“He mentioned to me now, for the first time, that he had been distrest by melancholy, and for that reason had been obliged to fly from study and meditation, to the dissipating variety of life. Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night.” – Boswell
It both swelled and shrunk, and the whole building was haunted by their presence. I had, for months, gazed into the future, this moment, with horror. I knew they were coming. That the first week the skeletons would rise, clanging through doors, clanking along stairs, rattling lockers, scuttling, crowding, grunting, groaning, and moaning. Collectively, they lift everything. Individually, they crumble under the smallest weight; knees and elbows and wrists wobble as bones buckle under pressure. The smiling, chirping skeletons squeal and grimace while they push iron without muscle. If they are not crumbled into dust they do crowd all the more. The humans, meanwhile, eye each other and sigh. As the humans work on building muscle mass, they look at the now-swollen gym, filled with creaking bones of those who left but returned, and they can’t help but feel the gym a little smaller for it.
The UNLV gym is perhaps no different from other university gyms. We experience the same bloated resurgence of over-zealous students who will, thankfully, glide away as the semester progresses. As well, UNLV has many notable characters you will find at almost any gym: Chicken-legs, Shoulders, Triceps, Neck-only, No-neck, Tattoo, Ab-belt, Gloves, Towel-boy, Sanitation-lady, Atlas, Headphones, Big-headphones, One-ear, Sweatpants, Spider, Thor, Bandana, Cellphone, the Group, the In-crowd, Staff, Professor, Spaghetti Strap (female), Spaghetti Strap (male), Short shorts (male), “take your time bro,” Please-look-at-me, “One more set bro,” “Squat me bro?” First timer, Athlete, Cargo-shorts, Polo, Jeans, Hoodie, baseball cap, Water-jug, Pony Tail, Man Bun, Squealer, Grunter, Ex-military, Diva, and, of course, Skeleton.* Now, you’ll see many of these individuals at your hometown gym. There is Ab-belt strapping on his armor, prancing around like a wresting champion. Water-jug juggles water and weight. One-ear talks to Big-headphones while Cellphone leaves her weights on the bar. Sanitation-lady wipes down Chicken-leg’s bench and Spaghetti Strap does every work out he can find to show off his abs. But though UNLV has the common characters, one character stands out. One voice above the rabble is heard pounding the doom of a goblin drum. In fear we tremble as Thor thunders through the gym and the earth shakes at his steps.
It was mid-summer or thereabouts. Something felt off-kilter, as if the globe had shifted on its axis slightly, or the sun rose a few degrees more north. I sat on the red-cushioned bench and glanced. The usual faces observing the usual rituals. Headphones has swallowed everyone and so everyone now is Headphones. Which means only I would notice. Only I, and Staff, felt the world turn. And then I heard it. The thunder of silence. Specifically, the thunder of no music. Most gyms, I imagine, blare their noise. This is bad enough. But the single greatest sin of the modern day gym is the lack of segregation. When they decided that it would be good to have men and women work out together, they decided that it would be good to force men to either go deaf with headphones or listen to their awful teeny-bopper, boy-band music. It’s depressing to squat to Eminem; its degrading to squat to Miley Cyrus. All this to say that UNLV must be awful forward-thinking, for there are only three people who must listen to the music: Staff, myself, and Cephas, my neighbor. And the UNLV gym therefore does a tremendous job at making the music audible yet not overbearing, and on multiple occasions they have shut it off completely. On multiple occasions, I have experienced that rare joy of lifting to the sounds of lifting.
There is a happy motoring-sound to a gym. It is best when the gym is half-full or half-empty, when each section has its men, but there are too few for words. It is then that the clanking and clanging can be heard, as monotonous as blacksmiths at work. The ting of bars to rack and the intermittent grunts bubble and burst with the quite booms of weights smacking the floor. All creatures are in perpetual motion, and we sound like mining dwarves deep under the earth. I wonder tomyself how powerful we are. If we could, like ants, raise a structure ten times our height. If we could harness our energy, perhaps the newest transportation would be human-powered, or all the lights in the building turned on by the power of our arms.
Thor makes his presence felt. In the UNLV gym, the power-lifting arena rests center-stage. All the important people at UNLV are power-lifters. The In-crowd does nothing else. The Group huddles there, even if they didn’t come to lift. Please-look-at-me feels she has a better chance there. Atlas, Ab-belt, and Gloves all join at times. But none of them rule the arena like Thor. Thor is the lifter who puts more emphasis on dropping than lifting. He is the only creature I know who bulks up by dropping stuff. Even Atlas, that leader of the gym, must at times bench or squat and produce only so much as a squeal. But Thor gets all the glory with such little effort. He gets far more attention than Please-look-at-me because every time he lifts he drops, and when he drops a sudden and thunderous blast fills the gym, echoing, overpowering all the other clanks, booms, grunts, squeals, and sighs. Men lifting stop midway out of shock, awe, and respect. When Thor slams down his weights, the shock of the contact shakes the marrow of the world and the bones of its men.
On those few days when few bros lift in silence at a gym, I feel we all wait for Thor. Our tiny arms and legs create cute sounds, but they do not have the hollow echo of Thor’s hammer. When Thor does show, however, the whole tone of the gym shifts. Every few moments our petty noises, clinking like triangles, are interrupted by the doom-doom of Thor’s drum-like hammering. We all stop and pay homage; he shows us how to properly drop weight, and we imitate his example. I will admit, though, that at times, when I am a lesser man, Thor gets on my nerves, or too fiercely hammers and shakes my old bones. But now I know that one Thor is better than many skeletons. I’d rather see his face than my own multiplied, or smiling back at me through endless rows of mirrors. I’d rather see his face than my own, in the many skeletons that have made their resurgence. I haven’t seen Thor recently, but I know that peace from the skeleton invasion is but one mighty hammer throw away.
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
Friday, September 2, 2016
Painting: “Cornish Miner”
By Frederick Thomas Penson
Oil on canvas, 1885
*Many of these stolen from R. Eric Tippin’s Trifler, No 14. [On Entering a Gym and a Game of Ball, or Two True Myths]