Life & Liberty: Muppie Muscles


Some movies, like Perfect, try to laugh at the health-club craze, but it's sheer hypocrisy—like moralizing about "pornography" though you read as much of it as possible. The fact is, body worship is as American as apple pie. Witness the magnificence of the women's bodies in Pumping Iron II: The Women and the men's bodies in virtually everything else these days.

You've heard enough about yuppies and their lifestyles. If you're up on such things, you've also read about the "new collars," who are of the yuppie generation but not as affluent, a little higher up on the occupational scale than the blue collars but not so likely to play racquetball and drink white wine with the young urban professionals. And, of course, we have the youths, who no longer prattle about not trusting anybody over thirty, because they no longer know anybody over thirty—at least anybody who'll admit to being over thirty. And we have the senior citizens, who used to be called the elderly or the old, until somebody decided to upgrade them by identifying their ability to vote as their one remaining attribute.

But I and mine, we are of another group entirely. We're older than yuppies, richer than new collars, more professional than blue collars, much older than kids, and younger than seniors. We're urban and professional, and we go to the hanging-plant-brick-wall restaurants and to the right charity balls, such that we get into the right society columns now and again. And, until recently, we've patronized the health clubs where the bars are busier than the Nautilus and Universal sweatatoria.

We are not yuppies but muppies—middle-aged urban professionals—and we do what muddled middle-aged men and women have always done: desperately clutch onto our vanishing (vanished?) youth, hoping to get some youthfulness to rub off on us by rubbing up against the youthful.

When muppies speak of Elvis, we mean Presley, not Costello. When we talk of the dead Kennedys, we refer to Robert and Jack, maybe David, not to an asinine rock group. When we say Matt Dillon, we recall the marshall of that nom de television, not the hunklet actor. Muppie clothes don't fasten with Velcro or glow in the dark, and we think of Bill Rodgers as a runner, not as a label on jogging togs.

Muppie cars don't talk to us; we shout at our cars and kick our tires. Muppies dress for success, not to conform to Color for Men or Color Me Beautiful. To a muppie, color is grey or navy; to a yuppie, color is mauve and puce and ochre and other such things we can't spell or pronounce. Muppies have typewriters, not word processors. Muppies have friends, not "meaningful relationships." Muppies are great people, and we wish, desperately, that yuppies would realize it.

Furthermore, we muppies are going to the gym and you can't stop us. I used to lift weights back when gyms were smelly holes in the basements of YMCAs and the only sounds you heard were grunts and shouts of "Spot me!" and "Hey, asshole, finish up wit da 150 barbell!"

Then I went soft—into comfortable chairs, and off to the tailor to have him take out my clothes, and take them out again, and again. I led a sedentary life, content to revel in timeworn (and idiotic) aphorisms about the "dignity" of old age and the "supremacy" of soul over body. Like many muppies, I bought the whole package of nonsense that taught us—that we taught ourselves—to believe that physicality was for them, not for us.

Along came Arnold (I don't even have to give his last name, do I?) and with Arnold, muscles, and with muscles on Arnold, muscles on Harrison, and then Sylvester, and then Sylvester laid hands upon Travolta and suddenly Travolta had muscles and glistened, albeit in the trashy little sequel Staying Alive. And then we began to read about how old those worthies are, and when we saw that Clint was over fifty, that Raquel was fifty, and that Jane, who's almost fifty, decided to put rad-lib politics aside and tone up and branch out into fitness videos, it all came crashing home: They are muppies and they are fit; we are muppies and we can be fit, too. If they could do it, so could we, and so could I.

And I did. It's been 18 months now at Boston's Back Bay Racquet Club, at ungodly hours in the morning, during Celtics games at night, on weekends, whenever. Why?

Why else but? Oh sure, I pretended at first that my motives were pure. Here's what I told the instructors: "Oh, you see, I am not interested in, well, uh, muscles, exactly, but in fitness, getting my heart in shape, maybe, oh, a little toning up, you know?" I wonder if they ever believed me for a moment. True, aerobics has done wonders for my blood pressure. But the reason, the real reason, is simply vanity—a desire not to feel, look, and be treated in my forties as if I were in my eighties.

It is vanity that leads the yuppie to spend hours every week grunting in the grasp of weird machines. Yuppies may also like the stupid music that health clubs inflict on their members. But we muppies, while loathing every piece of equipment from the racquet to the music boxes, are after exactly what the yuppies are after: a longer lease on youth, a fighting chance in the world that has no use for age, a shot at the magic that America attaches to those who are fit.

And more power to us. Is there an honest person alive who really believes that flab is preferable to taut, that waddling around in sack-like clothing is more appealing than bouncing about in formfitting duds, that looking like Orson Welles or Sarah Caldwell is more inviting than looking like Tom Selleck or Jamie Lee Curtis?

You want statistics? I'll give you statistics. January 1984: weight, 179 pounds; arms, 14 inches; waist, 36½ inches; hips, 42 inches; chest, 39½ inches. August 1985: weight, 160 pounds; arms, I6¼ inches; waist, 32½ inches; hips, 37½ inches; chest, 43½ inches. Call it the reshaping of a muppie.

In the silly movie Perfect, the reporter (Travolta) puts words into the willing mouth of an airhead who's pretty enough as is but intends to get a reshaped chin, augmented cheek bones, and a new nose to go with her new body: "And so you think that by becoming perfect you'll find true love and happiness?"

Muppies know better than that. Or do we? I leave it to you to decide. I do know this: We muppies are not about to be tossed into the reject pile just because we're over forty. You'll be seeing more of us in "your" health clubs—maybe not boozing it up at "your" parties, maybe not rippling quite as much as you ripple, but we'll be there in ever greater numbers. We're more successful than you, because we're older; we're brighter in the ways of the world, because we've been around; and in the immortal words of Clint, we intend to make our day—make it just as healthily as yours. So get off the damn pec deck, kid, and let an adult muppie do a couple of sets.

Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is a writer and radio talk-show host in Boston.