Library Book of the Moment: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I love talking to people about the books I'm reading, but, to be perfectly honest, I don't tend to read them in a timely-enough fashion to do traditional reviews of upcoming or recent books. Case in point: My latest read came out in 2015. It's won enough awards you've probably heard of it or read about it yourself.

I first heard about A Little Life from one of my old coworkers' clients. I'm generally skeptical of book recommendations, even though I give them out readily to anyone who is or isn't listening. Book taste can be highly personal, so I always wonder if someone tells you to read a book without knowing what you typically like.

I ended up picking the book up after seeing it on a few book lists. The premise sounded like something I usually like: following a group of friends from young adulthood on, watching their lives unfold and the drama that ensues. It's a narrative that I inevitably glom onto happily– I loved The Emperor's Children by Clair Messud, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and Elana Ferrante's Neopolitan series. I picked up A Little Life expecting more of the same.

Guys, this book made me bawl. Even on the plane I took back to Boston today– the guy sitting next to me gave me this knowing smile as we exited our seats, and I realized I probably looked like I was reading the book to cover up the fact that I was crying due to some personal tragedy. No, stranger: my imaginary friends made me this sad. I don't think I've felt this way from a book since I was a teenager reading one of those YA novels about kids dying of cancer that were so popular back in the 90s.

Many of the basic descriptions of the book, like the ones you find on Amazon or at the beginning of a book review, seem to skirt around the trauma of it. The bookflap itself says,

A Little Life follows four college classmates– broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition– as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged with addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma. A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanna Yanagihara's stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.

First, and not to give too many spoilers here, I think part of the descriptive problem here is that it says Jude had
an unspeakable childhood trauma– which, I suppose is true, if you just want to call sixteen years of abuse at the hands of many, many people one singular event. And while I understand why the book's description wouldn't want to emphasize his history of abuse too much, in order to not make it sound too much like a Lifetime Original Movie, the book really seems to be about how a person has a "normal" life after experience so much abuse in their formative years. In fact, the first couple hundred of pages don't actually give much detail about Jude's history; the book focuses entirely on his friendships.

As I read it, I went back and forth, wondering if it was too sensationalistic when the narrative delved into Jude's past– plenty of folks have called it "trauma porn" since it's publication, and the sheer number of truly terrible things that happen to one person is questionable. But, ultimately, I think those scenes made the majority of the story, about his relationships with his friends– what he shares with them and how that affects their relationships– more impactful. The draw came not from "witnessing" the traumatic events, but from the rich internalization that we get to see from all the characters. The scene I found myself crying over were not the flashbacks to Jude's past, but the ones involving his present-day relationships.

I imagine I'll have a few friends who would absolutely hate this novel, and quite a few who would love it. I'm interested to hear what other folks have thought about it. Have any of you read it? Is it just "trauma porn," or does it deserve all the accolades it's received thus far?

Are Women-Only Gyms Sexist?

One of the stories that circulates through LadyGym was about the time they got sued for sex discrimination– and lost.

Back in 1996, a 52-year-old male attorney tried to join the newest LadyGym location. The facility cost $3 million to set up, filling 34,000 square feet of space over three floors, and included state-of-the-art equipment, a full-service spa, and expertly-trained staff. He argued that it was across the street from his apartment; why shouldn’t he want to work out there? Yes, there were other posh gyms in the area, but he wanted to belong to this one.

(Part of me has always wondered what kind of  d-bag would single out a women-only gym. It turns out he had practiced in New York before, and was known for filing complaints against bars that offered “ladies’ nights.” But, apparently, he also helped public school teachers in New York receive disability coverage when out on maternity leave back in the 1970s and 80s. So perhaps the case against women-only gyms is as simple as what he and others have stated: anti-discrimination means everybody gets the same access.)

So he started legal proceedings, which wound their way through the courts. At first glance, the reasoning seems sound: Obviously, if it was discrimination to keep women from men’s golf and racquet clubs of yore, then the same logic held true for keeping a man out of an all-women gym. Foster would not be the first or the last with this argument: prior to his lawsuit, California had ruled that gyms couldn’t have women-only rooms. Similar cases occurred outside the US as well– in Vancouver in 2004, with another women-only facility, and in 2013 in London, when a man sued a gym for having women-only hours. Even the Massachusetts chapter of National Organization of Women took the side of the plaintiff against LadyGym; the president at the time stated, “If you want equal rights, then you want them for everybody — not just when it benefits you.

