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Hitting the gym with Kurt Vonnegut

Today I did something I don’t usually do: I went to a gym. The YMCA.  Someone I know hooked me up and I went in with the intention of  strengthening my heart. So I brought a Vonnegut book Armageddon in  Retrospect,on loan from the library, and burst into the gym with my  constellation tights and water bottle in tow. I surveyed the other retirees and lone college guy, slowly lifting weights. On a treadmill, red and panting, was my former high school driver’s ed teacher. I gave him a silent nod, more of a long overdue thank you for passing me by 2 points when we both knew I should have failed the practical test.
I looked around for the least intimidating machine, one without internet or tv attached to the screen. I found an elliptical machine that seemed low-impact enough to save my goofy ankle. Cranked her up to Level Four. No need to be a hero this early in the game. I tried to prop my book open but kept accidentally hitting buttons which tried to elevate me to steep inclines against my wishes.
The trouble with exercising while reading is that I move very slowly because I get immersed in the story. I stuck with it for 12 minutes, which I considered a pretty impressive feat. I was on a climbing machine so it made reading impossible,  so I switched to the treadmill, which is something that actually makes me kind of edgy. You walk and walk and you stay in the same place. But anything for my heart, I think.
So I continued. I cranked that baby up to a blissful 4.0 walking pace and started the book. This was getting fun. I was so healthy, I was even sweating a little bit. At this rate, I will be totally in shape by the time I get to Asia so I can go hiking.
Plus, my book was really good. One of the first pages I read included a speech Vonnegut gave at one of his Alma matters in Indiana.
I guess all of you know I am suing the manufacturer of Pall Mall cigarettes because their product didn’t kill me, and I’m now eighty-four. Listen: I studied anthropology at UIC after the Second World War, the last one we ever won. And the physical anthropologists, who had studied human skulls going back thousands of years, said we were only supposed to live for thirty-five years or so, because that’s how long our teeth lasted without modern dentistry. 
For some reason, this really got to me. I am currently paying off dental work, the first I’ve had since I was a kid. Just cavities, but in my 35th year all the same. I wondered if I just let my teeth go if I would have died by now. Like if I just never went to a dentist and then…. Boom. I’m 35 and have a mouth full of rot and I drop dead.That is probably an exaggerated version of how it went. But isn’t that weird to think about? All the modern advances we take for granted, even detest, like going to the dentist. (Sorry if you’re reading this, Leann). Something as simple as cavities may have capped off old age at 35 in our history as humans.
It’s strange how certain words hit you at a time when you will actually hear them, isn’t it? It got me thinking about health and wellness just as I started breaking a sweat from my fast-walking. Not giant thoughts about death and my place in the world, but just how odd it is that we assign weight to things like age. 35 used to be old, now it’s the new whatever. 25? 60 is now 40? At least according to the back issues of Cosmo that are on the reading rack here at the Y. In any case, the whole thing just made me happy that I get to be alive more.
So I’m on this line of thought, still walking, still wondering if my heart is getting a workout at all because I don’t know how to work the silver sensors that are supposed to keep track of things like that. I keep reading, almost completely immune to the after school kids who have come screaming in from their buses and even the sighs of exhaustion coming from two treadmills down, where Mr. Y is finishing up his workout. I kind of want to tell him I drove over here safely and have a really good driving record. I feel like that might make him feel better about squeaking me by, not that he’d remember. I wonder if he’s retired or if he liked his job teaching kids to drive.
Then I read this passage in the book a few minutes later…
The very best thing you can be in life is a teacher, provided you are crazy in love with what you teach, and that your classes consist of eighteen students or fewer. Classes of eighteen students or fewer are a family, and feel and act like one. 
I like this one and at this time in my life, I am reminded how good it does feel to teach something that I’m super interested in: English as a second language. I wonder if Mr. Y’s class ever felt like a driver’s ed family to him.
By this point, workout-wise, I don’t even know if I’m moving but my heart is definitely completely invested…in the story. I’m up to like 11 minutes. I’m starting to break a sweat,  which I consider a good, healthy sign. Glance up once at the muted televisions. The Price is Right continues to freak me out and amaze me at the same time. I don’t know how they get so many people to lose their inhibitions and dress in costumes in the middle of the afternoon just to scream and cry and  try to win stuff. That said, they are coming to Rockford in a month and I might try to get on just to be a part of the madness. It will be  filmed at the theater where I went on my first date to a Bob Dylan concert. So..memories in my final months of living where I grew up.Then there’s Jeopardy, whose closed captioning never quite matches up to the game so you can blame that for not getting answers right. Finally, there’s Fox News which has been graciously muted and not closed captioned.
My attention drifts back to the book, which I lay down as I’m walking…directly on the switch that kicks it up to 7.8. 7.8! That’s like running! I haven’t done this since high school. I screamed a little scream and ran exactly one step on my bum ankle before cat-on-a frozen pond-ing both my legs so they hovered on the non-moving sides of the treadmill while that freaky thing raced along without me. I hit the emergency stop brake and played it real ice cool from there.
I tried it again. This time, I would remain aware of my surroundings and not get lost in a story that could cause me to hurt my already injured ankle. This time, I give myself a pep talk. You have to do this. It’s your heart. It’s fifteen more minutes.
My feet fell asleep in my borrowed running shoes. This second attempt was proving more difficult. I recommitted myself to the book, and back to the speech, where Vonnegut jumps from talking about Marx and the idea of religion as an opiate of the masses in the sense that it can relieve pain for stretches of time then over to capitalism and on to wheelbarrow jokes then to how we got our skin and assholes then skipped over to the Mona Lisa and also covered Jesus and the death penalty, in a display of beautiful weirdness. And then the previews were over and the actual story started. I got to this part and I really lost track of time…
 A few days after the raid the sirens screamed again. The listless and heartsick survivors were showered this time with leaflets. I lost my copy of the epic, but remember that it ran something like this: “To the people of Dresden: We were forced to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic that your railroad facilities have been carrying. We realize that we haven’t always hit our objectives. Destruction of anything other than military objectives was unintentional, unavoidable fortunes of war”….The leaflet should have said “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theater, your university, the zoo, every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.” 
At this point, the words felt heavy on the page and  I set the book down…directly on the button that make the speed jack up insanely fast again… To 7.8.
This treadmill is possessed by a demon.
I hit every button to try to slow it down but there is nothing to do but bail out. Once again I jump safely to the sides while this train barrels on without me. I hit the emergency stop one last time.
C’est la treadmill.
I step gracefully down onto the carpeted YMCA floor. I am sweaty, glistening and radiant. My heart is racing and not just because I almost had to run and I got scared. It was actually kind of fun. Somehow, I think bringing Vonnegut to the gym was an *exercise in not taking myself too seriously.

I take a swig of water and saunter out the front door, as if I have mastered the art of exercise and may or may not return.

 

 

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