Life and Death in Increments of Iron

July 31, 2014
Andy Blissenbach

“The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.” –Henry Rollins

The first thing I learned: when it matters most, you go deaf. There’s an iron bar hovering above the end of your sternum and it’s either going to go up or down and your breath and a elephantine pressure are the only two things you’re aware of. It’s why that whole “gotta get PUMPED UP with some headbanging music” thing is so overrated when bench pressing. Tom Araya and co. in Slayer ain’t bailing you out. Sure, there might be a ceiling and some thrash metal fighting to stay relevant in your ears and maybe there’s a spotter yelling at you, too, but breath and force are the only two germane variables when deciding whether a stack of iron goes up. Or down.

I was at the gym a few days ago. There was the requisite grunting, the tattooed beefcakes, the vascularity and vainglory, the odors of rubber mats and oxidizing metal. The walls of mirror reflect the 10,000 reasons why people (95% of whom are men) are in the process of willful destruction/reconstruction. The tanned college guy doing dumbbell curls wants the bitches to notice him; the middle-aged group of paunchy dudes bench press so they can hold something over their betters at the office; the v-shaped off-duty cop prepares for a triathlon by doing pull ups. And then I show up and join the coterie of ex-jocks without a real game to play.

I was at a Lifetime Fitness in St. Paul. They are a company known for their extravagances. Most Lifetime’s feature climbing walls, Olympic-sized pools, racquetball and basketball courts, yoga studios, aerobics classrooms, cafes, and black-shirted trainers motivating their charges. But the reason I like the club in St. Paul is because of its bare-bones weightlifting room. It’s stripped of the bullshit yuppie amenities; it’s a sunken and intimate area separated from hi-def televisions and treadmills and January-to-February half-assers. The pejoratives are used purposefully. You either embrace the Spartan aesthetics of iron and gravity or you’re intimidated by them. It’s as if you have to earn the right to walk down those stairs. And belong.

I was a total failure as a college football player. Two major knee surgeries, booze and painkillers, and it was over. All I have now are a bunch of awards stuffed into some dustbin, along with dozens of twenty-year-old letters from prospective colleges requesting my services as a possession receiver with a surly disposition. It’s a faulty narrative cobbled together by the words “could have.” But I was a football player once. Yeah, there’s that whole “once a baller, always a baller,” but such tropes ignore the fact that athletics worship the present tense. More than anything, though, athletics worship the conventional narrative arc.

In order for athletics to be compelling, there needs to be exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a denouement. I arrived on campus, got hurt, encountered a significant amount of substance abuse, and then…nothing. No backstory, no build, no climax. Nothing. As Jonathan Gottschall relates about boxing (and sports in general) in his book, The Storytelling Animal, “Without a strong backstory, a fight tends toward dullness, no matter how furious the action. It’s like watching the climax to a great film without first watching the buildup that gives the climax its tension.” Andthere isn’t an hour that goes by that my anti-climax doesn’t haunt me.

Will overcompensation at the gym suture together the pieces of the past with the present? Family and friends mention coaching and flag-football and semi-pro outfits as though they could act as a balm, but such avenues are so resplendent with the visage of unfulfilled potential that I can’t bear them. Those options are fraught with too much interaction, and interaction forces the sunken ship that is my anti-climax to rise to the surface and make plain admissions of waste and ruin. So I put on my gloves and headphones and venture to the iron, silent and alone, with a handful of other unrequited stories of athletic prowess.

There’s John, an Ohio native and former offensive lineman from the Mid-American Conference (he didn’t want me to give his real name or the school he attended). His skin is always a two-tone farmer’s tan and his handshake is gentle. John played one year, had a shoulder injury “that kind of disintegrated the whole thing,” and quit after the sixth surgery without playing another down. He is 270 easy with about 10% body fat. Running into him at high speed wouldn’t be a good idea. John stutters while offering a few quick sentences on his history. He has trouble maintaining eye contact and then bench presses a quarter-ton without a hint of fanfare.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alvin, a one-and-done former corner back at North Dakota. He looks like a miniature Greek statue painted golden brown. Alvin’s always moving and bouncing and chattering. There’s no way he wasn’t homecoming king. But it’s his second-to-last day in Minnesota. “Hittin’ up Little Rock!” he says like a hip-hop icon. He claims he was a fitness model. And he never passed a class in college. After revealing this, he wraps himself in his smile and goes back to shoulder presses. There’s always the automatic, almost Pavlovian, return to the iron, an adherence to routines that keep us in a version of the present, that sustain our un-life as failures and has-beens. Lift, brood, repeat. Go to the gym and watch our uncollected eulogies unfold.

