Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Power That Remains

The passing of fitness icon Jack Lalanne, who died last Sunday at the age of 96, called up a modest flurry of tributes and retrospectives in the media, and a great many of these made a point I don’t think their authors had in mind. If I’d tried to dream up an imaginary example of the way our culture’s obsessions distort our sense of history, I doubt I could have managed anything half so telling.

Not, you understand, that Lalanne’s life and achievements didn’t deserve the attention the media gave them, or indeed a good deal more than they’re likely to get. If the value of an exercise system is best measured by the long-term health and strength of its chief promoter, which seems fair enough, Lalanne is hard to beat, given that he was still doing strength feats in his nineties that would put most of today’s muscular twentysomethings to shame. Nor were these achievements the result of the gimmickry that so often catapults people to their fifteen minutes of fame; Lalanne’s feats as well as his career as a fitness teacher were achieved the old-fashioned way, through the unfaddish combination of sound practical advice, hard work, and a cheerful and consistent willingness to walk his own talk.

No, the thing that made the media tributes so striking is the extraordinary way that they edited Lalanne right out of his actual historical context. Stories in print and electronic media alike called Lalanne a pioneer, the man who first taught Americans to exercise. It’s no discredit to the man to point out that he was nothing of the kind. Lalanne was, rather, one of the very last great figures in what was once a huge and influential movement in American culture, and has now been systematically erased from our collective memory.

The phrase that was standard before that erasure took place was “physical culture.” From the 1870s until the Second World War, across the English-speaking world and in many other countries as well, those words conjured up much the same imagery that the current Lalanne retrospectives put back into circulation, however briefly, in the imagination of our time: a genial blend of robust exercise, healthy eating, spectacular feats of strength, and more or less colorful showmanship. Against a background of Victorian ladies doffing their corsets to swing Indian clubs, young men stripped to the waist hefting kettlebells full of lead shot, and circus strongmen challenging all comers to match them lift for lift, scores of figures now forgotten made their names into household bywords: Eugen Sandow, whose impressive exploits and even more impressive physique first made weightlifting fashionable in the Western world; Genevieve Stebbins, who taught exercise to three generations of American girls around the turn of the last century; Joseph Greenstein aka “The Mighty Atom,” the diminutive Polish-American strongman whose signature trick was tying a #2 iron horseshoe into an overhand knot with his bare hands, and many more – among them, and far from the least, Jack Lalanne.

It takes only the briefest bout of research, especially in the age of the internet, to uncover all this and put Lalanne into his proper context. Why, then, the distortion of history, reminiscent of nothing so much as those Politburo photos from Stalin-era Russia from which former members were so studiously erased? Why, for that matter, is it a fairly safe bet that when Jane Fonda passes away, the media will briefly if lavishly praise her as the pioneer who taught America to exercise, and pretend that Jack Lalanne never existed?

There are at least three reasons, and all of them are relevant to the wider project of this blog.

The first, a point discussed here tolerably often, is the contemporary American obsession with fantasies of progress. We don’t like to think about the fact that by and large, Americans these days are weaker, less healthy, and less capable than their great-grandparents. When we do think about that, we like to frame it in a narrative that turns it into a brand new problem ready for some clever solution or other – that is to say, another opportunity for progress. Now it so happens that declining health and fitness in industrial societies has been a recognized issue since the nineteenth century, the physical culture movement emerged as a response to that issue, and what we are pleased to call cultural progress since that time has undercut the response and made the situation significantly worse, but this doesn’t fit the sort of historical narrative most of us prefer. The tacit amputation of the past is a neat solution to that difficulty.

The second reason, which is closely related to the first, is that from its beginning, the physical culture movement took a critical stance toward the products of industry and the lifestyles made possible by the extravagant use of fossil fuels. That expressed itself in a great many obvious ways – Jack Lalanne’s trademark habit of teaching people to exercise using simple household items instead of expensive apparatus, and his insistence on leaving most industrially processed foods out of the diet, are classic examples – but it also ran right down to the root assumptions of the whole movement. The core idiom of modern industrial society, after all, is the replacement of human capacities with gaudy technological crutches; we buy cars as substitutes for feet, televisions as substitutes for imagination, and so on.

Physical culture focused instead on developing the innate, extraordinary capacities hardwired into the human individual. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a great many people were deeply concerned about the consequences of human dependence on an industrial technostructure, that was an exhilarating prospect, and it’s no accident that the most famous stunts of the more colorful physical culturists very often took the form of an unassisted human body accomplishing some feat usually left to machines. These days most of us have surrendered to the technostructure so completely that we try to avoid thinking of the downside of that surrender, and spectacles that astonished and delighted our great-grandparents make today’s audiences uncomfortable and bored. How many people would turn out nowadays to watch the Mighty Atom tie horseshoes into knots? We’ve all seen fancier things done with CGI, and CGI allows us to avoid the awkward and quite explicit subtext of the Mighty Atom’s demonstrations, which was that anybody who was willing to do the necessary work could accomplish the same thing – or, for that matter, very nearly anything else.

That brings up the third reason why Jack Lalanne had to be presented as a unique, eccentric, and therefore harmless figure, rather than the last major public exponent of a movement that invited everyone’s participation. His accomplishments, like those of the great physical culturists before him, depended on something utterly unmentionable in contemporary industrial culture. It’s more strictly tabooed than sex or death or the total dependence of today’s middle-class American lifestyles on Third World slave labor. Yes, we’re talking about self-discipline.

It’s an interesting wrinkle of history that imperial societies in decline normally fear what’s left of their virtues far more than they fear their vices. James Francis’ useful 1994 study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how Rome’s rulers found the reasoned self-discipline taught by Stoic and Platonic philosophies an unendurable challenge to their authority. You can find similar conflicts in the history of imperial China, the Muslim world, or, really, wherever the decline of imperial states is well enough documented. The reason behind these conflicts is simple enough: people who are ruled by their passions and appetites can be ruled just as efficiently by any political system willing to pander to those things, while those who control themselves can’t reliably be controlled by anyone else. Thus the Roman government regularly sent Rome’s philosophers into exile, failing Chinese dynasties praised Confucius to the skies while doing away with anybody who took his teachings too seriously, and modern America uses every trick in the media’s book to marginalize those who remind us that the life of a channel-surfing couch potato might not express the highest potentials of our humanity.

The taboo on self-discipline in contemporary America is all the more intriguing because just at the moment, sadomasochism has become the hottest new fad on the American left. Connoisseurs of the return of the repressed have much to appreciate in the spectacle of a subculture that claims to place an absolute value on human equality, but is busily getting its rocks off by acting out fantasies in which male dominance and female submission are far and away the most popular themes. Still, I suspect that part of what set this fad in motion is an inchoate but widespread sense that there are whole worlds of human possibility that can’t be reached by drifting along aimlessly and doing whatever seems easiest at the moment. Those who have that sense and are unable to conceive of self-mastery inevitably seek masters elsewhere; we will be very fortunate indeed if that quest goes no further than latex lingerie and a fashion for wearing leather collars.