In such terms, what right does LadyGym or another women-only facility have the right to stay open? The judge ruled that LadyGym presented a case for privacy against a case for discrimination— and that unless women were walking around with “intimate body parts” exposed or that men were touching their body without permission, there wasn’t really a reason to override the public accommodations statute. “While the Court recognizes the impact that the admission of men into the club may have on these women, intimidation and the assumption that all male Healthworks members will harass and leer at their exercise compatriots is still an insufficient ground on which to create a privacy exception.”

Obviously, LadyGym still exists as a gym only for ladies. What happened?

As Sarah (not her real name), the woman in charge of staff education within the company, tells it, they sent out a letter to all of the members, informing the changes that lay ahead as they added new locker rooms and modified the facility further for co-ed use.

LadyGym received bags upon bags of mail from their members, covering the table in the corporate office’s conference room. The staff separated the letters into piles: those who said they were going to continue their memberships, and those who would cancel. “The majority of members said they would continue with us through the transition, but—” her voice lilts as she reaches the climactic moment of the company mythos, “that had Healthworks been coed when they were first looking for a gym membership, they wouldn’t have signed up for their memberships to begin with.”

Thus, LadyGym and its members petitioned for an amendment to the state’s public accommodations bill. Because so many women expressed that they would not start a membership at a gym if it were co-ed, the necessity of single-sex facilities was a matter of public health. The State House passed the bill. LadyGym remained women-only and flourished.

Ultimately, I agree with this decision. It reminds me of this cartoon:

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The story with the drawing goes like this: You have a classroom of students. They are told that they’ll receive extra credit if they throw a ball of paper from their desk to a trash basket at the front of the room. Students at the front of the room will have an easier time achieving this goal, though, because of their position. Yes, the students are all given the same instructions, and nobody is given, say, more balls to throw than the other kids, but it’s still not a fair situation.

In other words, anti-discrimination laws can’t assume that everybody starts from the same place. For women in fitness, that means considering women who went to school before the implementation of Title IX, and, thus, didn’t have the access to sports that their male peers did. It means considering that equipment designed for the average male, height 5’10”, will not be the proper proportions for the average female, height 5’4″. It means considering that women are five times as likely as men to be victims of violence via intimate partners (and that 99% of these incidents involved male partners).

I am whole-heartedly a fan of women-only facilities. Still, I wonder, besides keeping men out of women-only gym, is it even possible to make a generalized statement about the factors that differentiate catering to women as opposed to catering to men?

I don’t want to.

I knew it would happen. In fact, I kind of looked forward to it. I thought: When I leave training, I won’t have to worry about my workouts anymore. I wouldn’t have to stress about if I got enough cardio in, if I strength trained enough. If my workouts were the right kind: timing and sets and reps perfectly orchestrated. This was my job. I had to walk the walk.

But now, a new panic has set in.  It’s so easy to just not do anything, to continue to sit on my couch reading or clean the kitchen instead of go for a run or– ugh– go to the gym. The thought of getting on a treadmill makes my soul shrivel. I can make myself do a couple sets of squats or pushups, and my brain goes, “Okay. That’s enough. No more.”

Guys, I used to love working out.

I try to soothe myself. Something similar happened when I finished grad school: I didn’t read for three or four months after graduating– and I honestly don’t remember how long I went without writing. After reading a thousand-plus pages each week, spending hours upon hours in front of the computer screen, neither sounded appealing.  What did sound appealing?  Working out. I lifted five days a week, ran thirty miles, swam two or three hours. Moving my body let my mind rest.

But I don’t feel as though my body is in need of physical rest, per se.  Mostly, I just don’t want to have to care anymore. I want to spend a day on the couch without the voice in the back of my head nagging me for being so lazy, reminding me how my inactivity will surely snowball. It tells me how I’ll no longer fit into any of my clothes, how I’ll lose my ability to run a mile, how I’ll no longer be the person who can carry the heavy boxes during moves.

Logically, I know this period is not forever. I’ll figure out what I like to do, get in a rhythm of it.

For as long as I can remember, though, I have thought about exercise in terms of what should be done: 150 minutes per week of moderately intense cardiovascular exercise per week (or three days of 20 minutes of vigorous exercise), strength training two or more days per week, 10,000 steps per day. The more science (or pseudo-science) taught us about how to quantify health, the more I’ve tried to at least be mindful of those numbers.  And why not? It’s a simple yes/no question: did I or did I not achieve the goal? If not, what do I need to change?