It was repetition burnout and max day. There are only three lifts I do on such days: bench press, squat, and deadlift (the three core “power-lifts”). It’s 225 pounds as many times as I can on bench and 275 pounds as many times as I can on squat and deadlift. Then, after a few minutes of rest, I do one max rep on bench, squat, and deadlift. As a college kid, I did this about once a month. I’m 35 now and do it two or three times a year. Bones and joints have an unkind way of letting you know your age.

It doesn’t take very long. I was only at Lifetime Fitness for about forty minutes, most of it spent breathing heavily, hands on hips, nodding at a mirror like a madman. But the purity of the numbers, man! It gives me an unvarnished definition of myself that nothing else in life can equal. Other forms of status are ethereal in nature, all candidates for subjective tinkering. Your job, your money, and your hot girlfriend aren’t an adequate measurement of your intelligence, talent, and charisma, respectively. Admittedly, these things play an important role in a person’s narrative, but there are so many exceptions and qualifiers with such status symbols. They can be gerrymandered and polished to suit one’s persona.

So here’s what I want you to do: strip away all the affectations and baubles and standards that denote status. Now put yourself in the middle of nowhere by yourself. Existence is only your body, a piece of flat land, and horizons that reach to eternity. Now I’ll ask a simple question: what can you do right now, to prove yourself a man? I suppose I could point at my cock and balls, but that’s not much of an active proclamation (as we, at our core, are physical and primal beings cursed/blessed to do). Bereft of a language anyone can hear and all the junk and bullshit (both concrete and abstract) that we accrue, I can still be strong. I can jump and run and do hundreds of pushups until I puke. I know the beautiful truth of strength without any codependent emotional state. It’s self-determination, distilled and undiluted. That’s why physical strength is so empowering, because you can’t spin or fake your relative standing with your bodily essence. It’s why people run marathons and choreograph dances and heft iron plates. Strength is a trumpeting of free will, as pure a badge of existence as you’ll ever encounter. To do is to know. You’re either strong. Or you aren’t.

So here are the recent gym numbers:

For starters, I’m 195 pounds on a 5’10” frame (giving me a BMI, or Body Mass Index, of 28, which is just a shade under “obese”; I find it hilarious that a person with a flat stomach and 6% body fat can be considered “obese,” but it ceases being humorous when it increases my life insurance premiums, so fuck BMI).

Bench Press: 26 repetitions at 225 and a max of 360.

Deadlift: 28 repetitions at 275 and a max of 530.

Squat: 21 repetitions at 275 and a max of 465.

I do all the repetitions before the max (thus giving me a fair amount time to recover). The bench pressing felt great. My balky left rotator cuff didn’t give me any problems and the 360 max didn’t stress the metal plate from my left wrist surgery too badly (when it’s cold, the forearm plate feels like it’s going to rip through my skin). Felt like I could of gone up five or ten pounds on the max. I’m not going to blow a bunch of false modesty up your ass, as the deadlift and squat numbers are solid, but they’re a little deceiving. The deadlift max wasn’t a competition-quality lockout and the squat max was shallow and may have been spotter assisted (although the spotter, a fellow ex-footballer, gave me the whole “maybe helped a few pounds at the bottom, bro” assurance). After a half-dozen lower back injuries in the last seven years, my confidence in these two lower-body lifts is mostly shot. So now I use a belt for the squat and deadlift maxes (even though belted lifts stunt the intricate system of balance muscles in your back) and wrist straps for the deadlift max (even though they artificially strengthen your grip). Injury and age force the issue, making me reticent to go all-out. (And don’t say a fucking thing about “good form.” Every serious weightlifter you know has been hurt to some degree using “good form.”) The tale of the tape is one of stalemate. My overall weight for the three major power lifts (1,355 pounds) has increased/decreased around 4-5 percentage points since college. Considering a slew of sources and internet cross-referencing, I’m still in the top 1% of 35-year-old men. Trade all of it for another down of college football, though.

Like most serious football players and athletes, I’ve been lifting and running since I was thirteen. From an early teen until now, I’ve coaxed my body into doing some pretty cool stuff. I can run six miles in under thirty-six minutes (my current pace is about five-minutes and fifty-four-seconds for six miles), crank out about 35 pull ups, and box-jump on top of my parent’s kitchen island while drunk on Thanksgiving. (I can assure you that this isn’t needless braggadocio, but just a counter-reference to make a point). Yet all anyone really cares about, when a question of fitness is invoked, is “How much ya bench?”

