I did a lot of things in 2018.
For starters, I learned things with fire. My spouse and I moved into a new apartment in the first floor of an old house, and that house sits on property with yards and a charcoal grill. Then I broke out the fire pit in the fall. Suddenly I had to learn how to build fires. Not that it was difficult, but I’d never done it.
Now I love it: cooking with fire, warming myself with fire, hanging out in the yard with friends and beers and s’mores and all that. Burn down the wood, put it out, and wait a few days? I’ve got coals! Coals go right in the grill, I cook my burger, then sit by a new fire in the pit. It’s a beautiful circle of fire.
I buy firewood, of course. But I also scavenge the neighborhood for sticks and branches. See me walk my dog with a branch slung over my shoulder. I’m a stick guy now.
My spouse gifted me a log carrier and fatwood kindling from L.L. Bean this past Christmas. I’m never going back on this fire thing now.
Another thing that defined my 2018 was fitness.
Like, lots of fitness.
For the first time in years, I joined a gym. And not just a rec center, or using the fitness room at an apartment complex, but one of those fancy, professional-grade, bougie gyms. With professional trainers, and ice rinks, and multiple styles of courts.
This gym is in the same complex as my job, so it has become my second home. My third place. I mostly stick to classes focused on dance or strength training. The classes that combine dance AND weightlifting? Even better!
After months of going 4-5 days a week, I signed up for an eight-week fitness challenge during the fall. Why not? I already was going so much, wanted some hard data on my progress, and thought maybe I’d learn some new things to kick it up a level. I increased up the workout intensity/frequency (6-7 days a week, and two-a-days), changed my diet, lifted heavier weights, sucked down lots of protein.
By the end of the challenge, I lost 12.5 pounds overall; gained 1.7 pounds of muscle; and lost 14.9 pounds of fat, dropping my body fat percentage by 5.6 percentage points. In 2018 total, I cut 4 inches off my waistline and am down two suit sizes.
Those are the numbers, but that’s not the real story. I didn’t do this to make my body fit a size or standard. I don’t play that. This was about doing whatever healthy things for my body that I could do, and however it looks is how it looks. Fit bodies come in all the shapes, sizes and abilities.
The real story is …
I FEEL SO FREAKING STRONG!!!
Feeling this attuned to my body, after all this training, is an odd process. Going through it has activated my geek brain.
Let me share some of them with you now.
Remember when Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) wakes up the morning after he is bitten by the super-spider and gets his powers? He sees his ripped torso in the mirror. “Change? Yep, big change.”
The day I noticed not just the abs forming in the midsection, but the obliques cutting into the sides and tapering into the hip bones. My abdomen hasn’t been this defined since about 2005. It’s Peter Parker lifting his shirt and thinking WTF.
Rocky II (1979)
Remember Rocky’s run in Rocky II: He Beats Apollo This Time? It took the iconic run in the first film, and super-sizes it into Rocky Balboa, champion of Philadelphia.
He gathers an increasing gaggle of children until he’s drawn a horde of gleeful children. Somehow, those kids can keep up with him on this miles-long jog from South Philly, through Old City and Center City, to Fairmount.
Rocky hurdles 17 park benches running past Independence Hall. He sprints down a totally car-less Ben Franklin Parkway and leaps up the Art Museum stairs in four steps.
I feel like that Rocky when walking my dog, and I break out into a moderate run to keep up with her. I’m not a good runner. But I sure do feel like I am one. At the very least, I can run and breathe now.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
One of the great recurring bits from this surprisingly entertaining movie was how the main character, skinny nerd boy Spencer, adjusts to living inside the Jumanji video game as hero explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).
Not only did the role allow for Johnson to play his usual, cartoonishly super strong, smoldering intensity, PG-sexualized handsomeness on screen, but he got to laugh at it as well through the guise of him being somebody who isn’t those things.
In this yearlong fitness deal, I’ve seen my body change shape and take on new challenges. Each realization of a new physical ability, or acuity, felt like Spencer’s amazement and confusion at Bravestone punching people out or running wicked fast.
During one strength training class in the weight room, we were doing bench presses with dumbbells. I’m just pumping away with the 35-pound weights, and it felt way too easy. It felt like 20-pounders. The trainer came over and said those weights were too light, and I probably could do 55-pounders.
I grabbed those 55-pound dumbbells off the rack and went to work. Shit, I thought to myself. I’m really doing this, and there’s no going back.
Beyoncé’s “Formation” performance at Super Bowl 50 (2016)
Among the classes I take at the gym is one that basically is dance rehearsal with high-intensity interval training thrown in. It’s … not easy. The instructor is a licensed physical trainer with a BFA in dance whose positive energy is on a hundred thousand trillion.
Even the warmup routine makes me sweat a bunch.
Within that warmup dance are the following moves, in the first eight count. For 1-2-3-4, I take four steps forward while I throw my right arm to the side, then my left, then my right up to the ceiling, and my left. Then, for 5-6-7-8, I back up four steps, pulling my arms down my front, my palms facing me.
