Thursday, April 5, 2012


     I've loved physical exercise and competitive athletics all my life.  My boyhood in backwoods Vermont during the 1940s was nonstop work and play of the most rugged kind.  When I wasn't helping cut firewood, shovel snow, raise crops, tend animals, string fences, mow grass, clear brush, or work around the house, I was helping build small dams for swimming holes, playing in the woods, having day-long sagas of cowboys-and-indians, cops-and-robbers, hide-and-seek, and kick-the-can in the summer and, in winter, ferocious snowball fights and sled battles with the nine boys of the farm family next door.
     Though we had no organized sports during or after the one-room school we all went to in the village, we had pickup softball games at school and at home when we could drum up a bat and ball.  Of course we wrestled a lot and had a few fistfights.  And when we could beg, borrow, or steal ammunition, we'd spend hours shooting the seven shotguns and rifles owned by the nine-boy family, sometimes from their front porch at woodchucks in the front field or from their house roof at any wild animal in the vicinity.  1940s rural Vermont was a paradise for strong, conscienceless boys.  All of us were hardy physical specimens without realizing it.
     I didn't do organized athletics till I entered a local prep school where my mother worked.  Though tackle football was against the school's principles, and interscholastic baseball and soccer were played at a cow-pasture level, the one sport the school took seriously was skiing.  By senior year I'd learned slalom, downhill, jumping, and cross-country well enough to compete in all four events for the ski team at state and regional meets.
     Mediocre competitor though I was, I liked everything about it.  Waiting at the top of snow-covered mountains or ski jumps for my turn was transcendentally nerve-wracking and exciting.  At the end of the only race I ever won, the coach ran towards me, staring at his stop watch in amazement and yelling, "I can't believe it!  I think you're first!"  Far from insulting me, his disbelief echoed my own and somehow added zest to the greatest moment of my athletic career.  Also wonderful to a backwoods boy like me was the luxury of travelling to ski meets, which we did often for four solid days almost every week during the winter. We always stayed at the best inns or lodges and ate at the best restaurants.
     College was a different story.  One of the reasons I chose the college I did was that it was small enough to let me at least try to play football.  Fifteen or twenty of us at the prep school had organized a touch football team that actually played touch games against a few backwoods high schools, but it wasn't the real thing.  The college did offer the real thing, with recruited players, fulltime coaches, and first-class facilities and equipment.  I loved getting my pads, cleats, helmet, and uniform the first day of freshman practice.  Though I alone of the fifty men on the freshman squad had never played tackle football, I not only stuck it out for the season and played in a few games but found it indispensable morale-wise that first semester.  Without those  three hours of fresh air and exercise a day, I might not have made it.
     Ski season was the complete reverse.  The college awarded bonafide freshman numeral and varsity letters in skiing, but the ski team was as scruffy and poorly-coached as any college-level varsity ever was or could be.  Here, I and another freshman were the only skiers with competitive experience.  The coach, who didn't know how to ski, coached soccer and lacrosse in fall and spring but had to do something in winter too and so get stuck with skiing.  He let us coach ourselves and gave us athletic department funds for our trips to ski meets.  He never went with us.
     That was fine with me.  Having survived my first semester, I was more than ready for the unsupervised, multi-day, all-expense-paid trips, in a college van we ourselves drove, to major ski areas for slalom and downhill meets with a dozen other south-of-the-snowbelt colleges and universities.
     In college skiing, I was a whale in a puddle, whereas in college football, I was a tadpole in an ocean.  I didn't play enough football as a freshman to earn numerals but came out anyway sophomore year as a walk-on and had the satisfaction of getting invited back for pre-season camp junior year.  After playing a few minutes in a couple of games that fall I quit, convinced I'd done what I could for football.  In skiing, on the other hand, I lettered every year, was co-captain my junior and senior year, but as usual never won a race.
     All in all, given my rural background and modest athletic talents, I got as much from formal competition as I needed, and I remember my varsity career fondly.  But of far greater importance to my physical and mental well-being in the long run were the informal sports I've played and the other kinds of exercise I've gotten since.
     Beginning with those games in the Vermont hayfields, I played pickup softball in high school, college, and graduate school.  I also played squash and tennis at various times, though neither was a favorite.  In college I began playing pickup basketball and continued through graduate school and into my teaching career, where I played noon basketball with students and colleagues until finally I had to acknowledge that, though I much enjoyed trying to play it, basketball just wasn't my game.  Far different was the golf my uncle introduced me to in San Diego when I was fifteen, taking me often to the Torrey Pines course in La Jolla before it became the golf mecca it now is.  Back then, we played Torrey Pines for five bucks a round.  I still play public courses regularly (I've always been strictly a blue-collar golfer) and still much prefer walking to riding.
     Because competitive skiing requires lots of running to get and stay in shape, I became a regular jogger, though I had to give it up in my sixties because of blown hips.  But I can still walk and do so once or twice a week for an hour at four miles per.  I like biking too and ride both my bicycles often.
