Every morning at 8:15 am the kids are swooped up by the big yellow bus and my wife leaves for work on foot right after. Fifteen minutes later I am at my desk, reviewing the English Premier League scores at the BBC’s soccer website. At 9:00 am the whistle blows at the pulp and paper mill across town and the rotten-egg stench wafts through the curtain. My writing day is done, still stalled.
This is my fourth month in Thunder Bay. We arrived from Montreal in June. I’ve come down with a guilty case of government-grant-assisted writer’s block.
Spooked in my northern suburban outpost, Thunder Bay’s Canada Games Complex is everything the doctor ordered: get out of the house, get some exercise, take regular saunas. Healthy body makes for a healthy mind. A shock-and-awe assault on the organism. Get me ripped, then I’ll bang ‘er out. Words, I mean. Maybe I’ll even stop calling it the Inferiority Complex.
1. The smell of a men’s locker room: chlorine, winter boots and Old Spice. I pass through rows of aluminum lockers and come out by the showers to find two gym studs parked under the hair dryers. I get muscle confusion just looking at them. Everything about the pair is Roman.
“My right bicep feels psychotic today,” shouts Gluteus over the sound of the dryers, “It’s just about gonna bust.”
“Oh, I know,” replies Maximus as he performs a breast self-exam, cross-armed, making both pecs twitch in the mirror. Then he arches forward, curling in a semi-roll so that it appears he is hugging a barrel. He holds the pose and peers over his shoulder at his reflection.
“You can land a 747 on that,” he shouts.
“Mean, dude.” Gluteus strikes a similar pose. “Hey, I’m an aircraft carrier.”
“You are, man. You look bigger.”
Both are projecting now and I wonder whether objects are bigger or smaller than they appear in the mirror. Or does everything rest in the eye of the beholder?
2. The sauna is the town confessional. People go on and on about their sore ass and the mayor and the union agitators and the local sawmill strike and the city taxes and the construction of a spanking new Roman Catholic francophone high school. And snowmobiles. And moose hunting.
Sauna regulars like to hang out by the Plexiglas window, set within the heavy-timbered cedar door. They withstand a few moments more of the heat while stealing occasional glances through the peep-hole at a society that takes land claims and climate change more seriously than their right to a day’s work and a week’s wages.
Come in, quickly, and close the door. Come in where it’s cozy and homophobic, come in for a nuts-and-bolts seminar on women drivers and working mothers. Return tomorrow for a cheat-sheet on the decline of family values.
3. I am playing a bit of squash with an I-have-never-been-in-better-shape-in-my-whole-life man of sixty-five. In fact Bruce is in better shape than I have been in my whole life and I am not even the kind of man who is forty yet. His secret, he tells me, is Roger. A personal trainer.
That’s it, no more procrastinating. I want to make some good muscle. So I head straight over to Roger and we agree to meet Wednesday. Sixty dollars up front.
I ask him about the weight machines in the main fitness room, the ones with zippy compound names that seem to belong in some cyborg sex world. Roger scoffs. “Free weights are the real world,” he admonishes. “Free weights will be the best use of your time.”
I agree. Machines are for morons. Pullies are for pussies. Just before we part ways, Roger asks me what I want out of it.
“I’d like to get better at cardio and stuff.” Shit, I want to self-actualize. I want to believe in myself and live strong. I’m too shy to admit I want pecs and abs and glutes and all the other things, of course. All the things I never had as a child growing up.
4. Sign says: Swimsuits Mandatory. Survey says: Swimsuits are for dimwits (like me). Inside are seven or eight sauna sinners. Average age: seventy. Three on the lower tier and four across the top bench. Heavy loads, lined up like Lake Superior court judges.
It heats up fast. Beads of water ripen voluptuously and fall like teardrops from body hair. I breathe through cupped hands.
The man above and to my right lifts off the bench and steps down onto the floor. Buttocks like cinder blocks. He stretches his arms high over his head and bends forward into the steam. Another man joins him. They lift their arms in unison, over their heads, side to side, and bend at the waist. Then turn and repeat. Ballet for big bummies.
5. At our first session, Roger decides we should focus not only on my trunk, but on the big muscle on the front of my leg, the big muscle I sit on, the missing muscles of my torso and the other slabs of meat in my middle.
Roger is really nice, not at all your average bolts-under-the-skin musclehead. He wears glasses like me. He reads (he liked Stephen Heighton’s novel The Shadow Boxer, which is set on Lake Superior). Roger is also a former semi-pro welterweight boxer. He tells me that he once fought the boxer Stéphane Ouellet. He got some good punches in, he assures me.
“Great,” I say with gusto. I’m definitively in Roger’s corner.
After the requisite bullshit stretching, we move on to some free weights. Later today we’ll work on pulling instead of pushing. With my build, Roger says I should be pretty good at pulling. Better anyway than I am at pushing. It’s all music to my ears.
“Andrew, do you eat good?” Roger asks.
“Yes,” I answer. “I eat good.”
“How many times—four or five times a day?”
“About three,” I mutter, feeling inadequate. Is it bad to eat only three times a day?
“Don’t leave out protein. What did you eat this morning?” Sceptical is his tone.
“Cheerios.” Boy does that sound lightweight. A grown man who eats Cheerios?
