True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Here is the Scene: It’s eighth grade gym class, fall of 1994. Hanging from the pull-up bar is a 98 lbs. boy, 20 lbs. of which is in his head and mullet. He dangles from the bar, kicking at the air, desperately trying to get one pull-up. His crush, a girl named Nicole who just moved to the area (and who the boy understands may only fleetingly be in his league because she is the New Girl), watches the boy kick and flail, temporarily looking like a dog humping thin air in a futile attempt to get any momentum upward.
To get just one pull-up.
To impress a girl.
To maybe stimulate a little facial hair growth, or armpit hair growth, or any hair growth other than the mullet that weighs him down, both on the pull-up bar, and in life.
The boy does not get one pull-up, and eventually descends to the floor, defeated.
I went home that day, to the trailer my family lived in at the time. My mom had an old piece of workout equipment stored in the combination porch/shed my dad built on the property. It was a bench press thing that used heavy rubber bands as resistance.
I resolved that day that I would never again dangle helplessly from a pull-up bar. Before constructing a workout routine I decided to make myself more aerodynamic, and cut off my mullet. That night at dinner I stood up, walked into the bathroom, and removed my most defining physical characteristic.
The next day I placed the bench press machine under the part of the trailer that normally attaches to your truck (unless you are living in it, then I guess it is most accurately referred to as the master bedroom). I began a routine focused solely on bench-pressing, using my mom’s machine.
When that got boring, I began doing pull-ups off a tree branch, and dips using two stacks of encyclopedias placed on top of two old chairs. When we finally moved into our house, the first things my mom purchased for my room was an actual set of dumbbells, a real combination pull-up and dip tower, and a boxing bag.
I slept on the floor, surrounded by dumbbells and weight plates for a few weeks before I got my bed. I was a happy boy, and it is still one of the kindest things my mom ever did for me.
Since that first day I started working out – a scrawny, recently mulleted boy doing bench presses on his mom’s old equipment beneath the master bedroom of a 1970’s trailer – I have missed probably less than 10 days, total. I have worked out while sick, while suffering from fractured vertebrae, and definitely against doctor’s orders. I have done pushups on the side of the road after spending the night in my car.
My extreme dedication to exercise is without a doubt a form of mental illness, but it’s one that I’m okay with.
I began exercising because I felt weak, and kept working out because it made me feel stronger. I continued because it gives me a feeling of accomplishment that I can control. Bad days (or weeks, or years) at work are much easier to handle when you begin your day with a feeling of achievement.
Fear and Shame
Earlier this year, when my mom died of a heart attack at 56, it gave me a new running partner. I think of how short her life was, how much she will miss, and how much she is missed every time I think of ending my cardio portion early.
Shame and fear can be powerful motivators, and they play a significant role in why I started and continue to exercise. But I’ll also never forget how good it felt to do pull-ups in ninth grade, and the feeling of triumph when I busted out 15 of them without having to hump the air even once. Unfortunately, the ghost of mullets past still weighed me down with Nicole, and my pull-up ability changed my desirability to the opposite sex way less than I thought.
Pull-ups are cool, but they didn’t beat the facial hair and drivers licenses the older boys in high school had.
But now I have facial hair, a driver’s license, and can do pull-ups, so I’m sure Nicole occasionally wonders what might have been.