A Wilderness of Mirrors


These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.

Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

T.S. Eliot, from Gerontion

I work out out a local gym every other day or so and I am always amazed at what I see around me each time I go. There are mirrors everywhere, as if the point were vanity instead of health. This is why so many people I know avoid these places. Who wants to compete against all of these young bodies?

The narcissism is only the start, though. Or, rather, the narcissism is, uh, only a reflection of a more profound self-absorption. I’m not talking about the usual complaints of isolation: everyone alone on their “equipment” listening to their MP3 players. Actually, I wish more people would use MP3 players.

The problem, rather, is that people seem to not have a clue about how to be social. The gym itself is quite small but it has plenty of windows and it’s rarely crowded. So I often work out alone with the lights out. It’s not dark at all, especially on a sunny day.

I like the idea of saving energy, for one thing, and the natural light is much more pleasant than the fluorescents, which I swear I can see flickering. Any time another person comes in, however, they inevitably flip on the light, without acknowledging me in the slightest way.

I was raised to believe that this was a pretty rude thing to do, but it’s only the start of it. There’s one women who comes several times a week to work out and then shower and get dressed, apparently for work. She uses a small, brightly lit bathroom off of a medium-sized room that people use for warm ups and stretches.

The other day, after pretzeling away on the Swiss Ball for ten minutes or so I bunced up to hit the elliptical and flipped the light off on the way out. Five minutes later she marched out to the main room to demand, angrily, that I not turn out the light when she was in the bathroom.

Now, I might be able to sympathize with a women suspicious of darkness in a gym. Still, it did seem odd that she took such affront, as if no logic but hers could make sense. She wasn’t showering in the dark or anything. She’s not the worst of the bunch, though, by any means. That honor goes to Macho Man.

The worst Macho Man experience is when he has shown up before you. First, every light in the gym, ffrom front to back and often including the bathroom, is turned on. I suspect that he warms up with light switches. Second, the television is blaring CMT and the stereo is blasting some awful classic rock station.

Meanwhile, Macho Man is on the treadmill, huffing and puffing loudly, running with heavey clumping strides, sometimes giving off sharp, dramatic grunts. He has the TV turned up loud because he can’t hear it over his own noise. Then, after about ten minutes, he hops off– that’s no metaphor– and trots off to the weight room.

He has the stereo turned up because he has to hear it from across the gym. Next, after another ten minutes, he comes bounding back into the room and hops on the stationary bike for another ten or fifteen minute round of thump, huff, puff, and grunt. Sometimes he brings his friend and they do this routine together.

It reminds me of how certain people drive so recklessly in bad weather, seemingly unaware that they are risking the lives of other people. Luckily, all that is at risk here is irritation. Well, Macho Man might be causing some sort of unpredictable havoc on his body. He’s pretty young though, so I suppose the clichés about invunerability apply.

The owner of the gym is very differant. I often see her on Saturday mornings, when she comes in to clean. She always says hello and wants to start a conversation even if I am clearly listening to my MP3 player and straining away at the end of a long work out. To her, though, it’s a scoial situation and she at least wants to make the effort.

And there”s the older couple who come in whatever clothes they happen to be wearing at the time… They certainly didn’t buy any special shoes. There’s something refreshing in the fact that they don’t know the proper costume. But it is also very odd to watch them take truns struggleing on the stationary bike, both in ill fitting jeans and flannel shirts.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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