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Sometimes we find ourselves doing, and enjoying, things that totally oppose our sense of aesthetic congruity. For me, this happens every Tuesday at spin class. Once a week I enter a glass-enclosed studio where 20-or-so of us pedal stationary bikes, showering sweat, while our instructor Elgin, a fun, femmy, tall and lean, dreadlocked dude, pushes us to exhaustion as top 40 music—Lady Gaga, Kate Perry, Rihanna (music I fortunately hear at no other time)—blares in the background. It’s the human equivalent of a hamster wheel. Lots of exertion and movement in a completely artificial environment.
The class is broken up into several portions that include hills, sprints, breakaways and flats. Last night I felt good. I was able to exert myself harder than normal. This hamster pushed the wheel really fast.
The bike I typically use faces a glass wall that looks out into the rest of the gym. The gym has white walls and black rubberized flooring. The light is white florescent. There’s a flatscreen TV mounted on a wall that plays ESPN; a few men typically stand below it looking at scores. In the background of my view is the free-weight section. In the foreground are Hammer-Strength machines and some other equipment. The room is littered with men and a women lifting weights and doing strange exercises—jumping up onto platforms, swinging kettleballs, lunging to arbitrary locations and so forth. Some of their bodies are toned and graceful. Others are soft and cumbersome. Some dress gym-chic, others thuggish, others still dress like they had a shopping spree at the Salvation Army.
I was looking out on this scene and thought about what this same location looked like 100 years ago. Cobble Hill Brooklyn was developed, but horses still littered the street. The subway system was 6 years old and had wood-covered cars. The area was still largely made up of seafarers, boatbuilders and maritime suppliers as NYC was still major port. World War I had not begun. There surely wasn’t a gym at this spot. People probably got more exercise doing their daily tasks than I did pushing pedals in place for 45 minutes. No one save an infant or 2 survives from that time.
Then I visualized 100 years from now. I saw the florescent lights going out. I saw the gym equipment rusting. I saw the club going out of business or changing hands. I saw the building being demolished. I saw all the people who cared so much about their health or appearance, their sports teams, their emails, etc., growing old and dying. I saw myself fading into obscurity, a soul who, though loved, is eventually forgotten. His good spin class, his lean body, his Florida vacation, his great friends and family, his communication triumphs with his girlfriend, his concern for the planet, his ambitions, his words, his clothes, his money, his everything, are dead, gone and forgotten.
While this might seem like morbid reflection, there was something freeing about the thought. What if I really grasped my insignificance? What if I understood how petty my problems are, how cheap my desires, how futile my ambitions? What if I saw that all things return from whence they came? Ashes to ashes and so forth. Seen in this light, the grandeur of a good spin class or the triumph of a book deal takes on its appropriate triviality.
The reason we suffer is because we think things matter. We have a tacit understanding that if things don’t go our way—if this date doesn’t work out, this job doesn’t pay enough, if I don’t lose 20 pounds, whatever—it’s means something. But viewed in the cosmic lens, it doesn’t. Life will be over before we know it. It might serve us to ask ourselves if fretting about our ambitions, scheming to impress others, waiting for that text/email/call and various other life-wasting activities, are the best uses of our time.
After the class, I called my girlfriend to check in with her. I made some tater-tots and sauteed kale for dinner. I put on “Godfather II” for the umpteenth time, read a couple paragraphs of an article about procrastination and was in bed by 11PM. Like the spin class, this mundane life does not necessarily mirror the aesthetic conception I hold of myself. It doesn’t seem important or glamorous enough. Yet there I am—running in my hamster wheel of life. But does it mean anything? Big or small, loud or quiet, our lives heave then rest, are born and die. Perhaps life is just as Propero foretold:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.