Today I didn’t…

…go to the gym (supposedly a regular Tuesday/Thursday morning thing). Yesterday I didn’t go running (supposedly a regular Monday/Wednesday/Friday thing). But at least I’m here, writing this. Discipline and publish, baby, discipline and publish. The problem is the earliness. To write this and fit in some exercise requires getting up at five a.m. Some days that’s easier than others. Last week I stuck to the routine perfectly, but this week it didn’t work out (and so, therefore, neither did I).

I go to a YMCA about two blocks from my house. (I know, could this be any easier?) It had opened only a year or so before A. and I moved to this house and so is a rather modern facility. Heck, it even has a climbing wall. One of this Y’s features is a system of touch screen computers on each weight machine that keeps track of how much weight you lifted last time and how many times; it only counts a “complete” repetition, meaning that, if you were doing a chest press, you would need to push the handles all the way away from your chest before the machine registers the exercise. A trainer takes you around the first time to set the things up, programming in a reasonable initial weight for you to work up from and also calibrating the machine so it can register your movements. That is, you perform one repetition of the exercise in question and the trainer programs in your start and stop point. You can imagine that a 6′ 9″ basketball player would push the chest press handles a lot further than a 4′ 9″ jockey; if the jockey used a machine that was expecting the basketball player, the machine would never recognize that he had pushed the weight far enough, and so it would never register any of the jockey’s repetitions. With all of that set up, you just sign in at every workout at a computer terminal in the corner and then punch your user number into each screen as you arrive at your scheduled machines.

It’s a nifty system, because it means you don’t have to carry a little notebook with you to keep track of your program of grotesque physical over-development, but recently it has started to go wrong. Least among the problems that have cropped up is the fact that so many of the screens are so often dead or frozen. The worst problem is that something seems to have gone wrong with the movement calibration sensors, such that some of the machines are starting to seem as if they have been reprogrammed for someone much larger than me. This is a problem because, in order to take advantage of the system and have it tell you, next time, that you did 10 repetitions of 100 lbs this time, you need to do 10 complete repetitions, meaning – in the case of our chest press example – pushing those handles all the way out. But if the machine seems to be expecting someone bigger than you, you have to push the handles even further out by lunging forward in your seat, or pop the leg press a little further by going on tip-toe and flirting with hyperextension, or stand slightly for a down angle so that you can depress the triceps-machine handles even lower. Obviously, it’s not safe to do any of these things, although the temptation is strong: if you don’t, you won’t see the number of repetitions you’re doing being counted.

It’s quite a dilemma.

I think I’ll just start sleeping in, instead.

The last issue of Family Handyman came a few weeks ago. I subscribed A. to this as a present a year or two back and it’s been a great resource, but I think we’ll just let the subscription run out for now and maybe start up again in Montana, although if we’re renting we won’t be embarking on any household projects for a while. A. is the handy one, or maybe I should say “the motivated one,” but I enjoy the magazine, too, if more for its entertainment value than for any likelihood that I will independently decide to undertake one of the projects it details. I like the optimism that wafts off of its pages. Better than perfume ads, anyway. “Backyard Makeover,” the cover screams. “7 ways to shade your deck.” “Big-spender bathroom on a tightwad budget.” It’s interesting to think about the market for a magazine like this one. My protestations that “A. is the handy one” may sound unusual (it’s only unstereotypical, actually, which is a different thing altogether: our local Home Depot holds regular women-only classes on home improvement skills), but Family Handyman clearly doesn’t think so. As often as not, the models used in the how-to features are female, or a couple is shown working together. Still, the magazine plays a little on stereotypes: a project like the “curved garden arbor” (“carve out a new, shaded garden retreat in less than two weekends”) opens with a photo spread of the finished project. A barefoot woman with blonde, windblown hair is seated on the bench, smiling, with downcast eyes. To one side is her ceramic coffee mug; to the other, the basket of wildflowers she has just picked. No doubt her eyes are downcast because she is lost in thought, a reverie of her handy husband who created this beautiful thing for her. I guess that’s what the husbands are supposed to see, anyway.

Yesterday the latest Believer magazine arrived as well. This is an entirely different publication, a literary magazine that allegedly has a policy against giving negative reviews. This doesn’t mean that it finds nice things to say about any book, it just means that the only books chosen for review are books that the reviewer can honestly recommend. This conceit sounds overly precious when it’s explained like this, but I don’t think you’d ever notice it just from reading the magazine, although it might occur to you that the “reviews” are occasionally of books that came out years or even decades ago. The reviews are a small part of the magazine, anyway; the rest consists of essays, occasional travel writing, and – my least favorite – interviews with writers, artists, musicians, etc. I’ve always found magazine Q&A-style interview features lazy. Aren’t they just talking and transcribing a tape later? I like to see something with some structure to it, that required some effort, a forming intelligence. I haven’t been keeping count issue to issue, so I don’t know if this is usual, but the latest issue has four of these interviews, which means that about 25 percent of the magazine is of no use to me. What was of use to me was an article by Rick Moody about the W.G. Sebald book The Rings of Saturn that reminded me of my goal from last fall to read as much Sebald as I can. I actually have read the book in question, but a copy of The Natural History of Destruction has been gathering dust on my shelf for months now, and I hope to hoist it down soon.

