November’s theme is “No Regrets – Stories of unexpected gratitude.” You could also go with, “Things you should regret but don’t.” They’re sorta the same but also kind of the opposite. I like that.
For the last few years, I’ve spent a good part of every week at the local gym trying to keep age and decay at bay. I know it’s futile, but self-delusion is an important part of my personal maintenance routine. Going to the gym has also had an interesting effect on how people treat me. There’s a big difference between how I’m perceived when I weigh a slender 170 lbs compared to a muscular 210 lbs.
For the first time in my life, I look like a guy you’d call when you need to move a couch. Even my close friends treat me differently. Men and woman both grab my arms and shoulders to see how thick they are now. I don’t mind it but it’s always surprising because for most of my life no one paid any attention to my body. You could make the case that one of the reasons I learned to be funny was to keep people from focusing on my physical shortcomings. I don’t know what playgrounds are like these days but when I was growing up being a skinny male in any grade was no treat. High school was the worst but college was similar. Being physically strong plays a big role in where you stand in the male landscape.
Now that I’m physically bigger, even alpha males are giving me respect. Last year I was working out in the gym one day when one of the biggest guys in the room motioned me over to the bench press. Just for a second, I flashed back to high school and half-expected him to put me in a headlock. When I got up to him, he said something no one had ever said to me.
“Can you spot me?”
It felt like the clouds had parted and Zeus and flown down from Mt Olympus to place the Pelt of the Gods on my shoulders. Is there such a thing as the Pelt of the Gods? I have no idea. If there is, then I was definitely wearing it. Having the biggest dude in the gym ask me to spot him was my testicular Bar Mitzvah. I was now a man.
I didn’t realize it at the moment but when I got into position, I saw that he had 315 lbs on the bar. I’ve never moved anything that weighed over 300 lbs that didn’t have the word Steinway on it. This was a metal bar with six iron plates on it that would be moving up and down over this guy’s head. My job was to keep it from falling on him if he ran out of steam. Before I could figure a way out of this, he let out a giant grunt and started pushing the bar up and down over his chest. Ten reps later he set the bar back in the rack and sat up. He was so strong I didn’t even have to touch the bar.
I muttered “good job” and stepped away from the bench heading back to the human-sized weights I was using on the other side of the gym.
“Hold on,” he said. “I got another set to do.” Then he got up and added two 25 lb plates on the bar. Now he was up to 365. Dear god, if this guy needs me to lift 365 lbs off his neck he’s a dead man. I finally get my man pelt and now I’m going to lose it because Spartacus wants to set a new PR?
So I get in position again. He lifts the bar off the rack and gets all the way to the sixth rep when he starts to shake and struggle. I reach down to grab the bar and he yells, “DON’T TOUCH IT!” I yank my hands back and he barely gets the bar over the hooks to rack it.
“That was good, man,” I said as I backed away from the bar that was still vibrating.
“One more set,” the guy says and he gets up and replaces the 25 lb plates with 45 lb plates. WE ARE NOW UP TO 405 LBS! This guy thinks I can save him from being crushed under a 405 lb barbell and I can’t say anything because I finally have the Pelt of the Gods! I’m pretty sure if you walk away from a spot request they take your pelt away. The question is, will they take the pelt away if the guy you’re spotting just flat out dies during the lift? This question seems both ridiculous and incredibly important. Because I still remember the name of every bully who pushed me into a locker or knocked me to the ground, I puff out my chest, walk over to the bar and say, “Whenever you’re ready, man.”
They guy does two reps, gives me a “thanks, brother” and starts putting the weights away. I walk to the locker room feeling proud, strong, and a little ashamed. I had just put a guy in danger because I couldn’t admit that I wasn’t strong enough to lift a bunch of metal off his chest if something went wrong. Is that what it means to be a man? Are we willing to die or let people get hurt to save face?
The locker room was pretty full and I had to walk around a few guys to get to my locker. I had just pulled my shorts off when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and was face to face with a chubby sweaty guy who said, “Hey, who’s the English guy that sings-” and then he started singing “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone. It’s not unusual to have fun with anyone.”
Everyone in the locker room froze. I don’t know if this is common knowledge but you’re not supposed to sing to anyone in the locker room. At least not the men’s locker room. The cast of Glee could be serenading each other in the woman’s locker room but in the men’s locker room no one sings. Especially not to each other. Especially not when one of you is standing there in his underwear.
I could sense the tension in the room. How I reacted to this guy singing “It’s Not Unusual” directly at me was going to affect how I was treated in the gym for as long as I went there. I thought about Zeus. I thought about the Pelt of the Gods. I thought about how long I’d wanted to look like a man in front of other men.
And then I thought, “I love that song.” So I puffed out my chest and said, “It’s Tom Jones and actually he’s Welsh.”
Then I belted out, “What’s new pussycat, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa…” And the guy answered with, “She’s a lady, whoa, whoa, whoa, she’s a lady. Talkin’ about my little lady….”
Not only did we sing Tom Jones’ greatest hits we also danced like Tom Jones which means anyone under 30 probably thought we were having separate but simultaneous seizures. It was one of the best times I’d had in months. By the end of our medley, we were the only ones left in the room.
I have no idea who this guy was but he taught me more about strength and the importance of being yourself than I’ll ever learn from pushing bar loaded with iron over my head. I still don’t know what it means to be a man but I know a little more about what it means to be myself.
And that’s the kind of story we’re looking for at our next show, Thursday, November 15, at Roy Street Coffee and Tea. Tell us about a time when you were unexpectedly grateful for something that happened to you. How did you go from being embarrassed or ashamed to being grateful? Did it happen immediately or did it take years to finally be glad it happened?
Remember to keep it clean and under 8 minutes. Practice out loud as much as you can. Here are the rules and guidelines for telling a story:
Feel free to email me if you have any questions or want some help on a story.
If you want to see some of the sweet dance moves we were doing in the locker room of the old Gold’s Gym in Olympia, Washington you can check out this Tom Jones clip.
Take care everyone. I hope to see a bunch of you on the 15th 🙂