In case you didn’t know, the experience of going to the Ratner Athletics Center is as much of a mental exercise as anything else at the University of Chicago. Even in a space as physical as the gym, you will find yourself in the midst of the extreme mental bafflement characteristic of the Chicago experience––something that will definitely result in learning, and may or may not lead to finding your place.
My roommate Anna and I ventured into Ratner for the third time (following dismally-performed P.E. tests and marginally-passed swim tests) on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in search of our step aerobics class. We were very disappointed to hear it had been canceled, as we had enjoyed complaining about how unjust it was that it was scheduled on a holiday in the first place. We love complaining, especially about the things that we secretly want to do anyway, like reading the Odyssey for Hum. Deep inside, we know that it’ll be good for us, that it will change us profoundly. Going to step aerobics was going to be the first class of the first day of our brand-new lives: We were going to get in shape—all while sweating it out to the hits of late ’90s.
Instead, we would have to wait. As sad as I was to be without exercise that day, I quickly resigned myself to eating lunch instead. Anna, who lies to herself much less often, suggested that we work out anyway, so we asked the desk attendant to swipe us in.
There are so many things I learned about the gym that day. Did you know that you are fully expected to change your clothes in front of other people? (Normally I can’t even do this in front of my dog. My other roommate Margarita says that after her swim class, people even walk around the locker room naked, which makes me glad that my dog is back home.) Also, you really need to ask the desk attendant for a lock when you swipe in. It isn’t charming to wander back 15 minutes later, still wearing your coat, once you’ve finally found the locker room and discovered this for yourself. Furthermore, before you start trying to unlock the lock, you must twist it many times to the right, and not to the left, as you do with the locks in the Reg. That isn’t even the hardest part about the locks: After you turn to the final number, you still have a final fourth number you must hit, five notches past the final click.
Seriously: there’s a learning curve for the gym. In the 20 minutes it took me to figure out how to open the lock, I felt more confusion and humiliation than a whole hour and a half in my Sosc discussion session. Getting into the gym––and getting ready for it––requires an uncommon application of thought. But that’s just the beginning.
Once you have mortified yourself by putting on your gym clothes, you must find a way to exercise. The elliptical machines seem like a good choice, as they are very prominently displayed on the second floor of the foyer. As inviting as these deathtraps seem, do not be fooled: they have a waiting list (not unlike that Beginning Fiction Writing class you thought would be a lovely accent to your schedule of pain). If you expect to use one, you will have to wait at least a half hour. During this time, it is assumed that you will lift weights.
The problem with lifting weights is that there are mirrors everywhere. There are also buff, toned people everywhere. With every squat you do, you will see, along with your own bad form, the godlike prowess of the entire crew team. Seriously, these people are ripped. They will make you feel inferior, but what can you do? The gym isn’t exactly a playground for survival of the fittest: once you’re in, you’re in. After that, it’s all mental. You have to figure out for yourself what you’re going to do.
Step aerobics will possibly make me buff and toned. Then I will be worthy of Ratner. As I optimistically said to the front desk lady when I asked for a lock early in the day when I was still innocent to the cruelties of gym life, “I’m sure we’ll get the hang of this by eighth week!” She didn’t smile or even recognize that I had said anything. Maybe she didn’t think it was funny, or maybe she just knew better. And if Ratner is anything like the University––which I’m sure it is––it may take me longer than a few weeks to get used to, but at least I’ll learn something in the process.
Alison Howard is a first-year in the College.