Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilderby Samuel Wilson Fussell
At age 26, scrawny, Oxford-educated Samuel Fussell entered a YMCA gym in New York to escape the terrors of big city life. Four years and 80 lbs. of firm, bulging muscle later, he was competing for bodybuilding titles in the "Iron Mecca" of Southern California-so weak from intense training and starvation he could barely walk. MUSCLE is the harrowing, often hilarious… See more details below
At age 26, scrawny, Oxford-educated Samuel Fussell entered a YMCA gym in New York to escape the terrors of big city life. Four years and 80 lbs. of firm, bulging muscle later, he was competing for bodybuilding titles in the "Iron Mecca" of Southern California-so weak from intense training and starvation he could barely walk. MUSCLE is the harrowing, often hilarious chronicle of Fussell's divine obsession, his search for identity in a bizarre, eccentric world of "health fascists," "gym bunnies" and "muscleheads"-and his devout, single-minded acceptance of illness, pain, nausea, and steroid-induced rage in his quest for the holy grail of physical perfection.
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Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder
By Samuel Wilson Fussell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Samuel Wilson Fussell
All rights reserved.
ALL THE UNHAPPINESS OF MAN STEMS FROM ONE THING ONLY: THAT HE IS INCAPABLE OF STAYING QUIETLY IN HIS ROOM. —PASCAL
Bodybuilders call it "the disease." Its symptoms include a complete commitment to all matters pertaining to iron. Not the kind of iron you use to press your clothes, but the kind they use to create bulges and muscular mounds in their bodies. You find "the diseased" in bookstores hovering by the rack containing the muscle magazines (invariably adjacent to the pornography). You overhear them in vitamin stores, discussing the merits of branch-chain amino acids and protein powders. You scan them on the subway, their hypertrophied bodies a silent, raging scream of dissent. And, walking to work in the morning, you can see them through the windows of their gyms, hoisting and heaving weights in a lifting frenzy.
Most of them catch the disease during the years of adolescence. On the back pages of comic books, scrawny teens find advertisements for chest expanders and chin-up bars. For many that's where the affair ends: in an unmailed letter or as cobwebbed, unused equipment piled in the basement. But for a few—the truly afflicted—the arrival of the equipment is just the beginning. Within a matter of months, they graduate from chest expanders to bench presses, from pull-ups to squats. Eventually, as their bodies fill out and the dream takes hold, they gravitate from distant neighborhoods to their own kind in the gyms of the city.
This was not my story. I passed into my mid-twenties knowing nothing of the disease. Until the age of twenty-six, in fact, my life was filled with books. I began my course of reading at a prep school called Lawrenceville and continued it through my graduation from Oxford University. Until then, everything was set. The son of two university professors of English, I was next in line to assume the academic mantle. My parents' only cause for concern was the fact that I preferred American literature to English.
The trouble began when I moved back to New York City for a year off after Oxford before I was to enter graduate school. Within a month I found a sublet on the Upper East Side and a job in publishing. But suddenly and spectacularly my health began to deteriorate. First it was my lungs (the doctors diagnosed pleurisy), then it was a fever (this time, pneumonia). Despite medications, my condition did not improve. Colds, hot flashes, chills—one malady replaced another.
My arrival at work every morning set off a communal buzz of concern. At six feet four and 170 pounds sopping wet, I had always been gaunt. But now, with rasping lungs and cadaverous complexion, I looked like an outpatient from Bellevue (which, in fact, I was). I publicly tried to pass off my predicament as nothing serious—I was just feeling a little under the weather, I said. Things would take a turn for the better come spring, I was sure of it.
And my friends averred that this must be the case. They took me out to lunch and tried to take my mind off my health. But all along, I knew the cause of my own particular disorder, I was just loath to admit it. The problem, you see, was New York. It terrified me. To divulge my fears seemed cowardly, somehow unworthy of the city. But finally, among the lunch gathering, bracketed by a coughing fit, I let it all out. Was I the only one, I asked haltingly, living in a constant state of terror in the city? Did others also find themselves under siege?
