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Consider the Gym

  • Published November 18, 2009 By Anna Brown
  • Categories Columns

By Anna Brown, from issue #319 of MRR.

Health_Column_headerPunx don’t go to the gym. Everyone knows that. We skateboard, ride bikes, and walk long distances across the city at night. We dance like athletes, but you won’t find us on the treadmill or in the weight room. Because punx are not joiners, and we do not fraternize with squares unless forced to, and because we can always go on a long-ass bike ride when we finish this beer. At least, that’s how I used to think.

Punx are also good quitters. I quit sports in high school so I could stay out all night at shows. I quit skateboarding when I couldn’t take the concussions. By my late twenties, in the midst of a deep depression, I found I had quit leaving the house. When I busted the fly on my most forgiving stretch jeans and realized I had seen every episode of Friends, I knew I had to do something rash.

I never thought I’d say it, but the gym saved my life. In spite of myself, I have become a big fitness proselytizer. If Henry and his Dolphin shorts don’t do it for you, if you are more Death Wish Kid than Positive Youth, listen up.

For years, I lived on King Cobra, Totino’s Party Pizza, ice cream, and other junk from the corner store, procured with any change left over after buying smokes. I skated, and was a vegetarian, but obviously not for health reasons. I took huge amounts of drugs and smoked like a fiend, sometimes two packs a day. I smoked through colds, did drugs when I had the flu, slept and ate sporadically, and was prone to long bouts of depression.

Suddenly, I was not a teenager anymore. Miserable, overweight, unhealthy. I had had many friends die way too young, and for dumb, mostly avoidable reasons. I had to change.

I knew I needed a whole new approach to life, but I had no idea how to take care of myself. Not really. I tried a psychiatrist at County Mental Health, a psychic, a transcendental meditation book, a hypnotist, tarot cards, and consulted my friends. Something I heard again and again as I was desperately signing over my paycheck to people I had no faith in for advice that didn’t make sense to me was, “Have you tried exercise? Blah, blah, blah, serotonin, blah, blah, runner’s high.” It sounded dubious, and it was usually coming from people who get “wired” from green tea…but I lived around the corner from a mellow community gym in Oakland, and when I couldn’t take it anymore I went in. It was pretty scary. I was sure everyone was looking at me. People were contorted on machines that resembled devices from the Spanish Inquisition, and they seemed to be enjoying it. Like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, here was a room full of people wearing headphones, whirring around on the “exercising machines.” (This sensation can be heightened if you are listening to Devo.) I took a leap of faith and joined on a month-to-month plan. It was cheap compared to meds or the services of legions of self help gurus.

I worked nights at a bookstore, so when the misanthropic black metal dude, the alcoholic record collector, and the vegan party animals were at work, I would slip out of the house in my bleach-stained sweat pants, a War All the Time shirt, and Converse, and try to regain the will to live. I got a Walkman and started out on the cardio machines losing myself for an hour to the motivational sounds of DOA or The Dicks, laughing about how I was sweating to the oldies. When I felt more comfortable I started going to group exercise classes. Eventually I made myself a carefully calibrated workout tape. (Mid-tempo garage for warm up, heavy hardcore for later on…some Devo…bombastic metal…)

I started feeling better. I lived in fear of the punx discovering what I was doing (especially the step aerobics), but my mind began to feel clearer, and my post-workout cigarettes were sublime. The more I went, the better I felt. For the first time in my adult life I was engaged in something that made me feel good that was not simultaneously killing me. It was a revelation.

I used to feel tough because my body could withstand any punishment I could dish out, now I felt tough ‘cause I could run three miles and do thirty push-ups. I didn’t mind the norms at the gym in their “12 k run for muscular dystrophy” t-shirts, and sweat-wicking spandex pants. After a while I stopped seeing them as narcissistic overachievers and more like comrades, just making an effort.

Eventually I joined a women’s weightlifting group that met three times a week. These were some of the toughest 50- and 60- year-olds you have ever seen. They had big deltoids and quads, and they challenged me to lift heavier and heavier weights, and to quit smoking. I was motivated by more than my heterosexual male-identified, negative body image—I wanted to be healthy physically and mentally for the first time in my life. (But let me tell you this: if you have ever felt like there is something wrong with your body, stand around naked in the locker room at the YMCA with people of all ages some day. You are normal.)

I don’t know why it is contrary to our identities to take care of ourselves. Is it because we are outcasts? Nihilists? Because our parents didn’t love us? Cause the planet is a sinking ship? Why do punx want to kill themselves? Chicken or egg? Do punks become punks because they hate themselves and gravitate towards others who hate themselves, too? Or do nice idealistic kids start hanging out, and then their auras turn black when their new peer group does nothing but drink and take drugs? Do we love ourselves but hate society so much that we cheat ourselves out of some good things the mainstream world has to offer? (Think of all the bands you dismissed cause they were “not punk” that you then realized ten years later were really, really good. What if that’s true of other things, too?)

I think that if we can come together as a community to save ourselves mentally, then we can do it physically, too. Right now, the life expectancy of a punk is what? Like, 50?

Yes, there is a certain amount of absurdity to exercising in a gym, especially in spin class (riding a stationary bike indoors to loud techno?), but there is also something wonderful in making a fundamental commitment to being strong and staying fit and giving a fuck about yourself, however you do it. There’s always a way. I know of punk street hockey, soccer, yoga, all-night norules basketball at Gilman, punx who take high diving classes at the community college, Afro-Haitian dance class punx, an allpunk dojo. And all of us in the YMCA weight room.

‘Cause recently an amazing thing began to happen. I started seeing more and more punk rockers joining my gym, old and young. There is the dude in the Swiz shirt on the Stairmaster, Slapshot t-shirt in the weight room, the girl with the bars on her neck, mohawk doing Pilates, Kate, Mikhail, Cynthia, Allison, Brad, Jocelyn, Janelle, Sam, Elizabeth, Liesel, Julia, Kangs. And I discovered my own roommate sneaking out of the house late one night to jog around the lake.

Now I trade workout tapes with the other punx at the gym and we give each other routine tips like regular meatheads. It’s not humiliating to be spotted there, and I see more of us every day. We’re getting ripped, too! Never say die!!! Come the revolution, the punx will be like the Delta Force.

Sure, I still want to kill myself—the stress and hopelessness of the fucked up world hasn’t diminished. But these days I fantasize about giant comets wiping out human life on earth, not about dying of heart failure on the couch at 36. An improvement, I think. It took a while, but now instead of going to dark bars when I feel bad, or pulling down my shades and getting in bed, my impulse is to go to a bright, bright place lit by fluorescent lights and populated by healthy, sweaty people. It sounds crazy, I know. But trust me, it’s good. I had a terrible day at work today, and cried on my bike on the way home. Went to the gym, now I feel fucking great. So, listen: if you ever had the impulse, if you fantasize about doing tons of pull- ups, or learning to box, if you want to be strong, and get healthy, if you don’t want to go out like Dee Dee, consider the gym… You’ll still be one of us.