Weird boobs.

Over the past few months I’ve done some intermittent soul searching about why I keep trying to pick up heavier and heavier things. Continuing trouble with Mr. Back Squat, along with glacial progress on the other major lifts and an insufficient commitment to transcending Elastigirl, have caused me to consider taking up fartlek, yoga, or even origami. Why keep doing something at which I will never truly excel?

I got my answer last Wednesday afternoon.

The previous week, I’d had my first-ever mammogram. I’d stood topless in a darkened room while a friendly technician had flattened my ta-tas between plastic plates and photographed their innards. Not my favorite use of fifteen minutes, but also no big deal. With no family history of breast cancer, and unremarkable chest puppies, I wasn’t worried.

Until the next day, when the friendly tech called to say I needed additional imaging because the results of my mammogram were “abnormal.”

“Abnormal?” I cleared my throat. “What does that mean?”

“There are some areas of interest we’d like to explore further. It’s probably nothing.” I’m sure she meant to sound reassuring, but she came across as furtive.

“Areas of interest?”

“We just need to follow up.”

So I made an appointment for the following Wednesday at the mac daddy breast health center inside my city’s premier hospital. Meanwhile, I had six days to stew, Google “double mastectomy,” and — oh yeah — do my second powerlifting meet. I didn’t get much sleep.

My follow-up appointment was at 12:15 p.m., a time slot that caused my food-fixated self to burn many minutes puzzling over what and when I should eat beforehand. All for naught; I was too twitchy for anything but the lightest of fare that morning. Mr. 5, sweet man, insisted upon meeting me at the hospital, and we huddled together in the waiting room as I filled out forms asking soothing questions such as, “Do you have a living will?”

Finally I was summoned alone to a smaller waiting room, given a fuschia gown, and told to sit with a handful of other women awaiting mammary scrutiny. I poured a cup of institutional coffee from the metal urn in the corner and tried to get lost in my suspense novel. Soon enough, I was led to the mammogram lab, divested of my gown, and squeezed into the hooter cam. After snapping several shots of both breasts, the technician escorted me back to the lounge.

“Can I put my clothes on now?” I asked.

Smiling faintly, she shook her head. “The doctor might want more images.”

And indeed she did. I was X-rayed again and again, then returned to the holding pen, where I began texting my husband.

Me: More tit pix. Sooo hungry. Can u smuggle a T-bone in here?

Him: Cafeteria closed until 4. Sorry.

Me: If I devour my book, wld that be eating my words?

Him: Yes. No. Hang in there.

At 3:30, the technician announced that the doctor wanted a sonogram of my right breast. Famished and mute, I followed her to yet another waiting room, where a woman about my age sobbed softly in the corner. Five of her friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer within the past year, she said, and she was petrified of becoming number six. I tried to read, but kept imagining how great my chest would look after the reconstructive surgery. Good-bye bee stings, hello rack.

The ultrasound was interminable: dim room, stony nurse, bared bosom, gooey wand. My right arm, splayed above my head in a centerfold pose, fell asleep. The black and white images flickering across the sonogram screen were visual white noise, so I closed my eyes and thought about mussels in rich broth with crusty bread and cold chardonnay. After ten minutes or ten years, the technician left to consult the doctor, then returned for more wand work.

I knew she wouldn’t tell me anything, but I had to ask. “Does the fact that you’re taking so long mean that you’re finding cancer everywhere, or that you’re finding it nowhere?”

The wand paused over my nipple. “Don’t assume it’s bad. We have to be thorough.”

A while later, she checked with the doctor again, then returned and announced, “You’re okay. Come back in six months.”

Oh no. After all that, somebody had some ‘splainin’ to do. I gently insisted upon speaking personally with the doctor, who parked herself in front of a computer in the room and clicked a tab on the screen that called up my new collection of jug shots.

“See here?” She pointed. “This whitish area in the middle of the gray?”

I squinted. “Sorry, but it all looks the same to me. Sort of like a newspaper taking a shower.”

