Barbarella
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An hour of basketball feels like 15 minutes. An hour on a treadmill feels like a weekend in traffic school.

-- David Walters

I was five minutes in; by ten minutes, sweat would begin to trickle down from my hairline and slicken my cheeks, at which point I'd remove my glasses and set them next to my iPod in that little holder thingy next to the machine's electronic dashboard. But for now, my specs were still on my face, which meant I had at least four and a half minutes left to check out the scene. It was my first time on this kind of machine, the "TreadClimber" -- imagine a treadmill sliced down the middle, with each side rising up to greet your foot at an incline with each step. It was weird at first, but after two minutes it was no more complicated or taxing than walking uphill.As I speed-climbed to the techno beat of the latest compilation album from Armani Exchange , a woman approached the machine on my left. I could see her easily in the mirrored wall, which I would never reach no matter how many minutes I spent walking toward it. Her fluorescent green sweatpants clutched at her backside; her white tank top held fast to her perky, sizeable breasts; tough girl tattoos were offset by the cutesiness of long, dark pigtails. She was annoyingly gorgeous, the kind of girl you don't want to be stuck standing next to in a bar.

I expected her to leap onto the treads and break into a full gallop with the grace and agility of a gazelle. Instead, Miss Fitness Hillcrest busted a series of poses, each one more bizarre and mystifying than the one before. She threw a foot up onto the dashboard of her machine and brandished her crotch to the room in a sort of vertical, sideways split. Right after she started in with the backbends, it was time for me to take off my glasses, so the rest of her contortions appeared to me as blurry beige and green limbs flailing in slow motion. I thought I was doing pretty well at three miles per hour at "maximum treadle" but this chick's warm-up made me wonder if I'd missed some kind of red button that sent this thing into "hyperactive exercise freak" mode, which was the only thing -- short of a sprint to Albuquerque -- I could fathom might require that much preparatory stretching. By the time the limber lady finally stepped onto the TreadClimber, my 20 minutes were up and I relinquished my machine to the short bald guy who'd been pacing patiently behind me.

The gym is a playground for grownups. Just as the rules during recess are different from those of the classroom, there are certain behaviors that are accepted within the gym that under many other circumstances would confuse, offend, and, in extreme cases, horrify. For example, in a gym locker room, it is not out of the ordinary for a man to shave his face while wearing nothing but the shaving cream (or so David tells me -- I have yet to break into the "little weightlifter's" room).

Since joining my local recreation joint two weeks ago, I've been an urban Dian Fossey, observing these sinewy gorillas in their midst. Though my research is as yet preliminary, I have begun to note certain behavioral trends. For instance, I have learned that regardless of where one's vanity falls on the spectrum, it is mandatory for all gym patrons to ogle themselves in the mirrored walls. An unwritten rule specifies that the worse shape one is in, the tighter his or her clothing must be. Older, saggy-skinned women in blood-constricting spandex short-shorts are to be commended in this Bizzaro universe.

I am still uncertain as to how the band responds to a member's sonorous, gratuitous grunting. I caught a few people rolling their eyes at each other as one woman with a shock of red hair and glittery blue eye shadow gasped for breath between deep, guttural moans. She sounded like she was either giving birth or faking an orgasm, two events one should never have to consider while counting bicep curls. The following morning, however, when the same woman was caterwauling her way through a set of squats, my eyes were the only ones rolling.

After each set of reps, the males will pause, stare into space, and count to 500. They do not begin another set until they have finished counting. When a man is in mid-count (which can be determined by his vacant gaze, as none of them actually count out loud), he is the king of his machine; no one is to bother him until he is finished, even if it takes him an hour to reach 500 and begin his next set. To prevent anyone from stepping forward to challenge the king for his machine, he will methodically flex each muscle and caress the resulting bulge in an intimidating show of dominance.

When lifting weights, guys must go for the heaviest they can hold without ripping a tendon. If a vein is not pulsating in his temple, the weight is not heavy enough and other men will deem him a weakling. Once an acceptable level of vein pulsation has been achieved, he is then permitted to simply release his grip and revel in the noise of the weights as they crash to the floor in thunderous affirmation of his alpha-ness.

When huffing away on an elliptical machine, it is standard practice to gauge your fitness level by looking at the settings on your neighbors' machines. If the woman to your right is on level 15, you should set your machine to level 16. If the guy on your left is walking backwards, you should do the same for five minutes, so that everyone can see that he's not the only one in the row who knows how to interval.

Not much has changed since the fifth grade -- as it was on the playground at Tiffany Elementary , it is important for a dork like me to learn how to fit in and hang with the cooler kids in the gym. I'm working on a yoga stretch routine that involves the elliptical trainer. I have almost perfected my crunch-grunt. I've purchased camel-toe sweatpants and waterproof mascara. I may never master the naked locker-room strut, but I think I've got enough going on to be accepted by the troupe.

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