However that process works out, though, Jack Lalanne and the movement that gave him his context have another lesson to teach that will be of key importance in the decades to come. The replacement of human capacities with technological crutches that provides industrial society with its central idiom depends utterly on the ability of industrial society to keep itself fueled with the energy resources that keep those crutches powered, supplied with spare parts, and replaced when they break down. As we move further into the twilight space beyond the world peak of conventional petroleum production, the ability to keep those resources flowing as abundantly as current expectations demand is coming into question. Those nations with the power to push their way to the head of the petroleum feeding trough are doing so with even more alacrity than before, while those shoved back to the end of the line are increasingly facing crippling energy shortages. Within nations, those classes and pressure groups with a similar preponderance of power are behaving in much the same way, with similar results.

The instinctive response to these struggles is generally to get right down there into the mud-wrestling pit and fight for a share. A more effective strategy, though, might well take the opposite tack. When a resource is depleting and no plausible replacement for it is in sight, staying dependent on that resource is a fool’s game; even if you win this round, sooner or later you’re going to lose, and time that could have been spent learning to function without the resource has been wasted floundering around in the mud. Phase out your dependence on the resource before you have to do so, recognizing that the actual requirements of human existence are quite modest and can be met in many different ways, and you put yourself in a much better position for the future.

Over the weeks to come, as this blog returns to the nitty gritty of the Green Wizards project, we’ll be discussing various ways to cut back on dependence on fossil fuels and the goods and services they provide. Much of the material to be covered in the posts to come will involve tools and devices of various kinds – most of them cheap, many of them suited to basement-workshop manufacture, all of them means toward a certain degree of independence from the vagaries of an industrial civilization that faces a rising spiral of crises and an increasing lack of ability to provide its inhabitants with the goods and services they have become used to getting from it. Still, it’s too often forgotten that the vast majority of the energy and technology most of us use each day goes to provide support of various kinds for an individual human body and mind. If that body and mind require less support from outside their own boundaries, there’s less need for the energy and technology in the first place. When every other source of power runs short, that’s the power that remains.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you ought to break out the Indian clubs and kettlebells and download a couple of old physical culture manuals off the internet, or for that matter pick up an old Jack Lalanne book or two, though I certainly wouldn’t discourage anybody who chooses to do this; there’s a certain definite attraction, after all, in the prospect of reaching one’s nineties with the kind of physique and vitality that most thirty-year-olds only dream about. What it means, rather, is that a certain capacity to cope with physical challenges, take over responsibility for your own health, and get by comfortably in most situations without a great deal of technological assistance, are all useful items in the toolkit of anyone who hopes to face the difficult years ahead with any degree of efficiency and grace. How you choose to pursue that is up to you, but however you do it, if you do it, I suspect that Sandow, Stebbins, the Mighty Atom, and all their sturdy peers – Jack Lalanne very much among them – would be pleased.


George said...
Mr. J. M. Greer,
I am reading The Ecotechnic Future
and I agree with many of your ideas, although I do not think the Christians do not know how to interpret the Bible.
I am not a Christian, but nobody knows if Jesus will come back very soon.
I look forward to read:
The Wealth of Nature.

1/26/11, 10:53 PM

Ian said...
Great post! I grew up thinking (because of my father) that Jack Lalanne was the paragon of what it meant to be actually fit, rather than muscle-bound from a gym.

I'm wondering how what you wrote interfaces with two things. The fist is the sub-sub-culture of feats of physical strength like that of the great atom mixed with fundamentalist Christian ideology. If you look on youtube you can find quite a few examples of big men ripping phone books apart to show the strength of God's love for us all and similar, um, analogies one might say to be polite.

The other thing that is often left out in most ideas of independence, be it physical, mental, spiritual, or what have you, is our responsibility to each other. It's all well and good to try to free one's self from society's tyranny, but if we don't take helping those around us as a central part of any good life, we've internalized one of the central toxic messages of our culture, that of self-centered, got-mine-where's-yours-ism. Thoughts?

1/26/11, 11:01 PM

Kieran O'Neill said...
On the topic of fitness in the United States, I saw a fairly disturbing obesity infographic from the CDC the other day (showing trends from 1985 to today):

As for the BDSM scene, my impression is that the scene itself is far less gender biased than you've portrayed (though the mainstream side of it may be a bit more male-dominant). I'll buy your argument about submissives getting into it out of a need for discipline.

Anyway, I eagerly await the coming posts on hand tools!

1/26/11, 11:02 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Another great thought-provoking post JMG. I suppose that if, as seems likely, the availability of desk jobs tails off, combined with an increasing need for human labour (i.e. muscle power) a lot of people are going to find things a bit tough.

I took on a labouring job about three years ago, working on a building site mixing cement and that kind of thing. Before then I'd had only desk jobs and, although it was a strain at first, I soon became a lot fitter and tougher. I'd be very physically tired at the end of each day and slept like a baby. I loved it.

Also, the feeling of accomplishment was much greater. I remember building a stone wall from 'waste' rocks that had been dumped in a ravine by highway building contractors - it was the first actual real solid thing I had ever been paid to make (prior to that I had been (don't laugh) an energy trader at a big company (no, not Enron, but almost)

I'm not saying that things will necessarily be 'better' if we all give up our desk jobs - many people would face awful challenges. I was lucky in that I had a good boss and was working on 'eco' projects, rather than industrial building sites.

As an aside, here in Denmark - and I'm pretty sure it is the same in the US - there is a craze for power tools which means that almost any job can be done with the minimum of effort. I was astonished recently to see that, seemingly overnight, everyone at the local allotment had diesel powered wheelbarrows, complete with 4WD and gearboxes. Now, I'm sure that these can be very useful things, but I couldn't help notice that most of them were being used to move hedge cuttings.

Whatever next, I wonder.

1/26/11, 11:58 PM

Ruben said...
When I was a teenager I found a set of Indian Clubs in a thrift shop. I had a woodworker turn me a third, to make a beautiful set of juggling clubs with a wickedly fast spin and and a painful incentive to not fumble.

1/27/11, 12:04 AM

Kevin said...
I remember as a small child watching Jack Lalanne on live TV do some incredibly difficult looking pushups, with every agonizing rep dropping his chest far down between two chairs on which his hands rested, all while looking and sounding as if he were loving every moment of it. He was impressive indeed, and every able-bodied person would do well to develop his attitude toward rigorous exercise. I'm sure I will one of these days.

"All the power that is or ever was is here now," astrologer and radio host Caroline Casey likes to remark. Which is very encouraging, but I presume she's talking about magical and spiritual power, not the sort that comes from the socket or from coal-fired power plants.

You may be aware that Gore Vidal has often referred to the USA as "the United States of Amnesia." I can think of a good example of this even from within my own lifetime. Last year I came across a splashy coffee table book about the 1960s that purported to tell modern youth what it was all about. Only the authors seemed to have overlooked the fact that, for instance, at that time many young people became involved in sex. Also they apparently never heard that a lot of folks back then often consumed certain exotic mind-altering substances. They didn't seem to think gay lib or the Stonewall rebellion worth mentioning. The prevalence of hitchhiking in the youth culture was likewise unmentioned. These rather large omissions left only a palatable patina of civil rights, anti-Vietnam war protests (with no reference or comparison to current wars of course), middle class-seeming communes, apparently drug-free be-ins, feminism, ecology, folk music and guru-fandom-lite: a sanitized history scrubbed clean of awkward facts that might give young folks funny ideas, and of course putting it all safely and inaccessibly in a past populated by people wearing quaintly colorful eccentric clothes.