Yet, I wonder, if we spend too much time quantifying fitness, as though if we hit all the right numbers, we will become entirely free of risk.  Can we live long, healthy lives, circumventing cancer, accidents, sadness? Of course not. At some point, there are diminishing returns on all the analysis.

And, besides that, how many goals can a person actually set for themselves, feasibly? Even if you have infinite time, how much willpower is there? One question I’ve asked myself recently is if I should have flipped my priorities these past few years, carving away time in my schedule for writing as much as I did for exercise, where would I be? Note that I don’t mean a better or worse place, but perhaps fitness did cause me to lose sight of writing, to deprioritize it.

As a trainer, you say, “Exercise will give you energy for your other endeavors!” Which is true, yes. But some endeavors do become all-encompassing– you have a conference or a book proposal due or it’s tech week for your play. There’s a beauty to that level of commitment– it’s that hard work that pays off. And on the one hand, I like that idea, of having something new and different take my focus, but, at the same time, I’m afraid of letting go of this commitment to exercise I’ve had for so long.

Is it either/or? Or is there some sort of compromise?

How I ended up there

I didn’t mean to work at a women-only gym.  I decided to apply for a job selling membership at the coed gym I belonged to during grad school because, after graduating, I didn’t really think there was a good place for me in the publishing industry. The literary journal where I worked didn’t have the funding for non-student employees, and the thought of working at a textbook company made me cringe.

So I had to decide what I wanted to do to pay the bills while I built up my writing career. In total honesty, I had a crush on a trainer at my gym and did, partly, hope that a job there would lead to friendship with her and, you know, eventually causing her to upend her long-term relationship to be with me, the awkward chick with the boy’s haircut.  Not the best logic for making career decisions; thankfully, I didn’t get a job there.

I liked the idea of working  at a gym, though. I cared about fitness, my workouts a grounding force throughout grad school. And a gym job would keep me on my feet during the day, more so than any office job; call it ADHD or whatever you want, but I hated sitting still and wanted to find a position that offered some level of physicality. Finally, I figured out if I spent my days walking around, talking to people, I’d be more willing to hunker down at my computer to write my Great American Chick Lit Novel during my off hours.

So I sent my resume to a half dozen gyms in the area, including LadyGym.  Friends of mine from grad school raved about it: about the eucalyptus steam room and hot tub, about the comforting all-woman environment. A friend with chronic pain in her neck and jaw found relief from meeting with a LadyGym trainer to strengthen her upper back. Another friend, with cerebral palsy, told me how working with a pilates instructor at LadyGym had helped soothe the spasms in her hips and legs. And so on.  I liked the idea of working at a place that made fitness about more than just getting thinner or looking a certain way; I liked that they made fitness accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily fit in at other gyms. At that point in my life, I had gotten used to not fitting into places– but we can talk about that later.

I was gung-ho about working at LadyGym, stoked when they called me about an interview. The moment the MBTA B-Line dropped me off in front of the building, though, I had second thoughts.  I realized I’d actually stepped into the gym once before, while distributing flyers for the vitamin store where I worked; I’d been dripping with sweat from the July day, my white shirt sticking to my back, essentially see-through.  I’d walked inside, expecting a cafe (they had a chalkboard sign with specials outside because a registered-dietician-approved restaurant was one of many luxuries offered by LadyGym), and instead found a soothingly-lit reception area with a marble-esque desk, cushy, overstuffed chairs, top-of-the line computers, and orchids. Orchids, guys.

(If there is one way I can definitively describe myself in grad school and the time directly following, it can be as “not an orchid type of gal.” Basil, perhaps? Actually, that’s not even true. For instance, in grad school, I lived with my friends Liz and Mike. Liz has always loved the idea of growing things, be it flowers, herbs, or fruits. At the time, Liz was still… at the bottom of her learning curve? She had a lovely green thing, possibly basil, sitting on our kitchen window. Mike went on vacation for two weeks, and pulled me aside right before leaving: “I’ve been watering Liz’s plant for her. She thinks she’s keeping it alive herself. I need you to keep taking care of them while I’m gone.” He came home to find the plant knocked over, dry dirt on the floor. “You had one job,” he told me, shaking his head. Since then, Liz has greatly improved in her gardening abilities. I have not.)

