Fitness and I haven’t always been friends. Hell, for much of my life, we were barely acquainted. My parents, God bless them, were determined to have well-rounded children. So as soon as I was eligible, they signed me up for little league. I lasted one season. Then I tried soccer. I didn’t make it past the first game. Eventually, they enrolled me in something called “Al’s Sports Club” that met at the Sharon Community Center. It was basically like elementary school gym class, only in the afternoon and populated by guys I knew from Hebrew School. The emphasis was on sportsmanship rather than skill, which was fine by me. I’m much better at being nice to people than I am at stealing a ball, puck, or whathaveyou from them.

Before long, I grew to hate physical activity. I was really good at a number of things — school, music, art, computers — so not being good at sports didn’t help me like them. I remember begging my pediatrician to give me an asthma test, in the hopes that I might become exempt from phys ed. He told me I didn’t have asthma, I was just a fat ass, although I may be paraphrasing.

Please note: I wasn’t a fat kid. I was an ADORABLE kid. Yes, I know, fat kids can be adorable. But I was not fat, and I was adorable. Here’s proof:

Me at age 6.

I recently sorted through my parents’ boxes of stuff from my childhood. (Get excited, that means lots of adorable childhood pictures coming soon!) Among the artifacts of my youth were dozens of report cards. Suffice it to say, my grades for high school gym class were pretty reprehensible. (On the other hand, kids, take heart – piss-poor marks in phys ed won’t keep you out of Harvard!)

Sometime in my early adulthood, I realized that it was no longer “gay” to prefer theatre to exercise. Sure, we were allowed to prefer theatre to sports, which is why I spent the evening of the Patriots’ 2002 Superbowl win seeing a touring production of Cabaret. But gay boys were expected to go to the gym… and like it. Fuck.

I avoided giving in to this aspect of gaiety for as possible, at least in part because the gym scene terrified me. I had heard stories of anonymous sex in the showers, saunas, and steam rooms, and, well, ick. On top of that, I managed to come through adolescence with a healthy body imagine intact, and I didn’t want to put that as risk.

I don’t know what inspired me to join my first gym. It helped that it was ltierally across the street from my apartment in West Hollywood. It also helped that the management of the gym had recently turned over. It seems that the previous guise of the gym, then called Sports Connection (but referred to universally as Sports Erection), had been shut down by the West Hollywood police. This happened just before I moved to town, but the reverberations were still being worked out in the letters column of the local paper. Turns out, the residents of West Hollywood were OUTRAGED that anonymous sex in the gym wasn’t allowed. I mean, if gay men can’t have anonymous sex in the gym in West Hollywood, where COULD they? At least, that seemed to be the logic, until a few months later when the sheriff’s office cracked down on the anonymous sex in the sheriff’s department parking lot, which lead to another round of letters to the editor. But I digress.

I lived across the street from the renamed 24-Hour Fitness for about a year and a half before biting the bullet and venturing in. I had recently seen the company I moved across the country to start fall apart, and I needed some way to work out the stress. And maybe living in West Hollywood for so long had started to affect me. Whatever the reason, I signed up for the full deluxe package including membership and a number of sessions with a personal trainer.

My trainer was a svelt young woman named Sasha. She was black, and Austrian — I believe she held some Austrian bodybuilding title — and could kick my ass without breaking a sweat. I loved her for really pushing me to challenge my limits, and for her good humor, but I never really felt comfortable with her. Looking back, I realize that I really didn’t feel comfortable with me. When she made my meal plans, I didn’t explain to her that I kept kosher… why? I guess I didn’t want to be different. I was already self-conscious about being an idiot at fitness (see above) and not being one of the hot gay gym bunnies… it was something of a challenge for me to even admit I was gay to her, which is ridiculous because pretty much everyone who went to that gym was gay.

I worked with Sasha for about six months. At first we met twice a week, although she eventually talked me into three sessions a week. I got into the best shape of my life: no washboard abs, but certainly the smallest waistline I of my adulthood. But this was at a time when I was working a close-to-minimum-wage retail job, and I just couldn’t afford the $50/session plus membership. I also became suspicious that after six months of working with Sasha, I still didn’t understand any of the logic behind what we did. I was completely reliant on her expertise to know what to do from week to week in the gym. I felt like I had invested in a learning program but not received what I had been sold. Sure, I looked and felt great. But like the drug dealer who gives out free samples, Sasha only taught me to rely more on her and pay for more training. So when I moved back to Boston, I was at a loss.

I did join a gym in Boston, but it wasn’t across the street from my house. In fact, it wasn’t even in my normal path of travels, so out of sight, out of mind quickly set in. On top of that, I was back to square one in terms of what to do, and I wasn’t about to hire another trainer, so I quickly got frustrated at feeling stupid among the weightlifters, and my attendance tapered off. Of course, I had signed a two-year contract, so I continued to pay my “fat tax” long after I last set foot in the building.

Right around the time I finished paying the fat tax, I moved back into Adams House at Harvard as a resident tutor. More on that in another post. But while I was there, I wanted to do my part for House spirit, and somehow I decided that joining the intramural crew team would be just the ticket. I figured that unlike intramural hockey or basketball, everyone who was on the IM crew team would be a relative beginner. Plus, there was a whole training schedule to teach us how to row and get us working as a team. Perfect – it’s just like built in personal training!

We had four boats of rowers on the Adams intramural roster that year, and I was definitely in the loser boat. But that’s okay! I was a devoted member of the team, and more importantly, not the worst rower. Sure, my teammates would yell at me when I referred to our practices as “rehearsal,” but all in all, it was a positive experience. I even got a couple of really cute outfits out of the experience, and the Adams House warm-up track suit still hangs in my closet to this day.

After leaving Adams House, I joined the gym in my new neighborhood, and I sort of went half-heartedly, but it didn’t take. I blame the convenience issue (it isn’t right across the street) combined with the crazy schedule I kept as a Jewish educator. But now that I’m in a new job, with more-or-less regular hours, I decided to try again. This time, I joined a gym downtown. It’s cheap, in every sense. I only pay $20/month, and I get what I pay for. But what I get is exactly what I need – cardio machines, a locker room, and a location that can’t be beat, right at the door to the T stop where I commute. There are weights, too, and I’m starting to explore them. But right now, the goal is to make the gym a regular part of my schedule.

It’s been a month and so far so good. It helps that my membership gets me in to any of the gym’s branches, so on the weekends I can go wherever my travel takes me. I’ve already sampled three of the other locations — all much nicer than my “home” gym, but less convenient. And I’ve started losing weight. And people notice. And the most recent pair of pants I bought are a size smaller than my previous pairs. And when I’m on the elliptical machine or lifting weights or whatever else I do there, I can concentrate on the activity (or the audio book on my iPod) and not think about the worries of the world.

I never thought athletics of any sort would provide an escape for me. But at a moment in my life when every song cuts too close to home, I find that the gym can be a retreat from my usual retreats, and that’s just what I need right now.


Incidentally, I would have lead with this video, my all-time favorite musical gym moment, but “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love” is just about the least appropriate title for this post I could imagine.


About itsdlevy

I live in Brooklyn with my cat, Rhoda Morgenstern. I work in Manhattan as the marketing director for a Jewish non-profit organization. I spend too much time at the theater and at brunch and especially at 54 Below. Find me on Twitter (and pretty much anywhere else) as @itsdlevy.

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