Self-discipline: oh dear. That's going to take some work. Time to get down to it.

1/27/11, 2:19 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Interesting. A mate of mine is quite proud that he earns his living from desk work. No disrespect to those that do, as I am also one of those although not on the same schedule as everyone else. He is now into his early 40's, quite portly and abhors manual labour (he is a Spanish bullfighter, is he not? hehe!). Actually, I came across someone a few years ago that was proud of not being able to put together an IKEA bookcase.

Seriously though, I've been building my own house over the past 2 years (almost finished!) and it is physically hard. You also have to be able to plan ahead which is not something that I see in the general population. People always say to me, "yeah, we built our own house too and picking the tiles was really stressful". What they actually mean is that they engaged a builder to do it for them. Tiles are the least of my problems...

Mmmm, self discipline and planning. I received a large dose of this whilst young. I left home as early as possible and put myself through part time university (whilst working full time) to get a degree (over 8 years and completed with honours plus another 2 1/2 years for a post grad). Nothing quite teaches you self discipline like having to make the conscious decision to study when all of your mates are partying away and you live in a house where it's also going off tap. Fun times though and I wouldn't change the path that I chose!

Around here there are plenty of opportunities for walks through the bush. I've noticed something about people. If they see me, they'll accelerate to overtake me and then race on ahead. At the end of the walk though, they are knocked out and I'd be surprised if they could do the same walk the following day. Multi day walks are even stranger, day 3 is the killer.

I reckon it may have something to do with the culture of immediacy that we seem to live in. Try growing some fruit or vegetables and you have to start thinking long term. It's becoming a lost art. If your life depended on it you would take it very seriously.

Good luck!

1/27/11, 2:31 AM

Siani said...
I regard my collection of draw knives, spoke shaves, box planes, blacksmith tools and scythes to be some of my best possessions. I got them at flea markets and tag sales for the most part, and cheaply too. I do use them too.

As for exercise; I came to the conclusion some time ago that the best form for me was what I would do naturally anyway if I did not have the tech in the first place; hiking, walking, and related activities. I add dance in for fun, or even playing music. Activity.

A touch of discipline in the foods department helped.

Excellent post.

1/27/11, 4:28 AM

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...
Not so much a comment on this post, but hopes for the future ones.

Oats are an old staple food. They are relatively easy to grow, harvest, and thresh. The difficulty is that each kernel has a husk that has to be removed.

If you can find any information on a basement workshop oat huller, that would be most appreciated.


1/27/11, 4:34 AM

Thijs Goverde said...
Heh. I've only been following the blog for a few weeks, and I've been feeling a bit guilty about not spending nearly enough time on my garden and my home and my skills related to those two. Instead, I've been indulging in my hobbies - mostly capoeira - and along comes this post... Yay exercise! Yay exercise that uses no fancy gym apparatuses!
I may have been doing the right thing all along!
Of course, capoeira isn't just physical exercise. My teacher wants me to study Portuguese and play the berimbau.
I'll just be patient. Maybe there'll be a post someday on why those skills are vitally important. Waiting is.

... or maybe I should trust my own judgement?
Oh dear.
Now there's a revolutionary concept.
And I think I'm speaking in the spirit of your excellent post when I say I really do mean 'revolutionary'.

1/27/11, 4:48 AM

JimK said...
A great window into some forgotten physical culture history is Robert Love's recent book, _The Great Oom_, a biography of Pierre Bernard, whose scene really blossomed in the late 1920s through the mid-1930s. Bernard was promoting yoga, but the scale of his operation is stunning. Start with seven circus elephants and still your imagination will have a hard time fathoming it.

With two feet of snow on the ground my bicycling these days is limited to the basement stationary cycle. I watch videos while I pedal - tempering my self-discipline with a little… well, I try to make it a bit educational. I was watching the 1934 film "Man of Aran" yesterday. It's a wonderful look at life without fossil fuels and without too generous an environment. Those people looked really strong!

1/27/11, 5:13 AM

lancemfoster said...
I remember watching Jack LaLanne as a little kid in California on TV and learning jumping jacks and pushups from him. He was not macho or surly, but was dynamic and friendly even from a little kid's eyes.

I would add another factor to why the media is touting him as "the first" to teach Americans about fitness: Television. He was the first figure on national television to do so.

Today, many people seem to act like nothing existed before television. Television is the beginning of "reality" for many. I see this framing of reality around media and technology in the community college classes I teach, when students are astonished that I don't have a cell phone or even want one. They can't understand how I can exist without one. Most also have no clue how to begin researching something without the Internet.

When you mention people's apathy, boredom, lack of excitement about REAL LIFE physical feats, that CGI in superhero, fighting, action, and/or martial arts movies can easily surpass in effects, and which
therefore become the new standard for what people "can do," this of course also reminds me of something else: Magic.

One could easily argue that LaLanne, Sandow, and the others were true magicians in their ability to create changes in the real world, including their own bodies, through will and self-discipline.

1/27/11, 5:18 AM

tickmeister said...
I spread 20 tons of manure with a pitchfork last fall, will do at least that much more soon as it thaws again. Not sure why I am prone to that sort of thing, may have absorbed it from my father. We did a lot of things in a somewhat primitive way as I was growing up. We were the last people I knew who picked our corn by hand in the 1960's.

I do not claim this as a virture, I do it because I want to. There is joy to be found in physical labor if the mindset is right. Putting 20 or 30 tons of hay in a barn by hand or spitting a couple of cords of wood leads to physical exhaustion, but to me it carries the same reward as exhausting myself in a basketball game or a tennis match.

I read somewhere that accountants cannot ever understand farming. They put the labor in the cost column when it should properly go in the profit.

1/27/11, 5:28 AM

Jason said...
Yes, is pretty much what I have to say to all that! I see this a lot -- people watch very fit people doing amazing things on TV, and the subtext is always how little chance the average person has got of doing any similar monster-slaying.

It's not all downside. The number of people who don't really give a stuff what the mainstream view is seems to be growing, here in the UK anyhow. Kids are far from lost causes, and they go from reading manga and playing D&D to doing chi kung... not that mainstream media would acknowledge the value of any of this of course. But self-reliance is indeed stressed in many versions of heroism that run through pop culture. The Lord of the Rings movies were not quite panem et circenses, and set some wheels turning. So the message isn't unadulterated "Sofa So Good." :)

1/27/11, 5:37 AM

Wandering Sage said...
Thanks for this post. It is much in need of being said. Having the self discipline to do what is necessary physically to stay in shape is severly lacking in our society.
As a martial artist who trained 4 hours a day for three years in Japan back in the 80s pushing yourself (or being pushed) out of your comfort zone challenged both your mental and physical abilities.
Today most people won't stand for a karate class that calls for enough repetitions to make your muscles ache.

