I am old enough to remember seeing the then famous, and ridiculed, “90 pound weakling” ads in my childhood comic books. I kind of remember being skinny as a young boy, but after puberty – and all the associated issues – I ballooned up. Still, for many like me, ads like those of Charles Atlas showing a muscular man awakened a sense in me that I was – inadequate.
Our culture has only exaggerated those messages over the subsequent decades – now, there are so many standards for “measuring up” that the media touts incessantly. I certainly absorbed it all – being a typical “picked last” guy for the PE class teams, uncoordinated, and ignorant. Everything about my life marked me as not belonging – I had no father to teach me how to play games, I turned to my intellect for achievement – it serve me well financially, and in employment – but I always felt like the outsider. For the most part, those around me reinforced that belief. In time, I knew my attraction to other boys was not mainstream either – so my sense of not fitting in, not measuring up, only intensified.
Skip ahead from my teens to my late 40s – I was severely overweight, used food to deal with my emotional needs, and still deeply closeted. One of the ways I escaped reality, besides food, was seeking happiness at the happiest place on earth – Disneyland. I had many wonderful memories there – and when I learned that they were going to have their very first half marathon in 2006, 15 years ago, I decided to start training. I figured if I couldn’t lose weight by trying to lose weight, maybe I could do it as a side effect by just taking on the challenge!
And I needed something to focus on – because my world was crumbling, in a way. By the end of 2006 my mother and two other close family members had passed; a few months later, my father joined them. I worked with a trainer, who endlessly encouraged me to just go a little longer every week – it was a goal, a task I could do, gradually. I didn’t have to set any records – and I thought about my family cheering me on, there on the sidelines, in spirit. I crossed the finish line in October 2006, after losing 40 pounds, and a lot of tears. I followed with the half marathon in 2007 and 2008, and several others – but with age, the physical strain reached a point of more cost and less benefit, so I gave that up. Like any major goal that takes time and effort – it built my confidence. It showed me I could do something new, something no one expected – maybe not perfectly, but well enough.
I have written before how it was the loss of that family dynamic that in time led me to realize I needed to accept myself, and find a way to live, with being gay, and being out. That process too was a different kind of challenge – one that continues. I continued to have periods of success with my fitness and weight, and was doing pretty well – until a very unexpected and uncommon health issue emerged and gradually put me into the hospital at age 60, and when I got out, I was emaciated and weak. My priority was just regaining the ability to walk, and getting back to being able to live – it was frightening and traumatic. Without the love of my husband, family and friends, I would not have made it. So it was a little more than 2 years ago that I decided having time to enjoy life was more important than my career, and I ended my professional pursuits, looking forward to enjoying time in my new home, with my husband, building new friendships, travel – all those goals we tell ourselves we can look forward too.
Well, of course … it was just a few months after that we started hearing about Wuhan and strange reports of infectious disease, and before you know it – all those doors were shut for everyone, not just me. I had already been slowly returning to working out at a local gym, with mixed results – I felt inadequate, barely able to lift the barbell itself, and there were lingering health concerns as well to take into consideration. As an early birthday gift, I had ordered some adjustable home weights to supplement my gym visits, which was helpful in hindsight as they soon became unavailable as millions of us learned we could not continue to attend gyms or work out together. Little did we know, of course, how long that would continue.
Working out on the back patio with intermittent breaks for gardening was my only outdoor escape for several months. I thought I was doing pretty well, researching workouts online – there are zillions of workout videos and websites with advice, often contradictory, and variations galore. I have never felt at ease with my body – a kind of innate awkwardness that I wasn’t doing things “right” – but I was at least regular about it. I learned, sadly, my gym that I had enjoyed prior to all these events went out of business permanently, like so many small companies. When the larger regional chain gym announced in August that they could now permit trainers to work with clients – at a hefty price – outdoors on the sidewalk, I was one of the first to sign up.
It was weird, to say the least. I couldn’t go into the gym; my trainer, who I picked solely because he was the one on site when I signed up, would bring out the weights or bench or whatever for each exercise and we would be on the sidewalk where cars, bicyclists and pedestrians (including the occasional “unhoused” as they say here in SF) would glance over and wonder what on earth we were doing there. But it was an outlet, one I desperately needed, and a confidence booster in a way. Eventually, the state and city relaxed their restrictions, and put in more equipment on the parking lot, fenced and covered; then, allowed members to work without trainers – so more bodies competing for the equipment – and finally, indoor workouts with masks and sanitizers. I was truly impressed with how the gym management functioned through all these changes, and the employees were nearly always positive and responsive, when everyone was dealing with the same stress and uncertainties, constant change, and upheaval. I previously wrote about how I actually received my vaccination because of the kindness of a stranger at the gym. Finally, just a few weeks ago – masks became history, and going to the gym is not really all that different from what it was two years ago, although trailing evidence lingers.
I had signed up for training – and spent a healthy sum – in part as a kind of therapy during the isolation of pandemic. But I also had, admittedly, a dream – maybe even more of a fantasy. We need dreams to cope with darkness; I am a goal driven individual, and I needed something to work towards – to “redeem” this era, to come out of with some result, something concrete to show for the time lost, in a way. As the gym reopened, and even just during the months where we were limited to outdoor equipment for 50 minutes, waiting in line – I had seen the men who were like so many of the others over the years. Men with defined bodies, muscles to spare – all the hallmarks that my own peculiar history had engraved in my thinking represented the masculine ideal.
As a lonely, shame filled and isolated teen who never really grew out of that mindset – they were everything I aspired to be. Seeing them was partly inspirational – but to a greater degree, discouraging. Another reminder of my “differentness”, in a way. And I wanted to come out of this experience looking just like them. It may be a stereotype that gay men are obsessed with physical appearance, but that doesn’t make it false – and culturally the message is still, regardless of sexuality, that your appeal to others and your worth is often perceived as related to your physical appearance – first impressions are based on visual data, of course!
Would it surprise you to read that things did not go as planned? In my next post, I will share the results to date. In a way, they were better than I could have hoped for or imagined, as I began moving on from dream to reality.
The New NormL, December 2020 – not the end of the story! To be continued …….
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