I actually haven’t been reading a lot lately, which probably explains some of my recent twitchiness and mild discontent. I’m currently carrying around a copy of The Vigilantes of Montana, “Montana’s first book” (I’ll tell you about it some other time) but haven’t gotten very far into it. I’m just off my stride. Reading is an ongoing, living thing, a plant that needs watering, otherwise it dries up and you need a new seed and you need to wait for the first shoot to poke up out of the dirt before you know if you’re on the right track again. I experienced this kind of drying up recently with a cultural-history binge I had planned for myself. I almost but didn’t quite finish Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia a month or so back, and this meant I couldn’t move on to Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence as I’d hoped. There were a few novels tucked in around the point that it all jumped the rails, but nothing steady for a while now. In two more days, according to a record I keep in my pocket notebook, it will have been a month since I started a new book (which I still haven’t finished). It’s White Noise, and what’s supposed to be so great about this book again? I figured that someone like DeLillo would be one of those fun important writers, but I can’t seem to get into this book at all.

On my walk to work yesterday, I had what’s becoming the usual problem of finding a mailbox for a letter I needed to send. The things keep disappearing. There used to be four along my route to work. Now there is one, and that one keeps moving, and I really don’t think it’s my imagination. Maybe the USPS is studying and finetuning assumptions about the best place for the one mailbox in Charles Village. It’s disconcerting, though, especially in the morning on my way to work when I’m a little befuddled anyway.

I was running late and didn’t feel like having breakfast, so I decided to stop on my way to work for a cup of coffee. I almost went into the new Starbuck’s on St. Paul but caught myself and walked a little further to Sam’s. Lucky I did, because I turned out to be 6 cents short for a small coffee there (which I’m guessing is cheaper than it would have been at SB’s) and the woman at the cash register told me to go ahead and get my coffee anyway. I changed my mind about breakfast once I was at work and went out to look for a place where I could get some kind of egg sandwich. I wandered several blocks west on 25th before I confirmed for myself that there really is no such establishment anywhere near where I work. I ended up buying a turkey and havarti panini from Safeway, an unconventional but tasty breakfast. In the checkout line, I was behind a young woman in hemp overalls with a mullet haircut that ended in what we used to call a “tail” (shades of my brother in middle school), except the tail consisted of a couple of long dreadlocks. I record this here simply for the interest of future hairstyle historians.

Belly full, bland Sam’s coffee perched next to my keyboard, I turned to the day’s work. I’m still working on some procedure writing, the bylaws of a local regulatory body. This is, as I’ve mentioned, a little more fun than it sounds. It lets me exercise some sort of lawyerly instinct I didn’t know I had, thinking very precisely about word choice and sentence structure so as to make each rule as uncontestable – and “un-gameable” – as possible. I don’t fool myself that I’m doing an actual lawyer’s work, because that would involve using certain Latinate code words and other eccentricities, but I do enjoy the logic of it. Still, as it was Monday, it was sometimes hard to focus. I found myself checking a lot. I don’t know why I bother, since it so rarely changes throughout the day and there are usually only two or three articles I find interesting. I guess it’s because of the way that, if anything major is happening, they splash the red “Breaking News” banner across the top of the screen. I’m always expecting a disaster, whenever I click to their homepage. This is true of any news outlet that feels up-to-the-minute; I feel the same thrill whenever I hear the various radio voices say, “from NPR news in Washington…” Is this it, I wonder? Has “the end” already begun? Is that why I haven’t heard any traffic for a while?

In the evening, my parents were over, my mom dropping off my dad for another week’s visit while he attends to some medical appointments down at his old doctor in Silver Spring. The plan was to go out for dinner for a belated Mother’s Day celebration, but every place we could think of turned out to be closed (as it was a Monday, which, if a restaurant is going to take one day off in a week, that’s the best one). Finally we made some frozen ravioli and steamed some broccoli and ate in, which gave the evening an improvised, “bearing up” sort of feel that was probably a lot more fun than being waited on in a restaurant, something I seem to have gotten my fill of for a while. Somehow the thought of sitting and waiting while someone does everything for you – and also tries to ingratiate themselves to you for additional financial compensation – can be an exhausting prospect, sometimes.

Later, after my mom had left for the drive back to Silver Spring (again, she’s staying in a little guest room at a friend’s house while she finishes out the year at her school, even though she and my dad have officially “moved” to West Virginia, and there’s no room for my dad there, so he stays up here in Baltimore when he needs to return to “the area” for these appointments), my father, brother and I made sport of conspiracy theorists for a while (my dad was just reading a review of the new Kennedy book), but it was too easy, and the hour had grown late.

And five a.m. comes early.