Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
A major organizing principle for my family is getting some exercise. There are photos of me as a toddler, hoisted on the back of someone’s bicycle, looking more than miserable about my early indoctrination to the twin credos of adventure and athleticism. Both tributaries of my familial lineage are full of physically accomplished types: near-Olympians, All-Americans, team captains, record setters, ribbon winners.
None of these people are me, by the way, and I have no baggage about this. Among the family, I’m arguably the most fun dancer at weddings and/or medium-size parties. My chosen exercise tends to approximate this feeling — often a dance class but sometimes biking fast. My sensibility is frivolity, and my terrain is often indoors. This is all foreign to a family that’s snobby about fresh air and values prowess. They tend to follow Norman Mailer’s philosophy: “Any workout which does not involve a certain minimum of danger or responsibility does not improve the body. It just wears it out.” Respected endeavors include swimming, running, team sports: anything that could be called a feat or a match.
Even if they wanted to attend a slick aerobic class rather than take a woodsy hike, I sense my family might be lost without the grounding measure of competition; one can’t win at a party.
My mother — this will be verified by anyone who has spent an afternoon with her — can best be described as “camp counselor.” If it’s Saturday morning, there is an outdoor excursion and everyone is coming. If you fall within her eyeline, you’re participating. She’s checked the weather, and we will be back before it starts to rain. Does everyone have hiking sticks? Borrow a fleece! Cliff Bars from 2012 and loose sheets of Kleenex line every vest pocket. We will be bushwhacking to connect two trails in the woods that may never actually connect, though we are routinely reminded that “they must because there was a road here during the Revolutionary War” (unverified).
I endured such a trailblazing just last weekend, after reuniting with my parents following a cross-country move. A few weeks ago, my partner, their dog, and I piled into the car and made the quarantine retreat to find refuge with the yard-having generation. We exchanged cautious hugs and had an immediate disagreement about whether we still use paper towels in this house anymore. Our habits were all ready to collide.
I had been talking to other friends who have retreated home during the pandemic, to seek childcare or more space or to provide support. I heard about a lot of walks. Endless miles around childhood neighborhoods. We were going to walk for an hour and half every morning, a friend who’s been with her parents in Montana told me, but it seemed like it was going to rain, so we watched Property Brothers and then it never rained. I was most envious of a friend who visited parents who had already had COVID-19. They walked to protests together.
Before I saw them, my parents were biking more than they had in months (which maybe was due to warmer weather) but I like to think they were training for our reunion. The first item on the homecoming agenda was a bike ride to a hang-glider takeoff point. On bike rides, we agree. I love bike rides — but I try to issue a hard pass if the activity involves catching anything while moving at speed. Still, when we’re together, I find myself grumping around during an obligatory exercise, throwing some object despairingly and then snapping over my shoulder that if I knew how to follow through, I would follow through.
It’s unpredictable what earns the grand honor of being called exercise in my parents’ house. Exercise can be a hike. Exercise can also be an unbearably slow walk in a marsh that’s mostly bird-watching. Exercise, however, is not dancing around the living room. It is also not heaving garden pots and fencing material around for an hour in a long-term plot to exclude the deer. It’s not walking the dog, either. But playing a yard game of moving color-coded objects around the grass with a glass of wine in one hand? This is exercise. “It’s always nice to have some exercise after dinner,” so sayeth the camp counselor.
When we reunited, we all had our ideas for each other. My dad is itching to show me a nice bike loop, where I am promised to see baby goats, and I’ve got a lot of classes for them. On my dance-y aerobic Zooms or Lives, I often see people prancing around with their kids. When I was missing my parents from afar, I imagined participating in the same fun with my whole family.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to get my parents to do my exercise classes with me. When they visited me, they would invariably decline. And I got it. I never really expected them to come along. Every place I went to was too noisy and embarrassing, and youth are the worst. But now that classes are all streaming, there are no barriers. Dancing classes stimulate the aging brain! The agility and balance required will be so good for them! And after initially needing to corral my parents into taking the coronavirus seriously, I consider myself a newly emboldened public-health expert for a population of two.
Whenever I mention my classes, I can see their faces crinkle and deflect. I’m trying to guide the people who guided me, and I see the same rankling resistance that I put forward when I’m ushered into some sporty activity that requires basic eye-hand coordination. We’re condescending all around; we think we know what’s best. While I love a challenge of some unfamiliar act of balancing and rhythm, while I’m drawn to difficult movements that nick the brains until I figure it out, my parents like the regularity of competition, the consistency of routine.
After a short bike ride (on which I did not see the baby goats, maybe they have already grown), my mother finally agreed to do a straightforward, stretchy video with me on the porch. She insisted on using a towel rather than a yoga mat so she could just drop it in the washing machine after, but we both arrived in stretchy pants.
The timing was unfortunate. That morning, my mom had some unexplained back spasms. And in an unforced error, as they say in sports commentary, I took a spill off of my bike. I scraped my left knee in three places and grew a very voluptuous hip on one side. With one tricky back and one skinned knee, my mother and I both became exaggerated parodies of our demographics: clumsy child, creaky adult. During the video, I had to gingerly avoid anything with weight on my left knee, while my mom avoided anything too elongated. After a while, she sat down on the couch and I sat on the mat and we watched the rest of the video and complimented the music choices. The next day, we cleaned the porch by dousing it with water, standing on towels, and wiggling our feet around like we were squishing grapes. It’s not exercise, but it is.