WALK THE PLANCK: Lifting heavy things, putting them back down …

When I originally conceived of this blog, I wanted it to be the full spectrum of arts in Toronto. The problem was, that I really only know about the music scene (and a little bit about film). To remedy that, I've opened up the floor to other artists. Hopefully in what will be come a recurring segment, I give you the very gifted writer Matt Lennox. Tomorrow I'll be back with This Week in Toronto.

Matt Lennox

I have a membership at a gym. It’s a franchise gym, it’s one you’ve seen. Maybe you’re a member there too. I’ve been going to the gym for a long time. I’m a relentless creature of habit and going to the gym is a critical part of the routine. It’s almost a ritual. It’s like some kind of act of contrition, some physical mortification of the flesh in order to atone for the pizza I ate past eleven oclock the other night, the potato chips, the beer. I genuflect by way of the bench press or the deadlift, the minutes spent on the elliptical trainer. Motion without forward movement. Now that’s a funny thing. I’m aware that the whole thing is kind of absurd. Everything in our society is geared to cradle and foster the inactive among us, so why try to be otherwise? But ultimately I like it, so that’s why I go. I like the way it makes me feel. I like lifting heavier objects than the fellow next to me. It appeals to my inner hunter-gatherer. It helps prepare me for the physical demands of survival in the post-apocalyptic wasteland I am certain we are moving towards.

I also like the observational opportunities presented to me when I go to the gym. I’m not talking about the female of the species clad in tight-fitting lycra or spandex, the way the female of the species has beads of sweat on her forehead or on her chest, and how if you’re working out close to her, you might just hear the quiet groans and grunts of exertion. Okay. That’s not so bad. But it’s not the observational opportunities I’m really talking about. I’m talking about the microcosm at work in the weight room. The snapshot of who we are. If I accept that I am a relentless voyeur – which I do – then I allow that the gym is an unparalleled chance for people-watching. There are patterns and tropes common to gymgoers that edge into absurdity. These fascinate me. But whilst lifting heavy objects, sometimes over my head, I must be vigilant not to become too engaged in the people-watching, lest I become distracted and drop subject heavy object onto some unfortunate and altogether vulnerable part of my person. Perhaps that would be a kind of cosmic justice, though: he was killed when the bench press crushed his trachea – he appeared to be laughing.

Tropes and patterns common to gymgoers. I’d like to itemize some of my favourites.

I give you The Noisemaker. Typically male. This is the gymgoer who feels it necessary to broadcast to all and sundry just how hard he is working, how focused on his task he is. He verbalizes his exertion. He does not do so quietly. You may not even be paying attention to him at first. You may be going about your own exercises, thinking about your groceries, thinking about your rent, and suddenly your reverie is fractured by a holler. Not beside you, but from across the weight room. You are quite certain that someone has been horribly injured and you look. There he is, perhaps on the shoulder press, not injured at all, but bellowing out with each repetition. Sometimes the shouts actually take the form of words – I remember one fellow in particular who used to shout Yep! with each repetition. One … Yep! Two … Yep! He’d shout it in a clipped, drill square fashion, and when he’d finish the set he’d follow his series of Yeps with a kind of high-pitched Whooo! I could never get any work done when he was around. I should add that somewhat rarer but equally as precious is a pairing of Noisemakers. One who hollers with exertion and one who hollers encouragement. Noisemaker One, lifting: Yeaaaaah! Noisemaker Two, spotting: Come on bro! Push it! Yeaaaah! Push it! I suppose the premise is, the louder you are, the more you’re accomplishing, but I don’t have the fortitude to put it to the test, myself.

I give you The Advisor. As with The Noisemaker, The Advisor is typically male. The Advisor is an authority on all things pertaining to physical training, and his creed, apparently, is to go forth amid his fellow gymgoers and spread the gospel of how to do this better or what’s wrong with your form. You do a set of exercises and you take your well-earned rest before repeating. Time to catch your breath, have a sip of water, daub the sweat off your face, and … who is this standing beside you, smiling affably, expectantly, also looking just a little concerned – the concern is for you, mind – waiting to get a word in? This is not someone you know. No. This is The Advisor, and almost without fail, The Advisor will give his preamble: Can I just give you some advice. Note that I have not employed a question mark in The Advisor’s preamble, for much as the preamble bears the assembly of an interrogative, it is not, in fact, an interrogative. The preamble is a concrete assumption on The Advisor’s part. It’s something in his solicitous, helpful nature, he’s likely not even thinking about, for as soon as he has finished Can I just give you some advice, he’s launching forth with his gospel. This is what you’re doing wrong with your squats. You should do them like this. I’ve yet to know an Advisor who cited his sources, but perhaps I underestimate. If The Advisor is true to his creed, he will then stand back and observe you judiciously whilst you carry out the exercise according to the form he has so helpfully described to you. And thus when you really see your gains start to skyrocket, as he has prophesied that you shall, you are forever indebted to this stranger. A word of caution – there are phoney Advisors out there, so beware. The easiest way to spot a phoney Advisor is to watch to whom he gives his advice. The phoney Advisor will restrict his advice-giving usually to a female gymgoer, and perhaps he will illustrate his advice with the maximum amount of physical contact the nature of the advice might demand. Hands on her shoulders, perhaps, or his loins closely tracking hers in the up and down motion as he spots her in the squat he has just helped her improve upon. That’s almost certainly a phoney Advisor. A true Advisor makes no distinction in who he ministers to. No distinction.

