Zen and the Art of Retirement Maintenance

There is a Zen of exercise you know, but not everybody partakes equally of its spiritual side. Like most of us from the West, we seem to frame our expectations on the models that Western religions have offered us: pain and suffering. At least I suppose I do -although I pretend to experience endorphin-induced ecstasy, and an epiphany with burning muscles -ecclesial agape. All in retrospect, you understand.

I fancy myself a runner, and there’s a funny thing about running: it’s hard to stop, once you start. Well, it’s hard for me to stop, anyway. Every once in a while, I ask myself if it’s abnormal, but the consensus seems to be no. Of course it’s a small sample to go on, but you have to start somewhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am a competitive runner or anything. About the only competition I ever tried was with my dog and, well, he had an unusual number of legs so I let him win. He was also on steroids from the neighbour’s table scraps… Fortunately, he’s slowed down a lot since they went Vegan. Still, I learned a valuable life lesson: only compete with the same species  And also, avoiding competition with people who have excessive body hair is probably a good idea, too. So, to be safe, I run alone.

I was over at a friend’s place for coffee the other day. Someone had told him that he was really porking up since he’d retired, so he was thinking of getting into exercise. He’d asked me to come over and help him decide what kind of treadmill to buy. Like me, he hates to run in front of people and he thought that maybe something he could do in the privacy of his basement would avoid public shaming. I thought maybe I could proselytize some zen.

“I figure that something that I can set on ‘walk’ would be a good start…” He sipped at his coffee and looked out the window of his tiny living room. There was a refreshing absence of curtains in his house because it was at the very edge of a forest.

I followed his gaze into the deep shadows between the trees. “Why not just set your feet on ‘walk’ and stroll around in the woods?” It seemed like a reasonably thrifty option for someone living on a pension.

“Thought of that,” he said after a long, contemplative pause. “But I need to have a backup plan,” he explained with a sigh.

“You mean in case the forest burns down overnight, or something?”

He fixed me with a perplexed glare and shook his head sadly as if I hadn’t been paying enough attention. “In case it rains,” he said in slow, drawn-out words and then rolled his eyes. ‘Perhaps you are asking advice from the wrong person,’ his eyes whispered to him once they were back online.

“Oh…” It was all I could think of to reply under the pressure of his subsequently withering stare. And then, when he’d called off his eyes and they were safely back in their cages: “I sometimes walk in the rain…” I used the italic ‘I’ and left the sentence open, hoping it might summon some common recollection.

I don’t,” he mumbled, but his expression softened when he noticed my eyes desperately searching for their tiny perches. “That’s what Retirement’s for: choice.” He decided he’d better explain when he saw my blank face. “If I don’t have to, I don’t.” And then, when he realized that even this detailed explanation didn’t help, he sighed. “Look, I just want to try exercise because I’m bored.” He inspected my face to see if he was getting through. “But I don’t want to take on too much.”

“You can’t get bored on a walk,” I added helpfully. I even winked, although I’ve been told that it usually looks like I’ve just found something in my eye.

“I still want options,” he said after a short pause to decide whether or not I was talking about a walk in the rain.

The thought occurred to me that walking on a treadmill –even a dry one- might not alleviate the boredom very much. “I suppose if you get a really quiet device, you could listen to music or something while you walk.”

A smile appeared, but I could tell it was forced -I obviously did not understand. “Don’t want any distractions, though,” he managed to say, all the while while shaking his head at me. “Maybe once I get it down pat, I may try that.” It was merely a concession to prevent me from losing face, I think, because he then went on to explain how you really had to pay attention on a treadmill –something about foot placement and falling off. “I think it’ll help prevent cognitive decline, too, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I hate Sudoku,” he added, for some reason. “I get half way through it and then realize I’ve got two nines or whatever, in the same row…” Then he blinked at me and lowered his eyes for a moment. “And I cheat in crossword puzzles –they have the answers at the end of the book,” he explained, in case I didn’t know that. “So, you see, I really need exercise…”

He probably had strong pencil fingers, but I decided not to mention it and just nodded.

He became unduly pensive for a moment, and leaned back in his chair. Suddenly he pushed a cookie across the table at me and leaned forward. “Tell me, honestly,” he said, in an earnest tone, locking me in his gaze as if I would otherwise try to fool him. “Do you think I’m being a little bit too rash with this exercise thing?” His eyes tightened on me -talons on an item of prey. “I mean am I overdoing it by wanting to walk every day?” He looked at the plate of cookies in front of him and selected a large, thick one with chocolate chips bursting from it like gopher mounds on a prairie field. His eyes certainly got a lot of exercise.

“Maybe I should get one of those stationary bikes –I mean you can do all the exercise sitting down…” He smiled at the thought and popped a large part of the cookie in his mouth.

“But…” -I was about to explain to him that for it to do him any good he’d probably have to work up a little sweat.

“So I don’t get tired,” his cookie-laden mouth interrupted irritably, quite unable to understand why I wouldn’t think that would be a better way to exercise. Crumbs dripped from his mouth as he finished chewing. “I’ve never been able to balance on the two wheelers anyway, so I wouldn’t have to worry about falling off… Or going out in the rain,” he added, obviously pleased that he’d found another good reason. “What do you think…?”

I tried to say that I thought he might have the wrong idea about exercising, but he’d caught me mid-bite, so my mouth was full and my words were probably muffled and hard to interpret.

I think he took the chewing noise for agreement, because he immediately shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth and scanned the dish for another similarly endowed one. “But there’s no sense rushing into things,” he managed to squeeze in between bites. “I mean I’ve got the rest of my life to decide, don’t I?”

I finished my cookie and managed a smile. Exercise isn’t for everybody. And anyway, who knows how many more cookies any of us have…?







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