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This is me, circa 2000, climbing at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin. I don’t remember the route name but it was a 5.8 or something like that. Rather difficult.

There was a group of us, tight-knit, who climbed at all the gyms in town: three YMCAs, Adventure Rock, Milwaukee Turners. We took turns driving each other out to Devil’s Lake, and broke off into smaller groups that climbed at gyms in Whitewater and Appleton. Some of us, including me, were climbing instructors at the Y.

It was a good time, but these people have faded from my life, and I haven’t climbed since 2004.

That same year, I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid, which had slowed my metabolism to a crawl, causing a 20-pound weight gain. In 2004, I also got married, took a new job, and moved to an urban neighborhood where there’s at least one marvelous restaurant or pub on every corner.

By 2006, I had put on 42 pounds. Although most women might be offended by this, for my birthday that year John gave me four personal training sessions at the gym where he, a marathon runner, also worked out. He knew how miserable I’d become. It was one of the most loving things he’s ever done for me.

I worked with my trainer, Lauren, for two years. It was a great experience and we developed a strong friendship, but looking back I can see that I didn’t take the work nearly as seriously as I should have. After our sessions, John would come pick me up and we’d go out for Mexican food. My stamina and muscle tone improved. But I didn’t lose weight.

When I was a climbing instructor at the Y, I also worked out there. In graduate school, I switched over to the university rec center. In 2010, the year after I got my master’s degree, I joined one of those franchise gyms, a seven-minute walk from my home, owned by someone you never see working out there but who occasionally rolls up in a brand-new BMW wearing an expensive suit. When you join this particular franchise gym, your paperwork not only comes from the gym but also from the finance company you pay your monthly fee to.

I got serious about losing those 42 pounds. Started counting calories using an app called Lose It. For two and a half years my new gym and I had a beautiful relationship, with the bonus that one of the trainers there also had a master’s in English and we had a number of robust discussions about literature and writing and teaching. The manager, female and young, was quite professional for her age, a hustler in the good sense of the word who really grew the business.

Everything was fine until sometime last fall, when I couldn’t bring myself to go there anymore. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Maybe watching people drip sweat all over equipment and not wipe it down. The young woman with the blaring iPod her ear buds can’t contain, who has her choice of every other treadmill in the empty gym but takes the one right next to me. Maybe it was the guy wearing those minimalist Erewhon shoes with toes, who does the same move with a set of barbells an hour and a half straight, dropping the weights from two feet up every time. The one I saw spit on the carpet next to the elliptical machine.

Or maybe it was the attorney who burst into the weight room where three of us were peacefully working out, who dropped to the floor every piece of equipment he touched, continually marked his progress in a notebook that he continually chucked to the floor, and in between practiced a closing argument.

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This month I finally called the manager and told her, “I would like to cancel my membership.”

“How come?” she said.

I told her I wanted to return to my sports.

“Which ones?” she asked.

“Running. Yoga. Climbing. Dancing,” I said.

She didn’t say anything, just made a noise. I got the strong feeling she didn’t believe me.

I put on my running tights and old Nike Storms and headed to the gym to sign my cancellation paperwork. The manager barely looked at me. Checked boxes and drew lines on the form quickly, as if sketching. Pushed it across the desk at me and said, “Fill out the upper half.”

There was no conversation, no friendly banter as I filled out the top half. No “sorry to see you go” or “thank you for being a member for the past two and half years, come back when you’re ready.” I slid the paperwork back, and she handed me a piece of paper from the printer.

“Your receipt,” she said. It was on letterhead from the finance company.

That was it. “Take care,” I said.

“Yep,” she said back.

The trainer with the master’s degree cheerfully said “see you!” as I left. I pushed open the front door of the gym. The sun hit my face.

And I ran. As fast I could.

Along the way I recalled the years 1995 to 2005, when I became the athlete I never really was growing up. I had won two canoe races. Learned to cross-country ski. Downhill-skied in Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, Colorado, Vermont. Backpacked 10 miles. Ran a 15k race without stopping once. Took yoga. Kickboxing. Spinning. Cycled 100 miles in two days. On hills.

And I danced. Oh, the dancing. The first swing dance at the Knights of Columbus on Milwaukee’s south side my girlfriend Lori took me to led me to contra dancing, then Irish set dancing, then Scottish country folk dancing.

During my run I realized that, similar to the road trip I’d taken last fall, what had been keeping me from the gym were all these things I used to be and had forgotten about and wanted back. I needed to more freely move through time and space again.

I still have my copy of Pat Murphy’s Toss the Feathers, which tells you how to dance the Irish sets, which are all danced the same way, no matter where you are in the world. But I can’t find my Climber’s Guide to Devil’s Lake, which makes me kind of sad.

I do have my copy of Devil on the Cross by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, though, which he autographed when I met him in 2006 during grad school. Funny where life takes you sometimes. The detours. Wrong turns. The retracing of steps back to the campfire, whose embers are still burning.

So far I’ve lost 26 of the 42 pounds I started gaining nearly ten years ago. I have no interest in getting down to the weight I was when this all started; 10 or 12 pounds over would be just fine.

Which means only six more to go.


Had I seen this in my gym last fall, it would have sent me right over the edge. The person who posted it on YouTube says that when there are three or four empty treadmills in a row, she’ll turn them all on and dance from one to the other.