Gym Tales: An Introduction 

I can still feel the cold metal between my hands. I can smell the sweaty clothes in my gym bag and see particles of lifting chalk sprinkling through the air. The taste of artificially flavored pre-workout supplement lingers in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a lovely female figure gliding oh-so gracefully on the treadmill. Through the other eye I see a balding, mustachioed man air drumming to his favorite classic rock ballad and another man of comparable age complaining about some “young punk” who didn’t re-rack his weights after using the bench press. Believe it or not these are my people. They are family — both irritating and comforting. They are the older brother who leaves a slice of half-eaten pizza in your bed after watching TV. They are the little sister who won’t stop kicking the back of your seat on a road trip. But they are also the loving mother who stays with you in the hospital when you’re sick and the distant cousin who rekindles your bond after years apart. Even the self-consumed “meathead” grunting under the squat rack makes the gym feel like home — a symbiotic collective of agonists and antagonists. The community that is the gym has, at one time or another, been my salvation from the trauma and struggle of life. 

Like most humans, I’m capable of loving both people and things. And because people aren’t things and things aren’t people, I tend to love them in different ways. Not necessarily with more or less fervor, well maybe, but differently — I obviously love my mom more than I love a set of dumbbells. But damn, I do love a good set of dumbbells. 

I’ve loved often in my life and my point is this: I’ve felt such strong connections to both people and things I couldn’t have possibly expected anything more from love. I’ve experienced kindness and care from people I never would have expected to come to my aid. And similarly, I’ve become so attached to inanimate objects it’s made me roll my eyes. 

Of all that, of all the love I’ve felt for people and things, I’m almost ashamed to say it is the latter that has given me joy and a purpose of which no person has bestowed upon me. It is a certain satisfaction and an even more certain attachment, and I get it from exercise. It is a magnificent fusion of passion, achievement, and countless other feelings brought together like a wonder drug with endlessly addictive properties. 

Why do people run ultra-marathons, or do obstacle courses through barbed wire and blazing fire, or swim long distance in frigid water? It’s not for their health. Although some people may say otherwise, speaking from experience I know most people test their bodies in such ways not because it’ll make them live longer, but because, well, they enjoy it. Of course they do, that’s why they are willing to risk their health. It’s why I was willing to risk mine, although I never thought the risk was so great. 

And sure running two dozen or more miles in a day is better for you than eating donuts and sitting on the couch, but extreme exercise has its health risks as well. I am perhaps the best example of the dangerous effects of overtraining. 

At the peak of my bodybuilding obsession I was spending more time at the gym each week than some people do in their entire life (the latter is an entirely different problem). I remember having a conversation with a much older and wiser friend about my lifestyle. It wasn’t exactly an intervention, but in hindsight it was definitely a hint. He made a point of making sure I knew exactly how much I was exercising — the equivalent of a full-time job. Not to mention I was going to school and had a part-time job. So really I had three jobs. 

The exhausting pace of my life may or may not have directly contributed to the decline of my health over the last few years, but it certainly didn’t help. Still, if given a mulligan I would live my life similarly, if not exactly the same. Even if my excessive exercising had killed me, I would gladly relive that death over and over because some things — the things that make us feel alive — are totally worth dying for. 

There are many moments from my former life as a bodybuilder and fitness fanatic that now stick with me in my sick and sedentary state. Most nearly consume me with a nostalgia so intense it actually feels like my body is in another time and place. Right now that past time and place is where I’d rather dwell. 

So this is to be my Gym Tales series, telling some of my favorite stories from working out, there are plenty — some comical, some nostalgic, some gross and painful, but all entertaining. So stay tuned …

And please subscribe if you would like to read more. 

Jamison Hill Has A Cold 

Jamison Hill, holding a shot of Jameson Irish whiskey in one hand and a glass of kombucha in the other, sat at the end of the bar between two gorgeous women who were waiting for him to speak.

Jamison was sick. He was the recipient of an exceedingly common ailment. So common in fact, most people call it insignificant. But when it afflicts Jamison it is very significant. It can throw him into fits of intense panic, paranoia, and even obsessive bouts of cleaning. It can be life-threatening. Jamison Hill has a cold.

