Commentary — June 7, 2012, 11:51 am

How Muscles Made the Man

martin300

Bottom right: The author’s father, ca. 1955

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Clancy Martin:

Conversation March 30, 2015, 2:45 pm

On Death

“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 October 9, 2014, 8:00 am

Are Humans Good or Evil?

A brief philosophical debate.

Ars Philosopha March 14, 2014, 12:46 pm

On Hypocrisy

Should we condemn hypocrites, when we can’t help but be hypocrites ourselves?

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Estimated portion of French citizens with radical-Islamist beliefs who grew up in Muslim families:

1/5

Human hands are more primitive than chimp hands.

Trump declared flashlights obsolete as he handed them out to Puerto Ricans, 90 percent of whom had no electricity in their homes; and tweeted that he wouldn’t keep providing federal hurricane relief “forever” to Puerto Rico, a US territory that the secretary of energy referred to as a “country.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today