Most of the time I can manage my Truman Show delusion, my sense that I am the oblivious subject of a wildly popular television show capturing every moment of my existence (A+, maybe, or Best Prof Evs). But occasionally, when I walk across campus, it flares up. The extras – students – are just so suspiciously, uniformly good-looking. They have perfect skin, they carry themselves with such energy and poise, and even in shuffly boots, sweatpants and shapeless t-shirts they are well-proportioned, toned and fit. Did I just see a film crew reflected in that window?
I admit to occasionally being irritated by how much time and energy university students devote to working out, especially when another would-be Tatum Channing (or whatever box-headed, 12-packed football stripper the kids are watching these days) comes into my office to ask for an extension. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning or two in the afternoon and he’s carrying a gym bag and a weightlifting belt. And a water bottle, of course, because his generation drinks water constantly, even while urinating. As a colossal show of respect, he has removed one ear bud. You’ve got time for one thousand one-hand pushups, I want to ask, but no time for a 1,000-word essay? I have given serious thought to assigning shows from The History Channel that students can watch while spinning.
But really, who am I to judge? At least the kid is doing something healthy. Plus, given his age he has an entirely different sleep schedule than I do; he’s likely up hours after I am, and maybe doing schoolwork then. He may even have looked over the horizon at a tough job market, considered the value our culture places on fitness, attractiveness and strength – perhaps even balanced that against the value given to knowledge and intelligence, let alone good grades – and is making a calculated investment. I can dock him late marks, but I can’t say he made the wrong decision for him. If one Canadian teenager wants to be a hockey player and another a historian, and there are more rookies in the NHL each year than there are university appointments in History, who’s the bigger dreamer? (Well, we know which one of them is bigger.)
Besides, we academics tend to undervalue physical fitness. If anything, we take a perverse pride in being rumpled, anemic, out of shape. It’s a look that says we are so devoted to the life of the mind – the first and last time I use that phrase in print – that we of necessity sacrifice the body. Our neck muscles may atrophy, but we can take solace in the knowledge that their cells will miraculously head headward. “As tough as a carful of poets,” we say on the East Coast, but “professors” would fit just as well.
I count myself among the simultaneously soft and brittle. As a teenager, I was something of an athlete, even representing my province in the Canada Games. (Full disclosure: Prince Edward Island. Excessive disclosure: volleyball.) I remained active through graduate school but for some reason let everything slide once I landed a faculty position. No more squash or road hockey, far less running.
Maybe I didn’t find the right sporty colleagues, or didn’t want to share a locker room with students, or got busy or lazy or both. Whatever the reason, days turned into years and my firm little endo morphed into ecto. In my wife’s eyes, I went from impossibly good-looking – I’m guessing here – to possibly good-looking.
But a few months ago I decided to reject my self-defined academic stereotype. I started going to a gym. Off campus. I started running the three times a week I had been telling myself I had been running for years, but that in reality was lucky to average once a week. I lifted weights.
My father is a retired farmer, a big guy who has never worked out in his life, so the idea of me lifting a weight always struck me as ridiculous. So I never did, not once. But the thing is, the thing that decades of living the life of the mind has taught me is: I don’t farm. So little weights, gliding up and down, have become part of my life. Working out turns out to be a surprisingly pleasant, surprisingly contemplative part of my day.
Have I changed physically? Not so that anyone would notice. But I feel better – my back hasn’t been hurting and I seem to be less likely to pull a muscle playing with my daughter. It’s true that I don’t feel younger, but I don’t feel older, and at this stage that’s progress. It’s a marathon, this academic life, and I tell myself that I have to stay in training. Plus, the television adds 10 pounds.