Thursday, February 5, 2009

Culture Shock at the Gym: Why I Own a Home Elliptical Machine

Elliptical Mileage: 7.1 miles
MP3 Player: Nine (Original Broadway Cast)

I'm getting a streak going on the elliptical machine: today was my tenth consecutive day without finding an excuse to stay in bed instead of waking up early enough to put in my miles and still get to my first classs on time. Since I've never liked exercise, this is a noteworthy achievement! Now I have some motivation to keep the streak going, because who wants to start back at the beginning, right?

Is anyone wondering why I shelled out roughly $1200 to have a good-quality Spirit elliptical machine at home, instead of going to the gym like most people? I'll tell you: because international travel and adapting to foreign cultures aren't nearly enough preparation for surviving in a gym where senior citizens make the rules!

In the university town where I live, the best-equipped gyms are the campus facilities, no question. Also, I checked out the other gyms, and most of the clientele there were the grown-up versions of the guys who made me try to fake leprosy and bubonic plague to avoid phys ed all through middle and high school. But even though it was easy to rule those places out, using the main campus gym is not my idea of a good time, either: it's always crowded, finding a free elliptical or treadmill is almost impossible, and working out with my students - all of them half my age and most of them naturally athletic - is just too depressing to face first thing in the morning at my time of life.

So I turned instead to the small, no-students-allowed gym reserved for faculty and staff in what's annoyingly called the "Campus Wellness Center." (Is "wellness" even a real word?! I don't think so.) That seemed like a better fit, especially the absence of 20-year olds with 28-inch waists. Little did I know, though, that most of the faculty and staff preferred the main gym (maybe they like the eye candy factor of all that buff youth gleaming with sweat), and that during the before-work hours, the Wellness Center gym was Senior Citizen Territory.

When I joined on the first morning and saw that I was going to be the only person there under retirement age, I didn't think anything of it - better sharing the equipment with senior citizens than with college kids, right? Ha! At least I was once in college myself, so I know some of the tribal customs. But, still being a fair distance away from my first AARP card, the rites and rituals of senior citizens together remain undiscovered country for me.

The first thing I noticed was that without an "in", even getting a machine was hard: if I used the sign-up sheet to reserve the next open elliptical or treadmill, when the current occupant finished she'd invariably say: "I'm so sorry, dear, but I already promised Martha she could use this one next .... No one in here pays attention to those sign-up sheets." And when an elliptical did open up for me, there was this one senior who liked wandering among the machines to chat with his friends who were using them - and he always ended up standing directly in front of me, actually draping his towel over the frame of my machine and LEANING on it, chattering away, while I was using it! (Let's not even talk about having every single television tuned to Fox Morning News at full volume, a regional tribal custom which constituted cruel and unusual punishment.)

I hung on as long as I could, but eventually I realized the culture shock was too much for me: one January day I grabbed the only empty elliptical machine, which was between two treadmills being used by two elderly ladies. No sooner had I gotten started than they started having a conversation right around/through me - a very loud conversation with lots of repetition, since neither of them could hear the other too well over the sound of the machines and the Fox News denouncers. The topic of the conversation: one woman's daughter's hysterectomy and the post-surgical complications - in great (and often repeated detail). Try to picture this:

SENIOR #1: And the day after the operation, she started to hemorrhage!
SENIOR #2: What?
SENIOR #1: I said, the day after the operation, SHE STARTED TO HEMORRHAGE!

The conversation went on from there .... and after about 10 minutes, midway through a discussion of surgical sponges accidently left in various friends' and relatives' abdomens, I knew that these would never be my people.

And so, that afternoon after my last class I went straight to the local sporting goods store, where the salesman told me he'd sell me an elliptical on credit, at 0% interest for the first 12 months. They delivered it the next day.

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