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Fitness, Faddism, Fellowship

November 03, 1985|Richard Eder | Richard Eder is a Times critic and contributor based in Boston

BOSTON — The other day, outside my downtown window, some 2,000 people ran by. That is not strictly true, in fact. It was the start of a 10-mile race and the runners had not had time to really get going. They were packed in from curb to curb the length of Charles Street, which is short. A shopkeeper thoughtfully placed a record player in his doorway to blast out the theme music from "Chariots of Fire." It was the only available image, canned, of the free heart. The runners, in T-shirts, shorts and running shoes, had not a whit of the loneliness of the long-distance runner. They resembled a subway rush hour, bobbing along inside individual bubbles of self-improvement.

After a few unusually damp and overcast weeks, New England has come into its normal radiance of crisp fall weather. Around Boston, the maples are more orange than red, for lack of any biting frost. It still makes quite a display, though; and this corner of the country still puts on the summer's gaudiest wake.

We know, of course, that a leaf's scarlet or orange comes from its dying processes. Yet something about the pageantry suggests the reverse: that death may follow the splendor but did not cause it.

Living does kill, though; and living with generosity or magnificence kills faster. It is not, except for the illusion offered by maples, exactly a mark of our times. In this richest country, people spend vast amounts of money on themselves, machines and regimes to promote fitness, slenderness and more fiercely coursing blood.

What does it course for, this blood among the 10-mile runners? The wicked flee where no man pursueth; what was pursuing these jammed-together solipsists? A dream of preservation, I guess. Of betterment. They were their own sculptors, preempting the role that life traditionally plays with our physiognomies.

There was plenty, no doubt, to raise the runners' heartbeat but nothing to lift the heart of anyone else. They drew as much attention as a parade and gave none back. We are lowering some kind of water table of common humanity in these private borings for the fountain of youth, fitness or lean blood. Upon whom will we bestow the improvements? Are they for happiness, even our own? Happiness, after all, can be contagious. Or are they for self-approval--a high score in a game that we play essentially for ourselves and maybe for some Supreme Scorer whose existence we probably don't believe in?

When the jogger comes home, sweaty and accomplished, who else is warmed or edified? There is an illusion that some of the world's work has been done, that an acre has been plowed; but all that has been plowed is self-satisfaction. The conscience is at rest; and not a jot of this expended national energy has attended to those desperate needs that squat, quite unable to jog, at the far end of our cities, a state or two away or over the ocean in any direction.

I am not arguing against fitness but against fitness as a consuming fad, a growth industry, a way of turning philanthropic effort inward instead of outward, where it is needed.

Take eating. Whole grains, vegetables, skim milk and tofu are up. Eggs, cream, butter, steak and sausages are down. Industries spring up to meet the changed demand. Fine, up to a point; even if one part of the industry, according to a recent report, consists of putting bits of wood into "healthy" bread to increase the fiber content. Wood-pulp, that expedient of war and famine, in a country with bursting wheat silos.

A recent article by the New York Times health writer, Jane Brody, described the shift in America's diet. It began with the breakfast habits of the Johnson family of St. Croix, Minn. Once it was bacon and eggs and pots of coffee. Now it is cantaloupe, oatmeal or whole-grain cereal and yogurt. They are delighted, but there is an interesting quote, a bit rueful, from Mr. Johnson: "The smells are gone from breakfast but we're all a lot better off for it."

The smells, yes. I remember what wafted upstairs from my grandmother's kitchen on cold mornings. Essences of bacon, scrapple, corn bread, coffee and her high tremolo leaking a hymn.

How many childhoods have been enriched by such smells? They provide associations of home, of nurture, of being cared for. They set up that penchant of time, taunting until release, when dinner is on the table and, wanting to hug everyone, you sit together to eat it.

This may sound like any one of thousands of picture-postcard accounts of bucolic American childhood. But how are children to grow up without smells? Humanity has always needed the practice of the feast to gather family, clan or tribe together and, out of the smoke, to offer a sacrifice to something bigger. The gods wanted more than tofu.

Neither eating healthy nor running plenty could possibly be bad in themselves. Nothing wrong with self-discipline and self-denial. But when they exist mainly for self-approval, they turn us into ourselves and away from the world. They chill fellowship and generosity. The leaf consumes itself in a flagrantly indulgent red display. Without self-indulgence and display, where will philanthropy grow? The milk of human kindness is not skim.

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