Why I Hate Gyms and Why I Joined One

Alas, not the inside of a gym

SheSpoke has been threatening, since the dawn of time, to join a gym. She was hitting her upper 30s, in both age and her hips. She was all set to go, had her appointment with the big box fitness center, then WHAM! a drunk driver slammed into her, injuring both body and car. Luckily, the car was totaled but the body was not.

Since then, SheSpoke has toyed around with the local recreation centers–but only for the swimming. Well, swimming is great if you’re recovering from an accident (which she was) or if you’re training for a triathlon. But adventurers like SheSpoke need a little more punch to their workouts, a little more excitement than smelling and drinking chlorine for an hour can deliver.

So she joined a gym over the weekend, at one of the big box, national chains. It was an incredible deal, and unlike those awful cell phone providers, did not require a long-term contract.

SheSpoke signed up Saturday and in the past 48 hours has:

  • Swam in the tiny but uncrowded lap pool: 45 minutes
  • Rowed with the iPod: 30 minutes
  • Attended first spin class: 60 minutes

Not bad for a gym newbie, although all gym rookies begin with an overabundance of enthusiasm. Everyone is a fitness guru in January. Even yo mamma.

SheSpoke has tried to join gyms in the past, one that is made up of all letters and one that is designed exclusively for women. The reason she only went once and never returned to these places is because of customer service. With the letter gym, SheSpoke was told she would have access to a personal trainer who would teach her how to use the equipment and about target heart rates and all that. When SheSpoke followed up on this, inquiring about freeweights versus the other kind, she was brushed off. SheSpoke never went back.

With the lady gym, SheSpoke went once to get oriented on the circuit training. As someone who has never lifted weights, SheSpoke was particularly interested in learning the nuances of how to use some of the equipment. The franchise owner, instead of teaching her how to use the equipment, was also simultaneously trying to sell a membership to a teenager. SheSpoke never went back.

More recently, SheSpoke took what she thought was advantage of a yoga studio’s local discount. When she arrived at the yoga studio, all the doors were locked. SheSpoke walked around, called the main number, and finally was let in through the back door. She was told that she was late for class–except there was no class. Then she was instructed to “go find Shelly” for a free yoga class. Unfortunately Shelly did not have a name tag on and was wearing the same $80 yoga pants as everyone else. SheSpoke wandered around the lobby for a bit when the woman who had scolded her for being late to a non-existent class found her again and asked her if she’d talked to Shelly yet. Since SheSpoke had no idea who Shelly was, the answer was no. Shelly was a nice lady but merely scribbled SheSpoke’s name down on a random envelope. SheSpoke never went back.

Heed this, gyms, fitness centers, and yoga studios: If you want to get people like SheSpoke–athletic, outdoorsy folks who are squeamish about joining gyms because of the cost and indoor-ness of it all–then treat any prospective customer as if he or she really matters. Here’s how to do this:

  • Listen thoughtfully as new customers ask dumb question after dumb question.
  • Assume we know nothing about how gyms or yoga studios work and what the equipment does.
  • When there’s a miscommunication about scheduling or price or anything, approach the situation with a listening ear. Remember: Dismissiveness begets dismissiveness.
  • Stay open-minded about the fact that the error may be on your part and that in order to get or keep a customer, you may have to bend or admit a mistake.
  • Do not misrepresent your services. The truth will out and then we’ll tell all our friends, and the blogosphere.

SheSpoke almost did not join the national gym chain this past Saturday because the manager on duty was reluctant to issue her the advertised free, seven-day pass. The manager did a whole bunch of eye-rolling, before*sigh* issuing one anyway.

The banner in SheSpoke’s mind read: Look lady, I don’t want to join this gym any more than you want to give me a seven-day pass, but I really need to get in shape and it’s too windy and cold out to frolick around. Give me the pass and let’s get this over with.

Funny. Once SheSpoke handed over her money, the gym manager was all smiles and greeted her superficially by her first name. SheSpoke will not forget the manager or her name.

Below are the top five reasons to hate gyms and fitness centers, in the same way SheSpoke has for years:

1. The expressions, “going to work out,” “going to the gym,” and “hot yoga.” Folks seem to pronounce rather than use these expressions. It’s annoying.

2. They’re crowded. Before and after work one has to wait for equipment. Some classes fill up, meaning you have to get to the gym an hour before class starts. With driving time included, that’s almost 2.5 hours spent going to exercise. Indoors no less.

