Thursday, September 29, 2005

Enlightened Abs

When we moved to California four years ago, one of the first things we did was join Crunch gym. We just couldn’t help ourselves. We loved the state-of-the-art exercise machines and the spray-tanned sylphs doing Cardio Strip. The funky purple and yellow chairs were shaped like fists doing a triumphant salute. The slogan, painted on the wall, was “No judgments!” but in a place where half the clientele looked like extras from The Matrix, there was no need to judge. I particularly liked the staircase studded with sparkling lights that led to the changing-rooms. It was flanked by semi-transparent shower stalls, showcasing the sculpted outlines of people soaping themselves. Crunch cost twice as much as 24 Hour Fitness, and I didn’t have a job. But we couldn’t resist it.

After yoga class, I always chose one of the showers facing the staircase. I shampooed my hair, feeling an exhibitionistic thrill. But after a few weeks, I noticed that few people gave the shower stalls a second glance. At first I thought maybe they didn’t want to look like voyeurs. Then I realized they were too busy checking out their reflections in the mirror facing the staircase. It hit me why the showers were there: not so members could look at other people, but so they could enjoy the thought of being looked at.

Yoga classes at Crunch cater to this narcissism. The teachers there don’t waffle on about “drawing energy from the earth” and “feeling the fluffy cloud within.” Instead, they put you through grueling sets of crunches, knowing that what members want is not yoga minds, but yoga bodies.

I enjoyed this for a couple of years. Then I realized that yoga was more than just a workout. Yoga was something you do within. Slaving over my abs used to make me feel virtuous. Now it no longer satisfied me, and consequently, neither did Crunch. (Plus, after several changes of management, the place had gone downhill and frankly, the people there were just not as good-looking as they used to be.)

I asked the teacher, one of those yogis whose posture is so perfect they seem to float an inch above the floor, why we had to do so much work on our abs. He gazed at me serenely.
“It’s not so we can get better abs—we’re strengthening the core.” As he glided away, I realized I did not know exactly what the “core” was. But obviously it was different from abs—more internal, more profound. I’m always eager for short-cuts to spiritual growth. Now when we do crunches, I feel virtuous again, as if I’m working not just on my six-pack, but on my soul.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Guidelines

On the Fourth of July weekend, instead of hanging out in the city, slumped on the couch in front of our latest NetFlix, we decided to spend a couple of days in the country. A friend had told us about a place called Orr Hot Springs. It sounded perfect. By day we would swim in the freshwater swimming pool and catch up on back issues of The New Yorker. At night, we’d fall asleep in our little wood cabin listening to the crickets chirp. Our friend warned us that Orr was “clothing-optional” but I pointed out that at Burning Man we have seen people who have not only shed their clothes, but have daubed their genitals with gold paint and decked their nipples with clothes pins. Frankly, nothing can shock us at this point. In fact, I imagined that we might even make new friends, with whom we’d play board games, discuss our favorite Dylan albums, and prepare delicious healthful meals in the communal kitchen.

When we arrived, someone was strumming a guitar on the verandah of the main building. The reception desk was fashioned from a single glossy piece of redwood. An earnest, sandy-haired fellow called Leslie gave us the key to our cabin. At first he seemed a gentle soul who said “live” instead of “belong” (“the detergent lives under the sink”) and “share with” instead of “tell.” Yes, it all seemed idyllic at first. Then Leslie said, “I’d like to share our Guidelines with you.”

The Guidelines were set out in a leaflet, and we could have perused them on our own. But Leslie insisted on going through them with us, one by one. The Guidelines stressed the necessity of showering before entering the hot springs and cautioned guests never to address anyone wearing a “red silence bead” (available at the front desk). All guests had to keep their food in plastic bins, one for the pantry and one for the refrigerator, and all bins must be labeled with the owner’s name and the date. Guests were not to sit down to dinner without first washing their dishes. Most importantly, the Guidelines urged guests to report “inappropriate behavior” to the front desk immediately. Inappropriate behavior included “any action that creates an uneasy feeling, or that personally offends you, including persistent staring, [and] crowding of personal space.”
Feeling faintly stunned, we promised to abide by the Guidelines. I refrained from pointing out that since the Guidelines were compulsory, they were—strictly speaking—Rules.

The hot springs dampened our spirits further. They were small and tepid. Nearby, a stone crocodile spewed water into a murky swimming pool. On its concrete banks sprawled various people with abundant pubic hair. Some were deep in improving books such as Creative Visualization and The Scythe of Saturn. Others were busy doing plow pose or other elaborate exercises that showed they had no hang-ups about their bodies.

When we arrived on the scene, everyone seemed to turn and stare at us. I felt like the hero of an old Western, entering a saloon in a strange town. I knew why we were attracting attention. We were wearing bathing suits. (This was partly in deference to our friend Emily, who is from the East Coast and is not a fan of nudity.) Orr was supposed to be clothing-optional. But the hostile gazes we received made it clear that clothing was forbidden.

We didn’t make any new friends by the swimming pool. We didn’t make any friends in the kitchen either. The other guests had filled their neatly labeled food bins with quinoa and nutritional yeast. They looked supercilious when we unpacked our instant oatmeal and canned refried beans. “I’ve realized what’s weird about the kitchen,” Emily whispered to me as we struggled to locate the tequila we had brought with us. “Nobody is interacting with each other.” It was true. No one met anyone else’s eyes. But I felt as if they were secretly watching each other, waiting for someone to transgress the Guidelines. I told myself it was just paranoia from the pot I may or may not have smoked earlier in the day. Then a woman with free-flowing hair, an ample bosom, and Incan jewelry approached me as I was washing our dishes at the sink. I thought maybe she was going to offer me a homemade vegan cookie. Instead she said: “I like to rinse everything in water before I wash up—even if it just contained water.”

I was shocked. Why was she such a bitch? And why was no one looking at or speaking to us? Do nudists really hate the clothed that much? No, I realized, they were scarcely talking to each other either. The problem was Leslie’s Guidelines. They made you too scared to talk to anybody, in case they were sporting a silence bead you hadn’t noticed. They made you too scared to look at anybody, in case your behavior created an “uneasy feeling.” Most of what the Guidelines said was just common courtesy. Without them, everyone would have got along just fine. Instead, the Guidelines destroyed peace and love by making them compulsory. After dinner, I couldn’t help noticing that some departing guests had failed to scrub out their plastic bins and felt a strong urge to report them to the front desk.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Travel Weariness

For the last few months I have neglected my blog disgracefully. This is because I took on a writing project for a travel website. I had to produce twenty guides to twenty places I have never been, from Baja to Zanzibar. For some deep-seated psychological reason, I took this job far too seriously, shunning stock phrases like “vibrant culture,” “land of contrasts,” "a friendly race," and “rich history." Instead, I filled my guides with local detail. How did I do this? Through assiduous research on the Internet. OK, maybe my imagination occasionally came in handy too. (Writing about places I have never visited may seem a trifle unethical, but if the number of errors in other online guides is any indication, it is commoner than you might think.)

In between completing these guides, I took a couple of vacations of my own. But now I look back on the summer, I realize that the places where I didn’t go remain most vivid: the jaundiced face of Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse in his Hanoi mausoleum, the scent of cardamom and cloves drifting from the spice plantations of Zanzibar, the tumbledown pavilions of Wat Phou in Laos, the guinea-piggish dassies scuffling on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. I feel almost as exhausted as if I had actually visited all those places, but I’ve earned myself a couple of months to write what I want to write. It feels good to be home.