“Try to get some tuna or chicken in you, especially before you work out. Protein shakes are a good bet, or an egg and a couple of egg whites.”
Roger shrugs. “You have to get nutrition in you.”
So I hear. I’m a writer. I eat my words. Seven hundred and fifty words a day. But not lately. Recently I’ve been on the literary equivalent of a pill diet. The famine at the heart of my writer’s imagination is just eating away at me.
6. I’ve joined The Court Jesters Squash League: C Level. I am out of practice and the local boys are beating on me. Today’s partner is Stan.
“I heard you’re new in town.”
“That’s right. I’m from Montreal.”
“What line of work brought you in?” He means: am I with the federal government or one of the big banks, or did I creep into that newfangled department over at the university, the one promoting recycling.
“Actually, my wife got a job. I work at home.”
“What do you do?” He is staring at the strings of his racket up close and forcing his fingertips into the mesh as if his is the paw of a big cat trying to claw at some amazing prey outside the cage.
“I’m a writer.”
He looks up. “You’re the first writer I have ever met.” He shakes his head. “What kind of things do you write down?”
“Fiction.” I should have said non-fiction. I should have insisted that I write true things.
“I’m an engineer,” Stan informs me after I ask. “I wanted to be a writer once, too. And I still might become one when I retire.”
“Really.” I smile. Good. The more the merrier, and all that. When I retire I might become a civil engineer.
7. The talk in the sauna is docks:
“My dad’s dock, eh—thought it would be lifted away this weekend by the fucking ice.”
“Oh, I know.”
“We had a couple of days there when the wind was coming off the lake. Jeez.”
“Oh, I know.”
These two talking are on my right. Through the steam I can make out someone on my level, an extra-large bulk of a thing.
“The wind comes off at forty miles an hour and piles the ice on the shore.”
The other man sits way up high in the far corner were the heat is devastating.
“Oh, I know.”
“My dad had his camp a hundred feet from the shore.”
“Oh, I know.”
“If the wind hadn’t broken then the ice would have come right up and sliced it in half.”
“Oh, I know.”
The extra-large man gets up to leave. The obligatory stretch and pivot and turn before muttering, “See yah.”
“He was one big fucker wasn’t he?” says the guy in the top corner.
I’d assumed that they were friends.
“Oh, I know,” I shrug.
8. On Friday I show up a little sore.
“Are you sore?’ he asks.
“No. I’m OK.”
“What did you eat for breakfast?”
“A peanut butter sandwich.” Actually: a peanut butter cookie.
“On whole wheat?”
“Yes.” (Note to self: next time, get nutrition into you, dummy, so you don’t have to lie to the strong man.)
“That’s not bad.” Roger shrugs.
“And I’ve been eating my tuna.” I volunteer this information, too freely, probably.
“Oh great,” he answers, perhaps absentmindedly, but isn’t this nice: having someone in my life again who really cares about my meals.
Today he first has me doing squats, which I am useless at because my legs are weak. Next he has me doing calf lifts and after that we return for a set of what Roger calls the “military dumbbells.” (Whenever he says it, I think “Military Dumb Belles” sounds like heroines out of old movies set in the American South. Calf lifts have me chasing livestock around the farm.)
Another thing. I like it when after I have done a set of free weights Roger says: “Good job, Andrew.” Or else: “Nice set, man.” I don’t get this kind of encouragement very often.
Mid-way into our forty-five minutes we take a water break. From then on I ask to take a lot of water breaks, and Roger taps his clipboard as if he’s keeping time while I suck hard from the fountain.
I’m huffing and puffing when Roger tells me to kneel down on a plastic mat so we can start work on the abdo-rectus chain. I have to shoot out one arm and at the same time raise the leg diametrically across from it. So right arm, left leg, hold; and then left arm, right leg, hold. I feel like Superman in rehab.
“Ever heard of the Swiss ball?”
“It’s one of those.” He points to an over-inflated red beach ball. “You should use it for crunches and forward rolls.” I get the feeling Roger finds my sit-up style mildly tainted. It’s for gym perverts.
“You like Atwood?” Roger asks, while I continue to do my best Superman.
“Cat’s Eye is good.”
That’s good enough for today, he says a minute or two later. My legs are shivering. I need a sauna.
9. Head bowed, penis snug, like a gorilla in the mist, I sauna. And then I shower. I’ve got my routine. I’m eating my tuna. I’m getting the nutrition in. My sessions with Roger are over. I don’t need him whispering sweet nothings into my ear while I lift and I don’t miss his clipboard tapping. I’m a big boy and I work out in the wall mirrors all by myself. I’ve grown some muscle.
Sometimes, though, I witness Roger working out. Watching him lifting brings me down to earth. Roger does not lift weights: he hauls major mass in a life or death struggle with gravity. He wears a waist belt. When he does chin-ups, high on the bar, he attaches a fifty-pound metal ring to a chain that hangs between his legs from a buckle.
To an outsider, life in the gym might seem silly and solipsistic, but I’ve learned to survive being a lightweight by suspending disbelief in my own skinniness. I’m forming pectorals and even thinking of growing a mullet: all business up front, and a party at the back! Who needs a first novel, anyway?