“Well, the distribution of fatty versus non-fatty tissue in your breasts does not follow typical patterns, so we had to get images from many different angles.”

“But I don’t have breast cancer?”

“Almost certainly not.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Just weird boobs.”

She gave a startled laugh. “I wouldn’t put it that way.”

Later, doing the post-mortem with Mr. 5 in the hospital cafeteria over a snack that included neither mussels nor a T-bone, I pondered what to do next. Return to work? Catch a quick pre-dinner nap? Finish the novel I’d refrained from eating? Knock back some cocktails? Nope. I was shaky and bone-tired, but more than anything else, I wanted to fire up my spent muscles and sinews and pit them against the barbell as a reminder that my body is strong, unbowed, and — most of all — alive. The only place I wanted to be right then was the gym.

Which is very often the case.

And that is why I keep picking up heavy things.

Here’s looking at Hugh.

I’ve had pathetically few brushes with celebrity during my forty-three years on the planet. In fact, before last month, there was only one worth mentioning. I took a photography class in college, back in the old days of clunky cameras with thirty-five millimeter film developed in darkrooms with stinky chemicals. One Sunday I was in the art school film lab sloshing water in my canister, hoping for one passable self-portrait in my string of thirty-six negatives, when I realized Jennifer Beals was at the sink next to me, sloshing water in her canister.

Having seen Flashdance more times than is psychologically healthy, I recognized her straightaway behind the sunglasses, Walkman, and baseball cap. It was Alex Owens in the flesh, ripped sweats and all, within inches of my left elbow.

So did I gawk? Strike up a chummy chat between shutterbugs? Ask her for some dance tips while our negatives dried? Beg her to autograph my t-shirt?

Nope.

I’d like to say that I did nothing at all, but nothing implies an absence of effort. And it took quite a bit of effort for me to pretend that Jennifer Beals wasn’t standing next to me.

It took significantly less effort to pretend that I didn’t notice Hugh Jackman stroll into my gym last month. Why? Because I dwell under a rather sizable boulder. I’d never seen a single Hugh Jackman film, and I wouldn’t have been able to pick Wolverine or Leopold or Jean Valjean out of a lineup. In fact, but for the whisperings of the gym grapevine that Hugh Jackman was In The Building, I’d never have perceived that I was in the midst of stardom. Turns out he’s in town for a movie shoot, and he shows up at the gym most weekdays with an adorable Aussie trainer in tow to log some time on the dreadmill and pump a little iron.

A lot of iron, actually. His routines are body-builder-esque — not surprising given the importance of physique in his line of work — with a multiplicity of dumbbell and barbell exercises performed to evident exhaustion and accompanied by guttural growls appropriate to a Ron Jeremy flick. He works hard for his money, that Hugh. And he’s an amiable bloke, as evidenced by the magnanimous nods and smiles he bestows on the sweaty proles around him.

I’ve watched most of his movies over the past few weeks, and they’re pretty good. But I don’t stare while he’s grunting out his bench reps in his sleeveless tee, and I certainly haven’t approached him; “Ravening Fan” has never entered my repertoire. Still, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t tried for an extra rep or two here and there, knowing that he might be glancing at the weird chick in the Bacon socks deadlifting in the corner.

Hugh Jackman is no Jennifer Beals, but he is rather fetching.

A lesson in grace from The Bean.

Mr. Back Squat is knocking me around again. He’s being especially treacherous this time, handing out PRs with one hand and knifing me in the sacroiliac region with the other. With my second powerlifting meet looming in just over two weeks, it would be counterproductive for me to handle this setback in the ways that tempt me — decorating my squat shoes, lifting belt, and knee wraps with a box cutter and a blow torch; scaling my roof, straddling the chimney, and screaming “WHY ME” at the top of my lungs; and then locking myself in the bedroom with a case of Pinot Noir, a few kilos of chocolate, and every issue of People magazine since 1986.