As soon as I admitted it, the facts and figures came tumbling out of my mouth. The rapes, the muggings, the assaults, the murders. Those were the majors, but the minors were just as bad. I felt trapped by the teeming populace, dwarfed by skyscrapers, suffocated by the fumes from factories and expressways. And then there was Jerry, and men like him.
"Jerry?" they asked.
I was surprised they didn't know him. He seemed to be on a first name basis with much of the city.
"Hi, Jews for Jesus! Jerry here—that's with a J!" he would shout, as soon as he spotted my head on the subway escalator each morning at Grand Central. Sandwich board and all, he waited for me at the top of the platform, plucking me out from the hundreds of other commuters fore and aft.
"How ya doin, Stretch?" he'd begin, all smiles and concern, draping an arm around my shoulder. And then, in an abrupt change of tone, he'd pounce: "What I mean to say is ... how do you feel about ... tomorrow?"
I explained to growing laughter around the table that Jerry was just one of many "friends" drawn to me through the course of the day like slivers of steel to a magnet. Something about me seemed to appeal to every deadbeat, con artist, and self-proclaimed philosopher of the city. No matter where I turned, confidence tricksters hounded my path.
At the conclusion of my painful monologue, I sat back exhausted, shamed that I was so vulnerable. And then, suddenly, merry voices chimed in from all sides at the table. Apparently, I'd struck a chord after all. There was Niels, who exulted in the fact that his wet, limp clothes had been scattered across the laundromat floor by a street tough when he hadn't removed them from the washer on time. There was Matthew, rocking in his chair in delight, as he told us of the gray-suited man who followed him home one day, lowered his trousers on Matthew's doorstep in mid-afternoon, and defecated on his welcome mat. Troopers together, everyone seemed to have their stories to tell.
What had happened in the recent past to the newscaster Dan Rather had, in one form or another, happened to us all. Two men had accosted Rather on the street, and took turns beating him, all the while asking him the question: "What is the frequency, Kenneth?" Self-consciously, I joined the laughter at the table in the retelling of the story. It was agreed that the fact that it made no sense made perfect sense.
"Urban dissonance," my friends called it, the inevitable result of the great flux of cultures and tribes, languages and races that make up the city. Too many people, too little space. The result: noise, stench, subway riders pushed in front of trains—all unavoidable byproducts of "modernism."
Urban dissonance was one thing—diarrhea another. The city literally scared the shit out of me. It wasn't just Jerry or the crowds, the heckling or the hassles. It wasn't just bag ladies lamenting their persecution by the CIA. It wasn't even the nightly serenade of gunshots and sirens outside my bedroom window. These things I might someday learn to cope with. Try as I might, there were things I simply couldn't ignore.
Like what I'd witnessed on a downtown subway platform my first month back in the city. All I could hear at first were the screams, but as I neared I saw the crowd. They were milling around two men, one a huge, bearded skell (a man who lives in the tunnels and trains beneath the city) and in his grasp, a hapless businessman. The skell was shaking him like a rag doll while the victim shrieked in fear. No one made a move to help him. We all watched, paralyzed, as the skell punched his victim repeatedly in the face. Every blow he struck sounded like a baseball bat hitting a side of ham. It was beyond brutal, and when the skell grew bored at last and skipped away, leaving his prey comatose in a pool of blood, we heard him far down the subway corridor singing a nursery rhyme in victory.
I realized the god-awful truth when I helped the poor man to his feet. It could just as easily have been me, just as I could have been the one strolling down First Avenue at the precise moment an air conditioner dropped from a fourth story window. As it was, according to the papers, it was one Elizabeth Beaugrand who was brained. Just a matter of time before it would be my turn, and if it wasn't an air conditioner, then it might well be a construction crane, a snapping bridge cable, a cement block, or, of course, a knife, fist, gun, or rug cutter.
