Years ago in Los Angeles, I thought it would be fun to pump some iron at Muscle Beach. This was back when yoga was for freaks and men aspired to look normal, like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I thought it might be one of those amazing things I could tell the grandkids about.
It sounded like a really good idea I had hatched, and my wife encouraged me. I can’t recall what I must have been doing to drive her to the brink of needing to get me out of her hair for a while. Obviously, she was not thinking about my safety, not even after we arrived and got a look at the gaggle of glistening gladiators battling dumbbells inside the cage surrounding the open-air gym, clad in nothing but Speedo bathing suits.
“Have a great time,” she said as she snapped a picture of the dumbest bell of all before herding our perplexed children down to the seashore to build sandcastles. “Daddy looks scared,” one said, or at least I hope they did.
Back in the hotel I felt bold hamming it up in front of a full-length mirror in my boarder shorts, flexing stringy muscles whittled down from natural size by years of endurance runs and bike rides designed to wear bodies out quickly, and which deliver on that promise with the added effect of making you look twice as old as you are.
The fun and games where clearly over as the gargantuan hand attached to an oak branch of a forearm reached out from the booth and took my $5 entry fee. He had my money. Whatever embarrassment I would find at the bench press, I deserved.
My first impression was that nobody was here to have fun. Weightlifting was not about cranking the music and socializing with the regulars like it was in the pretend world from which I came. I was surrounded by serious faces grunting and groaning. There was no shame in straining so hard that gas was expelled as an exclamation point at the end of a hard set. The men were just as bad.
And then a funny thing happened on my way to the curling bar. It seemed people were suddenly courteous. Some said things like, “Hi.” A few neck-less lifters gave me pointers and huffed encouraging words. It seemed the regulars liked me, but why?
I deduced it was because I was weak. I was the wimp that they dreamed would show up to the gym someday. I was tiny but tried hard. I was visibly in awe of their physical strength. Standing next to me they became the Adonis they aspired to be. In short, I was the perspective they needed to realize all their hard work was paying the dividends they strove for. Just by being me, I made them feel good about themselves.
Afterward, I felt great, and it wasn’t just the endorphin high you get lifting pieces of solid steel up and down until you can’t anymore. I thought I had made a discovery about human nature and, with it, forged the golden key to making friends everywhere.
Pondering this on the beach afterward, my formula for universal acceptance fell flat in the foam of a wave petered out in a patch of kelp. If I had gone surfing with the locals, just paddling out humbly and surfing pathetically, things would not have turned out so harmoniously as at Muscle Beach. There would have been a moment of dirty looks before words sharper than honed sticks and harder than reef stones would be hurled my way. I would have been lucky to escape with my life. Somewhere in a dream I have had this experience.
In the end, I realized that outcasts, wannabes and experts coexist everywhere, and I had only noticed the distinct groups under the influence of a vacation induced stupor. I had gotten lucky falling into the mix of it and come out floating near the top with the toast crumbs and bubbles. In the end, there is no great discovery to be made. There is no startling revelation. When all the societal ingredients are mixed, we end up with something like a glass of warm milk. If you have trouble sleeping at night, sip it slowly until you doze off. If not, put it back in the fridge to stir into your coffee in the morning.
Roger Marolt is glad nobody kicked sand in his face. Email at [email protected].