Improvement versus acceptance

Between November and June, I exercised several times a week with a focus on strength. It was, by my modest standards, a good, dull, extended run of self-embiggenment — close to the best I’ve had but no anomalous outlier. I’ve been here before.

The key difference was that while I was not at all extreme about it, I was diligent in a low-affect, making-the-doughnuts way that doesn’t come naturally to melodramatic old me. It was a tolerable tedium. I kept my head down and “just did it.” It felt sustainable, mostly unfreighted by self-sabotage and dreams of transforming body and fortunes. Mostly.

Unlike my moderately broad-shouldered and defined brother, who has never had to apologize for his shape, I was genetically gifted with very little in the way of upper body definition and strength. There’s a failed, concave quality to the action up there. Even after correcting for dysmorphia and age, my natural upper body contour still tends toward the wasted.


The little bit of bulk I had acquired by June was pure ruse, a bought layer of not-really-me, more inflammation than John. The vanity of it is hardly grandiose. I didn’t think I looked good or big or defined, but I did dare to believe that, through moderate  work, I might approach and cross the easternmost border of average and get some other things unrelated to exercise accomplished while there.

It is a subtle neurosis that requires some exaggeration to tease into the light at all, but the “thinking” is this: a small thickening of self lets me move ahead with the other, more important things without worrying that my upper body will be the first thing people notice about me, freeing me to fly or flounder based on the rest of the picture.

Throw in a little glowing, late-Fifties notion of “stretch run” and “getting the most out of what’s left,” and that’s pretty much the psychology of it. The gym, every gym, is full of people with their heads down, thinking about possible selves.

I worked the MedX circuits at Mike Arteaga’s gym in Highland at least twice a week until it closed in March on account of a pandemic. Then I took the pursuit to the living-room floor with ten- and 15-pound hand weights, pushups and planks.

Then, of course, injury (right shoulder), cessation and deflation. So now it’s back to the lean, low-payout, tiresome koans and riddles of that other conditioning path: simple self-acceptance.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.