My new body, three years later
A Cross Fit accountability post
I have a friend who, whenever he eats a vegetable, uploads what he calls a “vegetable accountability post” to social media. I am long overdue for a Cross Fit accountability post. I have been going for three and a half years, and so far I’ve only written about it once, which is fearful reticence.
Three and a half years! Minus about nine months when there was this little pandemic. Still, three and a half years is a long time. Cross Fit, for those of you who haven’t been initiated, is a group gym class with a coach. The program varies daily but usually combines gymnastics, weightlifting, and aerobic training. It’s famously kind of intense. Last Sunday, for example, the aerobic component of the class, known as the workout of the day, or (unfortunately) “WOD,” consisted of 50 double-unders (a double-under is when the jump rope passes under your feet twice per jump), 50 sit-ups, a 130-meter run, 40 double-unders, 40 sit-ups, another 130-meter run, 30 double-unders, 30 sit-ups, another 130-meter run, 20 double-unders, 20 sit-ups, another 130-meter run, and finally 10 double-unders, 10 sit-ups, and one last 130-meter run. All of which followed a weightlifting complex that consisted of sets of a high hang power snatch, a hang power snatch, and an overhead squat.
Okay, yeah, I’m boasting a little by telling you all that. But I’m fifty-five years old! And I’ve been weedy, nerdy, and gay all my life! Even after three-plus years, I find it incredible that I’m doing this. That I can do this. This is not the sort of thing that middle-age Brooklyn novelists do (though, to be honest, it was a Brooklyn novelist, if a considerably younger one, who told me about the particular Cross Fit gym I now go to).
Some accountability, though: injuries. While doing Cross Fit, I have sprained an ankle, while stepping down from a banded pull-up, which put me out of commission for about a month; have pulled something in one of my shoulders, which required me to do rehab exercises and be cautious with the shoulder for about the same length of time but not actually stop going to Cross Fit; and have thrown out my lower back twice. The first time I threw out my back wasn’t technically “in” Cross Fit, but during a Cross Fit–adjacent Zoom stretching class at home during the pandemic. It sent me on a medical odyssey that lasted about seven months, from which I learned that the heathcare system, as currently configured, is happy to charge you money for back pain but has almost no idea how to treat it. Lesson learned: take the money you were going to spend on an orthopedic surgeon, an X-ray, and an MRI (injections and surgery have been shown to be largely useless, by the way, but even I knew that), and spend it instead on a physical therapist who works with athletes. The second back injury did happen in a Cross Fit class, though not at a moment when I was actually lifting anything. I skipped the doctor and went straight to physical therapy, and was only away from Cross Fit for about a month.
This may sound like a lot of injury, compiled in one place like this. But injury is part of any sport, and what’s more, during the same time period, I also dropped a window sash on my right index finger, necessitating four stitches, which kept me out of the gym for a month and a half, and gave myself an acute case of plantar fasciitis by going birding for three and a half hours in ill-fitting hiking boots, which kept me away for three weeks. I’m accident-prone, is the thing, which has nothing to do with Cross Fit. Most Cross Fit classes begin with a “question of the day,” which is usually something like What’s your favorite breakfast food? or What TV show are you watching these days?. But a couple of weeks ago, the question was How many bones have you broken? and it startled me that in a roomful of athletes, everyone but me said one or zero. In my case the answer is at least four, two of them—a finger and a toe—while playing soccer with a bunch of writers and editors. What’s more, I’ve had episodes of lower back pain since graduate school, i.e., for almost thirty years, and the odds are high that I would have had one during the pandemic even if I hadn’t taken that Zoom stretch class.