I will not do those things. (Except the wine and chocolate, to a degree.) I will handle this latest setback in a more mature fashion befitting my advancing age. I will follow the example of my thirteen-year-old son, better known here as The Bean.

The Bean is a soccer player, and — if you will indulge my God-given maternal right to brag — a damned fine one. He plays not only for his school, but also on a club team that practices three nights a week, travels up to a hundred miles each weekend to take on other clubs, and sojourns out of state every few months for tournaments. He’s a defender — a bouncer on his team’s back line, keeping the riff-raff from edging too close to the net. It’s a physical job, requiring him to chase down and attack nimble opposing forwards who slip through the midfield, and with his height and tenacity, The Bean is an imposing presence on the pitch.

Unfortunately, The Bean broke his wrist on Superbowl Sunday while skateboarding over a lip in our driveway. It’s a stunt he claims to have pulled off a hundred times without a hitch, but that day, a wheel caught and he wound up sprawled, swollen, and bleeding just minutes before kickoff. An X-ray the next day showed a cracked scaphoid, a cashew-sized wrist bone with a poor blood supply that heals in a depressingly languid fashion.

The Bean walked away from that first ortho appointment with a cast stretching from armpit to fingertip and strict orders to engage in “no athletic activity of any kind.” This, the very week that spring soccer season kicked off. If I were The Bean, I’d have cleared my throat and taken to the rooftop. The Bean, however, chose a different course. Though he never hesitates to complain about such matters as his bedtime, the absence of Doritos in the house, and my unreasonable demands that he pick up his wet towels from the floor, the Bean never once kvetched about his medical exile from soccer. His team had a tournament that first weekend, and he showed up early for every game, huddling supportively on the sidelines in the chilly drizzle. He was thrilled when his team took home the trophy, even though he had not directly assisted the victory.

After two weeks, The Bean’s full-arm cast was replaced with a sleeker below-the-elbow model, to be worn for an additional four weeks. Now he’s in the unenviable position of being cleared for soccer practice (as long as we swath the cast in enough bubble wrap to smother a rhino), but unable to play in games because he might hurt whomever he tackles. Still, he hasn’t succumbed to griping. Not when he has to watch from the sidelines. Not when we have to tape garbage bags over his arm so he can shower. Not even when I have to cut his meat, or wrestle on his socks, or tie his sneakers.

He’s handling the whole thing with a baffling, but inspiring, equanimity. I’ve been shamed into quelling my urge to rage at the world for my squat woes. Rather than wield implements of destruction, holler from the chimney, or escape into oblivion, I will calmly direct my energy toward correcting the problem, just as my thirteen-year-old son is doing with his injury.

Now, if I could only get him to pick up those damned towels. After all, he can do that one-handed.

Did I mention that The Bean's younger sister also has a broken left wrist?  Never a dull moment around here.

Did I mention that The Bean’s younger sister also has a broken left wrist? Never a dull moment around here.

No more Elastigirl.

Ninety-nine percent of the female population will hate me for saying this, but here goes: I’m trying to gain weight. Yes, I’m taking active measures to ensure that the number on the scale goes up, not down. And no, I’m not crazy (not on account of this, anyway).

Why? Because at five-nine, I need to tip the scales at more than a buck thirty-five in order to move any serious iron. For my first meet, I sweated off a few pounds to compete in the 132 class, and I went home with swag only because I had, literally, no competition. The truly strong women in that weight class — those who are benching, squatting, and pulling north of one, two, and three plates, respectively — are nowhere near as close to six feet tall as I am. Carrie Boudreau, powerlifting whiz turned Olympic hopeful, stands five feet on a good day. Ellen Stein and Jennifer Perry, who have picked up 418 and 407 pounds, respectively, look even shorter than that. Jennifer Thompson, who currently holds the USAPL record for highest total in the three lifts (including a 314-lb. bench press, which looks an awful lot like a typo), is a veritable giant at five foot five.

Strong? Those women have it hog-tied and trussed.

Slender? Willowy? Svelte? Not so much.