Okay, this is the part of the post where you say, “What in the name of Goose Gassage is he talking about?” Well, first off, thanks for tolerating that weird introduction — an homage to one of my favorite pieces of writing. And now let me explain. 

My favorite magazine article ever written is Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” What is most fascinating about the article is that Talese never actually interviews Sinatra. Instead he observes Sinatra from afar for a few weeks while he has a cold. Among other things, Sinatra comes across as a crabby, entitled celebrity. In one passage Sinatra is in a bar and pokes fun at a young screenwriter’s footwear. Apparently he didn’t like the guy’s boots. Come on Frank, not everyone wears Spanish leather, or whatever the hell kind of shoes celebrities wear. 

The two become combative, then Sinatra says the writer’s last work, a movie called The Oscar, was “crap.” The odd thing is that Sinatra was actually in the film, so he was calling a film he appeared in crap. This makes about as much sense as spitting in your own food. But hey, I’ll hold my judgement. He did, after all, have a cold. 

After reading the article I came to the conclusion that perhaps it’s not a good idea to hang out in a bar when you’re sick and then try to make fun of someone who wrote the screenplay for your last movie. That lesson will definitely come in handy for me one day (#ThanksFrank).  

Sinatra’s pattern of arrogance and irritability continues throughout the article. And oddly, I can sympathize with him; well, except for the entitled celebrity part. Having a cold is just about the worst thing that everyone in the world will have to deal with countless times in his or her life. Although a trip to the DMV is a close second. Personally, a cold turns me into the worst version of myself and the world’s biggest baby. And that was before I got MECFS, a disease that makes a hug feel like you just got locked in a basement with that gimp guy from Pulp Fiction. 

Ouch!

Since I came down with MECFS six years ago, the occurrence of a cold has gone from hyperbolic inconvenience to life-threatening siege on my body. Now the latter may still seem like hyperbole, but let me elaborate. 

I’ve endured three colds, or flus, or whatever you want to call them, since I’ve had MECFS. The first, about six months in, was not too bad. I recovered in a week. The second, January 2015, was horrible. It is the reason I became bedridden. I hadn’t been sick in almost four years and I distinctly remember saying I wouldn’t catch the bug that was going around. Jinxed it

While my health had been declining gradually the previous year, the cold nearly took me out for good. One day I was walking around outside, the next I was too weak to brush my own teeth or get out of bed. There were other factors too. I may have taken too much generic cough medicine, which I’ve heard is chemically similar to crack or meth or one of those adult party favors. 

In many ways, 18 months later, I’ve yet to recover from that cold. But I have recovered some; just enough to catch another one. 

Like many awful things, my recent cold started mysteriously. On Friday, October 7th, my allergies were really bad. Or so I thought. My sinuses were inflamed, eyes burning, all that fun stuff. And now a few days later it’s a full-blown mucous party in my head. And in case you’re wondering: there ain’t no party like a mucous party, ‘cuz a mucous party don’t stop. 

Who would have thought I could fit a Coolio and Sinatra reference in the same blog post? 

Anyway, whenever I get a cold I panic. Big time! Maybe not externally, but on the inside it feels like a mix between “Uh oh! I forgot my wallet and the cashier needs me to pay for the 27 bags of avocados I just had her ring up,” and “Whoa . . . I just took ‘shrooms in the middle of the desert. Why did I just take ‘shrooms in the middle of the desert? Hey, hey, guys? Why am I in the middle of the desert? Guys? Guys?! Hey wait, where did everyone go?” Yeah it’s that bad, because being sick on top of being sick with MECFS is a scary thing. I mean how many sicknesses can a guy handle? I already have three active viruses roaming my body like one of those iRobot vacuums (which I really want). Can I really handle a cold on top of it? And if I can’t, what would that mean? 

Well, luckily my body has handled this recent cold fairly well albeit worse than my pre-MECFS days. Within three days I went from sitting up, talking to my cousins, eating scones, and letting enough light in my room that people could actually see me and my abundance of eyewear, to not doing any of those things. Once again my room is dark, I’m drinking meals through a straw, and while I can still talk a little, my voice sounds like I just spent the last 50 years smoking cigars. 

