Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Pilates Experiment

My calf hurts.

No, that's not specific enough. It's not grand enough a way of describing how my calf (actually, come to think of it, both of my calves, and also my thighs, and much of my lower back and my abs and, yes, my chest, too…and my ass) feels. My calf (along with all those other body parts) feels like it's been rung through one of those old fashioned laundry presses you see in Colonial Williamsburg or on those PBS shows where a family is force to pretend it's living in a different century (admittedly, I've never watched those shows, but I see the commercials, so I know what that sort of press looks like). It feels like the grapes must have felt like when Lucille Ball and that fat Italian woman stomped on them in that episode of I Love Lucy where everyone goes to Italy and hilarity ensues. If feels like the vein in Alberto Gonzales's head must feel like whenever the Attorney General testifies before Congress. (If I want this piece to have any relevance a few years from now I'll have to change that last line, but for now I'll leave it in.)

Why do various muscles that I never really noticed I have (and that no one else has likely ever noticed I have) feel so wrenched and twisted and pounded upon? Simple. I took a "Pilates For Beginners" class.

Taking a pilates class has long been one of those things I told myself I'd eventually get around to doing, like learning conversational French, watching all of Fellini's films, and getting hair transplants. As in most of the odd-numbered years of my life (and some of the even-numbered ones) I'm slightly out of shape- like a beanbag chair is "slightly unsupportive." And even though I grew up to a height of 5'10" in college, a perfectly acceptable average male height, I was, for much of my childhood, smaller than most everyone around me, so the idea of making myself look taller through lengthening my vertebra and improving my posture is extremely appealing. That said, I can't claim I ever went to any great lengths to fulfill my pilates ambition (if by "great lengths" one means actually looking up the times the classes were offered.) However, when an acquaintance of mine sent out a bulletin saying that he had recently become a pilates instructor and was looking for enrollees for his class, I happened to be online and happened to be slightly drunk, so I said "sure" and told him I'd be there for his first class. After all, I wouldn't only be helping myself, I reasoned. I'd be doing a good deed by playing guinea pig and giving a nice guy a boost in his career.

I wasn't at all dissuaded: not by the fact that I was told the workout would be intense; nor the fact that I was warned to make sure I had underwear on if I planned to wear shorts; nor even by the fact that the instructor has spent a large portion of his professional life dressed up in a variety of blue-colored bunny rabbit costumes and platform shoes. In fact, I was encouraged by that last bit, as I reasoned that a seven-foot tall blue rabbit was not likely to be a particularly didactic or harsh instructor. I was also encouraged by the fact that he had recently lost a great deal of weight and was thus fitting into smaller (though still blue) bunny costumes. If pilates was the way he did it, then hell, maybe I too would eventually look good in tights and long ears if I followed the same route.

I don't want anyone reading the next few paragraphs to think I was hopelessly ignorant or naïve about what I was getting into. I did have some idea of what pilates actually is. I've often heard that it's all about strengthening one's "core" (whatever that is) and paying more attention to one's body as a whole (rather than avoiding the very thought of one's body as a whole, as I've been doing for much of my adult life.) I knew a lot of dancers did it. Who doesn't want to look like a dancer? (Well, maybe not Fred "Rerun" Berry, but all of the other dancers.) And I knew there wasn't any weight lifting or running in place or sweating to the oldies involved. I thought it was vaguely like yoga or tai chi, where one stays in one place and somehow gets all the physical benefits a marathon runner gets, without the heavy breathing, blisters, and chapped nipples.

So, I was really rather excited. I was doing something proactive. I was able to swallow my fear of group exercise (correctly assuming that nobody would really be able to watch what I was doing since they would be too busy paying attention to themselves.) I knew I wouldn't be perfect right off the bat, but I was prepared to be grown up and work hard at it until I was the best damned pilates practitioner I could be.

I was, in other words, completely delusional.

Pilates hurts. I don't want to dissuade anyone from taking the classes, especially anyone who wants to take a class with a giant rabbit instructor, but pilates really, really hurts. It especially hurts if you're someone who is overweight, not especially coordinated, flat-footed, and have been walking on the balls of your feet your entire life, making your calves and hamstrings as tight as a G-string (on a musical instrument, not a stripper). I was right about the exercises largely taking place within a small user-defined area, but that doesn't really matter when you're asked to do things like lie on your back with your feet a couple of inches off the ground, your hip and shoulder bones dug into the mat, and your neck straight but off the ground. Read that last sentence again and see if you can follow what I'm saying. Now try to imagine being an overweight person who is asked to go directly from flat-on-your-back to sitting up without rolling over or using your arms for support.

The instructor, who is freakishly tall even without the platform shoes and rabbit ears, looked even taller as he loomed over me. I was right that he wasn't a harsh taskmaster. He was reassuring, positive, upbeat, and encouraging, a little like high school gym teachers are supposed to be and exactly like high school gym teachers never are. And yet, I found myself irrationally hating him every time he came to stand on my feet in an effort to help me "roll up" into position. I resented his cheer as my sweat literally dripped off of my head and on to the nice clean new gym mats that had been installed for the occasion. Every time he said to me, "I bet you never knew how tight your hamstrings are," visions of Elmer Fudd and his double-barreled shot gun popped up in my head. I wanted Bugs Bunny dead. I wanted Peter Rabbit dead. I wanted the Easter Bunny and Thumper and every other cheerful member of the order lagomorpha exterminated.