So I came for my interview, and I found myself standing in front of this monstrosity of a building, wondering if they would realize what an imposter I was. Even though I’d taken the supposedly air-conditioned train to my interview, my shirt still clung to my back with sweat, my hair frizzed in a halo, and make-up dripped down my face. The appropriate term, I think, is “hot mess.”

The club was exactly as I remembered it. As the sales manager guided me through, I ticked off in my mind all the reasons I couldn’t work here. Most obviously, it was too girly, with its purple upholstery on all the benches and machines, the gem-toned swiss balls and elastic bands, the charming films about girl power playing in the “cardio theater.” More importantly, there wasn’t a squat rack, which, for me, a powerlifter, was the center of every one of my workouts; instead, they had a Smith machine, which is like a dumbed-down squat rack, where the bar is on tracks so you’re less likely to hurt yourself, but you also have to stand at a bizarre angle to produce anything vaguely resembling a squat. The dumbbells stopped at 50 pounds, even though I could press far more with one arm. The lone bench press (a bizarre choice for the single piece of “real” equipment, in my opinion) came up midway on my shin, instead of my knee, like most benches. There was a steam room and a sauna and a hot tub, which just seemed like a waste of money and space, because weren’t we here to work out? There was only one male employee, gay, singing show tunes at the top of his lungs (because that was the type of man women could feel safe around? I wondered). And there was an entire studio dedicated to Pilates, the seemingly most pointless exercise routine I’d ever heard of, designed for the woman afraid of the bulking created by regular strength training.

Twenty-five-year-old Kat was appalled by what she saw. Everything seemed so catered to this specific idea of femininity– this idea of femininity I had never, could never achieve. We finished my interview, and I assumed the woman I interviewed with realized what a terrible fit I was for their gym. I’d have to figure something else out– maybe get a job at Starbucks, or give into the wonderful world of textbook publishing.

But, it turned out, they liked me enough to call me in again.  The second interview, with the General Manager, went better– perhaps it was getting introduced to the first member, a woman in her eighties with giant glasses and a red-and-white striped shirt. Or maybe it was just that I could tell this woman really cared about getting women into fitness, creating an environment that felt friendly and familiar to them.

When they offered me the job, I took it. I figured if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to be there for long.  I figured maybe I could help them change for the better.  I never considered that I’d stay there for nearly eight years, or that it would help me change.

The Linebackers Club: Chapter 1

football cat

The Linebackers Club.  I’m proud to say that it was totally my idea, even though my friends Molly Ringman, Lane Eto, and Stevie McQueen worked it out with me.

I got the idea the first Wednesday of ninth grade. I’d finally made it to gym, my favorite class– except now I only had it three days a week, because, I don’t know, teenagers don’t need exercise anymore? My mother swore I was talking more at dinner the first night of school because of all my pent-up energy.  I just thought I had a lot to say, because, you know, starting high school and all. No biggie.

(Okay, so I may have jumped onto the couch a bit too hard when we started watching Jeopardy after dinner. The spring broke, but is that really my fault? We’ve had the couch for my entire life. But nooooo. Mom doesn’t consider that maybe the thing might be on its last legs, just a bundle of rust inside.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Katie. Really. You make me think I have a teenage son.” Which is ridiculous, because, A) She has two teenage sons and B)Why are boys the only one who get to roughhouse? Sigh.)

So we changed out for gym class, and I was ready to get moving around. I was secretly hoping for dodgeball– I wanted to take Josh Baker out, after some unfinished business the final week of eighth grade– but I could be happy with a game of soccer or field hockey. But when we lined up in front of the bleachers, Coach Stein stopped in front of us and yelled out, “Girls over there. Boys over there,” and pointed at either end of the gym.  I noticed that some other gym teacher, a woman, stood at the end where he directed the girls, surrounded by a bunch of Junior and Senior girls, all in fashionable leggings with matching tank tops, sneakers, and hair ties.

Gag me with a spoon.

We wandered in the direction, and the new teacher waved.  Unlike her students, she was wearing shorts, and her calves were so sharp you could cut a diamond on them. Her biceps were like glorious, tan softballs. I was willing to suspend my concern for the separation from the boys, but the upperclassgirls (I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous to call them upperclassmen if they’re not men, right?) all gave us the side-eye, as though to say, “What are these dorks doing here?” I was pretty sure I saw one sigh and mutter something to her friend, hiding her mouth with a manicured hand.  There were maybe ten of them and fifteen of us.

