Middle aged in the Middle Kingdom
Middle age. So named because that’s the migratory destination of one’s body mass over time: The Middle. Love Handles? I wish. Try Love Shelves. I’ve become the Ikea of body fat.
The challenge of being middle aged in China is keeping fit. Having a fit is easy. Keeping it? Not so much. China is tough on one’s health. The air quality is poor enough where I’ve considered starting to smoke just so I could filter the intake. And since Dunkin' Donuts entered the China market and had the audacity to put a store near my office, all the benefits of walking the stairs out of the subway instead of taking the escalator are crushed under the weight of two Boston Cremes and something called the “glazed choco-infused sugar nut squeegee.” I gained two kilos just typing that last sentence.
I need a good workout. Something to get the blood flowing, the lungs breathing and the heart racing.
I watch, with envy, the joggers in my neighborhood, looking so cool in their (mostly) coordinated outfits, long strides and glowing brows, like arrogant gazelles frolicking on a lion-free Savannah. But I think there is something morally wrong with running for pleasure, at least for adults. Humans have evolved to the place where we should run only if we are being chased by someone. Preferably someone with a weapon. I do run, on occasion, but the pavement pounding compresses my spine enough to turn vertebrae into small diamonds and makes my knees crackle like Rice Krispies in Dolby.
I’ve thought of power walking, but that’s not for me. I don’t have much self-respect left, but I refuse be seen in public affecting that purposeful stride, like I’m running late to practice for Kim Jung Un’s next birthday celebration.
Treadmill? Stationary bike? Nope. Too close to a possible metaphor for my life – working hard and going nowhere.
I’ve thought of joining a gym where I would have lots of options available to me and the support of my fellow humans, all of us striving towards the common goal of health and clear thinking. But I know what I look like when I work out and I’ve seen others … and that is not conducive to a social situation. Humans should gather only when there is food, wine and – optimally – a nice cigar involved. But even the best Washington spin doctor would be hard-pressed to call Happy Hour a ‘workout.’
Maybe the apparatus of choice for me should be the lowly bicycle. China was once famous for their bicycles and in my early days here, this was the vehicle of choice as one joined the herds and hordes, prides and pods, flocks and phalanxes of other bikers on the way to work at the State-run factory where you would sit around all day, smoking, reading the newspaper and making up spurious production figures to send to Beijing. But I’m not just looking for transportation, I want transformation. I don’t want to get somewhere better, I want to be someone better. That’s a ton of expectations to put on two wheels and an aluminum alloy frame.
Serious bike riders talk about “the burn”, that place of Zen-like tranquility where the body is working at its peak of energy and efficiency, thus freeing the mind from the bonds of the corporeal world, raising it up to contemplate more lofty ideals wherein one can imagine a brighter future for all mankind. Imagine all the people … Dude … that sounds cool!!
At least it sounded cool before I actually got on a bike. In China. In reality, this is what ended up going through my mind:
“OK … here we go … deep, centering thoughts … life … death … meaning … purpose … YOWZZA … that guy was going the wrong way … or is it me going the wrong way … what way am I going … hmmmm … HOLY BACON BITS, is that a pig? … oh, its a pig on the back of someone’s scooter, the pig's not driving … that’s ok … but what if a pig drove … where would it go … this little piggy drove to market, this little piggy … WHOOPS, look out for the jogger … wow, he’s wearing colors not found in nature … nice green, buddy … looks like the love-child of Kermit the Frog and a neon Bud sign … sign, sign, everywhere a sign … LOOKOUT … it’s a dog … a small dog … a really small dog … looks like a squirrel in a dog suit …
Yea … that was getting me no where near Nirvana. In fact, if anything, that was Nirvana-proof activity. And I felt pretty exposed, like the only thing between me and a speeding car was, well, ME!
Then I found the answer. I will drive. Shanghai is famous for its gnarly traffic and creatively horrible drivers. Someone asked me what side of the road they drive on here and I responded, “my side.” I drove downtown the other day and, I kid you not, narrowly avoided at least six accidents. It was like making my way through a city of Stevie Wonder clones driving bumper cars. When I arrived, my heart was racing, I was gasping for air and I’d lost a few kilos of water weight in perspiration. And I was safely wrapped in a sheet metal cocoon with nary a scratch on me.
Elevated heart rate? Check! Weight loss? Check! New appreciation for the wonder of being alive? Check! Nirvana Schmirvana. Mission accomplished. Now, let’s do Happy Hour!