It’s as though the lifetime of a male athlete’s resume should be boiled down to a single three-digit number. The reason for this: we want to quantify (and quantify quickly) a potential threat so that our quest for a small piece of alpha-male hegemony might be realized (although there are millions of better athletes, and people who could kick my ass in a fight, who don’t bench close to what I can). Sure, the whole “alpha-male hegemony” thing would work best if we waged perpetual fisticuffs against one another, but such blatant savagery is frowned-upon (and severely punishable) in our modern civilization. In the movie Fight Club, the unnamed protagonist (or “Jack”) thinks to himself that he “felt sorry for guys packed into gyms, trying to look like how Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger said they should.” Now I abhor the spindly-legged, pretty-boy poser at the gym as much as the next guy, and I wish I could exist in Valhalla and punch the shit out of every bullying douchebag without worrying about my own welfare, but the notions of Fight Club, profound though they may be, fail to properly address the realities of constant male conflict: getting punched hurts a lot, especially when it’s done by someone who’s strong or knows what they’re doing. Serious injury and death would abound (not to mention familial plots of vengeance). So, instead of the impractical (and usually stupid) exercise of physical combat, what metaphor can be substituted, a metaphor that encapsulates thumos, the phenomenon of “spiritedness” described by Plato and Aristotle, without all the blood and repercussions? In 21st century America, it’s “How much ya bench?”

I don’t do this for you. Lord, I wish I did! I wish I could be the college guy focused on self-improvement in order to impress women or the fat guys wanting to be strong for the simple reason of being strong or the fitness dorks with some type of competition on the horizon. As much as you’d like to think that my muscle is an outward declaration, it’s a personal war against anti-climax. And I use the word “war” with all its powerful implications of gore and loss and death. Because a large part of who I am died a long time ago. Lifting is the formaldehyde in my rotting corpse.

My lack of sleeved t-shirts and love of bodily displays is a shield to keep you from my self-hatred, a hatred so pure and unsettling that it must be costumed in clownish and meatheaded finery. The pull ups in public, the flexing, the bending of nails and beercaps, the want to push over hay bales and lift the back end of cars: it’s all deception. Do we failed ex-jocks like the attention? Of course we do. But the attention keeps you far away from this ugly truth, this naked insecurity: we fucked up a long time ago and are left with a scarlet letter signifying that we’ll never be whole again. We were injured to the point of obsolescence or failed out of school or drank until we were unable to compete or we gave up before the impact of such brazen stupidity could be grasped. So why do we do it? Why do we lift? One word: proximity. The substantiality of the numbers, the concrete nature of hypertrophy; these thing keep us close. It silences the whine of “could have” to an octave that isn’t all-consuming. We lift, therefore we still are. We were never able to make manifest the dreams of athletic glory. But see? See how much I can still lift? I could have! I fucking could have! Such overcompensation suffocates the notion you might have that believes we couldn’t. The idea of being a failure is tolerable only because of our proximity to a fit and strong body. We are ghosts, wanting to be close to the only form of life we understand, to touch and make material some form of a denouement. Maybe even heal. This is our story of coping, told in isolation and regret and hands craving the calluses from an iron bar.

In August of 1997, I went away to play Division II college football. Before I left, there was this poem I cut out of a Sports Illustrated and attached above my dorm bed. It was by Daryl Bush, an All-American middle linebacker at Florida State. He was a thoughtful and reflective type, a 4.0 GPA-guy, the kind of man who could bridge the (not-as-massive-as-the-world-would-like-you-to-believe) gap between conquering jock and sensitive soul. The kind of man I admired. It read as follows:

I slowly saunter off the field
Perhaps I try to stall
tomorrow’s grueling heat
A faint grin cracks
a dirty face
while heaven’s winking stars
applaud my work

Bush’s poem isn’t Laureate-level shit. Maybe it’s not even publishable. But what I was doing wasn’t at the top level, either. And that’s the point. Maybe I don’t need the validation, the laudatory superlatives, as long as something, some nebulous being, knows that my present efforts in the gym, for naught though they may be on this prime material plane of existence, are noteworthy. So I’ll see you in Purgatory. And we’ll give each other a nod. Because we know what exists in the other’s heart. That there’s still work to be done. Right. Now.

Check back soon for YUCK, an essay on the masculine obsession with gross stuff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!