Even for an innumerate word whore like moi, who managed never to darken the door of a physics classroom during all her years of higher learning, it makes sense: it’s all about range of motion. The longer your limbs, the farther you have to move the bar, and thus the more muscle you need. And if you’re trim to start with, then acquiring more muscle means . . . wait for it . . . gaining weight.

In other words, you can be tall and strong, but you can’t be tall, strong, and skinny. And since I’m (happily) stuck with tall, I’m choosing strong over skinny.

This isn’t intuitive for most women, as evidenced by this recent conversation in a public restroom at a shopping mall.

FRIEND (twisting to look at her rear in the mirror as she washes her hands): “Ugh, I ate way too much crap over the holidays. Time to dial it in.”

FIVE (also looking at FRIEND’s rear, which is just peachy, and wondering how much FRIEND could squat if she were so inclined): “Nah, you look great.”

FRIEND: “I need to lose five pounds.”

FIVE: “Pshaw.”

FRIEND: “How’s that Paleo thing going? Helping you lose weight?”

FIVE: (Coughs.)

FRIEND: “Well? Is it?”

FIVE: “Actually, I’m trying to gain a little weight.”

FRIEND: “Huh?

FIVE: “Just five or ten pounds.”

FRIEND: (Meets FIVE’s eyes in the mirror with a facial expression appropriate to sniffing decomposing rodentia.)

FIVE (slinking toward the exit): “You know, so I can deadlift more.”

FRIEND: “Fuck you.”

FIVE: “No, I mean, I –”

FRIEND: “Seriously. Fuck. You.”

Yeah, so, your average female can’t relate to the desire to bulk up. I may need to start a support group. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my piehole shut . . . that is, until it’s time to shovel in the butter-drenched, bacon-wrapped chicken thighs.

Me last week at about 139 lbs., looking not unlike Elastigirl

Me last week at about 139 lbs., looking not unlike Elastigirl

The best reason to lift.

When I was a little girl, I thought my father was stronger than Superman, smarter than the president, and cooler than double-oh-seven. He could rebuild a carburetor, clean a fish, construct a bookcase, program a computer, grill a T-bone, dominate a poker table, and freestyle a mile. As an only child, I logged a lot of time with him. We walked the dog around the neighborhood most evenings, my little legs racing to keep pace with his six-four frame as he expounded on the topic du jour — the Pythagorean theorem, gin rummy strategy, where to catch the biggest grouper, etc. My father knew everything and could do anything. I was perpetually in awe.

But the years have not been kind, as least not to his physical self. In the mid-1980s, he picked a bar fight with a black belt and crawled away with a shattered ankle, which he took as good cause to cease physical exertion. In 2004 he had a major heart attack, and six years later he was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer — both abetted by a genetic disease that makes the body stockpile excess iron in major organs. (Thankfully, it turns out I’m just a carrier of this disease.) Due to the snowballing effects of ill health, my father now has a cornucopia of ailments, a thick sheaf of scrips, and a highly constricted daily agenda.

During a recent visit home, he took me for a spin in his pride and joy, a 2002 Corvette painted the same shade as the rolling hills of Bowling Green. I ducked into the low-slung passenger seat, belted up, leaned back, and waited for the growl of the V8. And then I waited some more. Finally I glanced over at the driver’s side to ascertain the hold-up. My father had braced one hand on the top of the car, inserted one foot into the interior, and was making a painstaking southern journey on a leg that shook and threatened to buckle. The eccentric portion of the squat was nearly beyond him. I closed my eyes and winced until I felt the car’s shuddering acceptance of his body, and then I began to worry about how he was going to get out of the vehicle at the end of our ramble. (I finally relaxed when I realized that I can deadlift more than he weighs.)

My father is only 67 years old.

I don’t want to be like that when I’m 67, or even 77 or 87. I want to be like this:

There are plenty of excellent reasons to lift weights — to be able to move pianos, look good naked, win medals, and have an excuse to buy cool deadlifting socks, to name but a few. Hands down, though, the best reason to lift weights is to strengthen my odds of becoming a tough old bird who can awe, rather than worry, her children and grandchildren.

