I used to tell my seventh graders that reading is like playing a sport: to get good at it, you have to practice, practice, practice; the mind, after all, is a muscle that you need to exercise before it can get fit.

Easier said than done, of course, and I should know. I’ve recently returned to weight training after a hiatus of, oh, nine years, and I’ve discovered that things haven’t changed: my upper body strength is still nonexistent. In middle school, I always failed at climbing poles and ropes; I’d be the student who would never quite make an ascent, simply hanging on for as long as he could and never actually getting one arm above the other. I was the guy who would attempt doing chin-ups by jumping up with my legs, grabbing onto the bar, depending on momentum to get my neck barely above it, and then find myself falling to the sand below. For years, I had it in my head that perhaps I was just born this way. Not everyone could be strong, I told myself, not everyone was cut out for the Olympics, or even the Presidential Fitness Exam.

Had my seventh graders thought that way, they would've succumbed to failure and given up on academics before their teen years.

I, for one, have not given up on what working out can do for me. And I hope that the same is true with love, that there’s not a certain survival of the fittest test involved and that some people just wouldn’t be good enough to fit in. I will not give in to that possibility. I refuse to believe that my chances are screwed before I get to screw my fair share.

A few weeks ago, as I walked around my new gym for the first time, I was embarrassed not to know how these lifting machines worked, with their with cyborg-like names that all ended provocatively in –ex, with levers, weights, pins, and other doo-dads that looked dangerous if I used them improperly. Somehow, it all seemed a bit like exercising your hormones for the first time, when your urges left you most vulnerable to trouble: How was it that I learned how to like, to flirt, or to have sex? Unlike a former roommate of mine, I didn’t grow up with parents who sat me down to talk about love and loving; I didn’t have access—or the desire, really—to read how-to sex books. In my life, there were no diagrams and safety rules posted nearby. Could I have hurt myself or a partner if I didn’t know how to do things right? Was there an equivalent personal trainer I could consult for scientifically-proven tips on how to properly position my body? Did I need to stretch beforehand? Was I supposed to exhaust myself until failure?

Back at the gym, I was ashamed to come to a machine, see that the pin had been set at a weight of—say—8 or 14, and have to move it all the way down to 4. On the flies, even at a setting of 3, I found myself struggling to channel strength from my left chest in order to finish one set. I looked around at all the hot, muscular guys who pretended that this wasn’t hard for them. For me, their sweat-stained shirts betrayed their superhuman powers and revealed their pain. And then, somehow, they would head over to the shoulder press, set their weights at an insane poundage, and lift like they were playing with feathers.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t hard for them. Perhaps I just sucked at this game.

Similarly, how is it that some people have all the luck in dating? Some of them have had 8 or 14 significant others by the age of 25; I have a friend who is juggling 2 potential boyfriends and has a handful of consequence-free booty calls ready to go on speed-dial. Other buddies go out on at least one or two dates each week-- with different men! Meanwhile, there are others like me who can count on one hand how many people he’s slept with, and can use less than a hand to number the guys with whom he pursued a labeled relationship. Are my friends with the endless dates simply working out more than me? Are they more social, or are they more “fit” in the dating scene? Could they be faking it? Are they really in pain as they complete rep after rep of dates that lead to nothing except knowing how to date well? Are they sweating through this, or are they, as the jocks (and even average Joes) at my gym seem to show, all very much at ease with this?

I wonder what would’ve happened had I started working out a younger age. Had I the will and made the effort in middle or high school to go to the gym more regularly than required by my PE departments, would I be stronger, more in shape, and able to lift much heavier weights than I can now?

My young cousin Gloria started having boyfriends when she was in the fifth grade. Of course, nothing much—god forbid—was happening in the fifth grade (though you never know these days), but by fifteen, she had dated enough guys to know when she really liked someone. In her sophomore year of high school, she met the guy that she would then date for seven years—that’s through high school graduation, through college, and even after that. I see similar stories posted on my Facebook News Feed daily: so-and-so is now in a relationship, so-and-so is now engaged, so-and-so has changed his or her last name, is buying a house, is having her second child… all by 25. To this day, I’ve had a hard time squeezing seven weeks with a single guy, but how much of that brevity can I blame on not dating anyone until my sophomore year of college? Did I not start early enough? Am I a late bloomer? Do I necessarily have a lot of catching up to do, or are there supplements or steroids I can make up for lost time? Or what if I have the last laugh? What if I’m on the right timeline and everyone else is just overworking life?

Was there something I could have practiced at an earlier age to be better at the dating game? Was there direct instruction that I missed—because of my ethnicity, culture, or the late discovery of my sexuality—that might have helped me develop these skills? Or is it okay that I’m sort of like on the Biggest Loser of coupling, that I’m—for whatever reason—needing to get stronger and fitter this late in the game, that it’s possible even now, at the peak of my libido, to work really hard and get what I want?

Or is it possible that, in a society that privileges merit, achievement, and betterment all the time, that there are actually no skills involved in finding love? That for once, practice does not advance your odds, that perfection comes not with repetition, but with pure luck? And on the dark side of that seeming relief of a burden, how early—indeed, how birth-given—do those chances come into fruition? When excusing love with luck, how do I know it will all work out?

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