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My father’s first job after being expelled from college was managing a Gold’s Gym in Minneapolis. Later, whenever we visited him on Palm Beach or in Scottsdale, he would pull out photocopies he’d kept of the gym’s workout sheets and create a workout for each of us—me, my older brother, Darren, and my little brother, Pat. Then we’d “hit the gym, boys.” As long as he was alive, even after he’d told me he feared he was losing his mind, he would join gyms and work himself into shape. For his fiftieth birthday, he set up a photo shoot for himself, putting on a Speedo and striking various embarrassing young-Schwarzenegger poses for a series of sharply etched black-and-white pictures. (Arnold Schwarzenegger was a great hero of my father’s, along with many other bodybuilders whose names I no longer remember despite the muscle-magazine subscriptions he bought me from the time I was six or seven until I was in my teens and had the courage to ask him to stop.) The photos emphasized his pectorals, his biceps, the broad muscles of his back—those wing-like muscles bodybuilders cultivate. He was always an upper-body man. “Your grandfather cursed me with these spindly calves,” he’d complain. “I can floor press more weight than any other musclehead at my gym, but my legs will never look like a real weightlifter’s. Your old man could have been a great bodybuilder, son, if it weren’t for these damn calves. He gave them to me and I gave them to you. We can run like the wind—at least, your brothers can—but we’ll never have the muscle structure we need. Of course, with your shoulders you could have one helluva build if you’d apply yourself. Maybe this summer you’ll get serious about it.”
You will notice in the above photo that my father does not show his legs. The picture was taken in Faribault, Minnesota, where he had been sent from his home in Winnipeg to attend Shattuck, a prestigious prep school favored for bad rich boys. (“The same school they sent Marlon Brando, son,” he told me when we visited it together one summer.) As a boy I admired the photo often, because it was so clear to me that the other three young men depicted were not in the same league as my father. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would look at it and think, as one does about one’s father, “There’s why I will never be the kind of man he is. There’s why I can never do what he can do, what he has done.” Looking at it now, as a man with a seventeen-year-old daughter, I wonder what ferocity, determination, discipline, insecurity, ambition, or self-hatred led a fifteen-year-old boy to create a body like that. He was already a famous athlete for his age in Manitoba, and I saw his name on various trophies in Shattuck, where he still held the school record for most touchdowns scored in a single game. Four touchdowns. The madness my mother later insisted was already present in him as a teenager shows in that body to me now. It is the teenaged body of a man who will die in the midst of mystical visions and under suspicious circumstances in the psychiatric ward of a county hospital for indigent patients.
Clancy Martin is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His memoir “My Old Man” appears in the June 2012 issue.
More from Clancy Martin:
Conversation — March 30, 2015, 2:45 pm
“I think that the would-be suicide needs, more than anything else, to talk to a person like you, who has had to fight for life.”
Ars Philosopha — March 14, 2014, 12:46 pm
Should we condemn hypocrites, when we can’t help but be hypocrites ourselves?
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”