Building Muscles

I’ve been going to the gym regularly for at least 30 years. I remember those brand new Nautilus machines that popped up in the health club off the lobby of my apartment building on East 22nd Street. There was that swirling seashell mechanism that hypnotized you while you were doing your leg curl reps: “You will burn off this cellulite, you will burn off this cellulite” it hummed to me and I hummed back. I’d fallen in love with the power of the workout to transform my body, and purge my mind, even if it did little for my soul. I stood across from the mirrors and clamped my butt tight and twitched my hips and marveled at my abdominal obliques sticking out from my formerly chubby belly. I was a Jew with burgeoning 6-pack. Everything, as far as I was concerned, was now possible. There was nothing in the universe I could not make malleable with my determination, my physical prowess and my health club membership. I had muscles.

And if that wasn’t exactly true, if I could not always bend the universe to my bidding, if I could not somehow orchestrate a successful acting career, or make my first marriage work or figure out a way to make more money flow into my life than out, I could always, always mold my body in the gym. I’d do the cardio and this split routine of weights and I could maintain my 130 5’9″ frame and look and feel years younger than the number that was my age. How I felt about myself had a lot to do with the degree to which I could turn heads when I walked into a room.

Until about 3 years ago when I noticed I was old.

And this year when I noticed I was really old. Overnight it seemed that the menopause vampire had sucked all the hormones, energy and short-term memory out of me. (Why did I come into this room? Why are my car keys in the fridge?)

And the workouts didn’t make me feel in control of my body anymore. The exercise became an exercise in futility. No matter what I did in the gym or how I power-walked myself up and down the many bucolic hills in my neighborhood, I could not stop my skin from dissolving into crepe or my ass from looking like 10 lbs of cottage cheese in a 5 lb bag. My weight crept upward and would no longer retreat to lower ground even when I unleashed my Weapon of Mass Destruction: Ground Zero Carbs and Nuclear Cardio. The floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the gym now only reflected my shame and disgust at having somehow allowed myself to be ambushed by aging. I might as well just eat the ice cream and stop working out that hard. And that’s what I did.

Sure, I went through the motions a couple of times a week. Sometimes I skipped a week. I did enough to stave off the aches and pains in my hips and shoulders and to keep the scale from approaching the dreaded number over which I could not tolerate my jeans. But I’d surrendered to inevitable aging.

Then I decided to go to culinary school.

Did you ever watch Top Chef? Iron Chef? Hell’s Kitchen? These are not beauty contests. With the exception of Padma Lakshmi, everyone wears these formless trousers and comfortable shoes. The boxy chef jackets could conceal a 9-month term pregnancy. Sweat pours out from underneath schmattes tied across the contestants furrowed brows. There are no big mirrors. There may be egos, but in the end it’s all about what ends up on the plate. How I looked was not going to matter. What I would need to be successful in the field was skills, determination, creativity, passion, and stamina. I had the emotional/spiritual component, without a doubt. The skills I would get at French Culinary Institute.

But the stamina and strength? I suddenly had my “raison d’etre” for going back to the gym with a vengeance. My efforts at the gym would never give me back my 70’s disco-ready silhouette but I could use the dumbbells to keep my wrists strong for that cool way those chefs flipped the ingredients in the steaming saute pans. I could maintain my ridiculously low resting heart-rate and blood pressure in order to navigate the high pressure of the kitchen with grace. The shoulder presses would give me the muscle I needed for that rapid-fire chopping (maybe not that rapid…) and the roast pan lifting. The core exercises and the cardio would give me the stamina I’d need for what might be long days on my feet.

I could stay strong. I could feel powerful. I could stop saying “Oy” everytime I bent over as if I was my 86-year-old mother.

I was planning on culinary school giving me the lessons I need for a new career. But even before my first day of school I’m seeing how it’s giving me some new lessons for living my life.

Let go of the superficial. It can only take you so far. Focus on inner strength. Be the best, strongest, most graceful you can be at any age. When I told my close friends and family about my decision to go to culinary school, I got an outpouring of bravos and support, but it was an email reply from my brother, six years my senior that meant the most to me. He’s a seasoned freelance camera jockey working in professional sports in Florida, still holding his own in a field populated with the impossibly young. He wrote:

“Who has bigger balls than you???? I admire what you are doing! NEVER SURRENDER!!!!

While there might need to be slight shifts in focus along the way, I don’t believe I ever will.

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