My New York days I spent running wide-eyed in fear down city streets, my nights passed in closeted toilet-bound terror in my sublet. My door triple-locked, windows nailed shut, the curtains, needless to say, drawn. The place was going to explode at any moment—I could feel it—and unless I gained something fast, some uniform, some velcro, I would catapult into oblivion along with the rest of the shards. Caught in this nightmare, I needed something, anything, to secure my safety.
My friends advised me to try the usual anodynes: Something like The Harvard Club or The New York Society Library might do the trick. A lit candle in a dark room. And if not that, well then, why not some exercise, like Tae Kwon Do even, or, if need be, Plato's Retreat? In any case, don't worry, they said. Just stop taking things so seriously.
But how could I stop taking things so seriously when conditions were so serious? A recent MIT study indicated that a combat soldier had had a better chance surviving World War II than a New Yorker surviving New York.
My family was out. I couldn't retreat to our house in Prince–ton because it had been sold while I was away at Oxford. After thirty years of marriage, my parents had bitterly and publicly divorced. To choose one parent's home would have meant taking sides. I did try a girlfriend, and we spent a number of blissful afternoons together. But the partings were always hell. She had to rush off each evening to the downtown apartment she shared with her fiancé.
The more I learned about the city, the more I noticed the alternatives. Suicide, for one.
So the New York Post reported. On an average of once a week, a citizen leaps to the tracks in a subway station to kiss the third rail or jumps to his death in front of an oncoming train. The George Washington Bridge is another favored spot, along with the few skyscrapers still lacking the deterrent of fences and barbed wire on their peaks.
Finding an activity was another alternative. In Washington Square Park on weekends I found scores of men, heads burrowed in their hands, playing chess, all in quest of regulation and safety in the square grid of the chessboard. I saw white men dressed in black on the subway, swaying in their seats, reciting Talmudic texts aloud. I saw black men dressed in white, periodically unfurling prayer rugs and chanting toward Islam.
Relocation was another possible solution: heading off in a silver camper with an untainted water supply to the mountain peaks of the West, proclaiming myself a "survivalist." (I'd noticed that survivalists of a different stripe relocated to places like Taos, New Mexico, and called themselves "artists.") But I didn't want to relocate. I just wanted to be less assailable, less vulnerable. Good God, it was enough to make a grown man cry, or—hold your hats—turn to bodybuilding.
I was ducking for cover, as usual, when it happened. This time it was a man with a crowbar and a taxi medallion, worth $50,000 at the going rate, which he had just ripped off the hood of a New York taxi cab. Spotting me as a likely customer, he'd advanced upon me, brandishing the crowbar for emphasis. I quickly sought shelter in the nearest building, which turned out to be the New York landmark, The Strand bookstore. It was an appropriate refuge—I'd used books all my life for protection. I caught my breath and, as was my custom, made way to the autobiography section (I frequently found myself there wondering how they coped with life).
It was in this aisle, in this store, in September of 1984, that I finally caught "the disease." Here it was I came across Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder by Arnold Schwarzenegger. A glimpse of the cover told me all I needed to know. There he stood on a mountain top in Southern California, every muscle bulging to the world as he flexed and smiled and posed. Just the expression on his face indicated that nothing could disturb this man. A victim? Not bloody likely.
As for his body, why, here was protection, and loads of it. What were these great chunks of tanned, taut muscle but modern-day armor? Here were breastplates, greaves, and pauldrons aplenty, and all made from human flesh. He had taken stock of his own situation and used the weight room as his smithy. A human fortress—a perfect defense to keep the enemy host at bay. What fool would dare storm those foundations?
And that's where it hit me, right there in The Strand. I knew it in an instant, my prayers were answered. What if I made myself a walking billboard of invulnerability like Arnold? Why couldn't I use muscles as insurance, as certain indemnity amidst the uncertainty of urban strife? Arnold had used iron to his obvious advantage, why couldn't I? And if the price was high, as a quick glance at the tortured faces in the training photos suggested, well, wouldn't four hours a day of private pain be worth a lifetime of public safety?
