by Beau Burriola -
SGN European Correspondent
'Mphhhhhhh,' I hissed with all my manly might, lifting with every ounce of strength I could muster and turning as bright as a radish along the way. 'Grmphhhhhhhhhhhhhh!'
And the bar moved about a half-inch.
I was trying not to panic in a weight room full of muscled men, pushing with all my might. I wanted desperately to keep everything looking quite normal, but it wasn't normal. My pride stopped me from doing the common-sense thing and just putting the bar down. After all, I had come marching into this gym trying to look perfectly comfortable, slapped on two banal looking tens and fives on each side, and lifted, thinking that a gym in Belgium would be just the same as a gym in Seattle. Nope, wrong. Painfully wrong. Those numbers on all the weights around here are kilos, each having about 2.2 pounds, something that never occurred to me in the month I'd been here before walking into this gym, so here I stood, heaving, trying to curl 75 pounds with arms that can do half that on a good day.
'Come on,' I told myself sure that if I could do just one, I could put it down and salvage some tiny bit of my pride. 'You got this. Man up!'
The bar moved another half-inch, but now with an increasingly violent shake. For all my dramatic, loud mustering, heaving and grunting, I couldn't get the bar above my belly button, and I damn near did in my back just getting it that far.
Now noticing that the three guys nearest me had stopped what they were doing to look my way, I closed my eyes, slowly lowered the bar and let out a long breath, the deep red hue of effort in my face giving way to a lighter, burning red of embarrassment.
I looked around the weight room for the missing clippy. For the uninitiated, a clippy is a sort of metal paper clip you attach to the end of a weight bar to keep the weights from falling off, and for the life of me I couldn't find the one missing on my bar.
If you've never looked around a weight room for something missing, it's much harder than it sounds. If the room is crowded, you have to try to look for it without looking at the guys around you. My familiarity with the Unwritten Rules of Bizarre Masculine Gym Etiquette tells me this is necessary to keep anyone from feeling uncomfortable - or worse, getting outright offended. So, I walked around the room with my eyes cast upward and down, but carefully not toward anyone, searching high and low for a clippy.
After a couple of rounds around the gym, I found a clippy and walked back to my bar. Now with a sensible knowledge of kilos, I put on the right amount of weight. So far, so good.
I lifted the bar, fully expecting that the dozen or so men around me wouldn't even notice me, and then in horror, disaster struck. The clippy I had found slid right off and the bar went down on one side and up on the other. I tried to recover, but not before weight plates, clippies, and a pole went scattering, bouncing, and rolling in all directions, the crowd around me moving to avoid as much as they could.
Nobody spoke. With no other way to vent my embarrassment, I began laughing. After all, laughter is universal, and so is humor, right? Perhaps they might even join in the laugh and we could all just push this along to an end. So laugh I did, loudly. I closed my eyes and laughed until I felt my eyes water.
But nobody else laughed. Not a single person in a room full of men laughed. Two just stared. I had again broken the Sacred Rules. Without picking up my weights, I took a deep breath and headed for the locker room.
After a month of embarrassments and defeats at my gym, I've reached some kind of equilibrium. I know about kilos and clippies and I know that "hartslag" on a bike means heart rate. I'm practically local.
Still, I believe that you are never really comfortable in a gym; you just become less uncomfortable over time. You get used to all those people in the same space, all wishing there weren't so many, all throwing all their effort into the lifting and pumping and pulling and pushing to try to make a better person, all the while trying to follow unwritten rules nobody agrees with. It's a bizarre alter-universe where the never-ending war between self-esteem and self-determination play out in sometimes stingingly uncomfortable ways.
And even if the language in other countries is different, I can tell you firsthand that the Unwritten Rules of Bizarre Masculine Gym Etiquette are universal. We loathe them and wish it were all different, but they are the same at gyms the world over. All you can do is stick with it and try to maintain a sense of humor, and if you're stubborn enough, it will all work out.
"There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self."
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