Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Skinny Wrists

When I met the wrestler, he wore sunglasses, a silk scarf, and a short-sleeved plaid-print, button-up shirt. He was trying on the persona of author, visiting Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library for a Q&A ostensibly about his new memoir, more earnestly about wrestling in general, before meeting a line of fans for handshakes, photos, and signatures on the title page of his new book.

He was not larger than life. In reality, a couple inches shorter than me and, for all his muscle, still only about fifty pounds heavier. But more than any other physical feature, I observed his forearms. Bulbous and hard, a vein popping from just past his palm when we shook hands.

And I looked at my own forearms, my own wrists. I had started lifting weights five years earlier, but my forearms remained slender, my wrists downright dainty.

I Googled ways to work forearms. I learned isolation movements like wrist rollers and wrist curls. I added these motions to my regimen. Though my forearms pulsed, I failed to see results right away, and questioned whether I should carry on.

*

I put off weight training. I grew up as a fan of professional wrestling and professional basketball, and thus was surrounded by images of men like Hulk Hogan and Karl Malone with their cut triceps, their bulging chests, their swollen biceps. I took an interest in their body types, for sure, but as a perpetually skinny kid--to the point that the school once called home to have my parents log my meals so they could gauge whether they were inadvertently starving me--I reasoned that I was too slight to ever put on muscle mass. That I would need to wait for my metabolism to slow and my body to thicken itself before I could put on any meaningful muscle.

Late in my college career, I dated a woman who ran compulsively and had most recently been involved with a high school linebacker. I felt inadequate, and rather than embrace the fact that she may have appreciated me as a counterpoint to everything he was, I bought a set of dumbbells and started doing presses, flies, and curls in my dorm room. I drank whole milk mixed with weight-gain powder that gave me horrible diarrhea. But my shoulders began to swell and my biceps started to show some semblance of definition. Long after I stopped seeing that partner, I continued the routine.

I started seeing another woman in Baltimore, and in those fledgling stages when I suspected I might love her, she ended it. A couple weeks later, I had a workout with a dear friend at his home gym where he corrected my form and showed me differences between a legitimate bench press, and doing dumbbell presses with thirty pound weights on my bed. I got back to Baltimore and joined the gym downstairs from my office.

I’m good with routines. Staying regimented. I don’t consider myself a particularly gifted writer, reader, thinker, and least of all athlete, but I’ve enjoyed my successes in each realm more for diligence than skill. I kept at it at the gym. At first going every other day, and working each part of my upper body for two or three sets. Then a rotating schedule with three components--chest, back, shoulders, biceps, rotating one piece out on each visit. Then chest, triceps, shoulders one day, back and biceps the next, a day of rest, then back at it. My max bench grew from 155 to 240. I went from doing three or four chin ups to as many as twelve at a clip. Three-to-five days a week at the gym and, perhaps most importantly to me, for the first time in my life I looked like someone who went to the gym. At holidays, relatives would comment that it looked like I’d been working out. People would start asking me questions about exercises they should try at the fitness center.

And as I started working on my still-skinny wrists and forearms, I wondered if such workouts were functional or purely superficial. If I were chasing pro-wrestler forearms more for vanity than to be able to twist open any jar or bottle in the kitchen.

And I started thinking about functionality. A Russian trainer at my gym in Baltimore, who had moonlighted as a kickboxer a decade earlier, insisted on repetitions over weight, asking in heavily accented, broken English, “What you do in normal life? Pick up something that weighs ten pounds twenty times, or pick up something that weighs two hundred pounds once?” He pointed at his head, urging me to think. He routinely bench pressed ninety-five pounds for a hundred reps.

It would be overstating it to say I truly took his advice, espoused his philosophy. But I grew more conscious about balancing heavy lifting days with days more oriented toward conditioning, stamina, and toning. I incorporated a light regimen of dead lifts to protect against back injuries as I grew older.

*

I read a post on a bodybuilding and training forum that a dear friend moderated, all about why people lifted weights. They wrote about athletic careers. They wrote about standing up for themselves. They wrote about vanity. And then one wrote about his father. He talked about all the ways his father had carried him and their family for so long. Physically taking him from place to place as a baby. Working a factory job to put food on the table for a family of four. Teaching his son how to lift weights as a teenager and the fundamentals of boxing so he wouldn’t need to run from a fight on the schoolyard. Giving him the financial stump so that he could work his way through four years of college and come out the other end without student loans to repay. He wrote about his mother dying, and his father moving into his son’s house when he was too old to take care of himself anymore. And how after all that time of a father carrying a son, in those golden years, the son would lift the father to carry him up and down the stairs each morning and each night, from his bedroom to the main floor of the house where he could eat his meals in the kitchen, watch TV in the living room, and have access to the front door to get out into the world outside.

I don’t have any stories so poetic , so circular, or so beautiful about my own weight training. Just sweat and iron. But I continue to lift. Continue to carry. Continue to try. All I have to show for it are muscles that grew in slow, not entirely steady increments. That and my skinny wrists. My bane. My motivation to keep working.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On Leaving Baltimore

In August 2014, I left Baltimore. It marked a significant shift in my life. Baltimore was the city I called home for over six and a half years, and because I developed a certain amount of pride in living in the city that inspired The Wire, in a cockroach and mouse-infested one bedroom, and because it was the first place I had lived for so long since my childhood home, and the first place where I had lived alone in any meaningful way.

But leaving Baltimore was both more and less significant than all of that for what the transition represented. As a teenager, I spent three of the best years of my life as a student at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth sleep-away summer camp and, at the end of my third tour, which I knew would be my last, had established a hard and fast goal that I would return the program one day as a resident assistant--overseeing the young students in their college dorms, running activities for them, keeping them safe. I got the RA job and spent six and a half weeks of the summer after my freshman year of college doing exactly the things I anticipated doing. I returned for a second summer the next year, when an unexpected staffing change led to me being promoted to a senior resident assistant without my own hall of boys to look after, but rather twenty-two RAs reporting to me. I returned two more summers, then got promoted dean of residential life. I did that for three summers.