3. They stink. Lots of sweaty people around, lots of different levels of hygiene.

4. They cost too much, and pretty much guilt you into working out.

5. They’re akin to a den of thieves. Stuff gets stolen out of the locker rooms and parking lots.

6. It’s a fashion show: chicks wear name-brand tank tops and makeup and dudes walk around in muscle tees.

To be fair, there are some upsides to gyms and fitness centers and yoga studios:

1. The fruit of your efforts are tangible: You can watch the inches melt away and the muscles, so overgrown with fat these past few years, re-emerge.

2. The variety of classes: spin, hot yoga, yoga flow, boot camp, weight lifting, Zumba. It’s all there.

3. It can be a social thing. Garner a workout partner and “head to the gym.” Just be sure to say rather than pronounce it.

4. Your can now justify the money you spent on your last iPod.

5. Strength, conditioning, flexibility, and six-pack abs.

Need I say more?

Children of the Corn: Road Riding 50+ Miles


I know I owe you the final installment of Day 3 of my snowboarding, mountain biking, exploring, and hot springing trip down to and through the San Luis Valley last month. But before I wrap that baby up, I wanted to interlude with a recount of my first-ever 50+ miles on a road bike. Since I began road riding six months ago, I have been looking for the kind of pain and gain that I get from mountain biking. I was able to find such pain/gain in late September at the Colorado National Monument, but until two weekends ago I had yet to feel the aches in my backside, groin, hamstring, and calves that tells my body it’s getting worked, and worked good.

Well, the nice young lady who lent me my road bike knows I like pain. So she invited me up to the farmlands of eastern Colorado, to ride the Poudre River Trail, a network of trails in and around Greeley, Windsor, and skirting just along the southern edge of Ft. Collins. (Note: at the time of this riding, the trail was closed due to fallen branches from the latest snow storm.)

The 50 miles were flat miles, so the distance was going to be the thing. We got a mid-morning start and headed out with water bottles and things that pack calories but don’t actually taste like food. These are the staples of road riding, as it is not cool to actually wear a Camelbak or pack too much when road riding. Someone wrote somewhere the road bikers are overly concerned with their silhouette and pesky water supplies just ruin your otherwise divine outline against the sky. Whatever.

The thing about road rides is unmarked, unseen obstacles can really ruin your day (or week), so we dismounted where the tracks dictated that we had to.

Them's cornfields ahead

Now folks who didn’t grow up in a state the size of a national park cannot appreciate the wonderment with agriculture and ranching that those of us who did have. So I insisted that we stop, play children of the corn, and frolic a bit among the decaying vegetables. 


Farms this big just don’t exist in Rhode Island, and I couldn’t pass up even this tiny little offshoot adventure.

My playmate frolicking around


Grasshoppers were covering the ground, crunching beneath our cleated feet, so we got back to our original adventure.

Now flat and brown is not usually my idea of fun. I’m from roly-poly, leafy New England and that topography and those colors have framed my aesthetic. But since moving to Colorado 16 years ago and since spending two of them in ranchland, I’ve allowed my aesthetic to be bended and molded by my more recent surroundings. Nuances of yellow, brown, taupe, tan, and other neutral-farming colors I have come to appreciate as beautiful. How mature and accepting of me.

Pretty, huh?

Back on the well-paved but sparsely populated bikeway (was it really a Saturday?), we wended our way through new developments with their curvy streets, overpriced cookie-cutter dwellings with oversized garages, and plenty of white folk and little else. These are the places that beg me to poke fun–the realization of the American dream has apparently culminated in hues of our least favorite color–brown and has been completely stripped of personality and vivacity. My mind was going on and on thus, until I saw the beach.

That’s right. The beach on the plains of Colorado:

The beach


Now making fun of how they imported sand, cattails, reedy things, and rocks just to keep the vegetation grounded during the next flood is also too easy. It smacks of the The Truman Show or Celebration, FL . There’s something insidious about these ready-made communities, and insidious is just too easy of a target.

Truth is: I would totally surrender my sanctimony regarding what it means to live well to be able to kayak or swim or fish or sunfish out my back door. Seeing the beaches put a big ol’ pang in the stomach as I remembered my recent, awesome kayaking adventures last fall at Worden Swamp and this summer at Point Judith Pond. How amazing would it be to end each day instead of being limited to a bike ride or one of those horrible jogging things and instead have the opportunity to paddle, swim, contemplate and fish, balance, sail, or oar it up?



The cycling pace had been quite leisurely as we stopped for a few minutes to stock up on caffeine. The idea of lunch was bandied about, and as secure as I am in how I look, the thought of sitting down for lunch in Spandex was beyond my comfort zone. And this is a comfort zone I think everyone but dirty old men are glad exists.