Pretty simple, right? Not as simple when you bring the energy and intensity that the instructor calls for. (He calls it “spice and flavor,” okurr?) Every time I do this move, I imagine that I’m a Beyoncé backup dancer.
Precision. Power. Fierce.
I twirl on my haters in albino alligators, ridin’ in the El Camio with the seat low, sippin’ Cuervo with no chaser. I go off and go hard, take what’s mine. ‘Cause I slay.
I never can be powerful enough to be Queen Bey herself, of course.
The Fly (1986)
It’s quite the feeling when your body’s just humming in the fitness zone. Operating in great form, and you just listen to it. You feed your body whatever it says it needs, when it needs it, and nothing more. And all these endorphins are rushing through you, making you feel mentally good as well as physically.
It’s like that stretch in David Cronenberg’s The Fly when Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is just strong and running around, full of hormones and strong blood pumping. Charismatic and sexy and awesome!
In those warm-weather months, especially, when there’s so much sunshine and open air, that’s how I often felt. Just mighty! Walking taller, moving stronger, reaching longer.
But, like The Fly, the body falls apart in short order.
I had to get used to the body horror of sweating like never before. The kind of sweat that falls in sheets and leaves you soaked. The kind of sweat that makes your clothes so funky that they walk themselves to the washer machine. We had to start keeping the dirty gym clothes in a separate bag that we can close up to contain the smell!
There’s the constant moisturizing because otherwise my skin would fall apart from showering two or three times a day. There’s staying on guard against jock itch and athlete’s foot. Clipping toenails so they don’t rip off from running and jumping. Yoga and steam room so my shoulder doesn’t sound like a cement mixer when I rotate it. If I were a swimmer, I’d have to protect my hair from the pool chemicals.
And now I shave my belly to keep belly button lint from building up. I clean my navel with a cotton swab doused in rubbing alcohol. One time a chunk of wet lint the size of a silver dollar came out. It smelled like July garbage.
Keep up that body maintenance, y’all. Being fit as hell can make you gross as hell.
I doubt I’ll ever put in the time to learn the salmon ladder, but I still seriously miss those days of Stephen Amell swinging himself up there as Oliver Queen on Arrow.
But I am forever pleased at how the show found athletic, ass-kicking actors such as Amell, David Ramsey (John Diggle/Spartan; black belt in Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do) and Caity Lotz (Sara Lance/White Canary; taekwondo, wushu, parkour). You have folks on the show who have athletic and dance backgrounds as well, such as Juliana Harkavy (Dinah Lance/Black Canary).
Combined with their awesome stunt team, Arrow still consistently delivers a superhero product in which the people fight in a more grounded fashion than simply what looks cool. Most of the show’s directors also make a point of shooting actors’ entire bodies in fight scenes, so you can see how those bodies move through space.
I’ve long enjoyed the fight game, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate any form of combat sports. Boxing, karate, taekwondo, kung fu, mixed martial arts. And, increasingly, muay thai.
Have you seen The Raid, for cryin’ out loud?!?
When I used to lead a cardio kickboxing class, the program we used combined all these different forms, so I have a bit of each in my muscle memory and body mechanics.
Since the summer, I’ve been attending a muay thai class at my gym once a week. After those years of cardio kickboxing, I have a combat foundation, but there’s much to learn. Such as adopting a muay thai kick, which emphasizes turning the hip over and making the shin into a club. A taekwondo kick, which I’m more used to, sets itself up to swing at the knee as if you’re punching with the foot.
One day, the trainer was showing us front kicks, and she said of course I can kick high because of my dancer’s legs. (We all remember my rep as a Zumba Man.) I hadn’t thought of whether I could kick higher. That morning at Zumba, I noticed I could lift my knees high up into my chest. I must have been limber enough to do that for a while, but I was just becoming cognizant of the fact.
So after she said that, I gave it a try. My foot goes as high as my head now. Like, Yvonne Craig-as-Batgirl kick high.
As my conditioning and form improve, I’m taking bigger risks.
I’ve recently moved to doing the class barefoot, which I never thought I’d do in my flat feet. My ankles are stronger, my knees are stronger, my core is stronger for holding my center of gravity.
Pretty soon, I’ll be ready to fight an army of ninjas. YOU. HAVE FAILED. THIS. CITY!
The Training Continues
One of the trainers at the gym always likes to talk superheroes with me. His enthusiasm for it all keeps a jaded geek like me going.
Surprisingly, I don’t have a lot of superhero-themed workout gear. I have tights with eagles and a shield festooned in stars and stripes, so they look like Wonder Woman stuff. And I have a Black Panther workout shirt that I often pair with tights resembling African prints.
But I keep eyeing those Black Panther compression outfits.
The day will come when I break down and order some. If it comes with a heart-shaped herb, then things are about to get weird!