22 July 2007

There’s Glory for You!

With the passing of another birthday and an onslaught of deaths in Opera World come thoughts of my mortality. Sure, I’m Peter Pan, and everybody knows it: emotionally I’m about five years old, and I buy clothes in the boys' department. But the calendar tells me I’m 46, and the mirror tells me my hair is getting whiter by the minute.

“One can’t help getting older,” Alice tells Humpty-Dumpty, who replies, “One can’t, perhaps, but two can.” (This is an offer to murder her, which Alice, unlike most readers, instantly recognizes.)

It’s not for me to contest the greeting-card axiom that getting older beats the alternative, and it is surely ignoble to complain. But complain I must. For I have discovered a new mid-life crisis, to go along with all the other ones. (I’m working on a complete set.) Some recent trips to the gym have proved that I’m not a kid anymore.

Just before moving to France, I was (I now understand) in the best physical shape of my life. In New York, I went to the gym six times a week. My starting weight on the incline chest press was my body weight: 145 pounds. Without a spotter, I could progress to press 205 pounds for four to six repetitions. My abdominal definition drew envious praise from dance students at Juilliard, and it became difficult for even my closest friends and social advisers to prevent me from flashing my four-pack, or removing my shirt altogether. (Yes, it was only a four-pack, but I had a deposit on the other two.) My favorite stunt was to suspend myself from my knees to perform my crunches upside-down. This is easier than it looks — but it doesn’t look easy at all. Which was the point of doing it in front of other people.

In Paris, I still go to the gym, but not with the frequency or intensity of my Manhattan training. There is nothing from which to suspend myself to do my crunches. A recent return to New York gave me the opportunity to work out without metric conversion, and I confirmed that I’ve grown substantially weaker: now I’m lucky if my finishing weight on the incline press is 145 pounds. My own weight has dropped: I’m down to about 140, and the inescapable conclusion is that I’ve lost muscle mass and added fat. Although my abs are still plural — abdominals, not mere abdomen — they’re less what the French call en tablette de chocolat (like a chocolate bar), and they threaten to become what the French call chocolate mousse. It ain’t what it used to be.

The question is whether it will ever be again what it used to be. I could always redouble my efforts, hitting the gym with renewed passion — and indeed I just renewed my membership. Yet I’m not sure I’ll succeed. It’s not merely that Paris has so many distractions. It’s that it all seems too much bother.

I AM Old Father William.

The gradual loss of my "crazy ripped" physique (to cite the description of one young admirer) might not be so dismaying if it weren't the harbinger of further decay yet to come: even if I do hold back the tide today, there will be later, bigger waves, and at some point I will wash away completely.

Even beyond that, though, it's a bummer. After all, I worked damned hard to look this way. The way I used to look. For a while. And may look again.

I grew up a couch potato, through both natural disposition and geopolitical destiny. Nearsighted even as a child, I couldn't participate satisfactorily in the sports played by other kids in my neighborhood in suburban Texas. Everything in Texas requires hand-eye coordination, something I didn't possess and couldn't develop. And in Texas, if you don't play ball, you must be subversive. I was more likely to get beat up by both teams than to be picked to play on either side.

Though one reads all the time those heartwarming tales of shrimpy kids who defy the odds and grow up to be prize-winning athletes, I lacked the requisite fortitude to be one of them. I never had much affinity for sports, and I lost irretrievably whatever I once possessed. Instead of rising to the challenge, I developed body anxieties so extreme that I couldn't remove my shirt at the beach.

As I neared my thirtieth birthday, I resolved to be in better shape than I was at 20. This wasn't difficult, since I hadn't been in very good shape to begin with, but I threw myself at the new resolution with fervor. I found inspiration in my friend Feldstein, who'd managed, in what seemed very little time, to reshape himself entirely, becoming a barrel-chested, broad-shouldered tough guy.

Working out wasn't easy: it took a long time to overcome the instinctive fear of getting beat up whenever I set foot in the locker room, and longer still to overcome the fear that people were staring at me and laughing at my ineptitude. I had to learn that, in the grownup gym, if anybody looks at you — that is, if you distract a potential bully from the rapt contemplation of his own perfection — it's not because you're a doofus. It's because he wants to sleep with you.

But free weights have this advantage over footballs: you don't have to catch them. My nearsightedness seldom proved an obstacle to my training. And though I never quite came to resemble Feldstein, the results pleased me nevertheless.

And now it's all slipping, slipping, like so much else. Où sont les neiges d'Antinoüs? If I were a character out of Cheever, I'd start swimming in the neighbors' pools — but I'm not, and they don't have any. Merde, alors.