My cycling partner promised we would click in and never leave the big chain ring for the last ten miles, which meant more power with each stroke and (finally!) some soreness.

Hours later I was joking about how tired I wasn’t. Until I tried to walk up the stairs and my leaden legs needed to be coyly coaxed up every step.

Thanks, road biking, for getting difficult. And thanks, Windsor exclusive community for having a beach and making me rethink before I make fun. Sort of.










A Plea to Mountain Bikers Everywhere

I do a bunch of sports that are associated with puerility: snowboarding and mountain biking, to name the top two. The noun “snowboarder” conjures up images of an unhygenic punk swishing his (yes, it’s a guy) way down the mountain, earbuds all but surgically affixed to his auditory holes, completely zoned out to all that is around him, including other people. It is the zenith of being inconsiderate, and it’s really irritating to skiers.

But guess what, it’s even more irritating to us snowboarders, the ones who are aware of their surroundings and are just trying to have some fun on the slopes while our younger, long-haired, underwear-hanging-out brethren (yes, they’re mostly boys) are slowly turning the perception of snowboarders into punks on the hill who go too fast and are completely oblivious to the mountain happenings around them.

Hell hath no fury like a middle-aged female snowboarder who watches these clueless knuckle-draggers ruin it for the rest of us.

You see, this is why we snowboarders cannot have nice things.

And neither can mountain bikers. Based on anecdotal evidence, mountain bikers are the least considerate non-motorized users of trails. We’ve got the machinery to inflict more damage, and we do. This damage is inflicted when we skid out, when we ride on the outside of the trail, when we don’t yield to other trail users (forcing hikers off the trail, further degrading it), and when we ride it wet.

Riding a muddy trail is bad all around. It’s bad for your bike, whatwith all that mud getting caked up in orifices you didn’t know your bike had or clinging to the chain you’re not going to bother cleaning off when you get home. It’s bad for the trail, because instead of going through the middle of the trail, which keeps its pristine and singletrack-y, you’re heading along the edge, where the rivets from other inconsiderate bikers are not as deep. And lastly, riding on muddy trails is bad for the overall perception of the sport. Every time a mountain biker pedals through mud, the tire track evidence is evident, and its impression stays there for weeks, days, or whenever the next trail repair is scheduled.

And then the National Forest Service rangers or the Department of the Interior or the state parks system declares this trail, this park, or this section off limits to mountain biking but (surprise!) open to both hikers and equestrians. Mountain biking = erosion on steroids is the subtext of the trail-closing message. And pretty soon we’re all squeezed onto the same dozen trails when we used to have dozens available to us.

All because you just HAD to go out riding after Noah packed up his animals. Way to go, bigshot.

Stay off the trails during monsoon season. I’m writing at you, Colorado.

Mountain Biking Meccas’ Dirty Little Secrets

As summer rolls in, the planning and partaking of epic mountain biking trips must begin. Before heading out into the sandstone red yonder, take a few minutes to inform yourself about the nasty things you might encounter when visiting one of the many meccas of mountain biking: Moab, Sedona, Winter Park, Mt. Tam, and Crested Butte.

Read about mountain biking meccas’ dirty little secrets.

Swimming Pool Etiquette


Just over two years ago I was finalizing my decision to join a gym. I was approaching the big three-nine and I wasn’t getting any healthier. I scheduled my appointment with the national gym chain and everything. Then, March 12 hit and a certain someone (who’s still on the lam, as far as I can tell) rear-ended me and my trusty Subaru in a drunken pique.

The injuries I sustained from that car accident were unlike anything I had ever experienced. Sure, the mountain bike crash in southern Colorado was painful and my ability to walk without pain shooting through my hips only subsided after an intense three months in physical therapy, but being rear-ended by Drunky the Clown causes a whole new level of hurt.

To wit: I was back on the bike, full throttle (going after it at Silver City’s famed Enduro Burro) , a mere four months after the bike accident. But it took me seven months to get (gingerly) back in the saddle after the drunk driver hit me.

What’s a tomboy to do during recovery? A different sport, if she wants to remain somewhat healthy.

So I swam. I joined the Denver Recreation Center, and I swam. The crawl and the breaststroke were too difficult at first, and made the acute pain acuter, especially the part where buttocks meet lower back–ilial sacrum or something. That part had folded around the seat belt in a cruel twist of accident.

So I went with the side and backstroke and battled with some elders on who could swim the slowest pace. Some days I won. But I liked swimming so much (even though I’ve not got the breathing thing down, never mind wallkicks) that I swam outdoors all summer.

Problem is, so did the rest of NW Denver. From 12-1 everyday, my favorite outdoor pool provides lap swim for adults. This is an excellent time to soak up the sun, get some exercise in, and be glad once again I live in Colorado.

