit de corps and, on the most personal level, for their exponentially disproportionate strength-to-size ratio. The ant is the totem par excellence of the tiny weightlifter.)