For all the time I worked at CTY, the specter of “Baltimore” hung overhead. The organization was headquartered in Baltimore, and the people in the main office oversaw the programs--hiring and firing us summer staff members, making arrangements with the host colleges and universities, planning courses, and so on. When I moved to Baltimore, it was to join these ranks.

I did a lot of things in Baltimore. I completed my first grad degree in writing at Hopkins, made a lot of friends, dated several partners, drafted three novels, had my first short story published, saw The A Cappella Blog come of age in many ways. Moreover, my time in Baltimore was a launching point for any number of travels--to California, to the Midwest, up and down the east coast, to Europe. But above all of this, I never lost sight of the reason why I had come there, the job that sustained my life for that period of time, and the work that consumed so much of my being.

So, it was hard to say goodbye.

I laid out a plan for the summer before it started. A week and a half in Santa Cruz, California to launch that summer site. A week and a half of paperwork and packing in Baltimore. A week and a half in Saratoga Springs, New York to facilitate the transition between summer sessions. A week and a half of paperwork and packing in Baltimore. A week and a half back in Santa Cruz, California to close the summer, a half week in Oregon to start settling in and spend time with Heather, then back to Baltimore for a week of tying up loose ends in the office, followed by a week-long road trip across America to officially move to my new home.

And everything went according to plan. The first leg of the summer came with a surreal quality of all of the “last”s encompassed in that trip. The last time I’d rearrange furniture in the dusty old dorms of UC Santa Cruz’s Crown College to convert them to offices. The last time I’d make repeated runs to the airport to welcome new staff members to the program. The last time I’d give my speech on the thirty-year history and mission of the program for an audience of seventy faculty and staff. The time in Baltimore became a game of logistics. Checklists of services I would need to cancel, companies I’d need to change addresses with, packing two or three boxes each day. My time in New York came with the nostalgia of wrapping up at the same place where I had started as a kid eighteen years earlier, and some cursory farewells, a nice farewell card from the administrative staff to commemorate last tour on campus.

Things sank in more in that next stint back in Baltimore. A friend of mine stopped by to acknowledge the way her anticipated vacation time and our respective travel for closing lined up, we would never be in the office again at the same time.

She said she’d stop by again to say goodbye on her way out of the office.

I worked until seven o’clock before I realized how late it was and how everyone else had gone by home by then. I swung by her office just to be sure I didn’t miss her, but her light was turned off and by all indications she was long, long gone.

And I wondered if that were how all of these goodbyes might go. Not grand farewell gestures , heartfelt sentiments, or even hugs so much as slipping off unnoticed in the time-honored form of the Irish goodbye.

Then came Santa Cruz.

When it came time for the last student dance, one of the senior resident assistants got on the microphone after the last song and directed everyone to look at me. She spouted statistics about how much time I’d spent with the program, most of them exaggerated or off, but nonetheless touching for the sentiment behind them. And on her cue, the kids cheered for me. The next day, the site director wrapped up the closing ceremony by citing similar statistics and having all of the parents, students, and faculty cheer. Lastly, at a farewell dinner for all of the staff, the site director reiterated many of the kindnesses, displayed a series of photos of me for a caption contest, and presented a cake wishing me a happy “retirement.”

And I recalled my last summer as a kid at CTY. It was my last summer not because I had aged out--I had another year of eligibility--but rather because the expense of the program, paid out of my college fund, just wasn’t practical any longer. I understood that intellectually, and yet held out an unrealistic hope I might go back. In particular, I remember a dream I had just before I embarked on that last summer, in which I was so beloved by all of the students that they pooled the money for me to come back for another year and be with them all again.

That reality didn’t materialize. I spent my third summer much like the first two, with a half dozen or so close friends, a misguided crush on a girl I’d never so much as hold hands with, and the general anonymity that comes with being a shy kid who doesn’t speak up much in class or do anything to draw attention to himself.

And yet there I was, fourteen years after I’d had such dreams. 240 kids, 70 staff members, a hundred or so parents clapping for me.

It all seemed like too much.

The illusion of a series of Irish goodbyes had faded into the mist, or rather bolted before it could be smashed to pieces via the blunt force trauma of these over-the-top send offs. At every turn, I aimed to divert some of the attention. Thanking the students, the families, the staff.

It was all too much. And it occurred to me that those of us who are fortunate enough to get such recognition, such sendoffs--that all of us feel it’s excessive by the time anyone wants to recognize us that way.

By the time I wrapped up at Santa Cruz, we were down to a skeleton crew. A few hours to kill before my flight to Oregon, I wandered the campus and found a bench overlooking the Monterrey Bay. It was inscribed in memory of Nick Summer--in memory of summer, I sentimentalized as I had a seat and looked west.

A short while later, I’d be back in Baltimore, my last day in the office, leaving farewell notes in mailboxes for everyone in my department and a handful of other folks who had been kind to me--who I thought might notice my absence. I suppose one of the truest silver linings to farewells is that they afford you the opportunity to tell people what they mean to you--to say the things you probably should have been saying all along.

I printed the notes on bright yellow paper that felt optimistic and like something warm, and affixed them to the backs of cards from a game called Dixit, that were designed with compelling images for players to interpret as they see fit. I thought of these images as another piece of the goodbyes. A final image to linger on that wasn’t obvious, prescriptive, sentimental, or uniform.

And I thought that that was what goodbyes should be. These individual acknowledgments that one thing was over, and the choice to leave behind something kind.