The problem is pool etiquette. I know how to share a lane with another person, although I can’t say I like it. I’m always worried about kicking a wall or a person. But three people in a lane? Someone help me with this.

Last week I was swimming at another one of the pools in northwest Denver just before the workday. There are only four lanes, and the yuppie entitlement factor at this particular site is very high.

I arrived at the pool around 7AM, and sharing a lane was inevitable. No problem. I waited until the young lady swam to my end of the pool, asked the necessary “Do you mind if we share?” and went at it. She left not five minutes later. My body screamed “freedom!” at the thought of having my own lane.

Alas, a young man appeared at the far end of the pool and splashed in. He did not have to ask my permission to share a lane, but I find it courteous and in good taste to wait for the other person to appear at your end of the pool and make the necessary gestures of sharing with some nodding and finger pointing.

Now, I’d put money on me to survive adrift in the ocean for a few days, but I’m not a pretty swimmer nor a fast one. No finesse, no swimming lessons. I just learned as I went on the shores of southern New England and at the YMCA. But this guy splashed around like a drowning victim.

Then guy number two shows up and inquires, ya know, if we can swim in circles, all three of us in a lane. I’ve done this a few times before and I know what’s coming. These two are going to out-testosterone one another to see who’s fastest and they’re both going to be passing me. A lot. I anxiously replied, “sure” and let him go ahead of me, warning him of my tortoise-inspired speed.

And then it happened. I got passed. Again. Again. And again. And then guy number one, the drowning victim, scratches me with his toenail in his spastic attempt to fluff his peacock feathers. On the next pass he kicks me. Now, I understand accidents (see above), but this guy is a colossal asshole. When you kick someone or scratch someone accidentally, you apologize. Every kindergartener knows that.

Not this guy. He is entitled to exactly the kind of workout he believes he deserves, and he’s going to kick that slow, stocky lady if she’s in his way.

So I fought back. Not with kicks and scratches (that’s sooooo elementary school), but with my wits. When approaching guy number two with guy number one right behind me, I would speed up so passing me without hitting oncoming traffic was impossible. Then, when the passing lane had disappeared, I would swim as slowly as I could.

Now I’ve got stamina. I can mountain bike, hike, or snowboard for hours and I can even run for a few minutes. I entered that pool just after 7AM and I was going to swim until that lifeguard lady kicked me out at 8AM. I was going to outlast both guys numbers one and two, even if I felt I was being both psychologically and physically edged out by the stronger sex.

And I did. So blah.

But I’m curious:

What is the etiquette for entering a pool lane with someone already in it?

What is proper etiquette for sharing a lane with two other people? Does the slowest swimmer have an obligation to move elsewhere?

Does the first person in the lane have any poolsteading rights?

Snowboarding in Your Comfort Zone

Conventional wisdom is stupid. Conventional wisdom for those of us who spend much of our time playing in the outdoors is a special kind of stupid. In order for conventional wisdom to work, the intended recipient of that wisdom is usually a dilettante or a newbie or a weekend warrior. Conventional wisdom I like to ignore:

Never ski/ride/hike/surf alone

Carry a GPS device with you

Ski/ride/hike/surf with those better than you–it will raise your game

To those purveyors of outdoor recreation wisdom I say “hogwash” and proffer this up instead:

Know thyself

Do go out alone, especially if you’re in very familiar territory and need some alone time to reconnect with nature, your thoughts, your soul, or all of the above.

Do not venture out alone if you are just getting started in this sport. The chances for injury/getting lost are high.

Do not carry a GPS device unless you are geocaching. Instead, read your maps, use a compass, or go with someone who knows where they’re going.

Do not rely on GPS devices to compensate for your lack of preparation.

Do challenge yourself by going with others who are stronger at the sport than you are. They can show you that catching that wave/riding those trees/navigating that rocky singletrack is possible.

Do not always go out with those of better abilities because you will be constantly catching up and out of breath, and this particular sport will cease to be fun for you.

That last point rings particularly loud for me. I spent most of this snowboarding season going with other folks, all of whom were better than me. It felt really good hanging with folks who are considered experts, and it did a ton for my confidence.

But I was always huffing and puffing, always wanting to head back to the lodge, always needing water. I was often grateful for the long, cold, windy lift rides so I could catch my breath. Meanwhile my present company was usually yukking it up, talking about the sick trees I didn’t dare drop into or the steep drops I rode around.

I often felt on the verge of collapse or control, and my legs were often begging me for a respite, both that day and the next (and the next). We can be challenged away from a sport if we have too many experiences like these.