The teacher clapped her hands. “Hey! Let’s quiet down for a moment.  Coach Stein’s girls, we’re having you join the Flexibility and Toning class today so the boys can play football.”

I raised my hand. “What if we want to play football?”

Somebody laughed. I looked over, and it was the same girl who was whispering to her friend before. She had so much lip gloss on it looked like her lips were made of resin, and I wasn’t sure her eyelashes were even real, they were so long and dark. I guessed she wasn’t planning to sweat. I mean, I liked lip gloss as much as the next girl, but who puts on make-up right before gym class? Seems like a recipe for skin disaster.

“Well, unfortunately, there aren’t enough girls to make two teams.”

“Why can’t we just play with the boys? Aren’t there like thirty of us in our class? You only need eleven per team. That’s more than enough, even if some people want to–” I paused. What the heck were we doing anyway? “Tone.”

“Well,” the teacher trailed off. “That wouldn’t be very fair.”

“Why?” I asked. But she just clapped her hands together again, and instructed us to grab beat-up blue mats and jewel-toned weights from the equipment closet.  I sighed and watched the boys tramp out the doors at the opposite end of the building. Sun sparkled through the crack of the door, and then it was quashed out, leaving us in the glaring fluorescent lights. There weren’t even windows.

The period passed slowly, and I guess my arms felt something after all the curls and kicking back and raising, but, frankly, it was kind of boring.  At some point, the teacher said, “Feel the burn, ladies!” and I was pretty sure I had been dropped into one of the exercise videos my mom had from the 80s, except there wasn’t any music, just the buzz, buzz, buzz of the lights overhead.

Finally, the bell rang after we complete the last of something like one thousand crunches, and I ran into the locker room, grabbed my backpack, and bolted.  I found Molly Ringman waiting for me outside the door to the locker room.

Molly is my best friend. We live next door to each other. We even look a little alike– we’re both short with shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes and freckles. That’s pretty much it, though. I’m a bit of a “firecracker,” according to my mother, and Molly is, well, generally polite.  She doesn’t talk much, but those of us who know her really well, like Lane and Stevie and me, get to see the inside of her, which is pretty fun.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” she replied.  “What’s wrong?” The bonus of Molly being super quiet is she usually can tell what I’m thinking or feeling before I do.

I shrugged. “I’m just annoyed. The boys got to play football in gym class, but the girls just had to do stupid arm exercises and squats and crunches.”

Molly frowned. “Yeah, that happened with us, too. I wish we’d gotten a choice.”

“Really?” Molly was many things, but sporty is not one of them. Like, I wasn’t sure she knew the rules of football. Or could pick a football out of a lineup of various sports equipment.  Or knew our state’s team.

“I mean, isn’t that the point of gym? To learn how to play sports? And even if I’m no good, at least the fact that there’s a game is distracting. It’s way better than counting.”

“Oh my gosh. I know. I think I’m going to be counting to fifteen in my sleep.”

Molly gave a tiny smile.  “Well, hopefully it’s not what happens all semester. I mean, when am I going to learn how to throw a football?”

“I can show you,” I said.

“Oh, well.” She pursed her lips.  See? I said she wasn’t really into sports. She was probably just trying to make me feel better.

“Come on,” I pleaded. “I feel like I haven’t done anything all day. My legs hurt from sitting so much. Do your legs do that? It’s like they’re aching all the way from the back of my knees up.”

“Um. Shouldn’t you see a doctor about that?”

I bounced up and down, and grabbed her arm. “Come on! It’ll be fun. You can’t have that much homework yet. It’s the first week of schooooooooool.”  I swung my arm back and forth and her smile grew broader.

“Okay, fine. Let me go call my dad and tell him I’ll be at your place.” Molly’s dad was pretty strict.  Her mom died when she was really little, and she doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. She has to tell him where she is all the time. She can’t even ride her bike anywhere there isn’t a sidewalk. It’s a little annoying sometimes, but whenever I complain, my mom just points out that Molly’s all Mr. Ringman has, and vice versa.  Apparently we don’t count, even if we’ve been their friends pretty much since Molly and I were born.

She added, “I’ll meet you in… fifteen minutes?”

