Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Elephant in the Room, in the Running Shoes

The other night I was at the gym waiting with a group of people outside of the spinning room to teach a class. A couple of us were talking about a 15K race that happened over the weekend, comparing notes on the course and how we did. A guy overheard our conversation and decided to join in, since he too was a runner. He glanced at me in my spinning outfit – a black tank and shorts that did nothing to conceal my collection of tan lines (more like faded sunburn lines), and chuckled as he proclaimed, “Well obviously you’ve been outside training, you have the lines to prove it!” I smiled, about to politely excuse myself from the conversation to prepare for class, when he began to say something else.

“You know, it’s nice to see a runner like you that isn’t all long and lean. You always see those tall thin runners and then there’s you.”

From the look on his face I could tell that he meant this to be complimentary, and it was in its own way, but his horribly dysfunctional delivery resulted in some degree of “offended” on my part.

“Yes…I’m certainly no gazelle gliding miles upon miles over the land with ease.” I replied. As I heard myself saying this, I simultaneously recalled all of the times that my father has said that I’m “scrappy” in reference to the fact that I am 5’3” and 138 pounds of muscle. I may not be svelte, but I don’t show up to races to look pretty. I show up to kick some ass. Now I was feeling like I wanted to kick this guy’s ass. He would get his when class began.

I didn’t think the conversation could get much worse, but it did.

“So you’re married?” The guy asked.
“No, no…not me,” I said.

“Really? I could have sworn that you were,” he looked off in the distance, squinting his eyes while trying to concentrate on how he knew this.

I thought that maybe he was confused because I was engaged before and he may not have heard through the grapevine that the wedding was called off. Even though the class I was teaching that night was not my own, the gym is a small place where news travels fast and this had happened more than a year ago.

“Well, I was engaged but we called the wedding off.” I told him. He looked at me, still confused that his intel was wrong.
“Wow, well I just assumed that you were married and had children,” he replied.

I paused on that statement, unsure what he meant by it. Just a few weeks ago I had been carded at a convenience store while purchasing a case of Corona. When I showed the woman my ID, she gasped in shock to learn that I was 30. Her and her son could have sworn I was just 19 and I was asked to show alternate forms of ID to prove them wrong. Now I was standing in front of a guy that must have assumed that I was “at that age” that I should be married with children, despite the fact that all of my fingers were bare and nothing about me says “maternal.”

“No, no children here. I’m only 30!” I said this as if everyone knows that 30 is still young and there was plenty of time to have children if that’s what I wanted one day, but I forgot that I was in upstate New York where it seems that many women want to be done having children by 30.

I could see from the man’s face that my response was confusing him, which made sense since he mentioned he had two teen-aged daughters and I would guess that he himself was in his early 40s. By my calculations, he probably started making a family in his early 20s. In my early 20s I was living in Manhattan and unknowingly dating an attractive Irish lad from the IRA. Ah, the good days.

Deciding to add an element of humor to our dialogue, which was clearly becoming awkward, I offered my sentiments on myself as a mom.

“I think I’m much too selfish to have children right now. I have a lot of things I want to do before I have to devote my time to raising kids.” I laughed as I said this, batting my hand lightly on his shoulder as I tried to lighten the mood.

“Yes, well, it’s good that you have things you like, you know…” He trailed off with his words, but his facial expression and tone said the rest. This guy seemed to be speaking with me as if I were some candidate for the Make a Wish Foundation, and soon my opportunity to be a mom would wither up and die with my 30-year-old ovaries – but no matter, even if I could never be a mom, I would have plenty of time to do crossword puzzles and shoe shop.

“I’ll be an aunt soon,” I said.

I have no idea why I said that, but I think that some part of me felt like I had to prove to this guy that I was cognizant of the circle of life – that I was human and capable of showing some enthusiasm for babies and birth despite the fact that I was not yet experiencing these things with my own body.

One of the things I like to do to remind myself that I still have time to be a mom is read US Weekly and learn about the celebrities that are pregnant. They always put the person’s age in parenthesis after their name and lately that age has been well over 30 – moms that are 35, or even 38! The shame.

On that note, we started to walk into the spinning room and I went to set up my bike and prep the music for class. The conversation left me feeling confused and angry. How did any of that even come up? It was like a “your life sucks” bomb was being dropped on me from out of nowhere. What’s worse is that I had arrived to the gym feeling really great. I got home from work and was able to start laundry, vacuum, dust, take the garbage out, and figure out what I’d make for dinner later on all within an hour. Who was this guy to come in and dilute my “multi-tasking” high?

