Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Big Boxes

The original set of the television show Weeds was a reasonably well-to-do southern California hillside housing tract with wide streets, sprinklered lawns and rows of generously proportioned, virtually identical houses on lots not much bigger than the footprint of each house and swimming pool. One overhead shot of the neighborhood is enough to convey the producers’ comedic disdain for such homogeneous modern living. It’s not an uncommon theme in Hollywood; classics such as Edward Scissorhands. American Beauty, and most compellingly, The Truman Show were in no small part satires of suburban life.

The credits for the first three seasons of Weeds opened with various scenes of daily life in this little slice of Utopia: joggers running along the mid-morning streets; children getting off the schoolbus; businessmen, all in a row, in shirts with no ties, cellphone pressed to ear, leaving the local Starbucks to hustle to work. The scenes are overlaid with Malvina Reynolds’ classic song “Little Boxes”, whose lyrics and tempo impart a perfect rendition of the satire while the credits roll. It’s all very satisfying, and makes for the perfect setup for the edgy, quirky comedy that follows.

Not to change the subject on you, but after many years’ hiatus, I’ve started playing squash again. Unfortunately, squash is not a country club sport in New Jersey the way it is in some other locales. So that means I have no natural venue other than my infrequent forays to the Yale Club in NYC.

Fortunately, Lifetime Fitness has opened up a new facility with squash courts in an office park not far from my work. Now, for those of you who may not be aware of these phenomena, Lifetime Fitness centers may be the most perfect monuments of suburban absurdity ever sculpted by the hand of man.

First, they are simply ginormous – each Lifetime Fitness facility is 110,000 gleaming square feet of fitness glory on a scale that makes your old gym look like George Costanza’s package after a swim in a cold pool (“Shrinkage!”). Second, these places are adorned with the kind of excess you’d think reserved for one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces: interior and exterior swimming pools with three story slides for the children; climbing walls; basketball gymnasiums; rows upon stacks upon rows upon stacks of sparkling fitness equipment and gear, all surrounded by acres of brightly lined parking lots.

Most important, though, are the people. Carted by the hoard to this exercise Shangri-La in their identical SUVs and BMWs (in the one, a female, the other, a male), clad in skin-tight Lycra, ruddy-cheeked and earnest, they seem completely unaware that they might be acting out some version of a Hollywood satire. Those businessmen leaving the Starbucks in the Weeds opening might be rushing off, not to work, but to their local Lifetime Fitness.

I’m reminded of one particular section of the Weeds opening every time I drive into my local center. An aerial shot shows a street with about eight homes. The garage doors of all eight houses open at once, the same SUV drives way too fast out of each driveway and, one after the other, onto the road and off somewhere – probably the local school – the kids wouldn’t take the school bus anymore, of course.

That’s what the entrance to Lifetime Fitness looks like - there are so many damn people driving so fast on these little roads that it would be comedic if it weren’t so tragic. If you don’t believe me, here’s a clip from my last visit:

Now, if you want to be satirist or even a cynic, Lifetime Fitness is a pathetically easy target, especially when it comes to making fun of the bulked-up middle aged men who go there to lift weights and admire their muscles in the ubiquitous floor to ceiling mirrors. As a sometime blogger who regularly has trouble composing his next sentence, I am reminded of the famous literary quotation often attributed to William Shakespeare -- “this shit practically writes itself.”

But no, that is not my purpose today (or maybe it’s only a portion of my purpose). I am actually here to tell you that life is not quite so grim as I’ve made it sound. You see, if you are capable of turning off your robo-cynicism-generator, Lifetime Fitness is actually quite fun. Once you’ve freed yourself and ventured into the hubbub, the fun comes in a cornucopia of colors, flavors, scents and visceral emotions.

Most compelling, as I’ve mentioned, are the people. Lifetime Fitness is a bounteous feast of people-watching. I’m convinced that what makes the people watching so interesting is partly the skin-tight Lycra. As if acting out yet another Hollywood fantasy – this time the 1970’s sci-fi B-thriller – everyone has discarded the old baggy cotton sweats for form-fitting garb – garb which, more often than not, glistens with sweat. Finally, in the temple of exercise that is Lifetime Fitness, it doesn’t matter what one’s body shape; Lycra is the answer.

Now, I’d like to think that I am above it all. Alas, I am but human. I do my fair share of peeking about. But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is watching everyone else try not to get noticed while checking out everyone else.

Sometimes it’s as easy as watching someone choose the correct Stairmaster from the countless rows. The properly chosen venue is somewhat behind and to the side of the one that the hot chick is on. One cannot be directly behind her, or it would be obvious that the only reason for such placement was to watch the churning of her buns as the Stairmaster churned its own ineluctable progression.

In the busy corridors, people walk with their heads lowered, eyes often on the ground until another walks past, at which point a quick glance is not uncommon. If the scopee is particularly well-configured, she (or he) might even merit a full turning of the head after the scopee has passed by entirely, followed by a checking of the Blackberry to hide the indiscretion.

The most prolific scopers and scopees are youngish – 20’s mostly – and presumably single. Older folks are generally more secure in both their bodies and their outlook. They walk down the hallways with their chins up, saying hello, often with a touching carelessness about a bulge here or even a spare tire there.

The only exceptions to these generalizations are the men with muscles. Men generally come to Lifetime Fitness for one of three reasons: athletics (basketball, squash, etc.), cardio, or weighlifting. Women generally come only for cardio. The men who come to lift weights are different from everyone else insofar as they spend as much time looking at themselves as they do other people. They’re also generally not as subtle when it comes to looking at other people. You can tell they may be trying to be subtle, but most times it doesn’t work. A few will even be brash about their scoping, often as they simultaneously flex something. I don’t think I know many women who find this attractive, but I guess there must be some.

As a place for exercise, Lifetime Fitness is already flush with rapidly beating hearts and freely flowing endorphins. All this human interaction just gets it all flowing a little bit faster. And that’s the great thing about Lifetime Fitness. You can get a runner’s high just walking down the hallway. If you just let yourself enjoy it, and don’t worry about what you look like in Lycra, it can be damn fun.

In addition, the company has done a superb job of staffing. Upon entering the facility, you’re checked in by a greeter who beams a wide smile and makes idle but wildly enthusiastic chit chat. They’re the kind of people who you’ve seen introducing a ride or tour at Disneyworld. My cynical reflex often makes me wonder whether people like this are really good actors, or if they’re just congenitally happy because of some brain anomaly.

Honestly, I don’t know, but it works. The greeter sets the stage, and from there on it’s impossible to do anything but enjoy yourself. There are so many things to do, and so many people to watch, that it’s impossible to remember that you’re just a bit player in a Hollywood satire. Modern life, it turns out, ain’t so bad.

Watch this Youtube video of the intro to Weeds:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there's doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same,
There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.