Be Like Mike (Or Mishima for That Matter)

There’s nothing quite like meeting the day with a breath of fresh air. Which is exactly how I leave my apartment every morning. The daily one-and-a-half-mile walk to class that I once met with trepidation now feels almost luxurious. Never before have I had such an opportunity to process my thoughts and get myself mentally prepared to start my day. I am thankful that despite Ithaca’s famously erratic weather, each day starts out almost exactly the same way—sunny, very mildly humid, just the slightest bit chilly, and damp from the morning dew. It reminds me, almost uncannily, of my dad’s house in the summer—birds chirping, breeze rustling tree branches overhead, overgrown brush, an eternal sun—not too surprising, given that he only lives about three hours south of here.

That feeling I get in the mornings is rivaled only by the rush I have after a workout. I don’t consider myself to have a very addictive personality, but endorphins certainly rank among the relatively few things that I need in life in order to stay sane. It would hardly be a stretch to say that without exercise, I would probably fall apart emotionally. Not only is it great for combating stress, but it does a number for personal problems too. There’s something about making my body work hard that seems to preclude any room for negative thoughts—in essence, if my body is happy, then my mind is at peace. No matter how badly I’m feeling, I can absolutely count on the fact that after lacing up my sneakers and jogging to the gym, I’ll inevitably feel like myself again.

It’s an outlook not too dissimilar from that of a man I can only tangentially claim to know a modest bit about: the 20th-century Japanese author, Yukio Mishima. Particularly astute and long-time readers of my travel chronicles will no doubt recall that I made mention to Mishima in one of my many missives from Japan—likening my fastidious penchant for working out with the writer’s own. I learned about his life most notably from an essay he published in 1968 called Sun and Steel and the 1985 BBC documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, both of which I was exposed to in my Modern Japanese Literature class in Japan. Please excuse me as I quote from Japan 23, my two-month reflection entry (notice how little my writing style has changed in almost two years):
It seems like the two things that kept Mishima going in the later half of his life were the exorbitant amount of writing that he did and the lengths to which he worked out. Needless to say, I have not gone to such extremes in either respect (you should see pictures of this guy—I never thought bookish author-types could get so buff!), but it is just funny to me that two of the things I have derived a great deal of joy from recently are the very two that this guy made a life out of doing. With that said though, there are some key differences between us, including the fact that he died by committing ritual suicide with his gay lover at an anti-extremist government protest (of which he was an extreme right-wing conservative), all of which are not currently on my foreseeable agenda, but it’s still kind of interesting to think about all of this and its relation to me.
According to Wikipedia, Mishima took up weight training in 1955 and his workout regimen of three sessions per week was not disturbed for the last 15 years of his life—certainly a pretty high achievement. Perplexed by what seemed like an odd fascination for a highly-celebrated author, I went on to write my final research paper in that class on Mishima’s interpretation of light—and how it compared with that of another famous Japanese author, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. I discovered that Mishima ultimately credited light as an enlightening, restorative, and masculine presence that gave him the tools necessary to obtain a certain amount of strength (steel) in his life. He wrote in his essay Sun and Steel that, “The sun was enticing, almost dragging, my thoughts away from their night of visceral sensations, away to the swelling of muscles encased in sunlit skin. And it was commanding me to construct a new and sturdy dwelling in which my mind, as it rose little by little to the surface, could live in security.”

What’s strange is that despite Mishima’s accolades for natural light, Osaka, quite like Ithaca, doesn’t really get all that sunny. Long stretches of day are consumed with ominous cloud cover and smoky fog, and by the time afternoon sets in, I, eternally umbrella-less, am often poised to get wet. In fact, weather is one of the main reasons why I find myself comparing the two places in the first place (as well as my subsequent experiences therein). For one thing, I’m devoting myself to learning a foreign language for several hours a day. Secondly, my schedule is relatively high school-esque in that I have classes that start early in the morning and run all throughout the afternoon, with lots of time to myself at night. And thirdly, I find myself wanting to exercise and write all the time (sometimes to the abstention of other things). I like to romanticize this notion at times—that here, as in Japan, I can walk out of the gym on a rush of endorphins, sidle into the adjacent cafeteria completely absorbed in my own thoughts, and help myself to a pleasantly stoic meal, all before rejoining the real world on my walk home.

The gym at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. Unless it's changed radically, Eric and Mariko, this is what you can look forward to next spring!

