Lord Gym

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Photograph by Frank Ockenfels 3

I recently gave a reading from my new novel, ‘The Sugar Frosted Nutsack,’ at KGB, a bar in downtown Manhattan. The very next morning, thanks to Google Alerts, I was made aware that a gentleman by the name of Edward Champion had blogged about the reading and included the following observation: “[Leyner] is a 56-year-old man who really wishes he were 26, and he writes prose with the depth and maturity of a 26-year-old writer, and he even dresses this way: black tee to show off his long hours at a gym.” Indifferent to the blunt put-down of my oeuvre (somewhat elaborated as the review proceeds), I found the allusion to my torso immensely flattering, and immediately forwarded the link to my wife and daughter. Such is the intractable vanity of the gym rat.

How long have I been laboring under great weights? And wandering back and forth in a dissociative fugue from incline press bench to lat pull-down machine to dumbbell rack? Ever since 1969 – the year the one we called Broadway Joe led the New York Jets to a guaranteed victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, the year of my bar mitzvah, the year I offered my ID bracelet to the only girl in seventh grade who was shorter than I was, the one we called Shelly Ullman…

As a child, I’d emulated two subspecies of men in my family: the luftmensch (the feckless intellectual with his glasses and his milky coffee and his arcane kabbalistic ruminations) and the shtarker (the tough, swaggering, street-savvy hustler whose murky “business” remained his own impenetrable mystery but who always had a thick wad of cash in one pocket and cryptic papers in the other, and who sat on his stoop in the twilight like a potentate in a wife-beater). I had been a sensitive, poetic, delicate-limbed little boy straight out of an A.A. Milne story, someone who spoke in a whispery voice to animals but cringed at the approach of other human beings.

But secretly I was drawn to ‘Sgt. Rock’ comics, Sonny Liston, Robert Mitchum (especially as Max Cady in the original Cape Fear), dubbed Italian gladiator movies, and Leni Riefenstahl propaganda. (I was 13 when I was introduced to her films, ironically enough in Hebrew school, as a form of aversion therapy, although the plain fact is that thousands of synchronized, leather-swaddled thugs massed in a zeppelin field have a universal appeal to pubescent boys of all creeds.) I think when Shelly Ullman accepted my coy, barely audible offer to “go steady” and put my bracelet on her chubby little wrist, effectively cutting off the blood flow to her hand and fingers, a deluge of testosterone was released through my quivering, sylphlike body.
Suddenly, more than anything, I wanted a savage, metal body and longed for the fascistic mise-en-scène of the gym. (At the time, of course, I wasn’t yet conversant in all this psycho-ideological jargon, but even then I had an intuitive understanding of the key syntactical elements of the gym: Flesh, Muscle, Vein, Steel, Mirror.) I began to abide by the adage homo homini lupus – “man is a wolf to man.”

I read and reread Gabriele d’Annunzio’s 1910 novel Forse che sì, forse che no (Maybe Yes, Maybe No), whose aviator hero says that he doesn’t know which pleases him most, “to spill sperm or to spill blood.” (I’d been introduced to d’Annunzio – among other literary exponents of hypervirility – by a handsome, vaguely sinister mechanical-drawing instructor in junior high school.) Like d’Annunzio and other men I came to admire (e.g., my uncle Jack, who ruled his Jersey City stoop by day in pomaded black hair and a wife-beater and habituated Manhattan clubs by night in elegant dark suits with exotic women draped on his arm), I began to pursue the synthesis of aesthete and warmaker. And the laboratory in which, with cold, clinical detachment, I have observed the oscillation between these two poles – the metronome of my own masculinity – is the gym.

It’s long been a running joke among my inner circle (which, thanks to my growing paranoia and vindictiveness, now consists, in its entirety, of my wife and my daughter) that at any given moment, I’m either at or on the way to or from the gym. Because I’m so reluctant to talk on the phone (I believe other writers eavesdrop on my calls in order to steal my ideas), I typically use the demurral “I can’t really talk now, I’m at the gym” or “Listen, I gotta run, this guy’s about to get on my machine,” even if I’m actually lolling on the couch in my living room, dozing to Teen Mom or Ice Road Truckers.

