Stairmaster vs the Flying Monkeys
by Lesley Reece
I first saw The Wizard of Oz when I was about seven years old. For four or five years afterward, I was convinced that a tornado could come and whisk me away at any moment. My parents kept telling me there hadn't been a tornado in Oregon in 200 years of recorded history, but that didn't help a bit. I consoled myself by planning out exactly what I'd do when the winged monkeys came. (I'd reason with them, offering a lifetime supply of bananas to the one who would set me safely down in my front yard.)
When the cold war began to escalate in the early eighties, I was older, but no less paranoid. Every time I heard the Emergency Broadcast System tone coming from a nearby TV or radio, I hit the ceiling, convinced that this time it wasn't "only a test." I made myself a t-shirt with a big target on it and the legend "Drop Bomb Here." I wanted to be the first to go. I figured vaporization would be better than radiation sickness.
I guess I've never been what you'd call balanced in the face of matters like these. And during the Gulf War, I went a little bit insane.
I think what affected me most was watching the conflict unfold on live television. During the first few days of the war, I could barely peel myself away from the set to go to work. I didn't want to miss the announcement of where to tune in for further instructions. One morning, I woke up on the couch -- I'd slept there, sitting up all night. My neck was killing me. My hand had little red marks on it from where I'd been clutching the remote.
I knew this conflict could go on as long as Vietnam had, and I couldn't quit my job to spend the next decade glued to CNN. Unless I was ready for the worst, I couldn't live normally. But I didn't know how I could prepare for life after the bomb. Build a shelter? Move to Montana? Learn to eat dogfood, like Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior? None of those ideas appealed to my urban vegetarian sensibilities.
A couple of nights later, as I watched some of our troops jogging in formation on the evening news, the solution came to me. I had no major health problems, but I was out of shape. I always had been. I couldn't even run for a bus, let alone hike a hundred miles over a blasted postnuclear landscape to find help or supplies. I decided to join a gym.
The first couple of places I investigated had serious faults. One of them was crammed with men who resembled roast turkeys, all doing one-handed pushups -- "one thousand and sixty-seven, one thousand and sixty-eight" -- or grunting as they heaved huge barbells over their heads. There were no women in sight. The next place claimed an emphasis on fitness over muscles, but I got intimidated by the woman who showed me around. She looked exactly like a Malibu Barbie, and she kept telling me I could "fix" my lovely gothic pallor if I'd just buy ten visits to their tanning salon. No, thank you.
When I came to the third club, I was greeted by the owner, a tiny woman with hair so big it looked like it might get stuck on the ceiling fan. She wore a purple velour jogging suit and matching mules with three-inch heels. When she sat me down at a little table to go over the membership contract, I saw a pack of More Menthol 100s sticking out of her side pocket. If she can get in shape, I thought, anyone can. I signed up for a year.
I started immediately, exercising every night after work. It kept me away from the TV. I was still reminded of the war by the little yellow ribbons the owner tied all over everything, but I managed to stay focused. Muscles began to appear in locations where I hadn't known there were any -- the back of my neck, my arms, my shoulders. After a month I could stay on the exercise bike for half an hour without getting winded. After two months, I could do the same with the stairmaster. By the time was over, I was so happy with my new, functioning body that I'd almost forgotten to worry about the bomb.
Two and a half years ago, I stopped working out so much because school was overwhelming all my free time. I didn't pay attention until one day last summer, when I passed the army surplus store in my neighborhood. I saw all the boxes of "MRE" meals and shelves of durable footwear, and started to feel twitchy. I caught myself wondering whether I could eat Alpo in the event of a disaster. I knew I'd have to make more time for exercise.
I now work out at least five days a week in the campus gym. It's close by, so I don't have to worry about commuting time. The only problem is, it's right next to the campus nuclear reactor. What will I do if there's an earthquake while I'm on the stairmaster? I've been trying not to think about that too much.
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