So those are the minuses. Now for the pluses. When I wrote about Cross Fit in 2020, I said that what I liked most was learning new skills, and that’s still true, and maybe what I’m proudest of. I’ve learned how to do double-unders, for example (at least when I’m well rested and don’t psych myself out). I can do kipping pull-ups, which are pull-ups made a little easier by swinging between an arched-body and a hollow-body position. I can even do kipping handstand push-ups, which look much trickier than they are (though, alas, as far as strict handstand push-ups are concerned, I only seem to have the strength to do about three, so far). If the stars are aligned, I can do a free-standing handstand for all of four and a half seconds. But I never thought I’d be able to do a free-standing handstand at all, let alone that I would learn the skill at age fifty-five! This list should probably be extended to include movements like the back squat that I may have thought I knew how to do four years ago but I can now definitively say I had no real concept of then, given all the cues that I now struggle to keep in mind when I do one (externally rotate knees, tuck rib cage down, tighten core, breathe into stomach, hold breath as if doing the squat in a pool of water that’s at chest height, keep elbows in plane with body, keep lumbar immobile, send butt out, and don’t let knees drift back in).
I titled the post about Cross Fit that I wrote in 2020 “My new body,” but I didn’t actually describe said body. So here goes. At some point, fairly early on, I noticed that my arms, which used to swing as freely backward as forward, were now on the backswing hitting up against this more-or-less new triangular shelf of muscles attached to my back, apparently known as “traps.” Sort of like the overhang of a turtle’s shell. I had never noticed them before. A little later I became fascinated by new facets on the upper outsides of my triceps, where there hadn’t previously been any distinct contours at all. I got very sharp abs for a while, but then I started eating more (even the liberal New York Times recommends that athletes eat about three-quarters as many grams of protein daily as they weigh in pounds, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to do until about year two, when I became frustrated that I wasn’t able to break through a plateau; rest assured I’m still a vegetarian, but it was touch-and-go there for a while; my virtue was saved by Bob’s Red Mill whey protein, the cut-fruits section of the Wegmans freezer department, and a new blender), so they’re no longer quite as pronounced. Maybe the weirdest development was that my knees, which have always been of a lunar knobbiness, filled out a little, some of the concavities flipping into convexities. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. Well, anyway, I can see that my knees are shaped different now, even if no one else can. In general, I’m not markedly bigger than I was a few years ago, but even to myself I feel more solid. Sometimes I think it’s too bad I didn’t discover Cross Fit when I was a bachelor in my twenties, but then I remind myself that I’m so old that Cross Fit didn’t even exist back then. There are moments when I feel awe at the raw sexual power that is now coursing through my thick new very different body, but then I upload a phone video to Instagram, and see a shaky, wobbly little old man who’s found the gumption to do exercises that look like they’re probably good for him. Oh, well; it’s nice to feel like a twenty-five-year-old hottie again even if to the outside world I no longer look like one. My neck and waist are the same size they ever were, but my calves and thighs are a little larger (I had to throw out my pre-pandemic skinny jeans, which luckily had been declared passé, anyway), and my old dress shirts are now too tight in the shoulders, and since I can’t afford to replace them, I look even more robust than I actually am when I wear one. This transformation is mostly very fun. It was heady in the first six months or so, but the novelty has worn off a little by now, though of course I still like it. And yet, and yet. I am, as I think I’ve said a few times now, fifty-five. The transformation is not going to last. It’s all happening in the shadow of my knowing that it’s not going to last. For now I’m still becoming fitter, but the lateness of my embrace of fitness is to some extent obscuring the underlying reality that my body is in decline. (To some extent: when I did the Memorial Day workout known as “the Murph” yesterday—I’ll let you google it—my time was six minutes slower than last year’s.) Going to Cross Fit, for someone like me, is a little like buying cut flowers. They’re pretty, but you have to buy new ones every few days. And the day will come when you won’t be able to do even that. One of the challenges of (late) middle age is deciding you’re okay with ephemerality. That you want fresh flowers in spite of their ephemerality. Maybe even because of it. I don’t know how long this adventure lasts, or where it goes, if anywhere. That said, my understanding is that strength training makes an even bigger difference in old age than it does in earlier phases of life.
