’Tis the Season

This should be an easy column to write. Blah blah blah, New Year’s resolutions, going to the gym, 1,000 words, yadda yadda yadda, file it, done. Yet I cannot seem to start.

Wait! It’s like a metaphor! For going to the gym! Yes!

New Year’s Eve is fast approaching and the country is about to decide that its tuchis is the size of Cleveland.

Soon the gym will be teeming with people in sparkling new workout gear. Krav maga classes will be even more mobbed than usual, sign-up sheets for the cardio machines will be full, and by the second week in February, the New Year’s newbies will disappear, their determination as evanescent as champagne bubbles.

I do not mock. Look at me, unable to start a column in which I know exactly what has to be said and how. Nu, I should snark at anyone else’s ambivalence? Most of us struggle with anxiety, self-loathing and perfectionism… and don’t the inability to start something and the inability to follow through both derive from perfectionism, at the core?

Me, I have been one of those superfit gym bunnies pounding away for a solid hour on a Stairmaster, climbing endlessly to nowhere. And I have been the girl whose most strenuous exercise was jumping to conclusions and reaching for metaphors.

For the last couple of months I’ve been in a workout groove. Now that Maxine goes to nursery school at the 14th Street Y, I hit the building’s gym after dropping her off. Getting the sweaty stuff out of the way first thing in the morning seems to work for me; I’m less likely to blow off workouts than I was when I timed them to afternoon “Law & Order” reruns on TNT at my former gym, the Bowery Street Y. (I love my “Law & Order,” but damn, it’s hard to get away from one’s desk in the afternoon. Hey, have you seen the one about the kid accused of the antisemitic murder of a Jewish art teacher, with Chris Cooper as the Klan lawyer? That one was awesome.)

The Bowery Y was a lot fancier than the 14th Street Y, but I can’t justify belonging to two gyms (we get membership at the 14th Street Y with Maxie’s tuition). But oh, I miss the Bowery’s gazillion personal TVs, the huge workout space, the ultra-modern equipment. Now I have to share a few machines with possessive, cranky old Jews, several of whom have no compunctions about asking you to get off a machine they want. Of course, in sheer annoyance value this does not compare with my friend Laura’s gym and its Creepy Naked Sweaty Guy. Daily he runs, at full-speed, thuddingly on the treadmill, shirtless and profoundly hairy, sweat flying hither and yon, with a heart rate monitor worn, in Laura’s words, “beneath pendulant, bouncing man-boobs.” Nice. And at least the locker room at the Y is a relaxed place, unlike the gym at the University of San Francisco, where a female dean used to terrorize her employees by walking around ostentatiously nude, approaching them to talk business while her bidness waved in the breeze. (It reminds me of LBJ, insisting his staffers follow him into the toilet, where he continued to harangue them.) And hey, at least a downmarket gym lacks the crazed culture of spinning class devotees who camp out a half-hour early to claim their favorite bikes and spit bile on anyone who approaches, and yoga practitioners who growl, “Excuse me, that’s where I always put my mat. Namaste, beeyotch.” At least when a stooped, elderly Jew asks me to vacate a treadmill, I secretly know that in a fistfight, I could probably take her.

Truly, though, bad gym behavior knows no culture, creed or class. Wherever you go, steroidal oily bohunks fail to wipe off the weight equipment, leaving perfect silhouettes on the seats in their own sweat like effluvial snow angels. At a yoga class in a super-swanky spa gym, I did downward dog with Chris Noth, Mr. Big himself, randomly and ostentatiously Ujjayi breathing at odd, deafening intervals until mid-class, when he abruptly fell asleep on his sticky mat. We all stepped delicately over him when it was time for aerobic country line dance.

Yogically, I turned my monkey mind from his showy behavior, just as I now work at not feeling snotty toward the New Year’s gym invaders. But they start me wondering: Why do we make body-related resolutions for secular New Year, but not Jewish New Year? Probably because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s resolutions are about the old-school virtues of seeking forgiveness and trying to be a kinder and more giving person in the future; we’re not thinking about the life of the body, only of the mind. (Let’s not get too self-congratulatory about our elevated motives, though; they probably come from fear of the heavenly gates slamming shut in our pinched little faces.) On the High Holy Days, we back away from corporeal focus; the physical discomfort of fasting is supposed to remind us that we are not just bodies — we’re souls. But on December 31, our anxiety is usually about the body: quitting smoking, drinking less, eating less, exercising more. Perhaps the flick of the odometer, from one secular year to another, makes us think of our bodies as cars.

We are physical beings; we are not pure consciousness, like that giant blue brain on Star Trek. (And it was evil anyway.) Judaism is a religion that understands this, often embracing the physical. We’re supposed to enjoy our bodies and treat them right; this is a religion of moderation.

And the experience of exercising in nature, hiking to a beautiful peak or biking on a path through the woods, often does make one feel closer to God. The body works; the air smells and tastes incredible; God’s wonders are everywhere. Comparatively, clinging to a soulless machine under fluorescent lighting can be depressing. Sometimes, to amuse myself at the gym, I rewrite Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” as the minutes tick by:

I have been one acquainted with the Precor EFX 5.33.
I have walked forward in place — and backward in place.
I have outwalked the blue-haired lady on the treadmill next to me.
I have looked down at a sweaty, year-old copy of InStyle.
I have passed by the disinterested clerk who does not even have towels.
And dropped my gym bag, unwilling to smile.

But I do it. I want to be around for Josie and Maxine for a long time, and exercise increases my odds. There will be other opportunities to get both sweaty and cerebral in God’s creation. For now, I run like a hamster in a wheel. It’s a great opportunity to read trashy magazines with no guilt.

E-mail Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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