Steve Fiffer

STOP THE PRESSES (or whatever the online equivalent to the presses is).

In yesterday’s entry I refused to join the growing ranks of Americans willing to be identified as “disabled.”

No sooner had I e-mailed this piece to Slate than I began to feel a twinge–not of remorse, but of pain. My back, which had gone out only once before–in 1990–seemed to be departing again. Was this a punishment from the gods for my hubris? Or was it the result of increasing my exercise program earlier in the week?

As noted yesterday, I’m no stranger to working out. I spent several hours a day in physical therapy once I began to move again after being completely paralyzed in a high-school wrestling accident. Then, having hit a plateau two years later after getting onto crutches, I enlisted in an exercise class peopled by professional athletes and narcissistic businessmen. The program, run out of a Chicago YMCA, was part boot camp, part cult. Our drill instructor/guru was a manic former Detroit Lion named Dick Woit, who ate only Cool Whip and who relished chewing up and spitting out those who weren’t up to his intense regime.

My doctors considered me a walking miracle. But my first day at the gym, Woit, who enjoyed using four-letter words, took one look at me and anointed me “Crip,” short for Cripple. He then told me that if I weren’t going to get any better, I’d be better off dead.

Woit didn’t only abuse me verbally. He threw me off of benches and kicked me. But I didn’t mind. He could kick me once and kick me twice and kick me once again. It had been a long, long time since I’d made the progress I was making in his program, which consisted of 40 nonstop minutes of leg lifts, sit-ups, scores of repetitions with free weights, and hundreds of push-ups (feet elevated on a bench to make it harder). In less than a year, I was able to get rid of the crutches in favor of a cane.

I continued working out with Woit for the next 15 years, leaving on good terms in the mid-1980s when my wife and I moved out of Chicago. Since then I’ve exercised on my own at local clubs and, more recently, at home. My current program consists of stretching, isometrics, sit-ups, light weights, and several laps around the house. Last week, feeling stronger, I increased the number of laps and weight repetitions, and added some new isometrics. Monday morning found me feeling quite disabled, thank you, so I exercised only my prerogative to stay in bed.

I curled my body into the fetal position and pressed the remote control to our television. When I realized that I had seen the same highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter three times, I switched channels. On an ESPN2 show called Co-ed Training, a blonde to die for wearing a two-piece bathing suit somehow made me forget I was in pain and sit up. She was on a beach in Barbados, barbell in hand. As she leaned forward provocatively and curled the weight, the camera focused on both her biceps and her cleavage. Then–I kid you not–she said, “I call these ‘my little mountains.’ ” I think she meant the biceps, because her breasts most definitely qualified as big mountains. In the following segment, an equally shapely twentysomething named Shawnae led viewers through a demanding aerobics routine. Her name alone made me feel old.

But not as old as I would feel a few moments later when I switched to a public-television station that was also offering an exercise program for those at home. Instead of the scantily clad young Shawnae bouncing up and down on the beach in Barbados, a sixtysomething woman in a baggy blue T-shirt and purple exercise shorts was sitting in a chair in a Spokane senior center moving her ankle up and down. “Don’t do this if it hurts,” she cautioned. The name of this show was Sit and Be Fit, and it suddenly occurred to me that, at the moment anyway, I was much better suited for this workout than for the one on Co-Ed Training. Worse, I realized that I was probably closer in age to the seated instructor, whose mountains were no longer part of any recognizable range.

I curled back into the fetal position. My back still hurt, but not nearly as much as my self-esteem.