“A man walks down the street, he says, Why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” –Paul Simon
You’re not going to enjoy this post. It’s a bummer all the way through and ends on a grim note. But it’s time to talk about the gym. Working out at a facility specifically to stay fit and healthy, I mean. This is really a sore spot with me, and I’m fixin’ to tell you why.
We joined the YMCA some months ago. Angela just needed some way to get some regular cardio, and the Y has a safe, fun place for kids to play while parents work out. It’s not cheap, but I figured I would start working out too, since five years sitting at a desk moving mainly my forefinger has been making me pasty. I’m certainly not overweight for my six feet and an inch, but I feel… well, soft, lethargic, like my blood just isn’t moving around my system very well. Prior to this job I never went very long without finding myself employed in the vicinity of steep hills to climb (survey crew), something heavy to carry (survey crew, nursery work), something fast to chase (horse wrangling) or fresh air (all of the foregoing). But time is catching up with me, and the mid-section waxes doughy, if you’ll allow me some mixed metaphors.
So I went to the Y today for the first time. I belonged to a gym five years ago, while I was alternately unemployed and freelancing, and it was the last time I felt physically healthy.
But here’s the problem: I’m philosophically agin it. I’m opposed to the very idea of working out at a gym. Not the idea of lifting weights and bodybuilding as a hobby. To my lights, choosing to turn one’s body into Conan the Barbarian by means of levers and weights seems vain, but not pathetic. I can see it as a legitimate pastime, if that’s one’s thing. But to go to this place regularly because its the only place where my muscles can encounter resistance, because if I don’t go my muscles will atrophy and my cardiovascular system will languish, because if I don’t go I will wither and die — that strikes me as a stinging indictment of white-collar work culture.
Try as I might to think modernly, I can’t help but measure everything against the yardstick of life as a subsistence farmer (or anyone who uses his hands in labor or craft). Consider: the farmer gives himself to the toil of clearing, sewing, weeding, and reaping and the toil gives back to him physically. His body, soul and mind are all exercised and nurtured by the work. In this sense, the work itself does not cost and in fact adds to the worker’s well-being. (Clearly, it also kills him in the end, because we wear out, but no one gets out alive anyway, and we’re not talking about the end, we’re talking very much about the middle.)
By contrast, white-collar desk work — wait, I should pause here in case my friend and direct manager Michael reads this and clarify that my work, when I’m doing it, is actually pretty fun and engaging; I’m good at it; I work with brilliant guys whom I admire and learn a lot from; and I’m very grateful in this economic climate to have a job at all.
As I was saying, however, white-collar desk work offers only a mental workout and money. But the mental workout doesn’t occur in conjunction with a physical workout and is not centered on the cycles of the earth’s own labors, so it merely exhausts the mind without putting anything back. And what you trade for the money is a lot. I’ll leave it for individuals to assess what cost to the soul there is in leaving one’s family in one world and stepping for ten or more hours into a completely separate and other world, a daily ritual we are pressured to think of as normal but one that is really a recent development, a gift of the industrial age. For me, the spiritual cost is high. I become isolated in my tasks, and if it weren’t for the fact that I work with such great people at a small company, I would be in a peck of soul trouble.
Physically of course, it’s a disaster. My postures sitting at my desk, riding the bus or driving a car, and sitting on the couch (because I haven’t got poop to do much else at day’s end) are all identical. You have a middle-aged guy slouched over something… just swap out the mouse for the remote, or the remote for the steering wheel. There is no physical exertion in my work except carrying my cup of decaffeinated Bigelow French Vanilla tea from my desk to the meeting room (which has no windows in it, lest I be accidentally nourished by some flitting view of leaf or bird). It’s as though white collar work is a kind of non-medium like the vacuum of outer space, and in leaving work I have to readjust to the earth’s atmosphere like a returning astronaut, my knees wobbly and my heart sluggish because there has been nothing, no gravity, to offer resistance to my body.
So I go, like countless others, to this facility and trade the money that cost me so much of my time to earn, and spend yet more time, to get my physical health back. And that’s my objection, right there. I shouldn’t have to do something in addition to my work to keep my body healthy. The work should provide that for me. But the work of a modern professional paper pusher does not.
So I enter the gym. I pay. I harness my body to the machine.
And I’m still not feeling any connection to the soil from which I was formed and to which I must eventually return.