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A Bodybuilder Is Born 45

My cell phone rang about 5 p.m. Nobody calls me on my home phone anymore except my mother, because I have given everybody I know explicit instructions not to. It’s not that I’m paranoid about giving out the number (it’s 867-5309—just ask for Jenny). It’s that whenever my 12-year-old daughter Marisa is home, she’s on the phone with her little friends, usually talking crap about whichever friend is not on the other end of the line. While she has the house phone hooked on her left ear, Marisa’s right ear is typically glued to her cell phone, which looks exactly like mine except for the pink cover. Mine is fuchsia.

Also, her iTunes play list is blaring from the computer in front of her, as she is madly typing away to yet more friends on AOL Instant Messenger. I just saw a report on CNN that called my daughter and her peers Generation M. The M stands for multitasking. Actually, I’m quite impressed with how many things the kid can do at one time. Unfortunately, cleaning her room or changing the cat’s litter box are not among the tasks she can manage to perform in this maelstrom of frenetic activity.

It was Randy calling, and he sounded pretty down. He said he was going to take a couple of weeks off from training, so he wouldn’t be able to meet me the next day to work legs. Apparently, there was a lot going on in Randy’s life that I had no clue about. His mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, for one thing. They’d caught it very early on, so her chances were actually quite good, but the situation was still very troubling for the whole family. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only source of grief.

Randy’s younger brother Mark, whom I had met when Randy brought him to the gym more than a year and a half ago, was now 16. Mark had not taken to health and fitness after our workout together, as we’d hoped he would. Instead, he was a regular user of the drug OxyContin, which has been described by many as “heroin in a pill.” How’s that for lazy? At least previous generations had to go through the unpleasant process of tying off their arms and jabbing needles into their veins; today’s kids just pop a pill. That way they still have a free hand to instant-message and search for songs on their iPods.

I’m not making light of a very serious epidemic here. Drug addiction is not pretty. Like other drug addicts I’ve known, Mark had been stealing from his family to support his habit, which was not cheap. Some of his mom’s jewelry was now gone forever, as were various items of Randy’s, including a baseball signed by Ted Williams that was worth more than the car he drove.

Mark was in a court-ordered rehab, and to put the icing on the cake of Randy’s troubles, his sales at the dealership were way down and his job was in jeopardy. From the weariness in his voice, it was clear that all of the above was wearing on my young friend.

“I need some time to straighten all this crap out,” was what he said. Having been through my own share of crises and drama in the 21 years since I started lifting weights, I knew that it was not the solution.

“Randy, I want you there tomorrow, and we are starting with squats, as usual,” I replied.

“Ron, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “There’s just no way I could concentrate on my training right now. I’ve got too much s**t on my mind.”

“I know you do, and that’s why you need training more than ever. You need something to take your mind off all those problems. It’s not easy to do, but it can be done.”

I thought back to times when I dropped into the gym after having a particularly nasty argument with my wife, Janet. In case I have somehow presented an image of bliss in which it’s all baby talk and cuddling between us, the truth can now be told. There are times when I swear that if my wife had the magical power to banish me to some fifth dimension of darkness and pain (kind of like Detroit), I’d be gone, and not even some fancy TV psychic like John Edwards would be able to get me back.

Anyway, I would start those workouts feeling lower than a slug’s belly and about as enthused as Lindsay Lohan at a buffet, but eventually, once I got a little sweat and pump going, I would always feel a little better. By the end of the workout my problems would still be there, but at least I’d been able to escape them for a brief time, and facing the problems head-on didn’t seem such a hopeless prospect. I guess you could attribute that to the rush of endorphins that rigorous exercise sets off, and in that sense it’s not so different from drugs—except that it’s legal, it’s good for your health, and it’s productive! Then I thought of yet another reason why training during times of trouble is a good idea.
“Randy, probably the worst feelings you’re experiencing now are helplessness and uncertainty. You feel powerless to help your mother and your brother, and you don’t know what’s going to happen with them—or your job, for that matter, right?”

“Damn, Ron, did you take the Dr. Phil online psychology course or something?”

“They wanted 500 bucks, so I said forget it. Just answer me, please.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s about right—all that. It’s just so overwhelming, everything at once, like I can’t breathe.”

“I know, I know. We all go through those times. It’s just a part of life that can’t be avoided. Stuff happens. That’s why your training is so important. No matter how messed up and confusing other things in your life may be, you can always count on the gym. It’s the one constant you can rely on to be there for you when everything else seems to be falling apart.”

Randy let out a huge sigh over the phone. “Okay, I’ll be there.”

Sure enough, he was at the gym the next day. I won’t lie and say he had the best leg workout ever, but he wasn’t dragging his ass the way you might have expected him to. He was a lot quieter than usual, and I could tell he was making a solid effort to focus on the workout and drown out the nagging voices of worry in his mind. When it was over, he dropped a real bomb—no, not an attack of flatulence, more like something he had been waiting to tell me.

“I got a call last night from Bill, the manager of my dealership. He let me go.”

“Oh, my God, Randy, I’m sorry to hear that.” The call couldn’t have come too much later than when I had talked with him. “What are you gonna do now?”

Randy shrugged his shoulders, and for the first time that day cracked a smile. “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. I’m a smart guy, and I work hard. There’s got to be something out there for me.”

“Well, look on the bright side,” I offered. “Until then you can train with me all the time, and you’ll have time to eat more solid meals instead of drinking so many shakes and eating so many bars all day.”

“Yup,” he agreed. “Same time Thursday for shoulders and triceps?”

“Definitely,” I said.

Randy’s problems weren’t going to be solved by training, nor would working out make them go away. But they wouldn’t seem quite so bad when he was straining under a load of heavy iron, his muscles pumped and blood coursing through his body at a rapid rate.

Some people pay therapists to sit and listen to their problems. For those of us who have devoted our lives to hard training, there’s no need for that. The weights are our therapists, never judging us but always there when we need them, and the gym is our therapy. IM

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