Clichés attacked my brain yesterday while lifting weights. Those who knew me young will find that itself amusing, as I did not lift in my teens, in fact not until I was in my mid-50s, long after any bulk-up effects would ensue.
At just 15, my wrestling coach ordered those of us under 16 to keep off free weights and use push-ups and sit-ups instead. They were the way he got his own steely bod. The next year, I started my swimming career, in which the coaches opposed such muscle-tightening. Meanwhile, I developed with a million or two breast strokes.
When I had a big disk (L5-S1) pop into my spinal column, I began lifting as rehab. It helped keep the blood pumping around the renegade disk to resorb (dissolve) it, thus avoiding risky surgery. I did that for a couple of years, then didn’t and just started again at twice a week for upper body. I get plenty of leg work with cycling and hiking.
With that setup, I come to the clichés.
I grew up very WASPy, with pretty standard Boomer ethics. While our WWII parents often urged behavior they did not model, one regular message was that vanity was unmannerly and self-indulgent. I bought into that and in fact, my mother and her parents also acted accordingly.
Yet with my weight loss following my tib/fib fracture and related changes, has inspired me to look a bit. I am trimmer than since I began college, plus I keep tabs daily or weekly on blood pressure, weight and body fat percentage. I have a machine for each.
My trim trouser set is back in play. I might have tossed them a few decades ago but am doubly glad I didn’t. Now I have new clothes, plus my ego is pleased enough to keep me monitoring my girth.
So yesterday, I was in the dank (two working sump pumps all the time) dungeon of the West Roxbury Y for my bi-weekly strain fest, 46 minutes of arm and chest thingummies. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and let myself look.
One of the lifts is lateral dumbbell raises. As I finished, I saw that even on an old man, some muscles had changed a cut. The backs of the triceps brachii were evident. Moreover, sitting on the bench, I noticed that the delts rippled with definition.
Suddenly a philosophical question ensued. What would be sadder, for a tuned body to just stop, say car wreck or heart attack, or for it to wither and dissipate with age, disuse or disease?
In turn, the now rampant chestnut of when an elder dies, a library burned leapt to mind. That’s often attributed as an African proverb (of dubious provenance, allegedly inspired by Caesar’s accidental destruction of the library at Alexandria). It’s still a powerful thought. Most of us do acquire knowledge, skill and judgment from repetition and correction if not native intellectual power.
The ultimate personal injustice of life is that death halts it all and the unrecorded and un-transferred treasures of mind go into the ground or melt in the crematorium’s heat, figuratively at least. We can pretend that each of us continues to be curious, keeps reading and analyzing, adds to instead of just reinforces our knowledge and sensitivity. Thus, death is a shared sadness beyond the emotional toll on the survivors. Humanity and its intrinsic store lessens a tiny bit with each corpse.
Being my mother’s son, I seldom allow such wallowing in self-absorption and admiration. I forgive myself this time only because my body changes in the past seven months have been profound.
Just after the long glances yesterday in the Y, I thought of dancers, yoginis and athletes I know. Many maintain a fluidity of motion and remarkable muscle tone over decades of human weathering and ripening. I am the equivalent only with aids — in the pool or on a bike. Yet, here too, those trained bodies parallel the discriminating and educated minds.
A Shared Sadness
Alas, through vicissitudes of age, illness, indulgence, lassitude or accident, the finely carved muscles become indistinct as surely as the failing mind. So, to the question, is the sudden or inexorable disintegration a greater sorrow? As long as we are rhetorical, does it even matter or does simply the demise or erosion stand alone?
The answer from my old and trained Protestant ethic would be that letting oneself go would be the worst. It would be a failure of will and duty.
That involves a level of guilt and moralization I subscribe to no longer. People who are very fat or very thin are should not be a moral issue. Instead, blame and ridicule should fall heavier on those whose minds stagnate from repetition, be it golf or TV.
Let us each stay toned, certainly inside and perhaps out, as long as we are able. Each of us should live as though we expect all who know us or us to be to sad when our treasures go.
Tags: harrumph, harrumpher, humanity, vitality, vanity, death