Resistance may be futile, but it’s dashed hard to come by, too

“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.

Care for a stroll? The resistance you need without that disturbing change of scenery. Image heisted from

Care for a stroll? The resistance you need without that disorienting change of scenery. Image heisted from

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.

An modgothic instrument of        ? Yes, but it's also the white collar professional's last hope against entropy. Image filched from

The white collar's last hope against entropy. Image filched from

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.


10 Responses to “Resistance may be futile, but it’s dashed hard to come by, too”

  1. 1 Kip June 16, 2009 at 13:20

    I, too, would like to think that no extra work is needed to maintain one’s health, but my natural laziness keeps me from doing those things that would get my heart rate up! Waiting to mow the lawn for three weeks, however, will get that ole heart rate up this afternoon! Then, tomorrow, back to the gym!

    • 2 jstwndrng June 16, 2009 at 16:39

      Kipper, here’s a tip from my neighbor: don’t wait three weeks, especially if you’ve had lots of rain over there. He heard that if you cut more than three inches off your grass at a time, it hurts your lawn. On the other hand, if that’s how you’re getting your workout…hmmm, what to do…

  2. 3 Kip June 16, 2009 at 17:22

    The good news is, it’s mostly weeds!!!! Really, it’s just a place for dogs to, well, be dogs!!!!!

  3. 4 Ben F. June 19, 2009 at 06:46

    I reached the top of our 100 ft. aerial ladder this afternoon for the third time. Placing one foot upon the sill of the window to step off, I paused, for I heard a voice below, shout, “Cap, …Chief wants to face to face with you!”….”Bah” says I, “he probably wants to know when we are going to work out this afternoon.” After reading your blog, you place words into my angst as I spun around with a sigh and headed back down, thinking “why do I have to work out after climbing this thing three times?”

    • 5 jstwndrng June 19, 2009 at 16:42

      “See? That’s what I’ve been on about! Come see the oppression inherent in the system. I’m being oppressed!”

      Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Farming and firefighting are similar in that you give your physical self into the work (and they both start with “f”). I would think you’d be exempt from working out. You can tell the chief that you have a note from your older brother. That should count for SOMEthing…

      …shouldn’t it?

  4. 6 Jeni June 20, 2009 at 05:22

    I am philosophically in agreement with you, dear bro. I have been blessed to not need to be a white collar or even blue or green worker. Even so, it makes perfect sense to me!
    My most recent attempts at earning money have centered on making music…good for the soul and the fingers at least. I get some good breathing in too. Now, I can’t stand up straight when I get up after an hour, but that’s another issue!

    • 7 jstwndrng June 20, 2009 at 06:20

      Hi Sis,
      I need to get the paper or something (especially now that the TV has gone dark), because I hadn’t heard the term “green worker” yet. I suppose that’s migrant labor working in agriculture? Or is that people who work for sustainability non-profs?

      I think playing music would be very beneficial to body, mind and spirit, and knowing you, I already know this to be true. But I can see how the sitting would get difficult after a while. You might want to alternate it with some rugby or something after each largo.


  5. 8 Ben F June 21, 2009 at 06:30

    Rugby. …yes. I can see how that might be of some beneficial use.

  6. 9 Invisible Mikey June 8, 2010 at 08:23

    I enjoyed your take on this, Matt. The downside of the most creative job I ever had, as a film restoration specialist, was that I gained 60 lbs in all the wrong places during the 14 years I did it. Now that I’m making 1/3 the money doing care-giving, I’m in GREAT shape from constantly lifting disabled people. However, the only real creativity involves improvising conversation with patients who suffer from delusions.

    • 10 jstwndrng June 8, 2010 at 09:04

      Hi Mikey,
      It’s true that you can find work that is creative, or that makes you enough money, or that keeps you physically in shape. I’ve had all three, but as you have pointed out, it is difficult to find them in one bundle. In the past, I never stayed with one thing long enough to suffer the loss of the benefits offered elsewhere, but now that I’ve been settled in a money job for six years (a year longer now since I wrote this post) I’m feeling the drain.

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