Nothing else had worked for me. The Harvard Club tie and The New York Society Library card had done nothing to ward off attack. As for Tae Kwon Do, one had to actually engage in street combat to use it. But muscles—big, loud muscles—well, they were something else altogether. Surely a quick appraisal of my new gargantuan body would guarantee me immunity, even from the criminally insane. And the beauty of it all lay in the probable fact that I would never be called upon actually to use these muscles. I could remain a coward and no one would ever know!
It was that simple at first—at least, so I thought. By making myself larger than life, I might make myself a little less frail, a little less assailable when it came down to it, a little less human. In the beginning I planned to use bodybuilding purely as a system of self-defense. It wasn't until later, 80 muscle-crammed pounds later, that I learned to use it as my principal method of assault.CHAPTER 2
WE ARE ALL STILL PIONEERS, REQUIRED TO COLONIZE THE PIECE OF GROUND WHICH CHANCE ASSIGNS US, TO MAKE IT OUR OWN BY SHAPING IT INTO A SMALL, AUTONOMOUS, INTELLIGIBLE WORLD. —PETER CONRAD
I spent the next day at work educating myself about the lifting world. I wanted to make sure that I entered the gym that night with the appropriate attitude. The preparation, I felt, was essential—the sooner I built myself up, the sooner I'd find safety. So it was that I spent that morning ignoring my typing chores and underlining passages from Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. By noon, I'd practically memorized the whole text.
I was too nervous to eat at lunch, and found myself instead in a magazine store, shelling out money for muscle periodicals. Flex, Power, Ironman, Muscular Development, Muscle & Fitness—I got them all, and passed the afternoon in my cubicle going through the glossy pages.
I skimmed over the photos showing the models with their gaunt cheeks and wasted, scrawny frames. From the beginning, I never had the slightest interest in what the magazines called "toning" or "spot reduction." These models reminded me of myself as I was, not as I wanted to be. How would a low percentage of body fat help me in the event of a street fracas?
I wanted to get as big as possible as fast as possible. The bigger, the better—that boded best for personal protection. So it was the most massive bodybuilders who caught my eye. Builders whose flexed arms were actually larger than their heads. Builders who could balance a glass of milk on top of their inflated chests. Builders like the Cuban expatriate Sergio Oliva (now a cop in Chicago), Bertil ("Beef It") Fox, Geoff ("Neck") King.
These men never sucked in their cheeks. Just the opposite, they puffed and preened through the pages, displaying their frightening wares of tanned tissue and bulging veins in the most Herculean poses: the crab, the javelin throw, the back double-biceps. And always, every few pages, there was Arnold.
The Education had been clear on Arnold's history. Born in 1948 to middle-class parents in Graz, Austria, he began his communion with iron at the age of fifteen. He approached the weights with what Gaines and Butler in their book Pumping Iron labeled such "joy and fierceness" that just five years later, barely out of his teens, he won his first Mr. Universe title. By the time he retired, "The Austrian Oak" had won Mr. Universe four more times and the most prestigious title in bodybuilding, Mr. Olympia, an unprecedented seven times. Arnold ruled bodybuilding in the way Muhammad Ali ruled boxing, with enough skill and charisma to dumbfound critics and competitors alike.
But it didn't end there. Upon his retirement from bodybuilding, Arnold simply changed fields, making himself part of the Zeitgeist with his ascension to the silver screen and his marriage to Maria Shriver.
Through iron, he had got what he wanted: big-balled muscles and a permanent pass to the Kennedy compound. Surely, I thought at my desk, if he could do that, then I could fulfill my own more limited ambition and gain 20 to 30 pounds.
Excerpted from Muscle by Samuel Wilson Fussell. Copyright © 1991 Samuel Wilson Fussell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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