Are you with me?

Photo: © Olga Breydo. All Rights Reserved.

I have been a long-distance runner since 7th grade. As a muscleless asthmatic kid with little to no ‘dig’ in him, it was clear I was never going to be a sprinter. It was also clear I was never going to win a race. So I ran the kinds of races that people applaud you for just finishing. I have run 5ks, 10k’s, half-marathons, and marathons.

But I’m old now and my running of the past four years has been a few months of the year intensively running and the rest of the year recuperating from my injuries. I’ve got bad ankles, a hellmouth of a back—my vertebrae are as stable as a stack of inner tubes in a swimming pool—and my knees make this sound when I go up stairs that sounds like a Wu-Tang sample.

But I am disposed to fatness and so I’ve made the conversion to Spin Class.

One of the great things about Spin Class is that it helps me live in the moment. It makes me realize how much I acutely hate that moment. It also makes me realize who’s been buying all those Kelly Clarkson albums.

I hate spin class.

But I also hated running. Exercise is a way for me to evacuate the lingering bile that accumulates from teaching, riding the el, and having a petri-dish of a daughter who likes finding opportunities to cough into my open mouth.

Spin Class is a room full of stationary bikes. The music is terrible and too loud. Club bangers and power pop thunderers, the kind of music I imagine Michael Bay plays while he huffs jet fuel and ejaculates on his rad abs. But at least the lights are turned low, so no one can see me exercising. I’ve passed the age where I can entertain the possibility that anyone could enjoy the spectacle of me sweating. The darkness is nice.

There’s a shame to spin class. It’s like being a chardonnay alcoholic. The squalor is so demographically exact.

The classes I take start at 6 a.m. (5:30 a.m. on Mondays) and maybe my bad mood is all about the class’s absurd start time. But actually I think that the only way I could handle this is by being semi-conscious. If I had to think about going to spin class throughout my work day, I’d never make it. But I trick myself by making my body show up to the class before my mind is awake.

There’s the music at Noriega/Koresh siege levels, the darkness, the fans keeping the place cool, the whine of the flywheels zipping about. And there’s a little stage with a single bike on it. It’s here that the instructor does her work. The instructor wears one of those air-controller mikes that Brittany wears while performing. And the instructor keeps up a steady patter of instructions. Heels down. Shoulders relaxed. Elbows in. There’s a “C’mon. Nearly at the top of the hill. Dig. Dig.” There is of course no hill. But that’s a minor sin compared to when she next says, “This is where the rubber meets the road.” And I laugh out loud at that one. There is neither rubber nor road here. In fact her statement makes it so clear how futile what we are doing is. We are mice on a wheel.

But more than instructions we get testimonials. I know that one of my instructors made a decision when she was forty to change her life substantially because she didn’t like the direction she was going in. I know that one of my instructors achieved his dream by becoming a spin instructor and that he was once just somebody pedaling in the dark like us. I know their kids’ names, their partner’s names, when big races are coming up for them, their own injuries, their own, well to use the parlance of the spin class, I know their journeys.

An odd choice of words for a class where the most we actually travel is to the other side of the studio to yank out a pair of antimicrobial wipes to swab down our bikes. We journey nowhere. All our journeys are metaphorical. At least Sisyphus got to see the mountain.

In the midst of this watered down motivational talk, these conversion narratives, these exhortations to dig with our heels, the instructors will bark out, “Are you with me?”

I was startled the first time this happened. Nearly falling off my saddle. And then about 70% of the class responded with a fairly hearty “wooo”. The instructor is never happy with that first response. At first I assumed it was her schtick: this particular instructor’s catch phrase. But no, I’ve had seven different instructors and while they might not do it every class, I’ve heard all but one bark out, “Are you with me?”


When I was twenty four, I spent two weeks at a temple for the Institute for Krishna Consciousness in Vrindavan, India. I spent my days chanting Hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare for hours. The food was plentiful and strictly vegetarian. I ate my meals on a banana leaf sitting on the concrete floor with all the devotees.

At night we put the gods away. There were drums and music and I danced. Holding hands with the devotees, spinning in a circle, smiling everyone smiling. The incense hung about us in clouds. It was beautiful.

The white marble temple is located in a city where there were forests in which Krishna spent his youth and is 10 km away from the place where krishna was born. So I was in a holy place. Eating delicious healthy food surrounded by beautiful people.

When I was asked by the leader to commit to the place, I flinched. I suspected them of trying to take something precious from me. The room was reasonable, the food free, the temple bursting with overwhelming sensory data. I packed my bag and left.

In spin class during a series of rolling hills, one of the instructors said that what we were doing by showing up in spin class was asserting in our own lives that change was possible. And what we’ll find when we give our all during our sprint work is that we then can find we can give our all in our jobs and in our lives and then what happens is that once we shed this negative energy, the stuff that’s been keeping us from achieving our dreams will fall away and we’ll attract other positive people into our lives, so our friends will become better and our bonds will be bonds forged out of positive energy and not negative.

That the negative energy was what was holding us back.

I am on antidepressants. I am on anti-anxiety meds. I’m in therapy. Maybe part of my problem is that I like the dark of spin class because I don’t want anyone to see me the way I see everyone else. Maybe I’ve spent my whole life lounging in a sneer, letting the abyss gaze into me, protecting myself from the hard work and impossible beauty of the world. What I’ve called taste? Just another way to distance myself from the possibility of pain and rejection. Is it possible that I’ve allowed my cynicism to ossify? And my knee jerk dismissal of the world nothing more than an animal enjoying the taste while gnawing at his own wound. I was offered a chance to join up once before and I ran away into my solitude, solipsism, and sarcasm. Here I was being offered another chance to break free of these old personality habits and engage the world in all of its frenetic deep bass ecstasy. Here is beauty, the world says. It’s yours, the world says. All I have to do is give up the distance that I insert between my life and the world. A distance that I’ve taken to calling ‘me’. Here was another chance to stop defining myself against the world, to allow my anger to morph into something pure and positive and maybe, just maybe, if I gave myself into the change, the world would stop seeming so hyperbolically grotesque and absurd. Maybe I’d experience . . . peace.

Are you with me?


David Stuart MacLean is a PEN/American award-winning essayist. His essays and stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Guernica, Bennington Review, Quarterly West, Gulf Coast, The New York Times, the Guardian, and on the radio program This American Life. He is the author of the memoir The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, which won Best Memoir/Biography by the Society of Midland Authors and was named one of the Best Books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. He has a PhD in Literature/Creative Writing from the University of Houston, was a Fulbright Scholar in India, and is a co-founder of the award-winning Poison Pen Reading Series.

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