My trainer, Pam Sanborn, works me out Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. She’s tiny and strong, four-foot-10 and a hundred pounds of muscle. If she had to, I’m sure she could carry my 200 pounds slung over her shoulders. For half an hour each session she has me do cardio on the treadmill, squat with five-pound weights, lift tenners above my head and out from my sides, stretch muscles, stand up no hands with a beach ball between my knees and do push-ups (as it were) standing against a wall. Exercise hurts, as well it might, since by choice and for my pleasure I didn’t do it for 80 years. (Once, in my 50s, I walked four miles.) Pam is cute and loves to work out. When her marriage ended, she found a new companion through an internet site called Fitness Singles. At the moment, the two of them are bicycling through Italy.
When I divorced, I looked for women who lazed around after poetry readings.
Exercise is boring. Everything is boring that does not happen in a chair (reading and writing) or in a bed. Sculptors and painters and musicians live longer than writers, who exercise only their fingers with a pen or on a keyboard. Sculptors chisel or weld or mold plaster. Painters work standing up. They drink quarts of cognac every night but return to physical activity the next morning. A tuba player holds a weighty object and breathes deeply. Even playing a harmonica requires more fitness than writing.
People have tried to encourage my mobility. My late wife Jane for years cherished cats. This house is full of Jane’s cat presents from friends—cat night-lights and cat doorstops and cat china dolls. In time she found herself mooning after dogs at the house of a writer friend. When she adopted Gus, Jane (who called me Perkins) invented an excuse: “It will get Perkins off his ass.” Thus for several years I walked 15 minutes a day. The husband of a friend, who went dog walking with me, swears I parked the car on a dirt road, let Gus out to walk alone and whistled him back. Then Jane died of leukemia, the dog’s hindquarters failed and my hindquarters failed. I sit on my ass all day writing in longhand, which my assistant types up. Sometimes in a car I used to pass Pancake Road, two miles away, watching a man walk his collie, the dog stepping out on his forepaws, two wheels harnessed to his back. These days I no longer drive past Pancake Road or anywhere. I push wheels ahead of me instead of pulling them behind me like the dog. With my forepaws holding the handles of a four-wheeled roller, my buckling hindquarters slowly shove my carcass forward. I drool as I walk, and now and then I sniff a tree.
I have been told that as a baby I crawled up on a kitchen table and devoured a quarter pound of butter. I spewed it out quickly, and the mouth-memory has endured in my distaste for yellow milk fat. Because it was so athletic to climb the table, perhaps my misadventure also led to my athletic malfitness. Or maybe it came from my mother, Lucy. On the farm where she was born, she didn’t chop trees or hay fields or haul ice from the pond. With her mother, Kate, she helped wash overalls, squeeze clothes through a mangle and hang them out to dry. She carried cans of corn and peas up from the root cellar to the kitchen. Otherwise she was not a muscular sort. Her mother mopped the hardwood kitchen floor every night while Lucy studied Latin for the mill-town high school. Later, both of them sat under an oil lamp while they knitted, tatted and darned socks. Everything my mother did was useful, and her hands were nimble, but nothing she did stretched a tendon, nothing firmed a muscle.
Upstairs in the back chamber, where everything goes when it dies—green chairs with broken rockers, long-dead long underwear, oil lamps retired after electricity—I found a pair of wooden skis with runners two inches thick, heavy as a hay load, on which, I was told, my mother slid down a slope. Her lift had to be a horse that trudged uphill as she clung to a rope. When I moved into the farmhouse in middle age, I decided to try cross-country. I bought a pair, and in a flat field next to the barn I stood up and fell down, stood up and fell down, stood up and fell down. I retired the cross-country skis to the back chamber. With snowshoes I didn’t fall down so much, but it was harder getting up. Trying to ice-skate was ludicrous.
My father, on the other hand, remembered skating on January ponds, playing shortstop, even running sprints at school. He and I played catch on Greenway Street and I threw the baseball over his head. He trotted up the pavement to retrieve it. Trotted. We played Ping-Pong in the cellar, and it wasn’t until he started shaking that I beat him two out of three games. Every Saturday morning he golfed with his foursome. He acquired his golfing passion when he caddied for spare change as a boy. As a grown-up he became a member of the New Haven Country Club and hired his own caddies. When my parents were first married, my father tried to teach my mother golf. She found it hard to hit that little white ball with that long wooden stick. Once, when my father walked a few yards in front of her, my mother’s golf ball flew up the fairway past him. He turned around, ecstatic, to congratulate her on her drive. She didn’t tell him right away that she had thrown it.
I did not love golf. Sometimes on a family ride we would stop at a driving range. My mother would sit on a bench as my father bought two pails of exhausted golf balls and we stood at a rubber tee and swung away. Mostly I missed or tapped the ball three inches, but occasionally I caught it flush and it rose majestically into the air and landed 37 yards down the fairway. There was a target 200 yards farther on. I wasn’t any good at playing anything. Back in Spring Glen Grammar School, a physical education instructor came on Tuesdays and brought two basketballs and set us into circles—one for people who had passed a basketball before, another for those who hadn’t. I had touched a basketball on a Saturday at the YMCA, so I stood in the Circle of Experience. After one or two rounds our instructor switched me to the Circle of Innocence. By the time I moved on to Hamden High School the war had started. Everyone expected to be drafted shortly after graduation, so Physical Education amped up its requirements. We boxed. My opponent was usually a quiet willowy guy and our fists mangled only the sweaty air of the gym. In spring we were required to run a quarter mile, which I mostly walked. Still, I lost my breath.