The muscles in the body respond to what we ask of them. If we start a program of weight lifting, at first our muscles have difficulty, but soon they realize we are asking more of them and they grow stronger.
The body adapts to the demands we place on it. The demands of a couch potato are to remain numb to the feelings of the body and hope to stay distracted by the mindlessness the television feeds them.


1/27/11, 5:40 AM

GHung said...
I met Jack Lalanne, (I was about 7 years old, he was in his mid 40's), on an Atlanta kid's TV show called "The Popeye Club". I recall that his arms were like twisted ropes, his funny voice sounded different than it did on the TV, almost elvish, and he had more energy than all of the kids in the studio combined. We were amazed by how many exercises one could do with a simple wooden chair.

I remember asking myself: Why do all of that work when all that Popeye needs is a handy can of spinach?

1/27/11, 5:43 AM

nutty professor said...
I most enjoy your revisionist posts, and I always learn a lot from the sources and books you recommend.

I did not know that Lalane had passed. I recall his exercise shows on black and white television when I was a kid.

I think that the topic of self-discipline is a useful pivot with which to think about spirituality/religion (both Christianity and the alternatives), especially with respect to the history of bodily regimens, and where it all stands in the post industrial culture in which we find ourselves. You are one of the few people I know who can pull all of these threads together. thanks!

1/27/11, 6:09 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Every year at this season, I think about all the people around here who heat with firewood. Most of them seem to feel that they are "making do for themselves" by doing so; it is also cheaper per BTU than local electricity even if you pay other people to do all the dirty work. Still, I doubt that very many of these people have ever contemplated the extent to which they are really heating their houses with gasoline, not wood -- gasoline in the chain saws, power splitters, and trucks. I wonder if they have ever passed a thought to what this would (will) be like with cross-cut saws, axes, mauls, wedges, and hand-pulled carts. Suddenly it's not so "cheap" anymore. I wonder if anyone even knows where to get or how to fabricate a cross-cut saw anymore, much less forge an axe head?

Of course the "old ways" have their challenges too. The patch of regrowing woods I have had my eyes on for years for starting my experiments in coppicing has been raided by beavers and reduced to pungee sticks. So I have accomplished my first lesson: Don't plan your coppice near the creek!

Modern "fitness" has gone much farther away from the "physical culture" than just fad diets and expensive contraptions. My octogenarian mother has knee problems, and after having a bionic knee installed (at great expense to the taxpayers) she has finally been persuaded by her doctors, physical therapists, and son (i.e. me) that she needs to engage in a regular exercise discipline. Of course the only way this was going to happen was if I did it with her, so we got a membership in our local small-town gym and we go three times a week. Most of the "contraptions" are really very simple machines with just some levers, pivots, and pulleys, really not particularly high tech -- similar devices could be easily made from wood, rope, and big rocks. And a fair number of the guys (all guys, 100% male) who spend time in the rear room with the weights still do the old-standby basic moves that are direct muscle-pushing-big-heavy-pieces-of-steel-around. But as I have spent more time there and gotten more in to the chatter, the real sad techno-syntho side of all this has become apparent. Even here in a town of a few thousand people in an impoverished rural area, steroid use is rampant. Some of the high school football players have been taking them since they were 15 years old; most of them seem to have used the 'roids at some point. ALL the "big guys" with the traps that strain their shirts and arms the size of my legs seem to be juicers -- curiously, these unnaturally huge arms usually have christian tattoos on them -- 'roids for Jesus? If I could get the similar secrets of the young women on the cardio machines, I fear I would hear equally disturbing tales of potentially-lethal supplements and eating disorders. The all-pervasive social attitude is very clear: self-discipline is for wimps. Results are the only thing that matter, and you get these from a bottle.

1/27/11, 7:20 AM

Conchscooter said...
What a brilliant commentary. I have been working hard to lose weight and get fit and I in fact use simple dumbells, kitchen steps and effort to get fit. I ma lighter than I have been in decades and run up stairs like a man half my age. My belt is ridiculously, embarrasingly long for my new waist. All done without recourse to gym memberships or fancy tools.
Tnaks for helping me reconnect with another aspect of the simplicity required in this Long Emergency.

1/27/11, 7:20 AM

Luciddreams said...
about cheap tools and autonomy. I've been experimenting with lactofermentation lately with the help of Sandor Katz's "Wild Fermentation" and Sally Fallon's "Nourishing Traditions". One of the things that's needed is an object to help smash the juices out of whatever you are fermenting. As well as a crock, mason jar, or any container suitable. I have found that using fermentation is very empowering and magical. Alchemy comes to mind. Seems like a very symbolic activity for a Green Wizard and has become one that I have fallen in love with. I'd love to hear you blog about the finer intricacies of the symbolism behind the ancient practice of using microorganisms to one's advantage.

1/27/11, 7:37 AM

Lynford1933 said...
Of course there is Angelo Siciliano aka Charles Atlas and his Dynamic Tension program which will keep guys from kicking sand on you and your girlfriend.

1/27/11, 7:45 AM

eatclosetohome said...
Rereading the Laura Ingalls books recently, I was struck by the physical tasks they considered "normal." In _The Long Winter_, it was a sign of Pa's emaciated, starved state that he had trouble lifting a 125lb bag of wheat to his shoulder.

I have trouble moving a 50lb bag off the floor, let alone to my shoulder, and I haven't been starving half the winter. :/

1/27/11, 8:27 AM

Loveandlight said...
Very good points all. The situation of relying on technological gee-gaws has become so bad, we now need our smartphones to think for us and communicate with one another. Tragic.

1/27/11, 8:34 AM

marku said...
"sadomasochism has become the hottest new fad on the American left. "

This left me hopelessly confused. As a card carrying member of the American Left, I have no idea what you are referring to. Maybe some New York trendy Art Scene deal? the sadomasochism I am aware of is from the first person shooter video games that seem universally popular with way too many...

1/27/11, 9:08 AM

Robo said...
I was not previously aware of the scope and detail of the physical culture movement, but immediately conjured up a vision of an 1890's circus strongman with handlebar mustaches and hair parted in the middle, twirling a barbell over his head with one hand.

Aside from the media's lazy habit of only paying attention to obsolete celebrities on the day they die, Jack Lalanne's history was indeed presented as if he were just another benign oddball; a relic of a quaint and innocent time, like Liberace. The full historical context of his life and career would have taken valuable time to research and recount. It's easiest just to toss Jack into the memory hole for one last quick burst of flame and then move on.

As you point out, Lalanne was living proof of the personal empowerment and happiness that plain old physical fitness can bring to anyone with the discipline to maintain it. Aside from the purchase of a few books or the faithful viewing of his TV programs, no special equipment, clothing, dietary supplements or health club memberships were necessary to benefit from his methods. All it took was old-fashioned hard work and persistence; just like stoop labor on the farm, clearing the sidewalk with a shovel and driving nails with a hammer. Pretty dull stuff for our plugged-in consumer culture today. Very low tech. There's no app for it. No 'i' or 'e' anything.