Fueled by irritation, I punished the class with challenging cadences and frequent increases in resistance, favoring a drill sergeant interpretation of each track over my usual motivational tone. My legs were sore from the race I completed the day before, but I needed to work hard as my soul was sore from yet another conversation about my shortcomings as a 30-year-old woman. The self-pity was short-lived because the exercise high always trumps all and by the end of the workout I was relaxed and feeling very good. The lactic acid from Sunday’s 15K left my legs and I was easily hammering through each song on my workout mix. Everyone was energized and responding well to my coaching, and the guy that was talking to me in the hallway was barely reaching pace in the last 20 minutes of the workout.

“I’ll show you long and lean,” I thought to myself as sweat coursed over my brow, through my eyes, around my nose and over my lips like white-water rapids.

We hit the last song for cool down and proceeded to the floor for stretching. By then, I had totally separated myself from the earlier conversation in the hallway. As class came to an end, I thanked everyone for coming and started to pack up my things to leave. My mood skyrocketed when I remembered that I’d completed all of my chores before getting to the gym so all that was required of me when I got home was the consumption of a cold glass of wine and hitting “play” on my DVR to watch “So You Think You Can Dance.”

In my peripheral vision I saw the man come toward me.

He wrapped his towel around his neck and stood over me as I jammed my water bottle into my gym bag.

“I was thinking…I hope I didn’t offend you before when we were talking, I didn’t mean to say that you were overweight or anything…” he seemed genuinely concerned. “Obviously you are in great shape and I didn’t mean for it to sound like you should be skinny to be a good runner.”

I knew his intention was never to offend, and he didn’t realize that my issues with the conversation had more to do with his reactions to my being single and childless at 30, than with my ability to run while carrying a few extra pounds. So I gave him the reaction he needed to feel better about it all.

“Are you kidding me? Don’t worry about a thing – I was flattered by what you said!” I plastered the most gracious smile on my face that you’ve ever seen. It was as if someone had just mistaken me for a movie star (albeit a sweaty one).

“Really, it was such a nice thing to hear! Who wants to be long and lean?” I continued on for full effect, shrugging my shoulders at the very idea of having zero body fat to worry about.

While there was a part of me that was slightly taken aback by the notion that I am somehow not a real runner because I am not tall and skinny, that was never the part of the conversation that pushed my buttons. What really got to me was the idea that I’m somehow not a real woman without a husband and a baby and that this guy didn’t even realize that his comments conveyed that loud and clear. It’s like the elephant in the room, in the sneakers. I’m this obviously present woman living my life the way I want to. I’m not committed to a marriage; I’m not responsible for children. I’m not what you’d expect a marathon-running, Ironman-finishing woman to look like, but I’m not what you’d expect in many areas. And why should I be?


Krispin said...

Not sure if guys can be spinsters or not, but we too get pittied from time to time when admitting to the obvious shortcoming of not having kids. Explaining that we have other priorities generally gets varying degrees of either disgust or disbelief. I love this post.

Kris said...

guy at gym + douchebag extraordinaire

SingleThirtySomething said...

I love your blog! And this post is brilliant - I laughed so much at how you took out your irritation on your gym class :-) Hell hath no fury like a single woman scorned, huh? It amazes me how strong stereotypes are still, in this day and age. Female? 30? You must be married and have kids. Erm, no, not necessarily! I've actually stopped correcting people who call me 'Mrs' - am tired of explaining that no, I am not married and yes, I am buying this house/car/kitchen/holiday MYSELF.

Clever Elsie said...

Ugh! I'm sorry this matrimaniac ruined your exercise high! :(

Sometimes I think traditional-minded marrieds have no idea what to make of us singles in our late 20s and beyond. Some of them are people who really have nothing that excites them beyond spouse and kids and so can't imagine what else could fill a person's life. Also, I think sometimes it's threatening to them that we're single and liking it, especially if they're married and not totally liking it. They have to convince themselves that we must be either self-deluded or lacking in some integral human trait like maturity or compassion.

I'm lucky in that I live in an area in which people marry later, so there's less questioning to deal with, but I know I'm going to hear more of it as I get older. When people ask me if I'm dating, I tell them I'm happily single and then move the conversation in another direction. No explanations, no excuses. As I see it, my personal life is none of their business, so I don't indulge their curiosity. I find that most people take the hint and drop the subject, too.

onely said...

First, I want to congratulate you on your cool and quick-witted "gazelle" response to his initial comment. I would have stuttered and turned pink and possibly stomped my foot.

Was he putting the moves on you or just being chatty? Given his choice of subject matter it seems he was trying to be flirtatious and drop innuendos, but as is often the case that didn't come off too well. I totally identified with your need to say "Well I'm going to be an aunt soon". As if we have to make excuses for not having kids, and as if we still have to prove our interest in the "womanly" activity of childrearing (or at least, prove we don't hate kids).

I hope you enjoyed SYTYCD = )

Simone Grant said...

Just found your blog and I'm so glad I did. I love the way you handled that moron. Sadly, there are lots and lots of guys like him. I try to laugh them off, but it's hard.