Doubtless that’s why, when I switched to Exeter after 10th grade, I went out for cross-country. As I did laps for endurance I heard my 80-year-old coach—the war had resurrected elderly faculty—murmur “truck horse.” My feelings were hurt. I worked on improving my style, but when I ran cross-country, agony rotated from my ribs on one side to the ribs on the other. I faked turning my ankle.
Summers on the farm I hayed with my grandfather. I milked cows badly and I was scared to pull eggs from underneath hens, but I liked haying. Mostly I liked sitting up front with my grandfather behind the slow old horse as we approached the hay field. Even more I loved the slower plod back to the barn. My grandfather told story after story with affection and humor. Sometimes he recited wonderful, terrible poems he had memorized for school. Loading the rack with hay took more muscle than sitting and listening to stories, but I tolerated the strain. My grandfather, as he approached and passed 70, stuck his pitchfork into a pile of hay and raised it over his head onto the hayrack, where I hauled it into place and trod it down so that interlocked forkfuls would not slide off while we plodded back home. The air inside the barn was intolerably hot and chaffy. My grandfather by himself pitched the load up to the lofts, where it would remain until winter brought the cattle inside. Meantime I rested in the cool of the living room.
When I was 16, I found a girlfriend and stopped haying. To pay for rum and Cokes at a teenage tavern I found a summer job that permitted me to sit down.
It was the wrist-skill of Ping-Pong that budged me toward athletic triumph. At prep school I learned squash, where I could snap the ball with my table-tennis wrists. Although the playing space was large, the rackets reached long and I delayed between points to breathe. When I arrived at college I tried out for the freshman team. One by one the hackers were cut, often with generous words from the young coach. Then came my one athletic triumph: I was the last man cut from the freshman squash squad at Harvard.
In Ann Arbor, when I taught, I never lost cellar Ping-Pong games. My prowess went to my head, and when the Table Tennis Association printed a notice in the paper, I called and asked to join. “Are you a beginner or a moderate?” said a voice. I hemmed and hawed out of modesty and was told I was a beginner. We played on adjacent basketball courts where we could retreat 20 feet behind the table to retrieve a slam. I was a beginner. Baseball had always been my favorite sport to follow. I could never play it. I tried and tried. I arrived at the University of Michigan as an assistant professor without a graduate degree and 26 years old. The Michigan Daily told me the English Department softball team was playing against Physics at two p.m. on an intramural field. Interested students or teachers might participate. I arrived among a host of grad students in their 20s. I was chosen—however skeptical the scholars-in-training—to play left field and bat ninth. In the second inning, before I had a chance to strike out, a fly ball approached me in the field. I kept a steady eye as I moved under it and poised my glove. The ball hit me straight on the skull. My teammates gathered round me until I staggered up and was replaced by a burly medievalist. When I collapsed on the bench, a woman approached me saying she was a nurse. If later I felt nauseous or had double vision, she advised me to hasten to an emergency room.
As I entered my mid-70s, my legs weakened and it became treacherous to walk on uneven ground. I decided that if I were to continue to survive, I should do something. I bought a stationary bike and set it up in front of the television. Watching Ken Burns’s Baseball on tape, I managed to pump for seven minutes each day, until I fell trying to climb down from the machine, which in its turn fell on me and knocked out a tooth. I gave the bike away and bought a treadmill that was too big for the television room. In my bedroom I walked at two miles an hour listening to NPR. Each afternoon I did four minutes, sometimes even five, before sagging into bottomless boredom—in spite of NPR’s daily schedule of rapes, murders and Bangladeshi disasters. It was my doctor who told me about the Hogan Sports Center at Colby-Sawyer College, only 15 minutes away, which was Pam’s domain. Twice a week I parked outside, took an elevator upstairs to avoid climbing steps and delivered myself to Pam in a gym cluttered with barbells and exercise machines. Twice a week we walked together around a wooden track for cardio’s 15 minutes. We talked. Then for another 15 minutes I attempted fitness and balance. Balance was a major problem. Pam showed me how to stand up after I fell down.
When I was 80 my second car wreck stopped my driving and I handed my license to a state trooper. At home when I’d caught my breath I telephoned Pam at the fitness center and told her weeping that I could never see her again. Others could shop for me or take me to the doctor’s, but who would drive me to the gym, hang around for half an hour and drive me back? Pam calmed me down, saying she would come to me. Thus Pam drives to my house twice a week at 3:30 p.m., bringing weights and straps and curved plastic platforms where I can practice losing balance. I accomplish 15 minutes on the treadmill. I stand up from the bed with a horse collar full of sand draped around my neck as we try to fend off the wheelchair. With Pam I am able to exercise without boredom because I love her and talk to her all the time. For 60 years I have been writing my autobiography in book after book, poetry and prose, but Pam does not read autobiographies, so I repeat all my stories. Sometimes I choose topics—Famous Writers I Have Known, My Athletic Career—but mostly I remain chronological, beginning with stories of my parents, who met when they attended Bates College, through my birth, through infancy and eating butter, through childhood and grammar school. Often, when we have finished our workout, Pam takes notes on my daily achievements, then adds a reminder of where we are in the story. When she returns from Italy we will still be at Oxford in 1952, and I will tell her about sitting at my desk typing in the frigid January of Christ Church college. At the top of her notes she has written, “He cuts fingertip off glove.”
Donald Hall is the author of Essays After Eighty.