Speaking of the memory hole, a few weeks past we watched the 1984 film version of "1984". I am reminded here of the scene in which Winston Smith is obliged every morning to do rigorous calisthenics under the pitiless gaze of the Telescreen. The female fitness instructor, clad in a plain jumpsuit, barks out personal admonishments to Smith in a severe and critical tone. It's physical fitness as abusive drudgery. She's a G.I. Jane Fonda and an anti Jack Lalanne.

Assuming that the telescreens remain in operation, that could be one way to keep demoralized couch potatoes moving in a dystopian future. A more likely way to stay fit in years to come might simply involve regular and vigorous hoeing of long rows of the old-fashioned kind of potato.

1/27/11, 9:09 AM

Ann said...
This is such an excellent example of the political and cultural implications of our culture's drive to de-historicize, from an unlikely source. I would never have made any sort of connection between Lalanne and the aims of this blog.

I'm confused by the mention of BDSM, though, which seems somewhat irrelevant. Out of economic necessity, I worked for a while in an S&M "dungeon." Through talking with my clients, I came to the conclusion that BDSM is just a sexual preference, and generally a pretty mundane one at that, almost always without any deep psychological explanation or implication of any wider worldview.

My workplace's clientele were from across the socioeconomic spectrum and did not seem to be "lefty" types, at least as far as that is possible to discern from street clothes, style, speech, mannerisms, etc. And the majority of people who are interested in BDSM, whether as paying customers, at clubs, in personal ads, or elsewhere, are submissive men. The balance of gender is such that many women working in the industry convince themselves that their job has feminist implications, which I don't particularly think is the case.

1/27/11, 9:24 AM

escapefromwisconsin said...
Slate magazine had a fascinating article recently that touched on the physical culture movement of the nineteenth century, specifically the Dane F. W. Muller. You would find it interesting:

Forget about a pre-petroleum age, there is a movement afoot to go pre-agricultural, with people hearkening back all the way to our hunter-gatherer past. The New York Times has given it some coverage:
...although I find it amusing that dwellers of one of the largest cities in the world with every modern convenience try to live like cavemen. Why not actually go live in a cave and hunt your own food, rather than buy it from a butcher? Why not go live like Daniel Suelo? It seems more like a cult or fad to me, and Americans are always looking for the next cult or fad (note this is in the Fashion and Style section). I doubt any of these self-described cavemen would last long among the !Kung San, Inuit or Yanomamo in a real jungle as opposed to the concrete variety. Still, maybe it is a positive sign. Unfortunately, it's obvious we all can't live like that.

By far the biggest contributor to our overall poor health is the fact that most of our jobs require us to sit motionless in from of a screen for eight hours a day, minimum. The human body wasn't meant to do that. There's increasing evidence that no amount of exercise can make up for that amount of inactivity-our office jobs are literally killing us, and there's nothing we can do about it. Physical labor jobs are in short supply, and these days, the conspiracy seems to be to make them pay too little to survive. It seems the more sedentary you are, the more you get paid, and the higher your status. How can we break away from the cublicle and still provide for ourselves?

1/27/11, 9:29 AM

EBrown said...
This post made me think of an old documentary called "Gizmo". It has many funny shots of silly gizmos like flying machine that flap, and it included a section of physicalists performing feats of strength like a man pulling an ocean-liner into dock with his teeth. All in all an entertaining and enlightening little doc.

I think Lalane's great longevity most likely had to do with his diet. Eschewing processed foods goes a long way toward allowing a body to fulfill its potential. I'd also like to point out that we have a dogmatic belief in the USA that if one is obese and couch-bound it is the latter that caused the former. This is not well supported by the evidence. Much more likely is that obesity and generalized physical torpor are caused by the same mechanism - disregulated fat cells. In a body where much caloric intake is promptly shunted into fat storage there is less left to promote healthy behaviors like exercising and taking an extra flight of stair.

I used to think people who were overweight had some moral weakness that thankfully I skipped past. Now I think that the only reason I'm not defined as a "chronic overeater" is that I'm thin. I believe that I'm not a couch potato because my fat metabolism is normal and my internal environment leaves enough circulating energy molecules to fuel an active lifestyle.

1/27/11, 9:30 AM

William said...
I really like your observation that people with self-discipline are not so readily controlled by others. And people who commit their future paychecks to car, house, TV payments are then enslaved to their employer in an increasingly harsh employment environment. Harsh because so little of what we produce is actually useful, like food, tools, small wind and water turbines,...Very often, I have heard, "I have no choice but to keep working for [this awful employer]." One always has a choice; it is not necessarily between palatable and unpalatable, of course.

1/27/11, 9:34 AM

Brad said...
"...people who are ruled by their passions and appetites can be ruled just as efficiently by any political system willing to pander to those things, while those who control themselves can’t reliably be controlled by anyone else."

Is this perhaps why there are throngs in the streets of Tunis and Cairo but not New Your or Milwaukee?

1/27/11, 10:19 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
I passed on commenting on the BDSM stuff first time around, but since others have addressed it quizzically...

I think this may primarily be a feature of the straight neopagan community and the gay male community, not so much a widespread phenomenon within the mainstream straight community. But in those circles it can be a real annoyance (to say the least) if it is not your particular bag. If one is an aficionado of gay erotica one can be hard pressed to find some that does not include dom/sub games, humiliation, and verbal abuse (including language that if it were uttered by a straight man might land him in court on hate crime charges). In the neopagan world I have found myself exclaiming "Sheesh, doesn't anyone just #^@& anymore?!" with all these scenes, frequently dom/sub, more often than not female sub to male dom. And it's not just scenes and games, there are plenty of long-term master/slave relationships in these circles. And all the highly codified terminology and structures! Forgive me, JMG, but sometimes it seems to me that the BDSM world is an Asperger's convention!

Here is one test of how this is seeping into the mainstream culture, though. I first heard the following joke probably 17 years ago, at which time very few people got it. Now if you tell it in a gathering of the mainstream NPR liberal left, quite a number of people will laugh or groan at it and rather few will be puzzling out "Huh? I don't get it..." The joke is:

Why did Jesus die on the cross?

He forgot his safe word.

Do you get it now? Would you have gotten it in 1995? Have you already heard it so many times before that you are bored with it?

1/27/11, 10:29 AM

John Michael Greer said...
George, I wouldn't lose any sleep over it.

Ian, the Mighty Atom was an observant orthodox Jew; it so happens that the kind of self-discipline that makes for effective strength training often meshes well with devout religious beliefs, though of course there were plenty of physical culturists who didn't combine the two. As for helping others, that's actually a complex issue, with pathologies on all sides. How responsible are we, for example, for those who refuse to be responsible for themselves?

Kieran, I'm not a participant in the scene, so I'll take your word for it; all I know is what I've seen as an outsider.

Jason, diesel wheelbarrows? Good gods.

Ruben, good!

Kevin, Casey's quote is from occultist Paul Foster Case, and Case didn't simply mean it in a magical sense: when he said "all power," he meant all. I wasn't familiar with the Vidal quote, which is great -- many thanks for that.

