I should have known I was lying when I loudly announced, years ago, that I would never, ever be caught quick or dead on a stairmaster. (This fervor had been aroused by one of the most depressing sights I’ve ever witnessed: a young woman grimly pumping away on the stairmaster while reading The Bell Jar.)
No, not me. I was going to embrace life and nature by being outside and by doing exercise I actually enjoyed like yoga and walking. No more soulless, joy-killing, sweat-soaked exercise regimens on draconian machines. No mas!
But then, things happened, such as moving to a building with an incredible gym that overlooks the river and hike and bike trail. Being a total hypocrite, I took up with the elliptical machine, the new, improved version of the stairmaster. I can read on it — and divert myself from my own suffering and everybody else’s, as long as I stay away from the Sylvia Plath.
Let’s face it, though: You can’t read anything deep while you’re on the elliptical. There are certain genres that lend themselves to pumping iron or titanium or whatever the hell it is, and certain genres that do not. So I’ve found myself madly in love with Elmore Leonard and his Raylan Givens stories recently. Then I moved on to John Burdett, whose most recent thriller set in Thailand is Vulture Peak.
Vulture Peak is the kind of novel that makes you despair about the human race, what with its human organ-trafficking and gore and betrayals. But, given the current political bloodletting and ideological savagery in this country and abroad, despair is beginning to feel like a perfectly natural reaction to just about everything.
I digress, of course. I’m always digressing, but now I’m getting worse. Anyway, the point I was planning to make — much earlier than this, but don’t quibble — was that reading this book, I stumbled across something else very disquieting. A personal soupcon of danger and intrigue.
Heaving and sweating on the elliptical machine, I was very taken with the narrator’s description of opium. Here’s this terrible, dangerous, cutthroat world — but opium softens the edges, blunts the depression, makes it all go away into a soft and dreamy haze.
The chances of my trying opium are nil, but reading about it, I could understand its appeal. It was that same dangerous glimmer of recognition I got years ago, when my family and I went on our one and only skiing trip to a resort outside Montreal. The skiing — well, you can forget that. I spent the whole day on my backside, like an ice turtle. (My husband, always the optimist, announced that he’d done quite well on the slopes. He got quieter when our daughter reminded him he’d ploughed into a fence.)
Again, who cares about the skiing? I want to talk about the danger of French-Canadian food. It was high-fat, high-carb — my own little idea of culinary heaven. I sopped up the thick gravies and sauces and breads, then moved on to the dessert line, with its rich cakes and buttery toppings. It was, maybe, my third time in line when it occurred to me that if I lived in Quebec, with its brutal winters and heavy foods, I’d be a total goner. I’d be fulfilling my ancient Indian lineage, just sitting on an ice floe, eating blubber, waiting for the sun to come up.
At this juncture, I need to say I understand the related, inherent dangers in both opium and gluttony. But why did the same mental alarm bells start going off when I recently watched an episode on HGTV, the channel that specializes in real estate buying, selling and renovation? (Admittedly, I already knew I had a bit of an obsession about real estate, but felt I was handling my little problem pretty well.)
So I sat and watched the program Curb Appeal, where people who live in pretty crappy-looking houses are saved by designers and decorators and architects who swoop in and change everything. I sat on the couch watching it, thoroughly immersed, enthralled, limp with delight. I realized I lacked the will to ever get up from the couch or change the channel. I mean, real estate pornography is my life, almost as much as carbohydrates.
Eventually, I got hungry or something and gathered the moral strength to stand up and turn off the TV, and for the past three days have gone cold turkey on HGTV. At least I know some of my weaknesses, I think: reading about opium, living in Canada, and watching HGTV.
I would say I’ll never, ever be indulging myself again — but look at the elliptical. I think I’ll keep my lip zipped this time.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)