“Fantastic!” I exclaimed and practically skipped home.

Have I mentioned I really hate sitting still for seven hours a day? Miserable. Just miserable.

I rummaged through the boxes in the garage where all our family’s sports equipment lived. I have three brothers, two older and one younger, and I’ve belonged to pretty much every sports team possible, so you can guess we have a lot of equipment lying around. The only catch is that a lot of it is broken or not inflated properly or just not where it should be.

Thankfully, I found a regulation football that seemed to be totally inflated (unlike Mr. Tom Brady’s, am I right?) (Molly wouldn’t get that joke, either), and headed out to our front yard. Molly was just exiting her house.

“Here!” I yelled and lobbed the football at her.  She shrieked and jumped to the side. “Oh. My. Gosh. Please do not do that again. You must at least try to catch the ball when I throw it to you.”

“Sorry!” she exclaimed. “Sorry, sorry.”

“Now you throw it to me.”

She picked it up off the ground, holding it slightly away from herself like a grenade that she didn’t want to detonate.  She pulled one hand back, and tossed it at me, underhand.  The tips of the ball wobbled around, more gyroscope than spiral.  It flopped on the ground three feet in front of me. “That’s a start,” I said, trying to stifle a laugh. “It went through the air.”

“I told you I didn’t know what to do.”

“It’s good. It’s good. You’ll be a quarterback in no time.” I held up the ball, my fingers in between the laces.  “The first step is you hold it like this, and then you step back with one foot, so your legs are hip width apart.” I stepped back. “Then throw it overhand–” I lifted the ball up to my shoulder and tossed it in her direction. She held her arms out this time and caught the ball, only flinching a little this time.

We kept throwing the ball back and forth for a while, until our friend Lane, who lived across the street from us and we’d known as long as each other, got home from art class. She didn’t even bother to put her stuff away, just trotted across the street.

“Whatcha guys doing?” she asked.

“Just throwing the old pigskin around. Want to join?” I thought she would say no. We’d been friends as long as Molly and I had been, but over the last year, things had changed. She’d always cared more about clothes and make-up and stuff– part of being an artist, I guess– but she was also way more into boys and dating, and, frankly, had gotten a lot more popular than Molly and me.

“Awesome!” she said. She dropped her bag– a huge, silver hobo that was almost reflective as a mirror– by the mailbox. Her high top sneakers matched the bag, as did her belt and headband, which held her silky black hair in place.  She wore a rather modest black tunic shirt, but her leggings had a robot tyrannosaurus rex on one leg and a unicorn, exploding with rainbows, on the other.

When I threw the ball at her, she caught it with ease. She threw it back in a graceful arc.  “Where’d you learn to do that?” I exclaimed.

“I’m a woman of mystery,” she replied, one corner of her mouth turning up. “So you were bummed we couldn’t play football today, either?”

Until then, I honestly would have though Lane only wanted to play football to be with the boys. I was glad, though, to get more time to hang out with her when it seemed like we were just drifting further and further apart.  “Let’s see how you run, Eto,” I yelled, then tossed the ball a few feet to her side.

She leapt and grabbed it from the air. “Think fast!” she yelled, and winged it back.

We kept throwing the football around, back and forth like that, until our parents pulled up in our respective driveways, done with work. “That was fun,” Lane said.  “Maybe the coaches will let us play with the boys sometime.” Then she rolled her eyes.

“I know, right?” I replied. Then I got my fabulous idea.

That was the moment the Linebackers Club was born.

Fin.

After nearly eight years in the fitness industry, I had my last day on Wednesday. I’d been itching to leave for a while now, not sure where to turn next– did I want to continue on the health path or return to my roots in writing and editing? In the end, I realized that there are only so many hours in the day, and pursuing more school and a new career would take away from time spent writing, particularly after getting married and starting a family. So: goodbye fitness.

(Which, for the record, is why I failed to post last week– the fast turn around of accepting a new job and leaving my old one meant lots of time on the phone with clients and none in front of WordPress).

I don’t know what changed in me over the years, exactly. I could say I stopped caring about fitness, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. More precisely, I think I realized I don’t care about fitness to the degree, or in the same manner, that other fitness professionals do. 