Cherokee, there's still a lot of the old contempt for manual labor out there; my guess is that those who cling to that attitude too firmly will be facing the wrong end of Darwinian selection.

Siani, I'm as glad to have my stash of cheap functional hand tools!

Greg, have you raised that question on the Green Wizards forum?

Thijs, capoeira is pretty much the coolest martial art in existence, and I say this as a longtime practitioner of t'ai chi ch'uan. When I lived in Oregon, the sifu I studied with taught in a public park 52 weeks a year, rain, shine or a foot of snow on the ground; there were some capoeiristas who used to practice near us sometimes, and a bit of a mutual admiration society developed. They thought our sword forms were neat; we were all envious of their backflips and the berimbau music.

Jim, no argument there -- Bernard overlapped between the physical culture scene and the American occult scene, both of which have been erased from our cultural memory (the latter even among today's occultists). Anybody who can go around calling himself Oom the Omnipotent has my respect!

1/27/11, 10:56 AM

William Hunter Duncan said...

I recently attended a late night industrial dance club, my first. Influenced by what I've seen on video, I was shocked by the relative lethargy, the near total lack of vigor. Half were standing around, affecting cool. Only a few could let go.

Nearly every day, I dance in the solitude of my home. I give myself permission to move to any beat. At 37, there wasn't a kid in that joint who could match me, despite that I have no formal training as a dancer. I dance primarily for joy, the energy of the beat flowing through me. That it keeps me fit is a nice side-effect, not the goal.

I remember a story about the guitar player who went to an African village. Everyone in the village was singing and dancing. He sat on a log, playing his guitar. They asked him to sing along. He said, "I don't sing." They asked him to dance. He said "I don't dance." They all stopped and looked at him and asked, "Why?" and then they proceeded to show him again, that everyone can dance, everyone can sing; though he could not see.

1/27/11, 11:00 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Lance, good. There was in fact a lot of very conscious overlap between physical culture and practical occultism of various kinds.

Tickmeister, you may not claim it as a virtue, but Epictetus would have disagreed.

Jason, that's good to hear!

Sage, true enough. The thing that keeps most people nowadays from accomplishing much of anything is the stark terror of being even a little uncomfortable!

GHung, did you ever try the spinach trick?

Professor, you're welcome.

Bill, true enough; I didn't have space in the post to get into 'roids, America's diet mania, or the '50s shift in exercise techniques from those that actually build strength to those that just build useless mass, which are standard today.

Conch, excellent.

Lucid, I'll consider it!

Lynford, I almost included a reference to the proverbial 95 pound weakling in the post!

Eat, exactly. Most people these days have no idea just how feeble modern people are compared to their great-grandparents.

Loveandlight, true enough.

Marku, hmm. It may be more localized than I thought. Well, nobody ever claimed that archdruids are infallible.

Robo, 1984 metaphors come easily to mind when dealing with American culture these days!

Ann, that's interesting. I've met a lot of ardent feminists and social justice types who are busy in the BDSM scene as collared submissives in their off hours.

Escape, I want to see them living in a cave and feasting on grubs!

EBrown, Gizmo is a great little documentary! It's got five minutes or so of the Mighty Atom near the beginning, too, taken from old newsreel footage.

1/27/11, 11:12 AM

John Michael Greer said...
William, good. You're quite correct, of course; there are almost always choices available, it's simply a matter of what you're strong enough to give up in order to take them.

Brad, excellent. You get today's gold star.

Bill, that might explain a thing or two, since I have a lot of contact with the pagan scene, of course.

1/27/11, 11:15 AM

Jim Brewster said...
Had my own dose of physical culture the last few days. Tuesday morning, 6:15 am I discovered a flat tire on the family Honda CRV. As I suspected it was the result of working at a steel mill where random pieces of metal are part of the sifting sediment over which I must drive. Also was the reason I had no spare, since the previously punctured tire was sitting unrepaired in the spare rack. (I know, stupid! D'oh!) Anyway, the derelict minivan in our driveway has very good tires to match the CRV, only problem is the rims don't fit, (another D'oh!) so brought to the shop two flats on Honda rims and two good tires on Ford rims and had them swapped, brought them home and rotated them so best tires were on front of CRV. All in all involved 5 jack operations 6 lug-loosenings, and 6 lug-tightenings ( or something like that...) Why didn't I just call a tow truck and gotten new tires? I'm too cheap I guess, but I also saw those van tires as an available resource that wasn't being used, and the physical toil helped take my mind off the stress of the situation, and felt a heck of a lot better than waiting for the service department to open.

As a sideline, DW asked "what about when we want to get rid of the van." I replied we'll find tires when we need them, then added, more seriously than she suspects, that I thought it would make a good chicken coop and/or greenhouse. (It's already pretty useful for storage).

If that wasn't enough, we had a load of heavy snow overnight, and our power was out for several hours. Nobody panicked, but we thought about what we had and didn't have as a result (hot water but no furnace, range top but no oven, etc. Definitely not comfortable, but muddling was a possibility, and highlighted weaknesses in our preparedness -- service has been very reliable here.)

Anyway, my father-in-law thinks I'm crazy for hand-shovelling a 100' driveway while he uses a snow-blower for his 20' (he's in pretty good shape BTW). My thought, literally, is "f... that noise, give me a good shovel!" There is something about the rhythm of physical labor, whether it's sodbusting, mowing with a push (reel) mower, raking leaves, or shovelling snow that is very relaxing and invigorating, and that gives me some hope that muddling through in the long haul won't be so bad...

1/27/11, 11:31 AM

kjmclark said...
"...allows us to avoid the awkward and quite explicit subtext of the Mighty Atom’s demonstrations, which was that anybody who was willing to do the necessary work could accomplish the same thing – or, for that matter, very nearly anything else."

For years I puzzled over the antagonism I get almost every day from motorists while I'm biking to work. You can get someone sitting behind you blasting their horn at you, when there's an empty and completely usable lane right next to it going in the same direction. They eventually use it, but only after yelling some expletives out their window.

Eventually I came to the conclusion you mention above. It offends them that someone is biking to work. I really think that part of that is the thought that if I can bike to work, they probably could to. They absolutely despise the thought that anything other than being effortlessly transported in comfort is possible, since that makes their transportation something of a luxury.

1/27/11, 11:59 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Greetings to all.

I have no real memories of Jack Lalane; but appreciate the idea of healthy living and self control.

In addition to self-discipline (always working on that!), other old Roman virtues: courage, integrity and steadfastness.

A culture that valued self-restraint would not remove mountain tops for coal?

A side note: Fitness culture in the UK was associated with healthy living, the outdoors life and the Fabians, and then morphed into showing the Germans that "our" youth was healthier, more manly, etc.

