First Things First

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When in Doubt, Go to the Gym

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It’s late Tuesday morning and I want to get a bite on the newsletter so I’m not panicking at tomorrow’s deadline. When we’re late our musclehead readers immediately think, “what funky airheads those two are; duh, like, it’s Wednesday and, like, you’re late and, like, we’re sooo waiting.” Text you!

I also want to go to the gym and pay my dues. It’s 70, sunny and gorgeous, though I might edit out that little ditty ‘cuz it only provokes jealousy, frustration and the grinding of teeth. Anyone east of California is wearing parkas and slipping and sliding and shoveling their way out of snow. If it’s any consolation, California will pay big when the approaching drought settles on her scorched shoulders.

Paying my dues at the gym is not to suggest I dump a fistful of change retrieved from my cookie jar on the front counter. No way. I sneak in the back door when the lunch-hour crowd is busily departing. The kid at the desk reading the comics doesn’t get it. I’m stealthy. I stay cool, keep a low profile and don’t say a word. Works every time.

Paying my dues is something more serious than cheating and lying and stealing. I must train to prevent deterioration of muscle and degradation of strength. Further, the immediate storage of fat and loss of shape, definition and leanness is also intolerable. The rapid progression of insecurity and bi-polar tendencies are equally discomforting. When I miss a workout, I am irritable, short-tempered and generally cruel; my neck tightens, my eyes bulge and I hiss. I get creepy.

Paying my dues includes the sensitive destruction and exhaustion of muscle tissue, the bitter tolerance of self-inflicted pain, the endurance of long-lasting aches from injuries, the mind-numbing concentration to assure maximum training efficiency, the aloneness of the trek down the seldom-visited trenches of steel, the tedium of seemingly unending sets and repetitions of cold wrought-iron, the danger of unknown hazards of gravity... the thirst and the hunger.

This sunny day reminds me of one day 47 years ago, when I hopped in my GTO and headed for the Muscle Beach Dungeon. The ride was tight, fast and mean, the sun blazed across my windshield and the Pacific sparkled like diamonds at my nine. This was paradise and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know anything till it was gone.

I was parked in the rear of the old hotel in 10 minutes. No gym bag in those days, no key to the front door and nobody on the gym floor but my partner and me. He was never early, he was never late and I was always on time. Nods and motions and the eyes did the talking.

We roared when roaring was good and necessary.

His name was Dick and he called me Tiny. I was 21 and he was 28. I was Mr. New Jersey, a bulky lump and he was Mr. California, shredded and broad. He wore a sweatshirt with no neck and the sleeves cut off at the elbows; I wore a cheesy strap t-shirt. None of it made any difference. We trained like lions.

Someone asked the other day what I think of when I think of the Dungeon. “It’s all good,” I said, “bad had not yet entered my life.” That thought, though embroidered, warms my soul. It was all so old and so new: crumbling walls, crooked wooden benches with nails sticking out, dead still in the early morning, whispering of life gone-by and screaming with life to come.

The nostalgia faded and was replaced with vivid visions of press-behind-necks supersetted with sidearm lateral raises. Exercises weren’t just exercises then, 1962, and that place, the Dungeon at 4th and Broadway in Santa Monica, California. They were movements with features, style and expression, and still under observation. Consider: Zabo was, like, 40, and Arnold was a junior in high school.

The upright bench especially constructed for PBNs was, like the rest of the benches and racks, was a congestion of time-honored 2x4s and 2x6s slapped together by imperfect, impatient and needy bodybuilders and held loosely together by spikes. It was baby blue with a maroon oil cloth recklessly tacked where you sit your butt and lean your back. Splinter protection.

The Olympic bar sat across the bench back and waited for the lifter to slip down on the bench, roll the slightly or extravagantly bent bar to his shoulders, thrust himself upright and begin to press. The whole motion was poetic and painful, risky and effective. There was madness in those reps.

I spotted Dick; he spotted me, in that order. There was no discussing who the engine was; I followed like a caboose. The earnest and decisive motivators -- Push, One more rep, Looking good and You can do this -- were enjoined long before musclebuilding was popular, imitated, duplicated and debauched. Five sets of 6 to 8 reps, always seeking to increase the poundage engaged, was the standard routine employed

The rude and blistering PBNs were supersetted with sidearm lateral raises using dumbbells of abnormal configuration. Envision aged plates of different manufacturers, irregular pipes and bars cut to almost fit, and splattered and lumpy beads of arc-welding gone wrong. Interesting. Each dumbbell not only was different in weight, each had its own bustling clang, puzzling arrangement of parts, feel, profile and personality.

The savvy musclehead’s backside was snugly fitted for support and angulation into the craftily destroyed plasterboard encasing a heavy-duty upright I-beam substructure of the eroding 1920s’ hotel. Improvisation and modification transform ordinary into exquisite, mere exercise into giant builders.

Going through the motions or training without creativity, insight and finesse was no more possible than walking your first love home from the movies without holding hands and snuggling and giggling (does anyone do that anymore?). Experiencing, experimenting, investigating, discovering... these were magical things of lifting weights before they were dipped in chrome or carefully arranged under the view of a giant plasma TV.

Trivial Pursuit at 5 o’clock sharp. Lost at 10.

Halfway home, we set up the hunky incline contraption for our heavy incline dumbbell presses. Several layers of duct tape tightly wrapped at strategic wooden intersections went a long way in stabilizing the framework and placating a lifter’s fears and cajoling his confidence. Heaving the 105s, 115s, 125s and 135s into the starting position was a colossal trick requiring careful alignment of the stars, exact placement of the beastly dumbbells and flawless timing; sufficient brain-sapping psych, precise, full-power and unquestioned thrust, last-second prayer and dumb luck.

On go... one, two, three, Go!

Now that the subject has been introduced, I think I’ll take you up on the offer... the threat... or challenge... advice? I am a man of clear thinking and decisiveness. Where shall I go, that is the question? Perhaps the gym...

Yes, of course, when in doubt, go to the gym.

See ya there, bombers. Save me a lopsided pair of dumbbells and a splintery wooden bench...

Go... Godspeed... DD

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