I believe that despite some of the negative stereotypes associated with working out (or at least weight lifting), like Mishima, my ultimate goal is to provide a physical receptacle for my thoughts that can rival their potential merit. Like living in a room that is perpetually unkempt, I find myself unable to think or concentrate well when I know that my body isn’t happy. It is only when my physical well-being is temporarily accounted for that I can then move on to other matters. Of course, like all things, there are exceptions—midterms and finals being a few of them—but it’s an adage that I have lived with ever since 10th-grade high school track. What started as a friendly challenge between friends quickly put me on a life-changing path with regard to my fitness goals.

I learned that although I am not cut out for competitive running, ever since then, I have taken stock of my physical condition and made it my business to maintain the good health I am fortunate to have. I have a relatively old-fashioned view when it comes to strength. Assuming for a minute that it were even possible, far from aspiring to become one of those ripped athletes or body builders (who, in reality, kind of creep me out), I want to build strength for the practical purpose of survival skills—being able to lift my own body weight, carry a heavy load, or hoist a person up from a precarious position—not because I think that I will really ever be in that predicament, but so that in some ways, I can feel more self-sufficient in whatever tasks I will inevitably have to encounter on my own.

What’s great is that unlike at Oberlin, I finally have the free time to really get a decent workout everyday here—and don’t have to lie when I say that I go to the gym five times a week. Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday are for weight lifting and Tuesday and Thursday are reserved for cardio; a routine that I have consistently tried to stick to for the past four years. I can credit most everything I know about weight lifting to Men’s Health and an Australian named Robert who I met when I was studying abroad in Japan (and who I later tried desperately to adopt an Australian accent from). Sprinkle in some advice from my friend and gym advisor Seyeon, and that pretty much rounds it out. As far as facilities go, Cornell’s fitness centers are more than sufficient. Although I really only go to one of them because it is so much closer than the others, I have visited all three that are open during the summer. Each has its own specialty—one has a rock climbing wall, another has a swimming pool and a bowling alley, and the third has squash and racquetball courts. As mentioned in my first post, they do charge a flat-rate membership fee, but it’s far cheaper than it would have been to go back to my old gym in Manhattan anyway.

I’m pretty happy with my routine overall. As the title of this post would suggest, I’ve been playing a lot of basketball. The courts are usually quite crowded, but everyone is really respectful and good about rotating out teams, making it an ideal set-up for pick-up games. I also recently started doing a 6-week push-up program, the goal of which is to eventually enable you to do 100 consecutive push-ups. It’s been super-grueling and I’ve been waking up to sore arms every morning, but I’m on Week 5 now, and it feels so cool to take the weekly progress test and see how many more push-ups I am able to do than in the previous week. And thanks to my roommate, I’ve also gotten quite fond of squash. As far as workouts go, it doesn’t get much better—I am absolutely covered in sweat from head to toe by the time I get out. I had only played squash once before coming here, but already I am hooked—and trying to best my roommate using the pointers that he himself taught me on the side. On the drive back home, we make it a habit to blast Beyoncé’s “Halo” at an embarrassingly high volume (though this is nothing compared to the entire evening we spent eating ice cream and watching the better part of Season 2 of “Gossip Girl”—true story).

The basketball courts and weight room (located upstairs through the glass windows) at Cornell.

Of course, we all know that the real reason I work out is so that I can eat a lot of food afterwards, not to mention impress the swarms of high school girls that I’m forced to dine with on a daily basis. I must say, though, that if nothing else, being in college has made me so appreciative of the fact that I am no longer in high school. However, I do admit that eavesdropping on their conversations makes for some fascinating hypotheses into the inner workings of the teenage mind. As far as nutrition goes, since I’ve been able to eat so much meat lately in the dining hall, I’ve been off the white stuff (that’s whey protein)—though it is largely because I wasn’t able to lug the absurdly large container up to Ithaca in my suitcase. But generally, I feel better about the situation, especially because I was always worried about my protein intake when I was eating in a co-op. Despite it being cafeteria food, I’m doing my best to eat a balanced diet—lots of vegetables and meat, light on the starch, and fruit for dessert.

I daresay that I feel healthier and in better shape than I have ever felt before. I feel stronger, have more energy, and for a small nominal fee, I also do infomercials. If living in Japan taught me anything, though, it’s that I really have to watch myself in China. I’ve been largely fine in the states, but apparently being around a lot of cheap, delicious food that I don’t have the willpower to stop myself from consuming can become problematic. I gained about 7 kilos after four months in Japan (about 15 pounds), and that was by a conservative estimate. Everyone’s heard of the “Freshman Fifteen,” but really, we’re forgetting the true scourge at hand here—the “Chinese Forty!”