Sick Note to the Saints

To all the saints in the Church Triumphant:

Gang, I know this is your big day, and a Holy Day of Obligation for folks like me, but I have a hunch I’m going to have to call in sick.

As you all know, I’ve spent the last seven or eight months on a fitness kick. It’s been a constant challenge, sometimes a burden, but I’ve done my best to bear it joyfully. You all have been a constant help in that — thank you.

Well, I decided last night to take my ab routine to the next level. You know that external abdominal oblique muscle? The one situated, as its name suggests, on the lateral and anterior parts of the abdomen? No? Think of it as the cardboard holding the six-pack together.

Anyway, there’s an exercise called the oblique twist that involves sitting on the haunches with knees bent and feet raised, and twisting from side to side while holding some kind of weight. I’d seen people at the gym do do it with 8-lb medicine balls. I could already squeeze out crunches like a pigeon details cars, so it struck me that I could triple their benefit by using a 25-lb barbell plate.

But wait — how I came by the barbell plate is a story in itself. Over the summer, I decided I’d run five miles in under an hour wearing 25 lbs on my back. A cynical friend of mine calls this healthful ordeal “your stupid French Foreign Legion stunt,” and indeed, my inspiration was the memoir of an English toff named Simon Murray who served in the Legion during the final years of the Algerian War. The five-mile, weighted-down run figured prominently in the training Murray endured at Mascara and Sully. Since it was about the only thing the Legion made him do that didn’t seem calculated to kill him or turn him into a full-time gin monkey, I decided to give it a try.

Say, Joan of Arc, King Louis IX — did either of have to go through this? No? Sheesh, officers.

Murray doesn’t say exactly what 25-lb object he had to carry, but I figured the more compressed the weight, the easier it would ride. Besides, filling a knapsack with 72.72 cans of Wal-Mart tuna seemed needlessly complicated, not to mention loud. For advice, I turned to my best friend, Rick. Rick first discovered bodybuilding during his own army days, which took him to Stuttgart, within easy reach of the top-drawer anabolic steroids favored by the Warsaw Pact Olympic teams. Though, since his discharge, he hasn’t touched any performance-enhancer stronger than a multivitamin, Rick’s neck still measures 21 inches. He wore a clip-on tie to his own wedding.

When I explained my project to him, he offered me a plate from the home gym he neglects in favor of L.A. Fitness. “Go on, buddy,” he said, with the air of a sultan taking a guest on the tour of his armory. “Pick any one you like.”

So one steamy July evening, after carbing up at Souper Salad, I wrapped the plate in an afghan, stuck it in my knapsack, strapped the thing on my back, and jogged off down the dirt path that encircles my apartment complex. My complex stands on a steep slope, with the result that running the trail means either pumping your way straight up, or braking yourself as your momentum drags you straight down. For the experiment, I figured, the uneven terrain would add a touch of realism. If the Legion kept any treadmills in Algeria, they must have been of the Oscar Wilde type, and stashed away in the dankest corner of the brig.

At first, all went well. In my head, I hummed both the “Hymne à Saint Michel” and the “Chant du Diable” (Manichean bunch, those Legionnaires!). But after a mile and a half, I felt the skin of my lower back burning, as if I’d lain too long in the sun. I realized the edge of the plate, even through the wool of the afghan and the synthetic material of the backpack, was scraping me. I tried to ignore the pain, but in this case mind could not prevail over matter. The scraping made my back muscles clench, which made me adopt an unnatural gait, which, within three very trying quarters of a mile, forced me to limp back to my unit, my groin pulled.

Look, I’m sorry — I don’t like having to use a word like “groin” while addressing the saints, but the facts are the facts.

I decided not to be so hard on myself. After all, did not Our Lord stumble under His Cross? Accepting that I would remain a Legionnaire manqué, I left the barbell plate on the floor in my bedroom, where, ever since, it’s discouraged me from moving about in unseemly haste.

Until last night that is. Then it struck me as just the thing to tighten up my external abdominal oblique. To give myself credit, I got through one set of 75 twists and another of 60 without feeling undue strain. It was only a couple of hours later, when I was getting up from the bench by the laundry rooms where I’d been smoking, that something in my lower back went jiggy.

Aleve has dulled the pain. I can walk, but only in the manner of a chimpanzee, or a senior citizen wearing a full adult diaper. Church is two miles away. Honestly, guys, I just don’t think I can make it. Forgive me.

Am I being punished? Hubris isn’t a Christian concept, is it? And even if it were, it’s not like I went around shouting, “I can do more oblique twists than Almighty God Himself, ho ho!” Is this whole fitness thing just too Greco-Roman? Please say no. In terms of physical types for Catholics, there has got to be a happy medium between Pope Pius XII and G.K. Chesterton. Am I so wrong for wanting to occupy that happy medium? Again, please say no. I’ve already kissed so many dreams goodbye. I’d rather not have to look like a slob on top of it all. I’ve been the kid in glasses; I’ve done that gig to bleeding death already.

Ah, well. From my lips to your ears…and God’s.

Anyway, gang, I’m sure you won’t miss me, but I’ll miss you. Please, please, please pray that I heal quickly. I promise to inscribe “low weight — high rep” on my heart and on my soul; and upon my arm, and between my eyes, as if having it carved deep into my sacrospinalis weren’t enough.

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