I give you The Contemplator. Whenever I should have the good fortune to spot a Contemplator at the gym, I am envious of the great mind at work. Surely The Contemplator is contemplating the great mysteries well beyond you or me: the nature of morality, the relativistic consequences of time, pure reason, theories to unify physics. These subjects are so awesome and almost deified in their reckoning that the mind of The Contemplator is in itself a thing to behold. For what other thoughts could possibly be at work when The Contemplator sits upon the machine or the bench you are waiting for, utterly unmoving, transfixed by some point on the wall, for fifteen minutes at a time? What but the greatest of mysteries could The Contemplator be trying to unravel? Certainly not the prosaic and mortal concern of exercising, for whilst The Contemplator may occupy the machine or bench you are waiting for, you may never actually witness The Contemplator using the piece of equipment in its intended function, or using it as anything other than a place to sit whilst casting his or her considerable intellect upon such enigmas as would reduce you or me to gibbering idiocy. Certainly not to lift heavy things and put them back down again. Don’t be fooled by that blank stare at the wall or the unmoving body – that is brilliance at work. You dare not – I say again, you dare not –interrupt The Contemplator to ask him or her how long they might be sitting there. Show some respect for genius, you lowly ignoramus.

I give you The Socialite. If I’ve been so bold as to make stereotypical the gender of The Noisemaker and The Advisor, I will continue to be so bold and posit that the majority of The Socialites I’ve observed in the gym are female. Not every case, but most. Her social activities may include her fellow gymgoers, but the scope of her socializing goes well beyond the mirrored walls. For she has been sure to bring her mobile telephone into the gym with her. We may conclude, through observation of The Socialite, that the demands put upon her schedule are of such primacy that she may not be divorced of communication with the world outside of the gym for even an instant. I can only speculate how exhausting it must be to be in such high demand, but The Socialite bears her burden with bright garrulousness and aplomb. Exercise will not prevent her from taking the call when it comes – often heralded with a custom ringtone she has downloaded, perhaps the latest musical offering from the likes of Lady Ga Ga or one of her contemporaries. No, The Socialite is sure to bring to a dead halt whatever she is doing to answer the call and excitedly finalize the details for what they are doing that night, ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod. Her dedication is so fixed that she will ensure she has never raised her breathing to a threshold in which she cannot form words and sentences. Even if she is on the exercise bike when the call comes, The Socialite can immediately speak with the easy respiration and verbal pacing of one who has exerting nothing more than a languorous stretch on the couch. As I suck breath into my own burning lungs, I wonder how The Socialite has evolved to achieve that.

The Noisemaker. The Advisor. The Contemplator. The Socialite. These are but a few of those archetypes that add variety to the milieu of the gym. There are others. God, there are others. There is The Relic: that ancient man or woman, wizened and bent, who despite the sweatpants pulled chest-high and despite the physical delicacy foisted upon them by advanced age, persevere in their exercises nevertheless – that is something that truly demands respect. There is The Dangler. There is The Frowner. There is The Across-The-Room-Nodder: that person you may have spoken to or spotted once – you scarcely remember it – and now who you infrequently spy across the gym, looking straight back at you, and when eye contact is made, The Across-The-Room-Nodder gives you a very solemn and possibly mysterious dip of the chin to the chest, as if to say, Carry on, comrade, we’re in this together. There is the poor awkward person who is always two or more steps behind everybody else in the aerobics classes.

The most interesting aspect of the gym is how almost everybody seems to sequester themselves from everybody else. Social observation is a major part of going to the gym – and I believe that everybody is watching everybody else very carefully – but social interaction itself remains for the most part limited. We hide between our headphones and yet we posture to each other, we express. The Noisemaker is expressing something that underlies his bellows. The Advisor is expressing something more complex than his advice. What underthing is at work in the gym? What subvocal language? Who are all these people, and how did I get here?

Until next time, comrades: I’ll be lifting heavy things and putting them back down, or I’ll be walking the Planck with the other philistines.

No comments: