The Village Idiot by Jim Mullen

I Should Have Joined a Mental Health Club

There are all kinds of people at my health club who use canes and walkers and crutches to get around; all kinds of people who wear braces and slings. Many members are overweight, and some are so skinny their Spandex sags. Some have beer bellies and love handles, hairy backs, bald heads, flabby arms and sagging pecs. And the men are not perfect either. Stand behind anyone using a stair stepper for five minutes and you’ll never want to look at another butt again. About the only body type I have never seen at the health club is a perfect one.

Because models and celebrities don’t go to the local health clubs. They have personal trainers and home gyms. The kind of people you meet at most health clubs are the same kind of people you run in to at the mall. As a matter of fact, most of the people you see at the mall are there to buy clothes that they can wear to the gym.

I’ve heard people say they would never join a health club because they are so out of shape. That makes no sense; it reminds me of the stories my mother used to tell me of women she knew who would clean their houses on Monday because the house cleaner was coming on Tuesday.

Unless you’re an orc, I can almost guarantee that you will not be the least-attractive person at your health club. Wear long pants and a floppy shirt and who’s going to know what you look like under there? And once you see what everyone else looks like, you’ll strip down to next to nothing and feel proud.

There is a woman in her 60s I see at the health club almost every time I go who has some type of serious arthritis or other medical problem. I don’t know her at all except to nod and say “hello.” Her limbs are long and thin, and you can see the scars on her legs from many operations. She rocks side to side when she walks and her shoulders seem to be locked in a permanent shrug. She is on the treadmill when I arrive and she is on the treadmill when I leave, walking, walking, walking, usually reading something. Which is why I’ve never gotten to know her. I’ve never run in to her at the water fountain or the front desk. I’ve never even seen her standing still. If she is self-conscious about her body, you’d never know it.

One day I walked into the health club as the woman was walking out. Her face was covered in huge ugly bruises, her left arm was in a sling, her awkward, rolling walk was even more pronounced and painful looking. The poor thing must have fallen down a flight of stairs, or tripped getting out of the shower. It’s bad enough to be trapped in that stiff body, I thought, and now this. Life is just not fair.

I got to the front desk and pointed to the poor woman’s retreating figure and asked the young girl behind the counter if she knew what happened to the battered woman.

“You mean the Councilwoman? She had a hard landing when she brought her plane in yesterday.”

“She’s a pilot? And she’s on the city council?”

“Oh yeah. I only know that because she’s my English Lit professor at the college.”

I can’t fly a plane and my bones are fine. I’m not a college professor and my bones are fine. I would never dream of running for the thankless job of city council member and my bones are fine. Why did I ever feel sorry for this woman? She has a more exciting life than I do.

The councilwoman/professor/pilot was back at the health club the day after the accident. We still nod when we pass each other. But now, for some reason I can’t explain, I have the sense that she feels sorry for me for my incredible lack of grit. Where do I go to exercise that?

(Note to Editors: This column is a rewritten and updated version of a column from 2003.)

(Contact Jim Mullen at mullen.jim@gmail.com.)