At sixteen years old, I got it in my head that I needed a motorcycle to look cool. Since no one in my life was senseless enough to buy one for me, I got a job. TCBY was the first company ever to take a chance on me. In my hometown there was a shortage of warm bodies capable of pulling levers and aiming fat-free frozen sludge into small, medium, and large size cups.
The first month was a blur. Literally a blur. You’d be surprised how difficult it can be trying to get frozen yogurt into a cup when the room keeps tilting back and forth because of all the whip-its you just did in the freezer with your sixteen year old co-workers. Our manager Liz was always yelling “I don’t understand how you guys go through so much whip cream!” with a slight Mexican accent. Liz was the only adult who worked at TCBY. She was a short woman, mid forties, with too many kids and an apple shaped body. She looked like the guy in the apple costume of a Fruit of the Loom underwear commercial, only that was her real body. Liz usually only came around at the end of our shift.
After a month of minimum wage employment it dawned on me that I would be Liz’s age before I saved up enough to buy a bike. So I started getting serious about working out. I figured if you can’t go driving around on a bike looking cool and picking up chicks, at least you can look cool walking around with muscles. The problem was I only weighed about a buck fifty. I needed to put on some mass.
Before the internet, you had to rely on magazines and other people’s opinions about how to get jacked. Most of these recommended some sort of weight gain powder that could be had at your local GNC. I purchased a giant bucket of something called Mega Mass 2000. The bucket went with me to work where I used the miniature shovel it came with to scoop out a serving and mix it in some froyo. The concoction didn’t taste too bad when mixed with our white chocolate mousse “flavor of the day”.
The hard part was getting it all down. It was so filling that it took me the whole shift to finish one serving. After that I could barely move from gastric distress. Liz came in around closing time and saw my bucket hanging out in back of the store. She inquired what it was for. I told her it was for building muscle. Her precise response was “God gave you that body, don’t try to change it.” I tried to imagine what heinous sins she’d committed to deserve the body God had given her. Murder I thought. It had to have been murder.
Further into the conversation Liz informed me that she didn’t believe in dieting or exercise. Then she poured herself a large cupful of froyo the color of paint primer. It was starting to become obvious why she ran a TCBY staffed by teenagers, and couldn’t figure out why they were going through three cartons of whip cream a day. But her arguments fascinated me. It’s one thing to say that you don’t have time for, or that you can’t afford to, or that you are too lazy to be healthy; but it’s another thing entirely to say that you don’t believe in it. Not believing in it implies that it’s some sort of scam, like Scientology or multi-level marketing.
Liz was a deeply religious woman and her non-belief in the powers of self improvement were rooted in her faith. She explained to me how vanity is a sin that leads to self obsession. Time spent worrying about how you look in the mirror is time that could be spent reading scripture. Going to the gym or dieting for health purposes is selfishly taking time away from your family. Why spend so much time on yourself when you could be doing more for others? It was an enlightening moment for me. I left work feeling slightly ashamed of my vanity and selfish ways. Since working out was hard, and drinking weight gainer was miserable, I figured maybe she was on to something. She started to convince me of the possibility of being happy, like her, with a more altruistic existence.
Unfortunately my vanity is much stronger than my resolve. I remain to this day a gym going, clean eating, narcissist who occasionally flexes a bicep in the mirror.
Fast forward more years than my vanity will allow me to mention. I’m now a Crossfit athlete with a lot more knowledge about achieving health than I did at sixteen. I even managed to put on some muscle. And I don’t have to buy magazines anymore. The same information I used to have to ask for from mustached dudes wearing tank tops and clown pants, I can now find on the internet.
It would seem that vanity and self obsession have become an accepted part of our culture. Almost everyone is on board. Hell, nowadays they’re teaching first graders to exercise and eat right. It’s downright shameful. The internet, television, podcasts; they’re all trying to sell us new ways to be healthier and look better. Everyone has bought into this new form of conceit.
But every now and then I still run into good people like Liz. These selfless angels. These saints. Bravely ignoring their own personal health crisis as they fill their hearts by caring for others. Watching their struggle forces me to see myself for the vain, attention-seeking little whore that I am. Here I am, beaming with health and vitality while they drag themselves to work, bleary-eyed and bloated from a bad diet and poor sleep. Spending quality time with their families every night watching Netflix. A plate of food concocted with convenience in mind over nourishment steaming in their abundant lap. I’ve seen them at work, cranky in the morning, fighting just to keep their eyes open after lunch everyday, but valiantly they press on. I could be happy like them, but I’m not.
The one virtue to come out of living an obscenely health focused lifestyle is that it becomes much easier to treat other people like human beings. Even though you are still selfish on the inside, it allows you to react amicably in situations where others may not. I clearly remember the first time I had a perfect reaction to a situation.
I was sitting in my truck at a traffic light when I felt a strong push from behind. It wasn’t whiplash inducing or anything like that. I didn’t even realize I’d been hit by another car until I looked at my rearview mirror and saw a car with a crumpled front end rolling away from me. The hood was tented up, obstructing the windshield so you couldn’t see the driver. I got out of my car to see if the other guy was ok. He didn’t look hurt, just scared. I asked if he was injured and if he needed me to call anyone. He said he was fine. The damage to his car was severe. My rear bumper was only dented, so after making sure he was alright, I told him that I was glad he was ok and not to worry about the dent on my bumper. Then I shook his hand and went on my way. I later realized that the reason I’d been so nice, instead of losing my temper or being annoyed about the minor damage to my vehicle, was because of my lifestyle. I’d been eating right, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly. I felt like a human being; therefore, it was easy to treat the other driver like one.
As a teacher I have to have thousands of perfect reactions every single day. It can be tiresome. The only way I’m able to even come close to pulling it off is by doing the selfishly “healthy” things that I do for the sake of my vanity. My wretched soul isn’t clean enough to be civil to a classroom full of children, day in and day out, unless the rest of me is feeling great too. It’s my crutch. I know other teachers, with better souls than mine, who still struggle with this despite being of a more giving nature. We attend trainings together with titles like “Learning Intervention” and “Fostering Student Achievement”. But we never go to trainings about how to be decent human beings. Probably because those trainings would encourage them to form selfish habits like mine.
I do try, from time to time, to give up my selfish habits so that I have more time to devote to others. But habits are hard to break, and whenever I do stop trying to be healthy, the version of myself I have to give is rather diminished. Mostly I become annoyed more easily and have less patience with people. Plus my face gets fat. I’d sooner die than have jowls. More vanity. It’s never long before I find myself once again meal prepping and doing push ups.
I envy those good hearted people. They make it look so easy. Sometimes I even drive by frozen yogurt shops to gaze at them. Sitting, enjoying quality family time. Taking in spoonful after spoonful of frozen bliss. Eyes vacant. Politely pretending not to see each other’s children stealing free samples from the machines while smearing chocolate sprinkles on their clothes. I could be happy like they are. I could live the froyo life too. If only I could get my shit together.