My fraternity of athletic club members is an elite group. We are the best of the best because every year there are 2,000 people sign up at our club for membership. They are all admitted, but 98% will have dropped out a year later. That makes our group of regulars more exclusive than Harvard. Holidays are what drive club applications in this country. After all that turkey gravy, candied hams, pies, cakes, washed down with bottles of New Years Champagne, the guilt ridden hoards decide they’ll repent. They flock to athletic clubs for salvation and a tighter waist line. Few of them find it. That leads me to ask the obvious question: What’s the difference between my group of “two percenters” versus the thousands of newbie’s who pay the fees but don’t show up to pump the iron, run the cardio theater machines, swim in the pool, or levitate in the yoga studio?
We must be a peculiar self selecting crew. We pay big money in fees so that we can spend a few hours of our busy day in a gym. In return for all this time and money, we get to endure sweat, pain, and fatigue week after week, year in year out. I said we were a fraternity but there little camaraderie. In my 25 years of membership I’ve learned some faces of the regulars, fewer names and occasionally I exchange a couple of words. Other than that, we might all be CIA operatives under deep cover. Our lack of communications could be because we’ve all seen each other’s bodies in the shower or it may be because we’re so unalike. Over the decades I’ve picked up some facts. For example Ruth is an art historian who writes books about the sculptor Auguste Rodin; Joe is storm window and siding installer, not to be confused with over caffeinated Day Trader Joe, who must tell you about his penny stocks. Then there is Brian, who’s taking a break from his low to no pay job as a novelist. At the moment he is enjoying a liquidity event editing manuals for a high tech firm. Add in a few doctors, a Japanese chef and three Russians who are impossible to understand, and you get the picture.
While the diversity of gym rats is a given, I cannot tell you what makes this select group so different from the 98% who drop out. Membership retention is a matter fundamental to the club’s viability and they would dearly like to know the answer. Surely our long time regulars are holding some secrets in the dark places of their psychology. Why else would they pay good money to submit to pain. It might be masochistic tendencies or some undiagnosed infirmity. However, since none of them is going to reveal their dark secret, I will tell you mine.
My Dad had a heart attack when he was 54 and that gave me a scare that lasted a lifetime. I was a naive eleven year old at the time and didn’t know what a heart attack was. “What was happening?” I wanted to know? “And what was a heart attack?” What I did know was the house was suddenly bathed in morbid silence. “Don’t ask questions! Don’t make any noise! Your father is terribly sick, so don’t make it worse.”
The prospect of my growing up without a father was terrifying. Mom became very quiet but could express her anxiety about raising five fatherless kids without peaking a word. She and my four siblings in our big house must have been thinking about homelessness, foster care, moving in with Grandpa or being split up.
In the end, we kept the house. Dad recovered and with diet and exercise, happily he lived another twenty years. It’s the memory of that undefined word heart attack that keeps me paying my dues, sweating and pumping a few days every week.