Tuesday, February 14, 2006

DF Tip #7: Pointing Up the Pointlessness

Zoologist-turned-poet/raconteur David Whyte tells the following story about an early midlife career crisis. Whyte was working for nonprofit conservation organization, putting in long hours, volunteering at every turn for one worthy but thankless job after another, desperately spinning his wheels in the name of altruism. Exhausted, he consulted a wise friend over a pint of Guinness, who listened to Whyte's account of his predicament and said, "David, the solution to exhaustion is not necessarily rest."

Whyte, who felt that a vacation was more than deserved, bristled.

"The solution to exhaustion," the friend continued, "is wholeheartedness."

hikeI may be cutting off my nose to spite my face here, but the fact is that you don't necessarily need weight training and aerobics, as we normally think of them, to achieve optimum fitness. The bodybuilding and fitness magazines would like to you believe otherwise, with their "Great Thighs In Three Moves!" articles, but as I've said before, you can skin the fitness cat just about any way you want. The key is finding the "want" part--that activity you can be wholehearted about.

Let's face it. Or rather, I'm going to have to face it, and you can come along with me on this or not, as you please. Not everyone loves weight training, and not everyone loves running on the treadmill or riding on a stationary bike. Personally--newsflash--I'm something of a fitness geek, so the idea of clanging as much weight as I can handle onto a barbell and trying to figure out a way to get that thing aloft on my own steam holds a kind of masochistic joy for me. It's pointless, of course--I'm not really getting "healthier" in any meaningful sense, and it's not going to make me look much different--but as Justice Antonin Scalia once told a courtroom of golfers asking him to settle some pressing matter about the rules of the game, the point of sports is that they're pointless.

Heretical to say, I suppose, with the Olympic Games raging along in full force, young hopefuls hurtling themselves at alarming speeds along various configurations of frozen water. But I think that's part of the appeal of sports. As with the appeal of drama, we get to watch and engage with an event wherein the stakes appear enormously high, all the while knowing that there are really no stakes at all. The enjoyment is metaphorical. Watch humans invest every fiber of their physical, emotional, and spiritual fortitude in some contrived but enjoyable endeavor, and perhaps we will be inspired to invest just as much force of will into whatever endeavors happen to be taking up time and energy in our own lives.scuba

All this is to defend my personal preference for weight training, running, cycling, and swimming endless miles, even getting on an elliptical machine from time to time and sweating my brains out to get through 20 minutes at level 15. Curse you, elliptical trainer! Spurred on by the exploits of Bode Miller and Apolo Anton Ohno, I WILL conquer you someday. Oh yes, I will, all the while knowing that the rewards of reaching that goal are almost entirely symbolic.

But just because those are the activities I like to do doesn't mean they'll light your fire. There are lots of reasons that weight training and cardio activity are great ways to spend your limited recreation time, but if you don't like doing those things, none of my arguments will convince you otherwise.

So look down on us treadmill-runners as the human gerbils we are if you wish. Scoff at your swimming-obsessed co-worker's crispy, chlorinated coif every time you spy it over her cubicle wall. And yes, as much as he brags about it, you can even think that your marathoner brother-in-law is a blowhard who will have no knee cartilage in another 18 months. He probably is.

jai-alaiJust remember this: there’s nothing inherently noble or ridiculous about ANY athletic endeavor. They're all silly, and they’re all great--in part, arguably, because they ARE silly. Like your ma told you, it's how you play the game. Find something YOU can invest in, something that makes YOU excited, and you're golden. Then you'll never hear yourself say, "Oh my god, another 20 minutes of cardio" again. You'll say, "Hey it's Saturday, time for my softball game!" Or "In two weeks I get to SCUBA dive." Or go on a hike, or play jai-alai, or whatever it may be.

It takes a little more effort, granted, to find the thing that gets you fired up. The fitness industry has made it awfully convenient to walk into one of their emporia of sweat and burn off a few hundred calories. But if you hate those Palaces of Pain, for the love of God, don't go. Find another way. There are too many fitness options out there for ALL of us--and I speak to you as a living cautionary tale--to be forever lost in the health-club labyrinth. The energy you invest in finding something you enjoy is energy you will save down the road once you have found an activity you can be wholehearted about.

Happy Hunting, and have a great week--


P.S.: Aside from agreeing with him on the appealing pointlessness of sports--which is a true story, by the way--I share few if any opinions in common with Antonin Scalia.

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