Fitpros will often say, “It’s not a lack of time, it’s a lack of priorities,” when people don’t put fitness first, but I find that line of logic problematic. Okay, yes, you need to remain active to live longer, but humans lived thousands of years without gyms or personal trainers. While I think it’s totally valid for a person to work with a trainer because they know they won’t be active otherwise– we aren’t hunter and gatherers anymore, or even farmfolk– I think it’s disingenuous for the fitness industry to push individuals towards gym-centric fitness only.  

Except gyms are businesses, and to stay open, they need to make money. And to make money, you have to sell. And to sell, you have to convince your customer that your product is better than the competitor’s. The competitor, then, is not just the club down the street, but also the adult ballet classes, the local roller derby league, the park, the sidewalk, etc. Every gym I’ve seen pays its trainers entirely by commission, so for trainers to pay their bills, they have to convince their clients that working with a trainer IS THE BEST POSSIBLE way to workout. 

Yes, in some cases, it definitely is. Heck, even if it’s not the best, it’s a good one. At the same time, I don’t think you can say that working with a trainer is the best possible option, bar none, if you honestly want to improve the overall fitness level within a community.  To improve health and wellness on a larger scale, you have to acknowledge that there are people who don’t have the money to pay for a gym membership, or don’t feel comfortable in the gym, or don’t enjoy the gym, or just have things they want to do more than the gym. These comments, of course, usually spurn the “priorities” comment, but guess what, folks? People have different priorities, whether it’s because they want to or have to. It’s hard to convince people of making change if you’re not willing to at least somewhat acknowledge and respect their priorities.

In a gym setting, I think that means being willing to acknowledge that personal training is not always the best option for someone’s life. They may need to take more walks during the day, or join a class with their best friend, or learn a basic routine that they can do on their own.  I think it also means acknowledging that some people will need to find ways to improve their health without stepping into a gym– maybe they’ll go for a bike ride with their kids or take a yoga class at work. Something is better than nothing.  A routine that a person isn’t going to be able to maintain long term isn’t going to affect their health long term. Fitpros have to acknowledge a person’s priorities to help them find a routine that they can continue.

Thus, I think personal training and it’s commission-based nature actually ends up working against helping people get healthier a lot of the time, because fitpros have to encourage one specific path to wellness because that path is what’s best for the fitpro. (And I don’t mean this in a personal-trainers-are-trying-to-get-rich-off-their-clients kind of way. I mean it in a personal-trainers-are-trying-to-have-enough-money-for-more-than-bread-and-peanut-butter-meals kind of way.) Frequently, we tell clients that you can’t help others until you’ve helped yourself– making yourself healthier will allow you to have more energy for the other aspects of your life.  The same holds true for personal trainers, though; how can a fitpro really help others if they’re wondering if they have enough time and money to take care of themselves? I will say LadyGym made it easier to live comfortably without pushing training on every person you met, but I still doubt a commission-based structure is really best for developing a staff meant to improve the health of gym-goers. Of course, I don’t understand the financial of business ownership to discuss other methods of compensation that would better serve the customer (and employee) while keeping the company afloat.

I suppose, really, the point of my post comes down to this: the fitness industry seems to have mixed priorities that I can’t abide by any longer. Or, perhaps, after watching a corporate gym in a “growth” stage I wonder how much gyms can really do beyond what they’re currently doing. Yes, many people are being helped (although they are because they have the means to pay for that help). At the same time, it’s felt like the thing that made me want to work in fitness– helping others get healthier and become more comfortable with the gym– isn’t really the top priority for most gyms.

Differences between women-only and coed gyms: an incomplete list

A few months ago, my ladyfriend (aka Dr. Fiance) and I moved from Boston to Cleveland, for a variety of reasons that seemed very adult and responsible at the time: primarily, she wanted to return to academia after working in pharmaceuticals for six months, and a postdoc salary goes much farther in the midwest than the money pit that is the east coast. Plus, Cleveland offered the possibility of one day being able to afford a house, and her family lives nearby, etc.

Of course, the move from Boston meant that I had to leave the fancy women’s gym I’ve called home since I started in the fitness industry back in 2009 (Let’s just refer to it as the Lady Gym). While I exercised exclusively at coed gyms prior to working at the Lady Gym, and, honestly, found the concept of a women-only gym kind of silly, I stumbled into love with my old gym. We had the ups and downs of many a relationship (including a near break up six months in), but we stuck it out, and I was sad to leave.