I originally signed up with Cross Fit in hopes of jolting myself out of a depression that seemed to be descending. It worked. Or maybe it was going back into therapy that worked—the evidence is all just anecdotal over here. I’ve known for years that exercise helps me. For a long time, I saw a therapist on the Upper East Side, and I used to bike to the sessions from Brooklyn, which I joked was a way of doubling the therapeutic dose. Back when my chosen exercise was swimming, I used to feel that after my allotted thirty-six laps, I was almost entitled to consider myself a different person, so altered was my body chemistry. Cross Fit is a more intense workout than swimming or biking or anything else has ever been for me; in a group, I seem to be willing to work out much harder than I would ever find the motivation to do on my own, maybe because it harnesses the competitive side of me, which turns out to be pretty salient. The reset of my mood system now feels, correspondingly, close to absolute. Workouts this intense seem to burn through toxins that otherwise accumulate in me, the wishes to punish or reproach or second-guess myself, and at this point I have an almost medieval faith in Cross Fit’s power to ward off depression. Is this how people used to feel about bloodletting? When injury or illness prevents me from going, my primary anxiety isn’t about the injury or illness, whatever it might be, but that without the stimulus of Cross Fit, I could become depressed again. And this could happen, I’m aware; cf. the cut flowers.
Some day maybe I’ll write a post about my life in exercise, à la Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength, but for now I just want to say that as a gay man, I’ve always felt most comfortable with exercise that was solitary—running, biking, swimming, solo training on weight machines—which I suspect is a legacy of childhood fear. I think I grew up afraid that if other people saw my body, saw me too openly using it, it might betray me—they would figure out I was gay. I’m not sure the fear was logical even then, let alone now. And it turns out that the exercise I’ve most enjoyed, the exercise that I’ve gotten the most out of, as an adult, has been in groups—first the gaggle of writers and editors my husband and I used to play soccer with, in Prospect Park, for a number of years, and now Cross Fit. It’s odd that it didn’t happen until long after I’d given up hiding who I was—that even after I’d given up hiding, the habit of hiding was still with me. The gym I go to now is Cross Fit South Brooklyn, and I adore it so much I can’t be trusted not to become maudlin, so I won’t say much, other than that the owner, coaches, and staff have been kind, thoughtful, patient, cheerful, and generous, and the other members friendly, welcoming, and supportive. “It turns out,” a friend and fellow Cross Fitter joked to me, “that having someone say ‘Good job!’ and give you a fist bump after a workout is incredibly powerful.” It is powerful. The joke almost doesn’t read like a joke when it’s written out like that. It shouldn’t make us nervous to acknowledge how powerful it is. I’m hardly the only person who had a troubled relationship with his own body in childhood and youth, and I’m actually pretty lucky, as far as my body goes, in having so far never had a serious illness, other than depression. But discovering, even late in life, that you can enjoy your body, and that you can push it further than you thought you could, and survive, and even become stronger, is a lot to take in, maybe especially for someone who lived most of his life very much in his head, and as a child took refuge in the illusion that the mind was different from the body. It isn’t, which is very strange. But if you need to hack your mind a little, this turns out to be to your advantage.
“Birders have been marooned, kidnapped, and raped while in pursuit of birds. One was eaten by a tiger in India but got pictures of it before his demise.” —Jessie Williamson in Outside on Peter Kaestner’s quest to see 10,000 bird species
“The greatest value of the book is not what it tells us about Heidegger, but rather what it shows about the fecklessness and dishonesty of a certain wing of the academic enterprise.” —Alan Jacobs on Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins
“The person at Spotify who gives these new clusters names is Glenn McDonald, the company’s ‘data alchemist’. McDonald has created a website, Every Noise at Once, that maps all of Spotify’s ‘genre-shaped distinctions’—six thousand in total—on a single chart. Scrolling through it is like staring at a galaxy, with McDonald the astronomer responsible for naming each new star. Genres to the left are said to be denser and more atmospheric (cryptic black metal, epic black metal, Greek black metal); those to the right are spikier and bouncier (rave funk, hard minimal techno). Some of the genres listed are purely functional: ‘sleep’, ‘Pilates’, ‘pet calming’. Others are baffling: Spotify distinguishes between ‘small room’, ‘big room’, ‘deep big room’ and ‘escape room’.” —Daniel Cohen in the LRB on Spotify
I hope you enjoy this newsletter, but my fiction is the writing I put the most into. Please also check out my new short story, “The Ellipse Maker,” in the latest issue of n+1.