I have supersetted myself through the past four decades, prowling gyms for two hours a day, six days a week, moving relentlessly from flat dumbbell bench presses to wide-grip pull-downs to cable crossovers and seated hammer-strength rows. I’ve missed weddings, funerals, and Thanksgiving dinners because they’ve conflicted with my workout schedule. Three hours after the birth of my daughter, I was doing a set of incline dumbbell flys. I’ve negotiated script deals, talked ex-girlfriends off the ledge, and received biopsy results at the gym. And the truth remains that, at this point in my life, there’s almost nothing of any value that I can’t do better at the gym than anywhere else. Most of my most august work is undertaken there, as I tap away on the tiny keyboard of my smartphone. I composed significant passages of my latest novel between supersets of triceps cable pushdowns. And I do most of my serious tweeting from the gym. In fact, my very first tweet ever was composed there as I watched Whitney Houston’s funeral: “Watched live coverage of a funeral on elliptical at the gym. Per display: Burnt 308 calories & am now 45 minutes closer to my own death.”

Why this instinctual, ratlike Dawn of the Dead tropism toward the gym? With its echo chamber of mirrored images and ricocheting sight lines, awash in the semiotics of virility, its weights and machines providing unforgiving calibrations of one’s ever waxing and waning vigor, the gym has always enabled me to reassure myself – at least for an hour or so at a time – that I’m still one rough, tough, buff, totally smokin’ motherfucker.

As a small man, I have that bantam, Napoleonic, compensatory compulsion to yap a lot of truculent shit, swagger, and swing my dick around. Where, though? The venues for compensatory shit-yapping and dick-swinging are becoming fewer and farther between than ever. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be a Navy SEAL or an MMA fighter or employed in the Chittagong ship-breaking yard in Bangladesh, there’s hardly any place anymore where a little guy can authentically wage that ultimately futile but heroic struggle against primordial forces of nature (i.e., mass and gravity). Except the gym, which, like some ancient, sacralized stage, enables us to ritualistically reenact the glorious deeds of a nobler race of swaggering

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.)

Remember, this is not about midlife vertigo or waning virility. The man of honor is a total badass – more violent and authentically perverse than any gym rat. (He may fetishize a single body part, devoting himself to the development of one voluptuous Popeye arm, a totemic club that he can still brandish in his dotage.)
Here is the likely dénouement of my metamorphosis from gym rat to man of honor. I will let my membership lapse. I will tend to the ants on my stoop. I will dine with aging rivals in dark, cloistered taverns. After having absented myself for a protracted period of time, I will suddenly appear at the gym without warning and in street clothes. I will arbitrarily choose a piece of equipment – say, the lat pull-down machine – and just sit there. Meditating upon the Hebrew letters aleph or gimel, like Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Jewish mystic. I’ll become the Bartleby of the gym. Asked by some simpering trainer to remove myself, I’ll simply reply, “I would prefer not to.”

And then, after remaining perfectly inert for hours, like an imperturbable burning monk, maybe I’ll get up, doff my black jacket, roll up the sleeves of my white shirt, and do a big fucking superset of dumbbell flys, as I sip an iced crème de menthe through a straw – just to show all the desk jockeys and weekend warriors who’s lord of the gym and who’s not. Suck, lift, switch hands. Suck, lift, switch hands, etc.

Maybe that sweaty, jiggling hausfrau will be heaving herself (a glistening, fleshy Sisyphus) up those interminable stairs. And I’d deign to give her a vacant, impassive sidelong glance. (This is how a man of honor flirts.)

And just what would the lordly semiotics of this particular glance be in this context?

That although there are many things I now prefer not to do, all things are still possible.

That I’ve still got it.

And it’s right here.

(A man of honor should never feel too dignified to point to his own dick.)

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