It’s hard to feel beautiful at five in the morning. I sit on the bench in my laundry room gym—I’m not even high class enough to have a garage gym—and perform the ritual. The liniment goes on my wrists first, the Tiger Balm, then the gauze, the tape, then heavy duty Inzer wraps, since I’m pressing today. I’m not using a barbell but since I broke my left wrist twice during high school football games, once during a game proper and once during a sideline scuffle with a teammate, it never hurts to take chances.
I run over the checklist in my mind: good morning message left for the girlfriend on skype, dogs nestled all snug in their beds, term paper on images of domestic violence in the book of Ezekiel turned in on Blackboard, wraps so tight that my fingers feel almost numb but not quite. Good. I slip Tori out of her CD case and onto the deck. Most guys I know, some of them among the strongest in the nation, the world, listen to either thrash metal or gangsta rap while they train. They say it gets their blood pumping. This is valid. I can remember listening to things like Pastor Troy with guys in the fieldhouse or late at night at football camp, or to Slayer with other wrestlers before tournaments, blaring “Raining Blood” between matches. There’s something tribal about the pounding drums in either of these genres, something that awakens the warrior. That’s cool. I can’t do it, though. I’m no warrior and I never have been; I’m strongest when Tori whispers, “Trapped in purgatory, a lifeless object alive, awaiting reprisal, death will be their acquisition,” not when Tom barks it, or when she asks, “why do we crucify ourselves every day?”
My spinal erector muscles, which the cook in me laughingly refers to as my tenderloins, are filled with blood. I’ve been training strongman style, again, and worked up to a three rep max on front squat last night followed by two sets of eight Hummer tire deadlifts. The pain in my lower back was sweetly excruciating, then, made me wonder if careers were available as a professional weightlifting masochist, but now it just aches dully and makes me wish I’d popped a few Motrin before bed. Not doing the deadlifts weren’t an option, less weight was not an option. South Carolina’s Strongest Man is soon, then Georgia’s Strongest Man, and in October I want to throw at the Darien Highland Games. I’m also ravenous but don’t really feel like eating. Sometimes a hard session late at night makes me queasy, in the morning. I could never eat early on Saturdays, in high school, and now I can’t if I screw up and lift or sprint (which is more important than one would imagine for strongman, since the events are timed and set at stations apart from one another) too late in the evening. It doesn’t matter; pressing doesn’t stress me as much as squatting or deadlifting. I can eat afterwards. A dozen eggs, bacon, coffee, orange juice.
There’s a great pleasure into talking to others who are in the know. A female friend who has competed in the regional Crossfit Games gets it and so do the basketball players from a local college, my undergraduate alma mater, that I meet at the grocery store. They just got a brand new gas grill, the same make and model as mine, and we talk about the best way to cook a steak, sea salt and cracked black pepper, and make sure to get the grill hot, hot, hot, one thousand degrees Fahrenheit if you can, no less than six hundred. This is the only way to get the Maillard reaction, to really get the steak you want. When they ask me, “What do you bench press, man?” I demure and say, “I haven’t bench pressed in years, guys, really, not much.” It’s pretty much true. I don’t train for competitive power lifting anymore, right now, and I doubt I could hit ninety percent of my old max without a month or two of hard warming up. I can push press or power jerk eighty-five percent of it without any trouble, though, even strict press over my considerable body-weight. I was never a great bencher, anyway, though, not like Shawn Latimer wearing Inzer gear or Big Jim Williams in a white t-shirt.
I hit three sets of twelve with dumbbells, clean and press. Since I don’t have a log (that’s a little specialized for a laundry room) this mimics the log clean and press better than anything I can think of. This is a big, brutish move done with little technique. It makes me feel like a caveman and, like most mornings, I cannot decide if this is a good feeling or a bad one. As usual I pray the Shema and the Lord’s Prayer between sets. It calms me, cools me, prepares me for the day. I compose the outline of a sermon, based on linked midrashim, in my head while I balance between the earth and two big hunks of iron. Multi-tasking is the saving grace of a busy man.
I don’t tend to get traditional compliments, the way people think about them, very much. When you’re big, thick and hard enough at the same time to defy certain categories of peoples’ expectations—like bodybuilder, fat guy, athlete—then they don’t know what to say. I do get compliments on my cooking, on my academic or ministerial achievement, but rarely on my appearance in any way. I do remember something particularly nice that a Fed-Ex guy said to me once, though, on Wrestlemania weekend. He was delivering my rubber bumper plates. He loaded the tens and fifteens onto a hand-truck to carry them to my door; I racked the thirty-fives, forty-fives and twenty-fives like an Atlas Stone and carried them. “Man!” he said, “You’re strong as hell! You must be like a wrestler or something!”
“Yeah,” I said, not wanting to explain my whole athletic history but feeling pretty good, “I used to wrestle a little bit.”
“I’m gonna watch Wrestlemania,” he said, “I can’t wait to see Triple H versus the Undertake. Man, you gotta be as strong as Triple H! Big as Triple H! Maybe stronger! If he can’t beat the Undertaker maybe you can!”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of the Undertaker’s twenty year streak of victories at Wrestlemania and how he could almost represent an indomitable obstacle in any area, “maybe I could, eh?” We shook hands and took our leave of each other. I sit at five AM, wrapping my wrists and feeling a little better and more beautiful because a delivery man, for whatever reason, looked at me and believed in me. The world also seemed a little more beautiful because I had met a grown man who felt that pro-wrestling was on the level. It was still real to him, dammit, so maybe I could be too.