And then came the booty-shaking part of the class. The speakers pulsed with Kat DeLuna’s “Whine Up.” Louis, the instructor, shouted, “One! Two! Boom Boom Boom!” thrusting his pelvis forward and back with piston-like power and fluidity.
I could have shuffled in place instead, but I was determined not to wimp out. After a lifetime of trying not to draw attention to my ass, I shook it. Not only back-and-forth, but also side-to-side. Nerve endings that had never been fired clicked like dead igniters on a gas grill, but finally sparked to life, activating muscles that had only twitched involuntarily, if ever. While Louis’s hips hit every beat with the smooth precision of a Lexus, mine sputtered like an old Dodge truck with a couple of frayed spark plug wires and a leaky fuel pump. The mirror confirmed the feedback that my body was giving me: This was not pretty. Another thing I noticed in the mirror was my big idiot-grin.
I’m at a point in my life where I want to try uncomfortable things that I wouldn’t have risked as a younger man. It’s one of the advantages of being a middle-aged, minivan-driving dad. You become liberated from the shackles of coolness.
As an uncool dad, I have tried other uncomfortable things in the name of fitness and exposing myself to unfamiliar social situations. At the beginning of this year, for instance, I decided I would try my hand at hand-to-hand combat. I had been in a fitness rut. At best, I would go through the motions of the same workouts I had been doing for years. Often, I was so uninspired at the prospect of exercising that I just wouldn’t bother. But this new thing—learning how to fight—was something I was so fascinated by, and yet inexperienced in, that I would schedule my days around class times so I didn’t miss anything. I had trouble sleeping on nights before a workout, and practiced combinations of punches and kicks while out for my nightly stroll, much to the consternation of my skittish dog.
There was a lot I enjoyed about working out at the mixed martial arts gym. It was great exercise, and I felt like I was not completely terrible at it. I thought I had some potential—I could put some force behind my punches and kicks. But it wasn’t just learning a new sport that attracted me to the gym. It also felt subversive: I was pushing against a taboo of my non-violent, conflict-avoiding upbringing. Participating in the most basic expression of traditional masculinity—fighting—felt edgy against the backdrop of my comfortable lifestyle of being a gender-norm-defying stay-at-home dad and all-around sensitive pacifist. Being a dude who does Zumba is edgy in its own way too, of course; I felt just as vulnerable walking onto the female-dominated dance floor as I had walking into the ring.
MMA was a successful attempt to get out of my comfort zone and get some exercise. Ultimately, though, it was my creaky 46-year-old body that let me down. Before I started my short-lived fighting career, several people told me I was a fool and that I was risking terrible injury. I pooh-poohed them and assured them that it wasn’t Fight Club. This was a controlled environment, I thought; the instructors aren’t going to let me get hurt.