The good news, however, is I feel confident with my IV treatments I will recover much quicker than my last cold. A good sign is the fact that I’m writing this post. I may feel like crap, but if this cold were as bad as I expected it to be, I would not be writing this. I would have lost all modes of communication. I would have had to go back to using hand signals and the tedious alphabet spelling system I still have nightmares about. I would have had to keep my eyes covered at all times and my phone would have resumed its depressing status as an extremely overpriced paperweight. None of that has not happened, but the thought still haunts me everyday: I can’t go back to that life. And to think I lived like that for over a year. I’m not entirely sure how I did it, but then again at some point in the future I may say the exact same thing about this damn cold. 

* The MECFS community needs research funding! Please sign this petition to raise awareness. 

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Why The Hell am I at Elephant Bar?

I’m sitting across from an empty seat at Elephant Bar in San Leandro, of all places. Why the hell am I at the Elephant Bar in San Leandro?

I’m nervous, so terribly nervous that my lunch companion will not show up, leaving me to eat alone, negating the great effort I’ve taken to get myself here; or worse, I’m nervous my companion will actually show up and figure out I’m sick, spoiling the elaborate ruse I’ve been creating for months so my health doesn’t appear to be failing. I know I look healthy at the moment, and that may just allow me to keep the illusion going a little longer, but not 24 hours ago I was curled up in the fetal position waiting out a bomb of intense nausea, crippling muscle weakness, and chills so bad they made my body feel simultaneously dipped in ice and roasted over an open flame.

Then I got the call. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow,” the voice on the other end of the phone said.

Sure,” I replied. After all I have put off our first rendezvous for months, regularly passing up free meals, trips to the East Coast, and rides in flashy cars, among many other perks that come with my job. Eventually a slender man with thinning blond hair approaches the table. It’s surreal to see him, a man I’ve only spoken to on the phone yet have been working as his editorial assistant for the last nine months. I was expecting him to be wearing a three-piece suit but instead I hear a man wearing street clothes with a black leather jacket and fedora say, “Jamison, how are you?”

I gingerly rise and shake his hand. I’m not wearing a three-piece suit, but it appears I did overdo it with my dress clothes. 

“Doing well. How are you, Michael?” I ask, starting my greeting with a lie. The truth would have been: “Hey Michael, um, well I feel like dog shit. The last few days have been a slow and miserable march toward death while I’ve been working my ass off for you and intermittently lying prostrate on my bed. But hey, how ’bout that NASDAQ?”

We sit down and Michael, my boss at the widely-circulated financial publication we both work for, unpacks a thick stack of papers, iPad, and more of his belongings on the table. Looks like we’re going to be here for awhile. 

As he organizes his stuff, I mentally prepare for the cognitive firestorm that is about to besiege my brain. My goal is to breathe, nod my head often, and speak sparingly — only when necessary. I will do these things and many others — none obvious to my boss. I will conserve my energy for key moments of the meeting when he asks, “So what do you think about that?” 

Then I will use my impaired brain to think up a clever and hopefully witty response. I will try to forget how miserable that past few days have been, that I had to stay in bed all of yesterday just to have enough well-being to make it to this lunch. I will pretend I didn’t just spend the last three weeks being cared for at my mom’s house because working and living on my own has become too arduous. I talk to my boss as if I am an entirely autonomous adult who drove himself to this business lunch. But I will remain grateful that my mom was willing, and supportive enough, to drive me to San Leandro, then disappear before my boss showed up just so I could put on a facade; just so it would appear as though this is a mere pit-stop in an otherwise busy day. In actuality this is it for me. This is my entire day. I spent the hours leading up to this meeting in a catatonic state, and afterward I will most definitely retreat to my bed and not get up for a long, long time — we’re talking days, not hours. Then when my boss once again beckons — calling me while he is chauffeured to one of his regular appearances on the television news show, Varney & Co. I will lift my head off the pillow, pick up my phone and speak as if everything is normal, as if I’m not sick and my world is not crumbling around me because I’m addicted to overworking myself. I will do this, all of this, until my body finally gives out, overthrown by two unrelenting tyrants — my mind and the disease. 

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