tales from the dork side - life on the web
sunday, october 1, 2000:
big guy

updated precisely as often as the gods demand, and not more

damn those frames to hell

You are in a doctor's office in an old converted house in Berkeley. Old enough to involve red bricks painted white, the white chipping off in layers. The examining room has that padded table with the tissue stretched out over it, where you sit and make crinkling noises with your butt. You feel nervous and calm at the same time, because that's what people do in there. The air is cold.

Your cholesterol is fine, your blood pressure is borderline but they don't feel the need to put you on pills. The doctor is asking you some general questions about your health. About what you've been doing with your body lately. It feels like you've been caught. Have you been doing something with your body? You don't know what to say. You mention that you've been thinking about starting some kind of exercise program, getting in shape.

Your doctor, an urbane, vaguely Indian-looking man in his fifties, scratches his bald spot and turns over toward the scale to reach for something. He says, "Yeah, for most people, once you get going it's easier to do it than to not do it."

You start to say, "I wouldn't know." But you don't know why you want to say that, so you don't. Instead you shift your weight on the examination table, making some more crinkling sounds. You wonder if the doctor has ever had to pick himself up out of a hole so deep that he'd never seen out of it. You wonder if he knows how complicated it can be. You're afraid not only that he doesn't, but that it isn't.

 . . .

 . . . You remember a comic strip the newspapers and magazines had been running a lot in the days before Charles Schulz' death. Charlie Brown is eating lunch by himself. "It's stupid to sit here being afraid of that little red-haired girl! It's stupid to sit here eating my lunch by myself!" Suddenly he stands up. "So why don't I go over there! Why don't I walk right up to that little red-haired girl and introduce myself?" He sits back down, wearing a squiggly grimace. "Because I'm stupid!"

You remember lying on the floor of your father's office at the church, reading his Peanuts books - the ones that collected strips from the 60's and 70's. He kept them right up there on his wall of bookshelves, there with the five annotated Bibles and his huge collection of slim, analytical paperbacks. You leaned on your elbows and flipped the pages in the same books again and again, through the baseball sections, the kite sections, the school sections, the story about camp. Charlie Brown turned into a part of your brain. You can't remember if the way he always lost ever got you really upset.

 . . .

 . . . You're on a treadmill, looking out a second-story window. The room sounds like machines, but the noise is dampened - theater people will tell you that every person in an audience sucks up as much sound as an open window would. That and the occasional pant and muffled conversation remind you of the eyes at your back. Out the window, across the street, is a psychics' institute. It advertises aura readings in its windows.

Your instructor's name is Simi. He's standing just behind you, to your left. He is barrel-chested, ethnically tan, and seems to have a permanent pout. He has accidentally scheduled someone else's orientation right in the middle of yours, so he's trying to give you information quickly and coach you at the same time.

"Keep your stomach in. Stomach in. You want to keep your feet wider apart, cause that'll work your legs and your butt. Keep your stomach in. Feet apart, now. You can look at your feet if you need to, to stay steady. You might want to keep your hands on the bar, you know, if you start to lose your balance you can just take the bar for as long as you need it. Stomach in. So, the stuff you're working out here is, you want to keep your stomach tight, that's how you burn calories. You want to keep your feet wide, that's keeping your butt tight. You want to make sure you take nice long strides, so, stomach in. Feet wider. You take longer strides so you get your legs working. So you want to concentrate on your stomach, your butt, your thighs, your calves and your stride. Okay, you can relax a little, you don't need to hunch like that, man. You can let your shoulders go, there. Feet apart. Longer strides. Okay, I gotta run, man, but talk to the guy at the desk and he'll set you up another appointment. You should probly do this Tuesday and Thursday, and, stomach in - and next time you come back to do it you should give yourself another half mile per hour on the speed dial there. Okay, see you round, huh? Remember to watch your stride."

You police yourself.

 . . .

 . . . You are standing in the kitchen, because it's the only public space in the house you share with three other guys, and your room feels too confining. You are opening and closing cupboard doors vacantly when your two younger roommates call to you from the nearest room with a TV. They're watching the Discovery Channel - Crocodile Hunter. You stand in the doorway, never intending to stay long, but soon, fifteen minutes have gone by and three trusting television staffers have nearly been killed.

The next show comes on, and it's a pseudo-news program about new inventions. Your capacity for lingering is being tested, but you linger. All of the products that were profiled were solutions to middle-class non-problems and would soon be on the discount racks at Super K-Mart. The three of you laugh at them.

From the ten minutes of the program that you watched, you can only remember one invention. It was a device that could somehow tell if the wearer was clenching their stomach muscles or not. You plug your Walkman into it, and if you aren't roperly holding your stomach in, it distorts the sound on your Walkman. If you're holding in your stomach the way you're supposed to when you work out, the sound comes through just fine.

Your roommates laugh hysterically. You laugh too. Inside, though, you are thinking a small thought to yourself. Maybe I need one of those.

 . . .

 . . . All of the men in your office are on a diet.

Okay, not all of them. The engineers don't give a shit. But they're invisible anyway. The men that people see, in your office, are the business development and marketing guys, in the cubes up by the front of the room. They're loud. They yell good-naturedly over cubicle walls to each other. The receptionist laughs and jokes with them. They all pitched in to get a service to pick up their shirts and have them pressed, and deliver them back every Wednesday. They drive BMWs.

They talk about Dr. Atkins as if he were an executive they were trying to do a deal with. Someone they want to impress. They go over the finer points of the system, like Talmudic scholars facing a new, recovered scroll. Or maybe it's The Zone that they go on about. Maybe it's the same.

