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The golf ball hops toward my feet, the tennis racket handle clicks. I'm taller, thinner, stronger. Arrows blink on my spine.
This isn't the nightmare of a fan who's watched too many games on New Year's Day, but life with a man indulging in a secret passion—ordering from the advertisements in the back pages of newspapers and magazines.
From the staid New York Times to those pulp magazines whose covers portray Hitler's lust-mad waitresses attacking a British submarine with chains, the ads in the back pages call out to the leisurely dreamer of self-improvement. It is a magic world—guns that shoot coins into toll booths, pet doors, hams and grapefruit from Virginia and Florida, toilet seats with real money embedded in plastic, Apollo 14 wind-up shavers, director's chairs with personalized messages, squirrel-proof bird feeders, lifetime handkerchiefs, "Learn To Write Short Paragraphs For Big Money."
These ads in the back were a test track for dating fantasies in adolescence: satin sheets, spicy movies, hidden support for cocktail dresses, erotic bar tools, Arabian Nights underwear. And as enterprising youngsters, many kids sold salve and Christmas cards from ads in comic books to win BB guns, bikes and portable radios. The habit of scanning these ads does not desert one in adulthood, and for the sportsman these pages hold a world of promise.
From those after-dinner speeches by athletes at father-and-son nights, to the biographies of superstars, we are told constantly of the virtues of hard work and practice. Great feats can be achieved by perseverance and sweat and tears and faith. But the message gets confusing as we grow up and are told in the media that self-improvement can be purchased. From the $200-a-day tennis clinic in the Southwest where you can improve your backhand and dabble in Oriental philosophy, to the duffer's lesson at a public course, where for $10 the hung-over pro taps the toes of slicers back an inch with his putter, to ads like "An Expert Answers Your Questions About Muscles," we are ready to reach for our checkbook to achieve a better game, a better body and a better life.
Although we know that graphite shafts will add 20 yards to our drives, and a tungsten racket will deliver unanswerable, burning serves, there are more astounding and less expensive helpers waiting in the back pages.
These ads are based without exception on a pair of principles that appeal to the psyches of most of us: revenge and secrecy. One of the standard characters of magazine advertising was the 97-pound weakling who became Charles Atlas. For decades that living spindle was insulted and assaulted by a block-square bully who made him look foolish in the eyes of his date. He took a body-building course and reappeared at the beach, rippling with muscle. The bully was summarily crushed, and the dewy-eyed girl swooned with love.
Although the products and techniques of self-improvement have changed, the approach remains the same. You've been beaten, bested and embarrassed. Here's something you can do about it. Just take this course, lift this weight, swing this practice club, and gangbusters! The next time you play golf with Jerry, he'll lose his mind over your 300-yard power drive learned secretly in the basement. No need to have someone laugh at you out there on the course, you can do this privately, the machine arriving by mail in a plain brown wrapper.
To discover this lusty and often seamy world, I ordered a variety of devices, machines and what is called "literature." If I didn't exactly come to self-improvement, I certainly achieved self-discovery.
Obviously, the first thing necessary was to get in shape. As a fat kid in junior high school, I used to dream of sweeping into the locker room, removing my extra suit of flesh as if it were a movie costume, revealing my washboard stomach and bulging shoulder muscles. Then I'd mop the floor with those willowy idiots who'd poked fun at my flab.