Sisyphus and the Universal Hamster Wheel
The concept of the Notre Dame student as the embodiment of the Whole Person is one that the University has long prided itself in. It is expected that by the time students finish their education they will have been educated in mind, spirit and body — the trinity of human composition, separate yet inseparable, salty but with a hint of mango.
The focus by the University on the bodies of the student body at Notre Dame is a unique trait, at least according to my friends attending state schools. The usual response from them when they hear Notre Dame students must pass a swimming test and complete a year of physical education before they can graduate involves laughter and cruel comparisons between this university and the high school I attended. It is at this point I usually delve into the “And we can’t have sex either!” rant, which always leaves them howling on the floor, begging me to stop with the lies.
Regardless, fitness is an oil that runs through the very pores of Notre Dame’s essence, leaving it with the healthy, pliable skin that so many visitors to campus mention. Whether it is winter, spring, summer or fall; blazing hot, freezing cold or tepid; morning, noon, night or dusk; equinox, solstice, Day of the Dead, Dick Vitale’s Day of Subdued Reflection, the anniversary of Saint John the Intrepid’s death, Fajita-Rita Mondays at Chili’s or just plain old Tuesday, one can rest assured that there is someone working out somewhere on campus. Whether it be at the Rockne Memorial, the Loftus Center or the new Rolfs Sports Recreation Center, someone is sweating and panting like G.K. Chesterton at a Shakey’s buffet.
It is no minuscule minority that dominates the fitness scene on campus either. In addition to all the high-caliber varsity athletes, thousands of other students work out on a severely regular basis. Why just two years ago, the campus saw the introduction of a brand, sparkling new fitness facility, the Rolfs Sports Recreation Center, dedicated to the accommodation of nonvarsity athletes. Its popularity with students has been overwhelming. According to the Rolfs’ staff, the center sees roughly 2,000 people every day. The question they cannot answer is why. They also could not provide me with a convincing argument for the existence of cheese. I asked.
The Rolfs fitness room bears a strong resemblance to a tiny, carpeted ABC Warehouse. It has a helpful, friendly staff, an impressive number of television sets, and the chic, decorative exposed-pipes-and-ducts ceiling motif (very spring of 2000), which exudes the sense that one is actually exercising in a factory. In the winter months, the fitness room also assumes an aura of lightness, with palm tree cutouts taped around the windows and mirrors. The intention seems to be to remind students of the impending sensation of inferiority that will follow them all to their tropical spring break destinations if they don’t “get their butts in gear” or “want to get by on a diet of laxatives the week before they leave.”
Another noticeable feature of the fitness room is the abundance of mirrors. Reflective surfaces make up nearly every portion of wall not gapped by a window. The mirrors offer Rolfs patrons the rare opportunity to watch their face contort during strenuous exercise and discover just which vein in their forehead can bulge the most violently.
Are these mirrors an indication of the tale of Narcissus recreated? The Bible warns us in one of its more repetitive passages: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Or to paraphrase: vanity.
The fitness room is basically divided like a middle-school dance: boys on one side, girls on the other. Boys work out in the Sisyphus Region, with its plethora of heavy things to lift and put back down forever like the damned they surely are. Girls occupy the Universal Hamster Wheel, pumping their legs on machines designed to exercise their lower extremities without the rest of their bodies actually traveling somewhere.
Regardless of how the room is divided, both sides offer a carnival of character. It is a Tuesday and one hulking brute I’m studying wears an enormous red headband, the like of which is almost never seen outside of female power walkers in suburban neighborhoods. The headband appears necessary to keep his brain from bursting through his swollen pate when he lifts weights, because, you see, he’s curling a Volkswagen Beetle. His teeth grit like pebbles in a vacuum cleaner attachment’s neck. His face flares like a match’s head entering a candle’s flame. He is, for a brief moment, energy in its purest form. He is Love. He is Hate. He is the passion of water spilling over a weeping waterfall, the eagle’s soaring cry, the point of the dagger’s untested tip. And he is leaving because I have been following him around too long with a yellow legal pad.
