Take my hand. / We’re off to never never land."
I’m not a big Metallica fan. They’re okay, I just lean more toward Glen Campbell. Yet that line from “Enter Sandman” was the last thing I heard before walking into the CrossFit box in my little town for the first time. Yes, I said “box” not “gym.” Based on my extensive research (ahem), they’re called a box because they resemble—wait for it—a box. Sometimes the world is simple.
Please permit me a brief sketch of myself. I’m a fifty-one-year-old male and a card carrying aesthete. And in my appreciation for art and beauty, the human body tops the list. The human frame, musculature, bone structure, mechanics, the whole shebang. I realize that quickly swerves over into discussions of What constitutes beauty? and Are there ideals? Um, yeah, I’m at an age now where those discussions wear me out. Not that they aren’t important, because they are, and not that I haven’t engaged in them in the past, because I have. But I’ll leave those wranglings to younger, smarter heads.
Anyway, so physical fitness (emphasis on the word fitness), has been a lifetime pursuit for me, primarily via lifting weights and running. Yes, I was the boy who saw Rocky and went home and started drinking raw eggs every morning. Yet most of my exercise has been solitary, in gyms by myself at odd hours, or in my basement, again at rather odd times of day, or out on the trail or road—the long distance runner in short shorts and tube socks.
But here, in my fifty-first year, I found myself feeling Dante-ish: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” Lost is not the best word for me; I’d say stalled. You may be thinking, “Ah, the cute widdle midlife crisis of the privileged male.” That’s fair. And maybe that’s true. I don’t know. All I knew was I needed to jumpstart some aspect of my life because the dark wood was starting to feel just a tad claustrophobic.
Now I had no desire to go romp in the sheets with some twenty-year-old. I’ve seen that movie, thanks. And I couldn’t figure out how to juggle a Triumph Bonneville Bobber Range payment and keep two kids in college (believe me, I’ve tried). Hey, why not give CrossFit a try? I mean, that whole cultural phenomenon has intrigued me for several years because of its near religious atmosphere, and proponents talk about it with missionary fervor. And I’m in decent shape for my age, plus the community aspect of it might do me good, you know, kickstart my heart.
And that’s how I decided to walk into never never land, housed in a box.
I failed to mention in my brief personal sketch that I am a Christian. I didn’t omit that on purpose; I just don’t always lead with that foot. For me that would be like telling you I breathe oxygen. But based on that revelation you might wonder if I prayed about this decision, or did I just do what I felt was right in my own eyes? I did pray about it, and I’m not trying to be jokey here when I tell you I believe Jesus said, “Sure, John, give it a shot. Like always, I’ll be right there with you. FYI, you might puke.”
Stipulate with every transaction that you need three days to make sure.
I’m not a big Rumi fan. He’s okay, I’d rather read Jim Harrison. But I came across that line in his poem “Deliberation,” about the time I myself was deliberating, and with a slight adjustment I vowed to give CrossFit a three-month trial. You know, to make sure.
Oh the places we could go if I told you every detail of my first few weeks in the CrossFit box. But for word count sake, let me draft off the three things I mentioned earlier that helped with my decision: my curiosity about the culture, the hope of some personal fitness gains, and the addition of people to my usual solo workouts.
And by the way, should you think this is all a veiled pitch for CrossFit, it’s not. I say do what you want with what you’ve been given. But I do advocate doing something physical if you’re stalled, at least one thing. Changing one thing, even slightly, changes the entire picture.
CrossFit was born in the twisted mind of a guy named Greg Glassman, a gymnast who also enjoyed lifting weights and cycling, and found the combinations gave him an edge over his fellow athletes who only specialized in one sport. In other words, the emphasis in CrossFit is general physical preparedness. In still other words, “jack of all trades, master of none.”
Each WOD (workout of the day) is different, you’re never doing the same movements. As I said, I’m only a few weeks in, but I’ll testify it’s hard to feel in a rut when you’re doing something different every day. So far I like that. And I’m constantly sore, which I’m not thrilled about, but I understand. There are explosive powerlifting movements like the snatch mixed in with gymnastic exercises like chin-ups, rounded out by cardiovascular sessions of jumping rope, all in the same WOD, and it’s timed. As you might guess, it’s intense, and it all leads to excessive sweating and the occasional cuss. But what happens in the box stays in the box.
I’m drawn to that variety because it trucks close to how I approach the craft of writing. My desire is to communicate to a general audience, the broadest possible. I’ve heard it referred to as “writing to the big tent.” I like that. Are some writers placed here to communicate to specialized audiences, like folks interested in Confederate uniform buttons from the Civil War? Sure, and that’s great. But that’s not me. I like to write for folks who believe in God, as well as those who believe in a pink carnation and a pickup truck. And for those, like me, who believe in both.
The variety of exercises has humbled me though. Lord, has it ever. I knew some of the movements going in, but performing them in combination with others and doing it all by the clock strips away the hubris. Like the soreness, I’m not necessarily thrilled about the humbling, but I understand it. I want to perform the movements correctly so as to avoid injury, so not only is my body engaged, but my mind too. I’m curious, and I’m learning. So to the question “Can you teach an aging dog a new trick or two?” Yes, I’m panting proof.
One aspect of the WODs that makes me chuckle is that many are named after girls. For example: Fran. Now your coach could call out every time, “Front squat into push press followed by pull-ups.” But it’s much easier to simply say, “Fran.” You learn this lingo over time. When asked why girl names, Glassman said, “Any workout that leaves you flat on your back, staring up at the sky, crushed and exhausted, deserves a girl’s name.” Well there you go. Full disclosure—I’ve been introduced to Fran. And she squashed me like a fly.
But I have to say a pleasant surprise for me in joining CrossFit is the community. You might hear people refer to their “CrossFit family,” and I can clearly see how, over time, that’s an easy reality. You all have a shared goal (WOD), and you’re each at your own skill level reaching for that goal, and you’re not competing with one another but rather cheering one another on—sounds like a variation on the theme of family to me. My pastor is a member of our local box, and a couple of Saturdays we’ve done a partner workout, sharing the reps and the load. That’s a new level of relationship I have with him that wouldn’t have occurred had I not walked into never never land. I mean it’s one thing for him to pastorally utter, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” but it’s something else entirely for him to breathlessly shout at me, “Fran sucks!”
In that beautiful baseball movie about fields and dreams, the voice of James Earl Jones says, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.” As much as I love that movie, and baseball, and James Earl Jones, the quote’s in error. The one constant is people, the variations of family, flesh and blood relationships. I’d lost sight of that a bit here in my fifty-first year. But I’m beginning to see clearly again, and from of all places, inside a box.
In all things God works for the good of those who love him.
The apostle Paul. He’s okay. He also drives me nuts sometimes. But I’m convinced he drove himself nuts at times too. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. What a nut. But I came across these words of his the other day in his letter to the Romans, and I remembered what Jesus told me: “Like always, I’ll be right there with you.” I believe there’ll be some good come out of this CrossFit experience, whether I’m only there for three months or three years. I believe that. Will that be something super spiritual along the order of signs and wonders? I don’t know. Could be, I guess. Then again it might simply be throwing some physical variety into my middle years to keep my body and mind agile, making some new friends that might one day feel like family, and maybe, just maybe doing a muscle-up one of these mornings. Actually, that last one would count as a bona fide miracle.
P. S. I haven’t puked. Yet.
Cover image by Victor Freitas.