1/27/11, 12:12 PM

kjmclark said...
Bill wrote:
"Every year at this season, I think about all the people around here who heat with firewood. Most of them seem to feel that they are "making do for themselves" by doing so; it is also cheaper per BTU than local electricity even if you pay other people to do all the dirty work. Still, I doubt that very many of these people have ever contemplated the extent to which they are really heating their houses with gasoline, not wood -- gasoline in the chain saws, power splitters, and trucks. I wonder if they have ever passed a thought to what this would (will) be like with cross-cut saws, axes, mauls, wedges, and hand-pulled carts. Suddenly it's not so "cheap" anymore. I wonder if anyone even knows where to get or how to fabricate a cross-cut saw anymore, much less forge an axe head?"

Crosscut saws are actually a good bit of fun. The best place to get them is on eBay. I could probably almost make one if I had to, but I'd need a long piece of spring steel. No idea how to make that. And splitting with a maul is a lot less exercise than people seem to think. It's mostly a zen thing - moving the maul the same way every time, and concentrating on the spot you want to hit. I suppose it's also a bit of learning to read the wood, so you don't try to split across a knot. Actually, it's even cheaper when you're working with the hand tools, but you do have to enjoy doing some physical labor.

And the other side is, how much better off would all the people be who are heating their houses with gas, electricity, propane, or oil? At least the people heating with wood can see where their heat is coming from and could figure out how to do the rest of it if they had to.

1/27/11, 12:14 PM

Proletariat said...
Mr. Greer,

Thank you again for another delicious literary morsel of practical advice, generously seasoned with astute philosophical rumination. You are truly a blessing to those who recognize your value. May we all strive to be such blessings to our fellow beings in this ever unfolding universe.

As to physical culture, a friend and I have been talking/joking lately about developing a "garden yoga" excercise regimen. This system requires nothing more than the human body, augmented with simple farm implements like pitchforks, shovels, and wheel plows. Like traditional yoga, is a small, physical part of a much greater spiritual practice. There's nothing quite like cultivating mindfulness!

PS: Please forgive my multiple postings of a hasty screed a few weeks ago, which I later recognized to be neither concise nor relvant to the topic at hand. I will reserve such rants for a more appropriate forum--perhaps a discussion thread on the Green Wizards forum??

PPS: I am curious if there is a way to contact you directly about aquiring some of your printed material, especially that relating to the development of spiritual discipline and knowledge. Or should I just go ahead and purchase said material from Amazon? No disrespect to your publishers, but I try to cut out the middle man and establish personal connections wherever I can.

1/27/11, 12:26 PM

Kevin said...
Between Jack Lalanne and Oom the Omnipotent the ghost of Houdini must be hovering somewhere.

I have a suspicion not only about contemporary people's inferior strength and fitness as compared with prior generations, but also about our health generally. We moderns like to congratulate ourselves about our superior life expectancy, but my guess is that once you deduct for the infant and early childhood mortality which were common a century or more ago, we might not come out so far ahead.

I have also been suspecting for the past couple of years that American lifespans may be declining. Occasionally the mainstream media accidentally let slip some unpalatable truth, and sure enough a day or two ago Yahoo news posted a headline to this effect - carefully temporizing with qualifications about how it's accounted for by certain rare conditions that don't affect most people. But the bottom line is that our statistical life expectancy, arguably the most fundamental of all indices of well being, is on the way down.

1/27/11, 12:48 PM

Matt and Jess said...
This is all very normal in Colorado. We have people who'll go up and down Pikes Peak a few times per day, weather permitting. A good amount of people run or work out. I think the good weather and landscape really helps. Running doesn't necessarily give you the ability to plow a field, but it does come with a certain sense of discipline and a certain amount of obsessive insanity, from my experience anyway.

1/27/11, 12:48 PM

S said...
I wasn't going to comment on the BDSM thing either, for fear of being off topic, but it's a pretty near and dear thing for me, and it seems to be garnering attention...mostly, I just want to point out that there is nothing incongruous about being a feminist or social activist (or a green wizard!) as well as a submissive in the scene. Healthy BDSM is all about equality through consent; any sexual power dynamics that exist in a (healthy) kinky community are deliberately forged between consenting adults, rather than enforced by a broader culture. Where I live, there is TREMENDOUS overlap between the kink community and the "do it yourself" community; when we aren't getting together and screwing around, we're re-roofing one another's houses, working in gardens, sharing food canning tips, and making our own tools (including whips, floggers, and chains, of course!). So conflating the BDSM community with lack of self-discipline is a gross simplification, and could cause you to miss an entire subculture of potential allies!

1/27/11, 1:47 PM

Ana's Daughter said...
I've found it interesting that all of the women I know who are passionately dedicated to social justice --- to feminism, racial equality, the rights of sexual minorities, the rights of the disabled, etc --- are, in their private lives, submissives who are collared and owned by a male master. OK, I only know a small subset of female social justice activists, but it's still intriguing that there's not one exception.

As far as the fat-bashing that's going on in the comments here, let's get real please. A significant subset of the old time strong men were not chiseled perfect bodied Eugen Sandow clones; they were fat men. Obese men, in fact. Consider Louis Cyr, who tipped the scales at 315 lbs and stood 5' 8 1/2", yet could carry a Percheron horse around a farmer's field on his shoulders; or Emil Nauck, the German strongman who could lift a railroad car over his head and who weighed 500 lbs. Look at their pictures. They weren't just muscular, they were definitely fat.

It's perfectly possible to be fat and still be strong and active. If you insist on equating obesity with sloth, inactivity, and poor health, then I dare you to say that, face to face, with a sumo wrestler.

1/27/11, 1:55 PM

Ana's Daughter said...
Oh, and I forgot to mention: it's a crying shame that Jack LaLanne has been replaced by the Wii Fit.

1/27/11, 1:58 PM

Richard Larson said...
Getting rocks off?!? You can't be more specific...:-)

Right, my grandfather, who, along with the strictest belief in hard work, also taught my younger self how to distinguish what mushrooms were edible. Wild berries and how to make chokecherry wine. The deliciousness of wild frogs and crayfish. Picking 'night' crawlers and how to catch, prepare, and smoke fish. Skin a rabbit. When to plant garlic bulbs. Plus many other tricks to a simple life, that was really great fun, and much exorcise, for a young boy.

Not that any of this is lost art, or some secret hoarded by trolls, but that most people living a modern life are just not interested.

I'm interested, and I want to learn more!

1/27/11, 2:30 PM

Astrid said...

My father, who will be turning 90 this year, grew up in a farming community in Europe.

Recently, he told me that one of his jobs when he was 12 years old was to plow the field with a horse, a chore that took an entire day. I wonder how many adults could do that nowadays, let alone a 12 year old?

Of course the discipline required to such work stemmed from the old adage "If you don't work, you don't eat" a strong motivator indeed!