Another most astounding being is the senior triathlete, the professor emeritus who struts from machine to machine, head held as high as the Tower of Babel, a look of indifferent determination painted on the still life of his face. He watches and waits, and when he sees that a patron is done with a weight machine, he walks over, examines the weights, snickers softly and adds 50 pounds. He then commences exercising at a pace that would put golden-shoed Michael Johnson to shame. The same distinguished gentleman can be seen on various tracks around campus, sometimes executing a small leap and clicking his heels the moment he passes a student 50 years his junior.
On the other side of the Rolfs gender wall, in the Universal Hamster Wheel, the motion whirls from stationary bicycles, treadmills, steppers, ellipticals. Indigenous to this area is a herd of beasts, mostly female, that daily present a milkshake of passion and passivity. Some of them are occupied with music being pumped into their ears through their Discmen while some are saturating their eyes with the glow from the televisions positioned in front of them like vibrant carrots dangled before starved, beaten mules. Most impressively, there is even one young woman so imbued with the spirit of the Whole Person that she is reading a book while pedaling a stationary bicycle. Educating her mind while educating her body; a feat that undoubtedly results in an education of the spirit.
Perhaps the most vexing of creatures might be termed She-Ra, Princess of Power. Clad in a white T-shirt and nylon athletic shorts bearing an ND logo, with shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail, she sweeps from machine to machine, transgressing the gender boundary into the Sisyphus Region, a blur of crunches and push-ups on blue-foam mats, a streaking figure pounding off two miles on the treadmill followed by an enormous military press, 30 reps on the bench and a great number of leg curls aimed at maintaining the shape of her already wild mare-like thighs. She is the fierce and powerful Maeve from the Irish epic The Tain encased in Dido’s fair features: a human monument to strength and beauty. She is the Wonder Woman that Linda Carter could only dream of becoming. She is the Notre Dame Woman.
The Rolfs center is an amazing environment for all of these magnificent creatures to coexist and interact, offering not only the fitness room but also basketball courts, an in-line roller hockey rink, an elevated track, dance rooms, aerobics rooms, and so much more. It is also a place where the visitor is not forgotten. Right outside the fitness room is a small, comfortable section that might be called the Lounge of Sloth. With an enormous window offering a view into the fitness room, it also features a television set, four easy chairs, a sofa and vending machines that distribute the Cheetos Big-Grab, Baby Ruths, peanut butter cups and Pop Tarts. The coupling of the sloth lounge and fitness room is like heaven gazing into hell. Which room is which is somewhat up in the air.
The Rolfs center is probably the most popular place for students to work out, but an additional venue is the Joyce Center. The field house and basketball arena, along with the weight room off the east side of the field house, are the most-visited areas. But the edges that circumvent these facilities are a veritable labyrinth (sans Minotaur) of auxiliary gymnasiums and squash, racquetball and handball courts built into the sides of the halls like tiny sacrificial pits.
Particularly intriguing to the student is the new faculty locker room. Its gentle siren song can be heard cooing through its door, a thick wooden guardian secured with swipe-card and keypad security, not to mention fairly sturdy hinges. Undaunted, and wielding the tremendous power vested in me by Notre Dame Magazine, I was afforded a quick glance into this secret world, and what I found amazed me: Free towels, yes free, at both ends of the locker room. Three hundred well-ventilated lockers that the faculty are allowed to leave locks on overnight. Brand new stools and a handicapped-equipped shower. And the crème-de-la-menthe: a sauna!
The work-out room is also fairly posh. Delicious blue carpeting blankets the floor as a living-room atmosphere pervades this special place. Three television sets, one of which is labeled “Headline News” and another “ESPN,” rest in front of a number of high-tech stationary bicycles, rowing machines, ellipticals, and other assorted doohickeys. The room doesn’t get plastered with palm tree cutouts; these professionals studiously avoid fun-in-the-sun at spring break. It cannot be denied that the Rolfs and the Joyce Center are powerhouses of the ND work-out scene, but not to be discounted is the older, more dignified and shadowy figure of the Rockne Memorial. One thing South Quad students notice about The Rock, as it is affectionately dubbed, is that exercising there is like working out in an enormous mausoleum. Just walking into the 60-year-old structure one is struck by the absolutely somber tone of the interior. The lobby is itself a memorial to beloved former football coach Knute Rockne, with his bronze bust at the epicenter, nose shining like a beacon of death. The main ceiling is vaulted, and throughout the building gothic arches cast pointed frowns on visitors.