     But the core of the physical exercise I get these days is an hour-and-a-half workout I do several times a week in my retirement community gym.  This workout takes priority over all my other exercise, meaning I arrange walking, biking, and golfing around it.  One of its advantages is that it's indoors and hence weather-free.  Another is that the gym is beside the indoor pool and hot tub, where I spend ten minutes after every workout massaging my muscles and joints in the water jets.
     Many people think that seventy-five-year-olds like me are past working out seriously.  To dispute that and to encourage all oldsters (and youngsters), male and female, to keep as physically fit as possible, let me describe my workout routine.  It begins with a thirty-minute aerobic warmup on an ellipitical machine that gradually raises my heartrate from 120 to 160 and leaves me soaked with sweat.  Since the rule of thumb for maximum heartrate is 225 minus your age, my 160 is about ten beats a minute more than the 150 I should in theory limit myself to, but the gym supervisor says it's ok.  I hope he's right.
     Next, thirty minutes of stretching and flexibility work.  I begin with thirty seconds of shin-splint stretching, one minute of standing ankle holds, and three minutes of hamstring, back, arm, and neck stretches.  Then I do thirty sideward stepups with each foor and firty more frontward.  After that, I hoist two seven-pound weights from shoulder level thirty times and then stretch back and shoulder muscles for another thirty seconds.
     I continue with a hundred and fifty slipsteps against a rubber hose around my ankles, plus two squeezes per step on a tennis ball.  Then come five more minutes of back, arm, and neck stretches, followed by ten minutes of leg lifts, ab crunches, and other drills on a lie-down bench.  After one more minute of standing hamstring stretches and a minute of balancing on each foot, I'm ready for a concluding thirty minutes of strength work with weights.
     I begin with thirty curls of each arm using a twenty-pound barbell, continue with forty leg extensions at 450 pounds (all the weight machines are Keiser pneumatics), twenty arm pulldowns at 120 pounds, forty leg abductions (twenty per leg) at 25 pounds, and twenty seated pushouts at 120 pounds.  After an additional twenty leg extensions at 115 pounds, twenty seated pullbacks at 110 pounds, and twenty leg curls at 115 pounds, I end by first repeating the five minutes of post-elliptical stretching and then climbing up and down the six-floor stairwell next to the gym.  By then I'm more than ready for the ten minutes in the water jets.
     To many seventy-five-year-olds, this kind of workout will seem like Dantean torture.  To others, it'll seem like nothing.  The great thing about physical exercise is how relative it is.  What's hard for you may be easy for me, and vice versa.  The point isn't how well we score on some prowess scale but how much personal satisfaction we get.  Fitness and sports have not only always helped me work off steam but, since I thought my way to materialism three decades ago, helped me philosophically too.
     Now I see them as another of my favorite daily routines and rituals, like reading the morning newspapers, eating dinner and watching the evening news with my Lebensgefaehrtin, writing my blog, or doing household tasks and errands, that have made religious/spiritual routines and rituals like praying, thanking god, going to church, or trying to commune with dead relatives seem utterly needless and pointless to me.  I'm not referring here to pondering the ultimate source, nature, or meaning of human existence, which I do all the time independent of anything else.  I ponder ultimates because I have no proven knowledge of the final source, nature, or point of whatever it is I am.  Ultimate reality's a burdensome, compelling mystery I can never free myself from, so all I can hope to do is infer or extrapolate what it may be from the proven knowledge I do have of the finite cosmos I actually inhabit.
     Fitness and sports are part of this proven cosmic knowledge.  I can scarcely imagine what meta-spacetime reality could be, but I know perfectly well what the thirtieth of my fifty situps or an extra half-pound of pressure on my leg abduction feels like.  I cannot fathom the irrational chaos of the All,  but I know to a hair when to drop down a gear on my bike or how well or poorly I've just hit a golf ball.  Such personal, human facts greatly comfort and console me in the infinitely impersonal and inhuman mysteries  surrounding me.
     In other words, working out and walking, biking, and golfing help keep me mentally as well as physically sane.  They're as therapeutic for me as any daily routine I do.  I look forward to them, I enjoy doing them, and I remember them pleasurably.  They stimulate my zest for living.
     Whatever competitive bite they have stems from self-competition, though workouts, bike rides, and walks offer less of this than golf, where odious self-comparison never stops rearing its ugly head.  But for real man-to-man (or woman-to-woman) competition, I nowadays depend entirely on spectator sports, mainly on television.  I love watching football, baseball, ice hockey, basketball, soccer, golf,  tennis, and skiing on TV and, now and then, less commercial sports like lacrosse, swimming, track and field, or volleyball.
     But I'm a world-class fair-weather fan.  So long as a team's winning, I root for it, but if it loses too often I tune it out till it starts winning again.  Such fickleness may stem from my being by nature more athletically competitive than gifted -- I've always hated losing any competitive sport I've played.  The beauty of watching rather than competing is that losing's never your fault and can be assuaged by switching your loyalties to a winning team.  It can also help you maintain perspective on sports in general.