Mr. Parkour and I paid a visit last night to Gleason’s Gym, a sprawling gymnastics center artfully hidden in a suburban industrial park just south of the city. This was not my idea, but I tagged along with my housemate/former child out of curiosity and a faint notion that I should be supporting his newly won interest in fitness. You’d understand if you saw him swinging on the clothesline pole — these days he’s inhabiting a body that seems to be electrically charged. He’s just got to have a place to expend all this energy.
And it’s hard to imagine a better place for him than Gleason’s. At our local gym, we have plenty of cardio and resistance machinery to work various muscle groups, but this place is more like a giant parkour playground, with climbing ropes, trampolines, springboards, and all manner of large padded obstacles to test the aspiring free-runner.
MP pointed out his parkour guru standing at the end of a long runway where two young men were joyfully launching themselves into back flips and landing in a pit filled with foam cubes. One of MP’s lifelong dreams, he has confided to me, is to complete a back flip on solid ground. For someone who does not aspire to much, this is a serious endeavor.
But first there’s this climbing rope dangling from the ceiling in a way that’s not what I would call inviting, exactly. It’s more like that kid in seventh grade – the one your mom never liked much – who enjoyed jumping off the roof of his garage and loved to cajole you into joining him. Before I could really ponder the challenge (and briefly relive some of the horrors of junior high gym class), MP was happily ascending, hand-over-hand. No big deal.
I’m not nearly as competitive as I once was, but there’s something about seeing your own progeny – someone who not that long ago held your hand when climbing the back steps – do something you can’t imagine doing yourself that makes it imperative that you go ahead and do it. So, I grabbed the rope and started up – hand over hand, no wrapping my legs around it for extra oomph. Three or four feet later, I descended, doing my best to appear nonchalant. Just a little warm-up.
MP was charitable, of course, offering some tips and encouragement (interesting how the father-son dynamic can shift) before escorting me over to the trampolines. I quickly noticed that these did not feature a large bouncing surface; the well-worn “X” upon which I focused my attention was centered on a mesh fabric that measured perhaps 4 by 8 feet. So, while MP was soaring skyward, I bobbed up and down in a more exploratory manner, carefully eyeing the “X” and noting the nearby sign that cautioned bouncers about flying over the safety net.
It’s possible that at some point in my distant past I frolicked on one of these, but I found it hard at that moment to imagine the allure. There was a certain exhilaration when airborne, a kind of weightlessness. What made it tough to enjoy, though, was the knowledge that I was just as likely to hit my “X” the next time down as to veer wildly off course and find myself bouncing on a less merciful surface somewhere below.
“It’s really a type of meditation,” MP assured me, as I searched in vain for some equilibrium. In fitness circles they’d call my futile bouncing an exercise in proprioception – perfecting a sense of balance and knowing where your body is in space. It seemed to me more like an exercise in fear management.
Years ago, when MP was a toddler, I read an article about a parent who spent the day mimicking the movements of her 2-year-old. She came away from the experience amazed at the exertion it required. I was reminded of that as MP led me from one station to another around the gym: swinging on the high bar, leaping from balance beam to balance beam, vaulting over and through various padded obstacles. He demonstrating the proper technique, me attempting to avoid injury.
At one point, he exploded off the mat to the top of a padded three-step stair. I crouched and jumped to the second step with little difficulty. Feeling my oats, I announced I would go for the top. Unfortunately, the stairs were not anchored to anything, so when I landed just short of the top step, the whole thing tilted over and I fell backward and conked my noggin on the (thankfully) padded floor. Note to self: Do not try this at home.
Eventually, we made our way into an adjacent room, where MP located a couple of mats upon which he would attempt his back flips. I offered to spot him, and he showed me how to position my arms at his back and knees. Then, he crouched low, swung his arms, and sprung up and back, landing on his feet – though not completely upright. The next one was better, as was the next and the next. Each attempt seemed to generate more energy than the last: crouch, swing, spring, flip, land, smile.
The flips were not perfect, but his smiles were. And, as we meandered back through the main room, I tried unsuccessfully to recall a workout that gave me that much joy. Of course, I’m not 19; there’s probably some major endorphin disparity at work here. Or maybe it’s more about taking risks, trying something new.
So, when I spied that climbing rope on our way to the door, I jumped up, grabbed hold and started pulling myself upward with a real sense of purpose. I made it about two-thirds of the way to the top (full disclosure: I was using my legs, too) before I ran out of gas and inched my way back down to terra firma.
Mission accomplished? Sort of — except my hands still hurt.