Below is a rather long article/post/essay/set of toughts that I wrote back in March. JKD suggested I give it some real attention, and I did, and since nothing ever became of it, I'll post it here. At the time I was finding myself increasingly concerned with fitness.
For the past month, owing to a 30 day free trial at the gym a block from my office I've been working out. It makes me shudder. I always cringe when I use the term. Working out. It's imbued with a measure of self-focus and pretense that makes me think of the terms "traveling on business", or "I've got to call my broker." They're terms that serve only to indicate the users status and not any specific action. More like a self-congratulatory adjective in hobby form, than any frank appraisal of time spent. Working out just conjures up an image of giant men glistening and women with frizzy hair with leotards. I neither aspire to reflect those images nor find them comforting.
Frustration with terms aside, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 30 days I've been working out. I should confess upfront that the aesthetic goals of exercise are secondary to me, or at least I try mightily to ensure that I project that image. Muscles are sorta like my high school relationship with girls: They seem nice enough and other guys seem to have and want them. But mainly I feel a strong sense that I should want them. And besides I'm easily distracted, and it seems like a lot of work.
My free membership ending, I decided to go to another gym. This one is a chain, located just a few blocks from work in an old bank. From the outdated credit card receipt (the kind with the carbon paper) I learned that before corporate buyout the gym used to be called "The Vault." The only visual clue that remains to the buildings prior identity is the walk in vault that doubles as the Jacuzzi. It reminded me of the Willy Sutton line. When asked why he robbed banks, he replied: "That's where the money is." Apparently this is where the fitness is. It's fitting that the gym once served as a bank. While the commodity has changed from currency to appearance the implied security remains. The gym like a bank is in the business of offering security--offering reassurance that your goals are neither outlandish nor hedonistic. Instead the opposite is true, your goals are too limited. Don't you want more, wouldn't it be great to be bigger. Simply replace checking account for chest size and you get a fairly accurate sense of the selling points of a gym.
While both money and muscles are truly useful on their own, allowing you to clothe yourself and not be winded all the time, they are much more powerfully alluring in relation to others. Being able to bench press 350 pounds is great, but what if everyone could do that. It's not great intrinsically; it's great by comparison. Earning 3% interest is fine, but only if that's more than what the uninformed schlub earns. How much business would a gym get if the weight plates were labeled by color instead of number. What good is it to bench press 'purple'? It's the comparison, the metrics, the measurement and ultimately the commodification that makes these industries work. The ability to improve the self primarily in contrast to others. And this fact makes both gyms and banks incredible institutions. They are centers for the accumulation of external approval.
Upon arrival at the gym, an affable and enormous man named Ariel greeted me (more like the Israeli prime minister than the mermaid, I assure you). A large man with a far too comfortable rapport and very large shoulders, he referred to me as "bud" or "chief" several times in the first few minutes of our relationship. I always find interactions like this awkward, when one party fails to recognize the truth--that our relationship is merely commercial. We don't know one another, and your sole reason for talking to me is to sell me a service that reinforces your life choices, and modern aesthetics. I get that and am ultimately fine with it, but the accompanying friendly banter feels forced and seems to imply that I'm seeking counsel from a trusted friend instead of clinical recommendations from a professional. I don't want Ariel to be my friend, my friends don't know jack about fitness. I want a professional, and just as I don't call my doctor "chief" I don't want a jocular relationship with a trainer.
For the rest of the story go to extra vaganza