My field hockey coach in high school called me a tiger. My skills were barbarous, but I could keep up with any mid-fielder, and I just went after it. I even tried to argue with her when she took me out of a game because the rock-hard ball had pierced my skin, right through my shin guards.

I love a challenge. I love brainy challenges, athletic challenges, and professional challenges. (For the record, I HATE interpersonal challenges, although I am getting better at them.) I swear I’m gonna teach myself the basics of Sanskrit grammar some day. I look forward to scuba diving and finally taking up downhill skiing. I will turn my (mis)adventures into a travel memoir, even though conventional wisdom tells us that that genre is a difficult one both to write and publish in.

So here’s to the comfort zone–the ability to have sustained confidence in your abilities because you’re going at your own speed and are staying within your limits. You look around when you’re in your comfort zone, taking things in instead of having them rush past you. In your comfort zone you can concentrate on your strengths, paying attention to the little things you do well. Getting better at the things you do well, so next time you head out with those higher up on the skills food chain, you will huff and puff less and learn and enjoy more.

The Myth Behind Television’s Female Crimestoppers

Badass female protagonists are the new black when it comes to television shows.  A trend which had its roots in TNT’s The Closer and Fox’s Bonessmart, capable female crimestoppers are ruling the airwaves both on network and cable television.

With premiere week upon us, one can see more powerful women in CW’s Nikita, a remake of the cult classic starring Bridget Fonda so many years ago.  Other fresh female faces of force make themselves known through Annie Frost (nice name), the badass US Marshal who, in the opening scenes of the pilot episode of Chase, single-handedly takes down and cuffs a fugitive.  Returning to us this fall is Castle’s homocide cop Kate Beckett, the ice queen who’s followed around longingly by the boyish Nathan Fillion, a playful foil to the serious Beckett.

Chase joins TNT’s Rizzoli and Isles, another chick-cops are cool babefest, which is brought to you by the ghosts of Cagney and Lacey past and Annie Walker, the below-the-radar hottie CIA spy who sometimes unwittingly outsmarts and outmuscles the bad guys in USA’s Covert Affairs.

Smart, policey-gals are everywhere, sometimes following protocol, sometimes breaking the rules, always winning the fight against evil, and always looking good while doing so. I’m delighted and dismayed (dambivalent) at these heroines: glad cuz they’re always on the right side, trying to do the right thing; unglad cuz they’re perfect size fours who can run in heels.

Then there’s Holly Hunter. You might remember her from such films as Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou, Home for the Holidays, and The Incredibles.  But for three years, TNT did a brave thing: it cast Holly Hunter in the role of Oklahoma City Detective Grace Hanadarko, a crimestopper with all the serious flaws her name suggests.  Where she excels in her professional life she fails in her personal life.  She’s got a guardian angel to guide her, but episode after episode she continues on the same destructive pattern of drinking too much, smoking too much, hating too much, and sleeping with a married man.  The show has explicit sexual content and can be very violent, which is a nice change from the can’t-get-a-date (too-busy-too-cold-too-emotionally-unavailable) stereotype of television female crimestoppers who leap tall buildings in a single bound without breaking a heel.

Detective Hanadarko is a woman in crisis, constant crisis, and needs the protection and guidance of her guardian angel. And yet she’s still very good at her job.

Alas, after four seasons TNT has pulled the drama, and we’re left with crimestopping females (cool!) with perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect bodies, and a strict moral code (uncool…).  We need imperfects like Hanadarko around to remind us it’s ok to be a mess.

Just as long as you’re trying.

Women’s History Month


To commemorate Women’s History Month I wrote a mini-series for the connoisseurs of history over at HistoryNet.com.

You can find all articles on Women’s History under Magazines/All history topics, then scroll down to Topics Sorted by Subject Matter. Click on Women’s History and poof! there the miniseries be.

Today’s installment includes the resume, as I imagined it, of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, and then, when it suited her, Queen of England.

Read the entire Women’s History series.

Read about Heroines of Women’s History, including my beloved Eleanor.

Martha Gellhorn Swims

As I wind down the last day of surfing in Baja Norte, I think of one of my heroines, Martha Gellhorn, who, in her travels as a war correspondent for over 50 years, swam as around the world. Not in a circumnagivating sense, but in a “I’m here, where I can swim?” kind of way.

For this and many other reasons, I chose to celebrate the life of Martha Gellhorn in the best way I know how.

Surfing and road trip pix to follow. Promise.

What Do These Two Things Have in Common?

The 80s television show The Wonder Years and a mob of ancient, angry Christians?

Find out.