Letters from Boot Camp: Ode to Mom

Michael found new resolve in an unexpected place: his mom.

Mom and I in summer 2009.

No one told me about the midterm measurements.

When I first entered this torture chamber five weeks ago, we had what was called the initial “fitness assessment.” This basically involved a series of body measurements and fitness tests, and logging in the results. For example, one of the tests involved putting your back against the wall, and then sliding down into a seated position pressed against said wall, and holding that pose, with legs bent, for as long as you could before tumbling to the floor. Twenty of us took our positions as Lt. Eric announced, “Go!” and kept the time.

Can you guess who tumbled to the floor first? C’mon, guess. I’ll wait.

The worst part—even worse than the waist measurement, and that was pretty ghastly—was the BMI measurement, where you extend your arms grabbing what looks like a Star Trek console and it tells you, in vivid detail, just how fat you are. It’s estimated that almost a third of the entire U.S. is clinically obese. My people!

I knew at the end of the 10-week boot camp we would all go through this again, ostensibly to show our amazing progress and to be showered with confetti (or at least rewarded with a doughnut, though God knows that is no doubt one of the seven deadly sins listed in The Book of Gavin). But no one told me there would be a mid-point check in. Which, naturally, I greeted with absolute dread.

An interesting thing happened this week at Fusion. Almost every time I showed up, including for Tuesday’s god-awful 6:30 a.m. boot camp (we got rained out of the outside rendition this week), I was greeted by people, both Campers, Fusionistas, and trainers, as if I had just come out of a hospital. Specifically, a mental hospital. “How are you, Michael!” greeted ever-cheery Meredith, a trainer who often checks us in at the desk and who looks like a real-life version of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Meredith is often touchy-feely peppy, which one would expect from someone so devoted to yoga, but across the board I got similar salutations from others, and more than a few who gently touched my arm and asked, in slightly hushed tones, “How are you feeling?,” as if I had just gotten back from Afghanistan and was dealing with the effects of PTSD.

Which, if you read my installment last week—a post that made Sophie’s Choice seem like light reading—I suppose I was. Gavin, channeling the doctors of Grey’s Anatomy, was so rattled after reading it he sent me a buck-up email expressing concern at my mental state. And after Tuesday’s boot camp, as I sat at a table listening to my calves screaming, Lt. Eric and his Dudley Do-Right jaw talked to all of us about de-stressing, about being able to be calm, and the effects stress can have on weight and health. He didn’t look at me the entire time, but I knew he was talking to me more than anybody else—something I confirmed when he sidled up to me as everyone was leaving and asked, “So, how are you?”

The short answer is, I am fine. I wish I could tell you at this point I have my pom-poms firmly in hand, sis-boom-bahing my way through workout after workout, relishing it all and basking in how strong and fit I am becoming. Gavin’s better half, Matt, took a class with me this week and asked whether I was considering keeping with all of this after boot camp ends. I desperately wanted to shout back, “Of course!” But the truth is, I don’t know. I remain vexed at my lack of progressive weight loss, and I am often frustrated that I am not doing better at some of these exercises (my burpees remain pathetic; I am still doing girl push-ups, though not all the time).

But breakthroughs often come in small bursts rather than big ones, and this week I got some help from an unexpected source: my mom.

Like all of us, I have inherited some traits, both good and bad, from my parents. I have my dad’s penchant for thoughtfulness (a good thing), but also his lack of patience (not so good). From my mother I clearly have both a penchant for tactless candor and, alas, her physique: she is marvelous and I adore her, but she’s 4′ 11” and built like a mailbox. These are not genes I needed.

But one trait she absolutely gave me, and I cannot express enough gratitude for this, is a sense of humor. And a big sense of humor. Both notorious and clever with her wit, my mother once put a paid ad in our community newspaper wishing my aunt a wonderful 50th birthday. Alas, my aunt had just turned 42, and spent the next two weeks smiling wanly as neighbors came up to her in the supermarket and remarked, “You don’t look a day over 45!” Even today she is quick with a quip (“I have suffered like Rose Kennedy,” she once said, as I spit my iced tea out in response). But most of all, she is fearless. Pudgy and middle-aged, she took up both belly dancing and cheerleading (I’m not joking—I have the pictures) in her 50s. Now 80, she is battling nasty rheumatoid arthritis, and yet toddles out every Friday afternoon to get her hair done and meet her friends for veal parm and beers at the local tavern.

There are a lot of women her age, and in her condition, who are sitting in nursing homes, ticking off the days until the end. She steadfastly refuses. When life throws a roadblock, she simply finds a way to step around it, even if she has to step slowly or painfully. I saw her last week for dinner, and watching her, as vibrant and devilish as ever, I was reminded that this was the quality I needed most to tap into: her indomitable spirit, her ability to look at life and whatever challenges and simply say, “It could be worse, I’m doing the best I can, and I’m just going to keep on going.” She has an amazing ability to just let go.

And so I did, too. I stopped getting weighed. I took a day off from food journaling, and when I resumed, I put an end to obsessively calculating every last gram of fat. I treated myself to a glass of wine. I walked home from my workouts and concentrated on how nice the weather was, instead of ruminating on how many burpees I didn’t do. I know I am getting physically healthier. But I was getting mentally unhealthier. Leave it to Mom to remedy that.

Which brings me back to those midterm measurements. On Monday morning I registered them, and marked down the numbers. Two inches off the waistline; a decline in body fat of more than 3 percent. As I put away the tape measure, Champagne Lady Margaux came out of her class to check on me. Like the rest of them, I’m sure she had placed me on suicide watch. “Well, you look OK,” she said, hands on hips, trying to read my expression.

“I am,” I replied. And for the first time, I actually meant it.

Tell us: Where do you find inspiration to stick with your health and fitness goals?


Michael Callahan, the executive editor of Philadelphia magazine, hates working out—which is what makes this little experiment so very awesome. He blogs about his boot camp experience—the good, the bad, and everything in between—every Friday on Be Well Philly. Catch up on the series here.