It feels strange — but good — to be going to a gym again. I’ve managed to go nine out of the last ten days. It’s becoming a habit.
It’s clear already that I need to do some work with weights. I’ve never been much of a weight-lifter; I don’t enjoy it. Still, I understand that the importance of building strength, of building muscle. I spent one session on the Nautilus equipment last week, and it was humbling. I used to start at seventy pounds on most machines whenever I joined a gym. I can’t do seventy pounds right now. I can’t do fifty. On some machines, I can’t even do thirty. No wonder my knee and leg are weak!
I much prefer aerobic exercise: the treadmill, the stationary bike, the rowing machine. “You should try the elliptical machine,” the personal trainer told me last week. “It’s a better workout, especially with your knee.” I’d never used an elliptical machine before, and my first experience was awkward. I felt like crouching the entire time, but crouching hurt my back. That couldn’t be the right posture, so I tried to stand up straight, but standing up straight forced me to rock from side to side with each stride. Ultimately, I decided this was the correct form, even though it’s counter-intuitive. (I can’t think of any other exercise where you’re supposed to rock your hips.)
I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do prolonged aerobic exercise, but it’s been fine. I’m able to go for 30, 45, even 60 minutes without pause. And I enjoy it. I’ve mad a mix for my iPod containing one hundred songs with strong beats. I stride in time with bubble-gum pop music (or “Eurotrash dance” as Paul C. would put it) and the time just flies by.
Meanwhile, I’m also playing a little racquetball.
Fifteen years ago, when I was still in college, I played a lot of racquetball. I was a decent player for that particular population; I won the intramural racquetball tournament my senior year.
I’ve only played once since then, though, and that was a miserable failure. (“We don’t need to wear eye protection,” I told the group. “We’re not that good.” Within five minutes I had smacked Kris in the eye with a wayward shot. She got a black eye and I got a story.)
The presence of racquetball courts at the East Side Athletic Club was a big draw for me, one of the reasons I signed up without much hesitation. The club has leagues at three different skill levels: an A-league, a B-league, and a C-league. I went in on my own one day last week to get a feel for hitting the ball around the court. It was terrible. I had no control over my shot. I signed up for a Friday night instructional class.
No surprise: three of the other class members are kids aged nine, twelve, and fourteen. The fourth is the oldest kid’s father. The instructor is a tall, burly man who has been playing racquetball for twenty-three years. “My name is George,” he introduced himself, “like the President.” George is able to smash the ball with careless ease. Never at my peak could I kill the ball with such fluid strokes.
Our first class was spent learning the rules (games only go to 15 now instead of 21, and the tie-breaker only goes to 11!) and learning proper technique. The training on technique helped me most. No wonder I was unable to control my shot in my earlier practice session: I was setting up wrong. Also, my grip on the racquet was too short.
George talked to me after the class. “You’re alright,” he said. “You still remember most of this stuff. Go practice. Reserve a court and just practice hitting the ball until you can get it to come off the wall straight nine out of ten times.”
And so I did. I spent an hour this morning alone in a court hitting the ball of the front wall until it would come back the way I wanted it to. Then I moved ten feet toward the back wall and did the same thing. Then I switched to my backhand. Then I tried to keep control of the ball while killing it. Then I tried to generate a consistent serve. For an hour I hit the ball over and over and over, getting a feel for it. I felt good about my progress.
When I had finished, I stopped to watch a doubles game in progress. The four players all looked like George: tall, muscular men, and bald. (Is baldness a requirement for racquetball players?) Watching them, my progress seemed inconsequential. These large men slid around the court with grace and finesse. Their easy swings absolutely killed the ball. They dove for balls, they climbed the wall, they flicked their wrists and the ball carried the entire length of the court. They hurtled their bodies to the ground with casual abandon. I wish.
“Maybe they’re in the A-league,” I thought as I left the club.
I look forward to continued work on the elliptical machine, and to re-learning the game of racquetball.