Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Getting Stronger

By Barbara J. Eikmeier

I lift weights. Twice a week my husband and I go to the gym. The nutritionist at the army health clinic told me about the weight training room. She said as we age it is important to do weight bearing exercises to keep our bones strong and joints limber. “Just go twice a week. Go in the middle of the day – there’s no one there at that time.”

Another year passed before I went. The catalyst was my annual cholesterol check. I begged for 6 months of diet and lifestyle changes before going on medication. Thus, the gym - and less wine and more veggies.

But there is another reason I started lifting weights. I had become weak. When I travel to give quilt presentations, I bring multiple suitcases stuffed with quilts, pushing the airlines 50-pound weight limit with those big bags. The check-in agent, eyeing my bags, would say, “put that up here” motioning with their chin to the scale. I’d laugh and say, “It’s not over 50 pounds because I can’t lift 50 pounds.” Each spring, when my travel season began it was true, I couldn’t lift 50 pounds, but as the trips added up, I could feel myself getting stronger. Yes, that may have been me holding up the line while pulling items from an overweight suitcase and stuffing them in my carry-on. Just by handling those heavy bags I became stronger. Strong enough to lift more than 50 pounds by the end of the season.

Then came Covid-19 and my work became a series of Zoom presentations. And I grew weak.

When my travels resumed, I lifted my bag onto the scale that first trip and it was heavy! I was visualizing what I could move to my carry-on bag just as the scale settled on 43 pounds. Only 43 pounds? I quickly moved shoes and jeans from my carry-on to the checked bag. That’s because I have another problem once I board the plane – getting my carry-on in the overhead bin. My rule is, if I can’t lift it myself, I must check it. But I’m 5’3” and it’s not a matter of strength as much as a matter of height. (At least that’s what I always tell the nice tall man in the aisle seat who jumps up to help me!)

The army gym is not a flashy place. It’s old, and kind of run down. I wish someone would sweep the floor. It’s often only the two of us there. It’s quiet, almost meditative. But when soldiers come in the atmosphere changes. They are young, and strong, and physically fit. They sweat and grunt and the weights come clanging down as they finish their routines. There’s a demand for the best machines and a polite toe taping or pacing when they must wait. Among the most popular machines is the leg press – it's for the quads and glutes. I like it. And the sit up machine. I like it too. And there is the Graviton machine. It’s meant to condition your arms to do pull ups. I can’t do a pull up. I’m not sure this machine can even help me get there. But I do it. Every time.

There is a less popular machine called the Overhead Press. My husband skips it. He explained, “I don’t think there is much benefit in that machine.” I said, “I hate this machine.” He asked, “Then why do you do it?” I said, “Watch my arms.” I lifted the weights over my head. He watched. I lowered the weights and said, “It’s the muscles used to put my carry-on in the overhead bin.”

The gym, even on the slowest days, is a good place to shop for character traits. There’s another older couple who come in wearing street clothes, and each do a few machines, talking the entire time. Their workout takes 10 minutes. Should that even count as a workout? Who am I to judge?

And there is a young woman who runs on the treadmill in the cardio room before lifting weights. Her dark hair is pulled back in a bouncy ponytail. I like following her on the weight circuit because she is my height, so our settings are the same.  I don’t know anything about her but in my writer’s mind she is an Army lawyer. She runs fast and lifts fast and is very focused.  

And there is a group of firefighters from the post fire station. They move from machine to machine keeping their hand radios within reach. Their big red firetruck is just outside the gym parked along the curb, ready to go at a moment's notice. One of them wears a bandanna around his head, Karate Kid style. Another harasses his buddy to speed it up on the Biceps machine. His buddy's response is to go slower.

And my favorite, the retired marine whose shaved head glistens with sweat when he works out. He looks intimidating – all muscle and sinew. He only does three machines but with many reps and huge stacks of weights. One day I asked him, “Do you alternate upper body and lower body workouts?” He smiled. Maybe you’ve heard the term ‘resting bitch face’? This guy has resting ‘fierce face’. He looks scary. But when the marine smiles his face will melt your heart a little. He shows his bright white teeth, his double dimples dimple and the deep creases in his forehead relax. And over that one question we became friends. He took me to the free weight room down the hall and taught me how to use a standing machine for an intense abs’ workout. He said, “You are a little short, but you are doing it perfectly.” He told me it’s easy to talk yourself into skipping the gym, like 90% of the people he knows. With that gorgeous grin he added, “Now if only I had a refrigerator that automatically locked at 6 pm, I’d be in good shape!”

I lift weights. I’m getting stronger and my character file is growing. What's your favorite place to shop for characters?

Barbara J. Eikmeier is a quilter, writer, student of quilt history, and lover of small-town America. Raised on a dairy farm in California, she enjoys placing her characters in rural communities.


  1. I love this post, Barb. It speaks to my struggle with exercise, too. Usually, when I think about exercising, my mind swivels to a million more useful things I could be doing with my time. I have a gym that's very handy to me, and you've reminded me that I actually set a scene in my last book in that came from observing a person in there while I was in there. If working out qualifies as "working on my writing," I think I'll give it another try.

    1. Twice a week is all it takes. Once I knew what weight circuit my gym had I went online and found a sample routine that works for me. Good luck and I hope you find a version of my retired marine to write about!!

    2. Thanks, Barb. Starting is hard, but I know that once you make it a habit, it gets easier.

  2. It's my hope, Barb, that your post will encourage me to start exercising again. When I worked in the corporate world, I lugged heavy luggage around the world. I never had time to exercise (or so I told myself) but I was getting plenty of it walking from the rental car return to the terminal while dragging luggage and carrying a huge purse bursting at the seams. Then I'd run to the gate. If the plane was late, I'd walk the terminal. Since I left the corporate world, I do exercise in bits and spurts. The slightest excuse and I'm off doing more "important" stuff. Even though without the exercise, I may not be able to get all the interesting stuff done!! Thanks for the exercise reminder. I'll go to the gym this afternoon!

    1. Kathryn, Did you ever do the terminal to rental car hike at the Hollywood/Burbank airport? It’s so far!! I’m with you - it counts as exercise! I started my weight training in mid-Feb and am four months in now. I do light weights with lots of reps. I’ve heard it only takes 21 days to make or break a habit, so go for it!! And good luck!

  3. Barb, I've always said I'm allergic to exercise, but of late I'm seeing the need to try. Thanks for encouragement.

    1. Go for building core strength! I think you’ll get the greatest impact for the time invested.

  4. I love it that you shop for characters at the gym. You are writing while you are working out. I don't work exactly the same way, but when I'm in the midst of a thorny scene or planning the plot of the next chapter, I exercise. Somehow the movement jostles my brain and makes way for the creative ideas to slip out.


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