Enter my current place of employment, the co-ed gym a friend referred me to upon arriving to Cleveland (let’s call it the Man Gym, because, well, there are a lot of them here.) At face value, it’s still a lot like my old gym: still a fancy eucalyptus steam room and sauna and bath towels that don’t really cover anything, still the rows of cardio equipment and the shiny weight machines and Swiss balls and what have you. Nevertheless, I’m undergoing a bit of culture shock.

So, in case you’re wondering, fair readers, here are the differences I’ve noticed thus far:

  • So few women go into the free weight area. I got lulled into this sense that women understand the importance of strength training at Lady Gym, because folks were often waiting for a squat rack or bench. During peak hours, every inch of the workout floor was filled with women lunging, pressing, and rowing. Here, they’ll make up MAYBE a fifth of the population on the weight floor– and frequently, there aren’t any.That said, when I see women lift here, there are more lifting super heavy weights (we’re talking more than their bodyweight) or performing Olympic lifts– and not just youngins. I’ve witnessed women in the 50+ crowd snatching like pros, which is pretty cool.
  • Man Gym is significantly louder, between the grunting, the music, the dropping of weights (even ones that don’t technically merit dropping,) and, of course, the occasional yelling.  Granted, Lady Gym was above a restaurant and bank, so we had to remain mindful of our neighbors, but I don’t think neighborliness was the variable of most consequence.
  • NOBODY PICKS UP AFTER THEMSELVES. Yes, I did spend a fair amount of time collecting mats and weights at the Lady Gym, but nothing compares to the Man Gym. Like, seriously, why did you leave that 45 pound weight plate on the ground next to the rack? IT IS LEANING ON THE PEG WHERE IT SHOULD BE PLACED. YOU HAVE TO LIFT IT TWO INCHES. TWO. INCHES. I burn more calories cleaning up after other people’s workouts than performing my own.
  • Don’t get me started about the sweaty towels everywhere. See above.
  • People stare at themselves in the mirror a lot more. Not watching yourself for form kind of staring, either. No, this is that good-ol-fashioned bicep flexing, lifting your shirt to look at your abs kind of staring. Lady Gym harbored its fair share of exercisers checking themselves out, but there wasn’t as much clothes being partially removed.
  • On that note, I can happily say no naked people have yelled at me about problems like whirlpool temperature or lack of space in the locker room or whatever the complaint of the week was. I enjoy having fewer naked people yell at me.  I try to minimize its occurrence in my life, in fact.
  • There are some pretty cute husband/wife and boyfriend/girlfriend workout pairs.  There’s a couple in their eighties who just make my heart warm every time I see them on the treadmills or doing lat pulldowns together.
  • The soap in the shower smells like… soap. Not green tea and lemongrass. And no lotion! No cotton balls or q-tips! My skin will never be the same (unless I make the effort to buy my own skincare products, like normal people. Sigh.)
  • Less colorful weights. I mean, the dumbbells are, for the most part, the same shades of black at both places, but other items, like swiss balls and kettlebells, were color coded at Lady Gym. For the longest time, I thought the idea of colorful weights was just a sexist stereotype– women need their weights to be pretty, ha ha ha. But, let me tell you, it is incredibly helpful to know that red = 16 kilo rather than looking through a series of completely unorganized iron weights (see previous note about cleanliness), trying to differentiate between two of similar size and with only one tiny distinguishing mark carved into the side of the weight. Also, as a person who specializes in corrective exercise and working with people with injuries, sometimes those tiny pink one-pound weights serve a purpose!
  • No free tampons in the bathrooms (Guys, this is devastating. And don’t talk to me about those reusable menstrual cups and saving seagulls from choking.)(At this point, my mother is probably wondering what went wrong that I can’t, as a grown woman, manage to buy any basic self-care products on my own.)(Also, she may also be concerned that I’m talking about menstruation on a public venue.)
  • I hear about men’s, uh, “boy parts” roughly 80x more than I ever did before. I mean, technically an infinite times more; I don’t remember much discussion of boy parts ever at Lady Gym. (Granted, this may have been because my coworkers at Lady Gym knew my sexual orientation and figured I probably didn’t want to discuss male genitalia. Also: I’m kind of a prude.) Here, however, one of my coworkers asked me and another guy to watch his smoothie while he went somewhere. “No problem. I’ll just stick my dick in it,” said the other guy. Much laughter. Really. Really?! HOW IS THAT THE FIRST THING THEY THINK OF?!