Even as I sit here, a tightly coiled bundle of pain, I can acknowledge that, in retrospect, I was being unfair. And yet, as mature and self-improving and low-pressure as the workout environment was, I simply couldn't help my feelings. I'm 15 again, standing under the ropes course at my high school, watching all the other students having fun walking on rope bridges and swinging from cables and eventually getting to use one of those neat ziplines James Bond's always hanging from- and I can't do it because my fat, weak body can't climb the rope ladder to get to the course, no matter how many times I make the attempt. In the pilates teacher's warm encouragement I see Mr. Butler, with his cheesy moustache and cleft chin, rolling his eyes and looking exasperated. I promise myself I won't give up, but as I struggle to keep from weeping with frustration I wonder why I, an adult, have to put myself through this shit.

As I relive both the events of the other day and the events of my childhood, the question of what makes an adult an adult keeps coming back to me. Throughout my childhood, I was always ahead of my peers in some ways and horribly behind them in others. I was a gifted reader and writer, had an extraordinarily retentive memory, and, according to some, I was also a pretty decent performer and public speaker. Those things came easily to me, and I was able to coast on them well into junior high school. But being able to coast in some areas can set one up for defeat in other areas, unless you have enough character and work ethic as a child to push yourself in the things you're not immediately talented at. I didn't have that character as a child. If I attempted to do something and I ended up looking foolish, I did my very best to avoid doing it ever again.

I can remember days on the beach playing catch with my father (a talented and athletic man, and, like the Blue Bunny, uncommonly patient and encouraging.) Despite the fact that he never lost his temper with me and did his best not to ever make me feel bad about my lack of hand-eye coordination, I simply couldn't stand how it felt when the ball would fly past me, or land in the sand at my feet, or, worst of all, land in my "lead hands" and bounce out again. My father would have been willing to practice with me for hours if I had asked him. I never asked him.

I never had any immediate talent in athletics, so I decided I didn't like athletics. I didn't like athletics, so I didn't ever practice them, and thus, I remained untalented. This Catch-22 not only led to me being a fairly graceless mover in my daily life- it also played a large part in the recurring struggle I've had with my weight since my pre-teen years. I resigned myself to being the last picked for every team. I resigned myself to taking "breaks" when the others were running laps. I resigned myself to standing under that rope ladder and never making it to that damn zip line. I simply resigned. And I never got any better. I told myself I didn't care. I cared. I care.

As I headed into my delayed adulthood, I resolved that I was going to be a better adult than I was a child. I would no longer give up on things just because they were difficult for me- I would push until I got as far as I could. In many ways I've fulfilled that goal. A kid who was so modest and embarrassed about his body in high school that he never changed in front of the other kids can now go into a gym locker room and calmly put on his shorts in front of better-built, better-looking men. I can (and do) workout regularly (okay, semi-regularly) and I don't worry whether I'm lifting as much weight as the guy next to me or whether my treadmill is turned up as high as the anorexic blond girl's is. I'm still not good at it, and no matter how many people tell me that eventually I'll "love it," I've never loved it in my life and I doubt I ever will. But I do it anyway.

I've worked hard on other areas of my life, too. There was once a time when I would see someone I was attracted to for friendship or romance and, scared of rejection, just accept that nothing could ever happen. Anyone who knows me nowadays would never accuse me of being shy or scared- that took work. That took working on my personality and forcing myself to socialize, rather than blithely accepting that I'd "never fit in."

I've much to be proud of, and that's why I keep coming back to the question: when you're an adult and you try something new, is it more mature to press on no matter how bad you are at it and how crappy you feel afterwards? Or is it more mature to recognize your limitations and give up before you make a bad situation worse? I want sticktoitiveness. I want to fight. And yet, the five foot walk from my bed to my desk to write this was so excruciating that I feel I must have been doing something differently than the others did. I clearly need more strength and flexibility in my legs, if I'm ever going to become accomplished at this pilates stuff. So, do I keep going to classes, slowing them down while the instructor sits on my legs, or do I choose, instead, to try an exercise that comes easier to me? The "comes easy" thing scares me- I want to be a better adult than I was a child. But when is it more adult and rational to take the easier way out?

I've decided, for now, to split the difference. I know now where the most problematic areas of my very problematic body are, and they are surprisingly not the ones I thought they'd be. I'm going back into the gym, working on the stretches my orthopedist gave me and that I long ago grew bored of. I'm making sure I wear my orthotics all the time, even though it means swapping them in and out of various pairs of shoes. I'm going to make my legs and abs strong. And I'm going to go back to pilates class. Just not next week. But I will. I promise. And if you're reading this, you have, unbeknownst to you when you started reading this, entered into a contract. Every time I see you, or at any interval of your choosing, you are to ask me- "Have you gone back to the class yet?" Shame me into it. Because I promise you, I will be a better adult than I was a child.

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