Sunday, October 14, 2007


(News-Herald, March 2003) I finally broke down and joined the YMCA this winter. I had the vague notion that it might be helpful for getting in shape. Membership immediately improved my health; now I can’t afford to eat out so often.

Those of you who have known me for years will appreciate how surprised I am to find myself in a gym, working out and getting sweat all over myself. My athleticism is legendary, in the same way that leprechauns are legendary, except that you can probably find more people who will claim to have seen leprechauns than have seen me actively pursue any sport-like activities.

I had one season in my youth as a pitcher in playground league softball. I played for the Franklin Heights playground, where we practiced without benefit of anything remotely resembling a softball field. Third Street had a giant field, Eleventh Street a decent one, and at Fifteenth Street whacking the ball into the cemetery was good for a home run. Third Ward playground, home of the notoriously rough and tough players, didn’t have a field either, but they could use Miller-Sibley where the Cadillacs of fields were available.

At the Heights, we had a sliver of a field. Instead of power, we learned control, because a hit to anywhere except right field put you in the woods or in someone’s kitchen. Smart teams would not have bothered to put anyone out against us except a right fielder.

Though, as I recall, we did have a secret weapon. Somebody on the team knew Bernie Walz, who would occasionally come to play for us. At the plate, even at that relatively tender age, Bernie looked pretty much like a mountain wielding a toothpick. Bernie moved slowly; it looked like it took a half-hour for that toothpick to amble around. But then it would meet the ball—after that the small sphere would whimper, then sizzle, then head off to parts unknown. It would not surprise me to find some of Bernie’s hits embedded in low orbit satellites.

I pitched for the team. The position only required me to have good control of one limb at a time (as opposed to, say, running and throwing simultaneously), though I early learned to duck quickly. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a softball, flattened into a pancake by centrifical force, spinning toward your head like an angry white buzzsaw.

My gift for pitching was spotty. At one point, I led the league in both strikeouts and walks. The next summer I was too old to play playground league; oddly enough, no recruiting bids from other leagues appeared.

My athletic career has been rather limited ever since. I learned racquetball in college (liberal arts education) and was well on my way to being almost above average. Later I impressed my future in-laws at a family picnic by disassembling my entire knee during a game of kickball.

All of which goes to show that I am as mystified as anyone to find me in a gym working out. I don’t know what exactly prompted my entry into the world of exertion in these last few years. It may well be as simple as the belated discovery that running and biking and kayaking and yes, even grunting at oddly shaped machinery is fun, even relaxing.

If I could go back and deliver a message or two to my younger self, I would—well, come to think of it, that’s rather a list. But one item would definitely be to assure him that awkward or not, swift and strong or not, there is enjoyment to be had in putting one’s physical self to work, just as surely as it’s fun to sit down with a good book.

I wish I had known that sooner. But you can sit and read a book and there’s nothing to tell you that you are reading it slower or with less understanding than other smarter, faster readers. Way too much of the world of physical activity seemed geared for competition. Heck, even at the Y there are a zillion opportunities to swim competitively, but swimming just for recreation seems to be an alien art form.

The gym—excuse me, “Fitness Center”—at the Y is pleasantly non-competitive. I have a sense that the folks on the free weight end are a bit more aggressive, but I think you have to be because that part of the gym has the wall-sized mirrors so you can check your form. I don’t know what I look like when I’m exerting myself, but I’m fairly certain that it’s not pretty, and I’d rather leave it a mystery. My end of the gym has a nice picture window overlooking French Creek and a couple of tv’s. People are friendly but focused on what they’re doing. Nobody wears the kind of workout outfits that scream “I Am Way Too Serious About This.” I have not seen anyone kick sand in someone’s face yet.

So I’m not only surprised to be there, but enjoying it as well. All I need now is a barely mediocre racquetball partner.

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