Bad haiku.

Time was, I aspired to write good poetry. You know, the kind that lit majors scrutinize and Garrison Keillor reads aloud on Writer’s Almanac. But I ditched this lofty goal in ninth grade, when I had a biology teacher who pronounced chi-squared as chick-squared and preceded nearly every noun with the phrase that of. To avoid going postal on his ass, I hunched over my desk, tuned out Mendel’s pea plants, and penned dirty limericks. (All was well until the day I accidentally left one behind and the teacher, overlooking my obvious brilliance, alerted the principal.)

I’ve since moved on to haiku, which — as I’ve suggested before — is the perfect literary form for the gym. The 5-7-5 syllabic scheme supplies a useful structure to the epinephrine-bathed brain, without the enfeebling rigidity of a rhyming requirement. And there’s no casting about for a suitable topic: what else does one write about between sets of barbell exercises besides, well, barbell exercises?

Here are yesterday’s offerings.

squat cage is prison
bar on my back death decree
just stand up jailbird

chalk dust swirls around
ear pinch deep breath stomach clench
PR dangles near

bar rides my shoulders
piggy
this metalfucker
who’s pinning who now?

Try it. I bet you’ll like it, and if you’re careful, the principal will never find out.

Landslide.

I wanted to apply a hatchet to the dashboard and an elbow to my husband’s ribs. Once upon a time I was able to appreciate Stevie Nicks, but that was before I heard “Landslide” three hundred times in a row on a twelve-hour road trip to Michigan. See, when Mr. 5 finds something he likes, he wants it over and over and over again. He doesn’t get bored. (It has occurred to me often in the course of our fifteen-year marriage that this is an excellent quality in a spouse.)

When I first worked up the nerve to pick up a barbell two and a half years ago, it was love at first lift. Cue the hallelujah chorus: after years of searching in all the wrong places — from the 5K scene to the elliptical machine — I’d finally stumbled upon a fitness activity I actually enjoyed, and I was all in. We had a brief but passionate honeymoon, the barbell and I, in which I hoisted a bit more weight every time I squatted, deadlifted, pressed, or benched. I soared from incompetent weakling to a chick who could wow fellow gym-goers who didn’t know any better. Those were heady days.

But stratospheric journeys fizzle to earth sooner or later. After racking up failed reps and niggling pains, I realized I had to re-learn — or perhaps learn for the first time — proper form on each and every lift if I wanted to progress. It felt like I was starting over, and over, and over. It was the strength training edition of Groundhog Day, a barbell “Landslide” on infinite repeat, and I wanted to apply a hatchet to the power rack and an elbow to anyone who said that squatting was simple.

After a while, unless your name starts with “Mr.” and ends with “5,” you reach the slog segment of any relationship. So do you suck it up and learn for once and damn all how to shove your knees out while you squat, or do you slink away for a dangerous liaison with a box of Ho Hos — or, worse, a tryst with BodyPump or P90X? I don’t want to be anybody’s fair-weather friend, so you know my answer.

Hunker down, rock star.

Even though I will never again set PRs every time I set foot in the gym, my workouts are rarely a grind anymore. I’ve shifted my goals: I now begin training sessions resolved to do my very best for that day, not necessarily my best ever. And the moment I smell monotony, I shake the snow globe — load new beats on the iPod, enter a powerlifting meet, bet a friend I’ll reach a goal before he does, try some Olympic lifts, record my training log entries with my left hand, buy new deadlifting socks, use a different bench press station, write bad haiku between sets. Whatever it takes to keep it fresh.

Because in a showdown between strength training and any other form of exercise, strength training wins. By a landslide.

Share the porn.

Ever since I “liked” Ripped Goddess last month, my Facebook news feed has been even more clogged than usual with pro-fitness propaganda. A sepia-toned shot of a rippling midriff with the taunt, “How bad do you want it?” A poster proclaiming in block print letters: “Work through the pain. What’s your excuse?” A cartoon meme doing an overhead squat with the caption, “Oh. Am I offending you by being awesome?” I get three squares of this stuff a day, plus frequent snacks, and most of it involves pictures of selected body parts of athletic women.