The Rock was built on the foundation of a man’s death, and Death’s spirit remains strong to this day. In the basement, the locker rooms are reminiscent of those used by the high school basketball players in the movie Hoosiers, set in Indiana. The “Hoosier Hysteria” single-elimination basketball tournament depicted in the movie is now dust. Walk around the corner, and you will find a long hallway lined with 11 unusually tiny doors. They lead into squash and handball and racquetball courts. But if you don’t know that, what might you think they are for? Yes, morgue drawers.
Climb the stairs and you find a similar hallway, this one lined with cages, small prisons. Look not into the cages and the racquetball courts below and you can nearly smell the fear and feel the terror as a hand claps you on the shoulder and a voice announces, “Dead man walking!”
The Rock is, indeed, a place of death, but defying human definition it also breathes as a temple of life and strenuous activity deep within its saddened heart. Basketball and volleyball courts are elevated to the second story, and nearby is the Father Lange Weight Room, a space similar to, but somehow more raw and dank than the weight-lifting fitness area in Rolfs. In the basement of the Rock is a fitness room with all the bikes and bells and whistles of the Rolfs’ hamster wheel room.
What really separates the Rock from the Rolfs is its aura of an old school gym. It feels like a gym building should feel. It smells of chlorine and freshly whipped towels. One can very nearly hear the cries of a whelping, wedgied freshman, sorry First-Year student, as he, sorry, or she, is tossed ceremoniously into the showers.
The basketball courts in the Rock perfect this sense of gym. The hardwood floor, brown with age, makes a different noise every place the basketball strikes its age-worn face. The ceiling recalls South Dining Hall’s interior, and its backboards of unforgiving tree corpse send the ball rebounding violently away on shots that would have bounced off a glass backboard and fallen through the hoop like raindrops in a pond glittering with goldfish. Glass-brick windows and sizable metal grates complete the gym effect, one that endows the place with an unusual atmosphere, and in an inexplicable way the sense that it would not be entirely unnatural to smoke a cigarette there.
The Rock. The home to so many stories, so much sweat, so much growth. A friend of mine relates her tale of an aerobics class there. The female instructor guided her through a series of exercises that concluded in the unusual phrase, “Come on girls! Ride that pony, now! Ride him! Now whip it! Whuck-Chee!” — “whuck-chee” being the whipping noise accompanied by a flick of the wrist. Rendered helpless with laughter by the overtly bizarre exercise routine, my friend was regrettably forced to leave that class.
And myself and The Rock? We have our stories as well. The other day I was exiting the locker room when I heard struggle and grunting. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man sitting on a bench convulsing. A millisecond before I raced to offer my assistance or went looking for a defibrillator, my head completed its turn and I took in the entire tableau. A mustached man sat wearing a yellowed undershirt, his back against the wall but no seat beneath him, grunting and shaking like Prometheus waiting for the liver-snatching vulture to make his rounds again. I had nearly mistaken a hamstring exercise for a seizure.
All of which begs a question: Is this life?
I turn to Socrates for the answer. The great philosopher saw this coming — RecSports, the Loftus Center, the Rock, all of it — when he uttered one statement: the suggestion that forgetfulness of death is, after all, forgetfulness of being.
Is this not what so much of working-out is all about? Cheating death? Living just a little longer, with an eye on forever? There is a part of working-out that reminds one of a drugged lab rat in a maze, is there not? Something to test that rat’s mobility and speed. A tool that keeps the buck-toothed whiz from getting lethargic and logy, frustrated in a glass aquarium with nothing to look forward to but cedar chips, consuming one’s young and, eventually, a shoe box and a hole in the ground.
That is what working-out at Notre Dame can too often come to mean. It can mean losing oneself in the pursuit of the body that will fade. It can mean losing sight of more perfect perfections. And most importantly, it can mean too much time spent in a lonely wheel that never rolls anywhere.
And that, after all is said and done and dreamed, is why I would much rather just play basketball.