"I mean, the whole thing is designed so that you can do that. You can, the theory is that you can eat a grilled chicken breast on a big old kaiser roll and you'll be fine. It's supposed to -"

"No, but that's not what you were talking about, though."

"Tell you what, I'll check the book tonight. I'll look it up, put in about the right serving sizes and you'll see I'm right."

"You mean the Atkins book? I've got the Atkins book right here, hang on."

One of them has gone for the no-carbs diet entirely. Over a few months he seems to shrink inside his clothes - the flesh on his neck and head thins off but his shirts and jackets stay the same size. At company lunches, you watch him peel and eat the cheese off his pizza with amazement. If he's hurting for it, you can't tell.

Your diet is not insane like this. Your diet is not even as confining as the Weight Watchers deal you tried, and failed at, when you were thirteen. Your diet has as much choice in it as a diet can possibly have. You simply choose to walk into the office kitchen, look over the snacks, the Balance bars and sodas and bags of honey mustard pretzels, choose one to eat - and then stop. Then you negotiate. Unless your mouth pleads really hard, you tell it no. You are a stern judge. You walk away.

 . . .

 . . . You look at yourself in the mirror. You have stomach muscles.

Yeah, they're in there somewhere. You can tighten them, and your shape changes. You don't think you've ever had stomach muscles before, not quite like this.

You suspect that your shape has changed even when you aren't standing there trying - that the way you carry yourself is different now. Do you stand up straighter? Shoulders back? Chest out?

It dawns on you, that you are a big guy. And that as you get in shape, if you get in shape, you will not become meaningfully smaller in the eyes of the world. On the whole, you may become larger. Eventually, the words "barrel-chested" may come into play. Bigger. Not smaller.

Something in you has been looking for that. Something in you has been comparing yourself to the men you see with women, and all the young people you see hanging out with each other, at parties, on the street. While they are all different, they also share an averageness that unites them, and helps open them up to one another. Not too long ago, you would have railed against the thought of being average in any way. You find that harder to do as you get older. Maybe you just don't have the energy. Maybe you're tired of having to hunch over to get closer to whoever's standing around you, just so you can hear what's being said.

Those people are the people you think of, when you think of being in shape. You've been expecting to shrink.

You ask yourself, Am I in control of this process the way I think I am? Is it ridiculous to try and modify the way others see me at all?

If you don't pretend to be anyone, are you?

 . . .

 . . . "So I was thinking, I was going to go to 24 Hour Fitness tonight and I have these free guest passes and maybe you would want to come along with me."

"Um. Heh."


"I um. That's, very kind of you. I'm... not sure."

"(laughs) The last time we talked about this, you wanted me to take you there so you could check it out, because you were being all silly and didn't want to go in yourself. This was your idea!"

"Well, it was weird in there! They were remodeling and they had all this fitness clothing hanging out on racks and it looked all obscene like iridescent lingerie... I don't know. I actually have been in there since. Got the whole tour and the sales pitch."

"Ah ha."

"Yeah. I want to make the switch but I don't have the money to pay another membership fee right now."

"Well would you like to come try it for free then?"

"Um. I was actually going to go to the gym tonight and everything. To my regular one."

"Why don't you come with me, then? Working out together is great for support."


"You're being silly! You're being silly about this again, aren't you."

"I, yeah. I'm being silly. I just kind of have this thing about being seen, by people in there."

"Well, I promise not to LOOK at you then. (laughs)"

"I, heh. No, I... thank you for offering. Some other time."

"You're sure."

"Yeah. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

 . . .

 . . . You're drinking pear cider, both because it's sweeter than beer, and because you have this fantasy that it's less fattening. You're at the Stork Club in Oakland. The ceiling is dark and the walls are painted peach and covered with paper Christmas decor and Barbie accessories. You're watching a band you've never heard of and having a great time, wondering why you don't do this sort of thing more often. You're at the club alone. Sitting to your right, in front of the mirrors against the wall, under the fat, old-style Christmas lights, are two blonde girls facing in towards each other, and talking. One has olive skin, and they're both wearing those black spaghetti-strap tops. The band is between songs and you overhear a chunk of the girls' conversation. It seems like they're talking about a friend of theirs.

"The thing is, though, that - the thing is, he could really look alright."

"Yeah, if he worked at it. Yeah."

They're looking down, at their hands, at their drinks, at the crowd spread out in front of them. There are faint circles under their eyes. "Yeah. Julie was saying the other night about how like, the body you have when you're 30 is the... just... that's it. Like, that's gonna be your body."

You feel blessed all of a sudden, that you're present to hear this information. This information about a stranger. You look away from the girls but you lean a little bit closer, pointing your ear at them ,afraid to miss anything. But whatever they say next, it gets lost in the crowd noise and the band. Now you're looking down, at your drink, at the floor.

You are 25 years old. In your mind you have two poles. One of them is a picture of your ideal self, of who you're trying to be. You're not there yet; you believe that you might be that self, some time in the future. The other pole is what your friends keep telling you: that if you could get out of your own way, you could be that self now. If you hold on to your hope, your longing for the future, you lose that confidence. But if you grab for confidence now, you're giving up hope.

For now, you hold on to both of them, suspending yourself between them like a hammock. You don't feel stretched. It doesn't take any work. You can relax. The band starts to play again. You stop trying to listen to the girls against the wall. You can't hear them anyway. You listen to the music.

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Tales from the Dork Side are copyright 2000 Mike Sugarbaker. Email for permission to redistribute.