Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Wrong America

                It strikes me funny when people suggest that some things come from some places that they can't really have come from.  It's like saying that while Frank Sinatra was from Bayonne, that all Sinatras were.  At some far deeper level, all Sinatras are from Italy, and that may not be deep enough for a few.  "Fitness" fits this idea.

                Modern Americans have fitness on the mind.  I don't, but I'm not a modern American in many ways.  Fitness used to be a byproduct of a certain general level of physical activity undertaken by living.  It was a relationship between work, rest, recreation, and sustenance.  A man would—to paraphrase The Who—put his back into his business to a far greater extent.  Oh, I don't mean some romantic image of the farmer or carpenter as the only examples—there were mailmen and milkmen, too, and how often do we see the former walking or the latter at all.

                More people walked around a generation or two ago; they would be driving today.  People used to mow their own lawns with a push mower.  Kids used to bicycle everywhere.  Cleaning a house and making a meal was not performed with an array of lightweight appliances; you want bread, you knead dough.  People dined out less frequently, and ate less chi-chi finger food then.  My grandfather lived to be 98, and was in damn good health for 96 of those years.  He didn't smoke, he walked to a bus stop to get to work, spent a lot of time on his feet, usually ate lunch at a particular time, and came home to a meal that included meat, starch, and green vegetable, plus an occasional dessert.  He was portly as a man, but suffered neither from diabetes or hypertension.

                Today, it appears that we recognize the "value" of exercise, and that's why many of us do it.  But defining what the value is is not a simple as it seems.  I'm guessing that there are at least three values we attribute to exercise, but that we only ascribe to one.  Enjoyment may be a close fourth in this horserace, but it does not win, place, or show.

                The first value is "healthfulness".  We believe that since we do not live like even our recent ancestors, we should understand that the body needs to be worked in the same way the mind does.  We exercise to promote healthy living, in the same way that we plug organic foods—and avoid meats—into our diets.  This is an excellent value proposition, and is most likely to be the stated one when a person inquires as to why another person works out.  It's likely that 25% of people who work out actually hold this as the principle value for doing so, even if it's the only one stated.

                The second value is "youthfulness".  People believe that by eating well and exercising that they will remain young.  There are old folks who can dance till dawn, and there are old folks who go to sleep in a chair at dusk, and certainly some of that energy level is related to food and exercise.  Much of it is habitual.  In the final analysis, you're liable to live a better quality of life when you eat well, sleep well, and exercise—that I'll give you.  As to how much ultimate time you buy, that's another matter.

                The third value is "sexuality".  People who work out are attempting to make themselves more sexually attractive for a longer period of time.  They proceed as if they were never going to get a wrinkle or a cavity.  These people are fooling themselves, and it is these people who represent maybe 40% of all addicted work-out types—you know, gym rats as devoted to rowing machines as nuns are to matins.

                Members of this group seems to be the same sort of modern people that believe that being a stock broker is actually an occupation.  Building muscles for no better reason that to look better in a suit is as ludicrous as selling virtual paper with a virtual value to a virtual customer and thinking that, as of market closing, you've actually performed a day's work.

                Exercise is a programmed activity for many people, just like work.  There is no intrinsic joy in it for most people, except in the ambiguous atmosphere of an ends-means argument: I'm doing this crap because it's (good for me / I'll live longer / I'll get to fuck Bill or Nancy).  Those who play sports are different.  They play tennis, or softball, or soccer because they like the game, not because they want to get into shape—although this may be a reason to stay in shape.

                Modern life is reflected in a number of activities.  We don't do any muscle work that is useful to anyone but ourselves—we don't use our muscles as a means of production, even personal production, like mowing the lawn.  We engage in occupations that produce nothing—that benefit no one but themselves in any materially significant way because they are purely transactional middle men.  Taken together—strong muscles that produce no labor, and occupations that produce no tangible product, we begin to define the worst of the modern American healthcare system.

                The healthcare system is essentially an unproductive group of middle men, who stand between you and your health providers, with the power to help or hurt you based purely upon their position in the business cycle.  If you are a modern person who exercises and stays fit, they're happy to have you because you will not ask them to make many serious decisions about your health that will cost them money.  If you're not, then they are happy not to cover you, which converts you to the same sort of person as the exerciser—one for whom a decision to spend revenue need not be made.

                As long as we're on the subject, ask yourself why being "fat" is so stigmatized in America.  First, all the exercisers and organic foodies see "the fat" as unenlightened.  Second, people have bought into the economic argument that fat people are costly to our health care system: it's the argument made by those paragons of social responsibility, the healthcare corporations, and it is their prime rationale for rising health costs.  (How could that be, when so many policies are so easily cancelled—haven't you heard that people who make claims get their policies cancelled before?)  In fact, their rationale that fat people are the reason for increased costs is so oft repeated that it has moved into institutionalization—we assume things about fat people that we also assume about black people (including a diet of fried chicken, chitterlings, and sweet potato pie).

                Modern Americans are not live-and-let-live people who also share some sort of shared social contract.  Instead, they are about physical egomania and occupational self-promotional greed.  In India, fat people are mocked just as here, but people do not see them as deficient in some important way.  No, America is a nation where self-interest rules and the social contract is not worth the blood it was written in.  Exercisers, Healthcare Conglomerates, and Wall Streeters are the new America; they are the ones with a set of shared values.  They are the ones for whom looking good replaces doing good. 

                Let's hope that this aberrant strain of modern America, this growth on America's testicles, is about to dust away, because it's as ugly as a Mississippi democrat.


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