It’s been dubbed “fitspiration,” and it has plenty of detractors. Some say it celebrates an unhealthy obsession with physical appearance, especially among us gals. They fret that exhortations to “keep going unless you puke, die, or faint” encourage eating and exercise disorders. I’m probably not qualified to comment on that concern, as I don’t have an eating disorder. (As for exercise disorders, does my extreme skepticism that such a condition exists suggest that I might have it? Hmmm.) Then again, a lack of qualifications rarely holds me back.

The images of hyper-skinny babes, I can do without; no one should aspire to emaciation. But the pictures of strong women who obviously had more for breakfast than three celery sticks? Those aren’t “fitspiration”; they’re porn for powerlifters. And I’m not afraid to say it: I love that stuff. Yep, I adore the sweat-soaked spam that’s saturating my social media. It makes me want to pick up heavy things, eat a steak, and run a few red lights. So what if I’ll never look as good as these hot, strong chicks no matter how much I squat? The fact that their bodies — with muscles that can only come from hard, heavy exercise — are a new beauty ideal just blows my dress up.

Keep sharing the porn, please.

Bar none.

In my next life, in addition to singing melodiously, having perfect teeth, and squatting 300 pounds, I will be well-schooled in current events and geopolitical goings-on. I won’t have to snag the globe from my ten-year-old’s desk to find Benghazi, for example, nor will I resort to Google for help in deciphering tax policy. Instead, I will simply plumb the encyclopedic depths of my own over-informed brain.

To that end, I recently subscribed to the Sunday edition of the New York Times, even though it doesn’t include the Parade magazine insert. What it does include is a daily digital subscription, so I can read the paper on my iPhone between bench press sets. Unfortunately for my quest to become insufferably erudite, I usually blow right past the World, Politics, and Business Day sections on my way to Health, Movies, and Fashion & Style.

Which is how I stumbled upon a recent article titled “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups.” It summarizes the work of exercise physiologists from the University of Dayton, who took seventeen “normal weight” women who couldn’t do a pull-up, put them through a strength training regimen, and discovered to their dismay after three months that only four of them could clear the bar. Why the poor success rate? The researchers say that pull-ups are the province of people who have “a combination of strength, low body fat, and shorter stature” — and with their smaller supply of testosterone, women typically can’t get shredded enough to hoist themselves up.

The article has sparked a bit of a brouhaha. Not only are there 435 comments posted on the NYT website as of this writing, but the fitness blogosphere is all abuzz. The responses range from women grateful that science has validated their lack of pull-up prowess to CrossFit chicks crying bullshit because they can kip the crap out of a monkey bar. One of my favorite strength training bloggers, The Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, insisted that “Yes, Women Can Do Pull-Ups.” His take? Those thirteen women in the study who couldn’t pull off a pull-up after three months simply needed more and better training.

Nolan’s right, but so are the naysayers. Most able-bodied women will find the challenge of heaving their full weight from a dead hang until their chin clears the bar to be difficult. Really fucking difficult, in fact, and pretending away that difficulty will not make the quest any easier. But difficult does not mean impossible. I consider myself a fairly typical gal when it comes to innate pull-up ability — I’m on the skinny side, but I’m also tall with ape arms — and it took me many long months of steady effort to accomplish even one lowly chin-up. Now I can do five pull-ups in a row, something I was pretty smug about until I saw one of Atlas’s female clients bust out twenty-two. My goal is to reach ten, and I’ll get there even if it takes years. Why? Because it matters to me, and I’m willing to put in the time and sweat.

So when women at the gym ask me about pull-ups, here’s what I tell them: Yes, you can do it, but you’ll probably have to work your ass off. Because accomplishing that first strict, dead-hang pull-up might be even harder than understanding tax policy.