THE MORALIST IN THE LOCKER ROOM, by Ricardo L. Nirenberg.
There's so much to learn about human nature and the diversity of human types, both physical and moral, by watching men (I really can't talk about women) in the locker room. Most weigh themselves after working out (in my region of the world, the verb "to exercise" seems to be out of fashion) in the hopeful expectation that today they will weigh less than yesterday. They mount the scales with reverence and completely naked, like a Roman centurion approaching a Mithratic grotto, so that nothing, not even a brief or an undershirt, will be added to their body weight. How often they dismount visibly frustrated, and check the sliding weights, the arm, the screw, the zero, or whatnot, then walk away dejectedly, cursing under their breath! I always advise them to change their method. Either weigh yourself before the exercise (I tell them), and not afterwards, or wear your slippers to the scales; then you'll be able to say, "Yeah, pretty bad, but after the workout I will weigh less: needless to verify," or, "Without these slippers it would surely be about three fewer pounds." They laugh. Yet it is no laughing matter: I'm serious. I'd like to tell my fellow exercisers that what I'm proposing is consistent with the religious stand: faith instead of math.
Faith, at any rate, isn't it at the bottom of our working out? A stubborn yet unverified belief that strenuous effort will result in a longer life.
A retired gentleman in his sixties; since I don't know his name, I'll call him Golfer. I see him on the weight floor pacing up and down, leaning slightly forward, looking straight ahead with a grimly set jaw; every now and then, as on a sudden impulse, he sits at a machine and, baring his teeth, pushes and pulls at breathtaking speeds (which, as you know, besides risking injury, is useless for the muscles). Then he lets go, gets up and goes on pacing as fiercely as before, and when he gets to either end of the long room, he swings an imaginary golf club. Then he takes on another machine or picks up a barbell, and so on. Sometimes I see Golfer in the locker room. There, too, he takes occasional swings while he rushes through the shower-and-getting-dressed routine. When I see him leaving, I imagine he's headed straight for the golf course, which is (one gathers) where he really wants to be. I've heard it, though, from someone who knows him, that Golfer walks fiercely on the links pretending he's lifting imaginary weights.
In a magnanimous mood, you may call him expansive; I'd rather call him a room hoarder, a boor, a Leviathan of boundless, inconsiderate selfishness. You come back to your locker from the showers to find that he has placed his outsize gym bag on the middle of the bench, the remaining two thirds of which are occupied by a pair of frog legs, a waist rubber floater, a snorkeling mask and tube, a portable CD player, assorted toiletries, all of which belong to him. There's no room for you to sit, nor is there any decent room for you to stand, since his sizable, waterlogged and unwrung swimming suit has been splayed on the floor. You harrumph, but the guy is too involved with clipping his toe nails (incidentally, a clipping just narrowly missed your eye) and doesn't notice you. So you say, gesturing toward your locker, "Excuse me: I happen to be over here." He raises his head and looks at you; he mumbles, "Uh," and proceeds to move his snorkeling gear two inches to the left, then goes on clipping away on his other foot. For the rest of the day, you wish you belonged to another species: mouse, rat, octopus, no matter what, as long as it is not the damned one which comprises such expansive individuals.
A few of those with a permanent locker affix a mirror, I have noticed, to the inner side of the door: I find in it a fruitful source of psycho-historical reflections. To begin with, my oldest memories which, as you are surely aware, are invariably the dimmest yet the most influential of the facilities for boys at the YMCA (Asociación Cristiana de Jóvenes) of Buenos Aires around 1950. Each member (socio) was given a numbered wire basket (la canasta), in which to put one's gym gear; the swimming garment (el slip) was always stretched upon the basket, attached by four side straps to the wire. You asked for your basket at a counter; an old man fetched it from dark, deep, shelved recesses; there were no lockers for the boys, hence as is so often the case, alas, with such things in life my first locker room wasn't really one. There was a changing room though, and if memory serves, once in your gym clothes you brought the basket back to the old man with your street clothes in it, and proceeded to the gym. Our gym and swimming instructors, however, had each a permanent locker: one particular pair locker/instructor is permanently locked in my mind. His name I don't recall exactly; it was, I think, something between Freddy Freeman and Clark Kent. But I do recall the mirror (el espejo) which covered the whole inner side of his locker door, I do recall how well, how faithfully it reflected the instructor's almost Akkadian calves, Praxitelean pectorals, and that royal look of pride and satisfaction in his eyes. And I remember feeling that one who had a mirror on the inner side of his locker door had no need, no need whatsoever, for the admiration of such an other as I. It is hard to tell at this remove, but I am quite certain I felt envy: not for his strong, well-muscled body, but for his independence.
As long as we are on the muddy banks of that fabled pond, let us take a brief peek. But first let's walk away and up, just a bit, to drier ground, to the top of the moral hillock. Here we are: now, what's wrong with narcissism? Listening to the psychologists, one encounters the word at almost every turn, and narcissism would appear to be at the root of every other mental ailment but here, if you'll allow, I would like to take the term in its narrowest sense, that is to say, the capacity of deriving pleasure from the contemplation of one's image on a looking glass. As it appears to me, and as long as it does not involve someone else's pain, deriving pleasure from no matter what is better than deriving displeasure from it; better even than indifference. You don't have to be a hedonist or an Adonis to agree with that. But what if one spends all the time looking at oneself in the mirror? Well, with that type of argument you may conclude that breathing is bad, since it may result in hyperventilation. But that way lies love of self to the exclusion of love for our fellows (you may oppose). I don't see why. That young man who admires the reflections of his well-developed biceps and pecs, then turns around one right angle to delight in his ample lats and tatooed deltoids: what makes you think that he is any less capable of loving others than the one who, sitting at his desk and far from the sweaty smells and antifungal powders of the locker room, turns every phrase of his this way and that way, to decide which sounds or looks best? Why, in short, should we prefer rhetoric to muscle, the letter to the flesh? At their zenith, paganism appreciated, and Christianity despised, both in equal measure: that, at least, was coherent.
"I used to play three hours of racketball every day first thing in the morning." Or, "I used to swim a mile in twenty-four minutes flat." We look at the speaker, a man on whom time has marked its passing the way it does on trees, by adding rings: not lignin in his case, of course, but fat, fat, outrageous fat. Were instead an old woman reminiscing on her long wilted charms, or a citizen on the past glories of his ruined country, the thing might have its tragic lining; here we can only feel farce. It cannot be by mere linguistic accident that the word "farce" originally meant "stuffing."
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