1/27/11, 3:00 PM

Harry J. Lerwill said...
I’m fascinated by subcultures and the subtle reflection they give to the subconscious of society. I believe you’ve commented previously on the new age subculture and the possibility that the next major religion may have its seeds in the present trends of ‘paganism.’ I often chat to people about what drew them towards a subculture.
New members of our local “Widow’s Sons” bike group (a Masonic organization) tend to join because they’ve bought a bike as a way of cutting transportation costs or beating traffic. Very few are buying the larger bikes and joining the culture for the classic themes of open roads and easy riding. They bought the bike to save money but join for the socialization. A few years ago, the members were much more inclined to be riding purely for the joy of it. Now they’re more likely to gather to chat and socialize than to partake in a weekend road trip.
The roleplaying community (table top gaming, another interesting subculture) has far more fantasy than science fiction games going on at present. Fantasy often reflects a desire to escape from the pressures of the moment, whereas science fiction reflects hopes for the future. Like the sales of books in the genre, science fiction does well when the hopes for the future are positive, whereas fantasy sales do better (in comparison) when people are struggling.
When I look at the sadomasochistic (BDSM) communities I don’t see an influx of people who lean predominantly (sorry, could not resist) to the left. Over the last year, there seems to be an influx of a younger generation who are disillusioned with politics altogether. I don’t know whether a feeling of political impotence is an underlying factor in their seeking alternative lifestyles, but some I have talked to seem almost desperate to have an area of their life that is not subject to the forces beyond their control. With some, it seems an act, an artificial personality that hides the underlying fear and insecurity that, having been the same age at the end of the Thatcher/Reagan years, I can relate to. I hate pointing out that it will not be getting better anytime soon for their generation.
The younger crowd tends to be strongly Dominate male/submissive female whereas older people appearing on the ‘scene’ tend to be men searching for dominant women, in particular older males seeking humiliation. Both groups seem despondent about current society - but would they have chosen to seek out that lifestyle in more affluent times? Income levels of both groups are below median in those I have chatted with. Again, it seems to be a form of escapism or a coping mechanism for these people.
When I began watching the sexually-oriented subcultures, I expected to see a reflection of the hedonistic aspects of the latter days of the Roman Empire take hold as the American Empire declines. Then I realized that those expectations were based on Hollywood’s portrayal of the upper classes of Roman Society, rather than the behavior of the masses that supported Rome’s elite citizens. Instead, I found pure escapism and sublimated frustration. The older generation of men entering the scene is dealing with the dissonance between social expectations of being bread winners and the reality of permanently high unemployment. The younger generation seems rudderless, they lack the self-discipline you talk of and perhaps seek it without. Eventually a demagogue will harness that energy and then I suspect the shackles that bind will no longer be just their lifestyle.

1/27/11, 3:20 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Re: BDSM -- Interesting to note that the two subcultures where I have noted this widespread prevalence of BDSM stuff are two communities that have rather open, free-wheeling, often exhibitionistic approaches to sexuality. This rather suggests that when given license to go their own way, this is indeed the way a lot of people go nowadays, at least in social circles that contain a lot of men (I really can't speak to the way lesbian communities approach this when there aren't men in the room). So I think your point mostly stands.

I ought to note that in the all male versions, these scenes play out along the traditional male power hierarchies, not gender roles -- daddy/son, guard/prisoner, coach/schoolboy, teacher/pupil, boss/employee, etc. etc. Plus a lot of really disturbing stuff which is along the lines of "real man" versus "sissy f****t" (yes, that is the language used), which always makes me see a lot of internalized self-loathing. And there is the master/dog variant as well... The traditional gender stereotypes really don't apply here; drag queens are notorious for being tops and doms.

1/27/11, 3:54 PM

dr-beowulf said...
I was reminded of Brave New World -- the scene where children are playing "Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy", a game that requires a large and complicated apparatus. One of the adults watching the scene expresses amazement that children were allowed to entertain themselves with balls and sticks. In their world, the only games that are allowed are the ones that require the consumption of lots of equipment -- consumption being the primary way to keep the economy going.

Brave New World was based on Huxley's experiences in America, and in some ways it's still deadly accurate. Kids and grownups used to exercise outdoors with bats and balls, and with everyday labor. Now we go to fitness centers and exercise on complex and expensive gizmos, or buy them for ourselves. Or we pay for gym memberships and exercise machines and then don't actually use them. . .

I can't exactly call myself a paragon of physical culture, but I am trying to walk to work more often, haul more manure, double-dig more beds. . .

1/27/11, 5:20 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jim, I spent a chunk of this afternoon getting some healthful exercise with a snow shovel, so I concur!

Kjmclark, I don't get the same hostility as a pedestrian -- it's more a matter of blank incomprehension -- but I suspect the motivation is much the same.

Adrian, true enough. A culture that valued self-restraint would knit more cardigans instead.

Proletarian, thanks for asking! I don't sell my own books, but please don't go to Amazon -- those big discounts come right out of your favorite authors' royalties. Your local full service bookstore will happily order any of my books for you, and if you don't have a bookstore handy, go to the websites of my publishers -- New Society, Llewellyn, and <a href="</a> -- they will all happily sell you books online, and I get a reasonable royalty from the sale.

Kevin, yes, I saw that. Hang on for a rough ride in the years to come.

Matt and Jess, running's certainly better than nothing, but to my mind there are more interesting options.

S, the claim that acting out fantasies of domination and torture is an expression of equality makes my head hurt. Still, whatever turns your crank, I suppose.

Ana's Daughter, the obsession with thinness is pretty much entirely a fashion of prosperous times -- look at the way the ultrathin flapper look went out and a fuller figure came in right after the 1929 stock market crash -- and the current obesity phobia, of course, is a matter of fashion rather than health. My guess is we'll start seeing a shift in fashion -- duly reflected in medical industry propaganda -- within the next couple of years.

Richard, if it were a secret hoarded by trolls it would probably be easier to get people interested in it!

Astrid, true enough.

1/27/11, 5:21 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Harry, one of the things that makes me wonder about the current fashion for sadomasochism -- despite the claims made by plenty of people, S among them, that it's all about equality and the like -- is a sense that there's more going on here than the participants may be consciously aware of. It's rather like the logic of dreams, which very often talk about the things the conscious mind doesn't want to address.

Bill, that's interesting. In both cases, then, you've got people acting out scenes in the bedroom to which they'd react with extreme anger and humiliation if the identical scenes happened anywhere else. Again, dream logic...

1/27/11, 5:25 PM

David in L.A. said...
I watched Jack LaLanne on an episode of "The Addams Family" last night. He gave fitness advice to Uncle Fester, who was on a diet. Jack took one look at Uncle Fester and said "Boy, I've seen people let themselves go, buy you're goooonnnnne"

1/27/11, 5:34 PM

The Unlikely Mage said...
There are still old-school physical culturists out there, mostly huddled in their own forums and shaking their heads at everyone else and writing books on what they know to pass on the knowledge.

One in particular is a bodyweight exercise manual that I'm following at the moment called Convict Conditioning. The author caught a lot of flack when it was released due to his past, but his theories relate to this post.

Essentially, prisons are like amber. They trap things and hold them for a long time with little change. Exercise equipment is limited, and physical fitness is a must if you're doing hard time. Because prison life is pretty Darwinian, the physical culture that has grown in there is stripped to what works the best.

This just happens to be the same physical culture stuff that you refer to in the post. Self-discipline, willingness to go through a slow initial period of foundation building, and focus on very few exercises are some of the highlights. I really recommend the book. A simple Google search will find it.

Broadening it out, it makes me wonder what other subcultures there are out there that hold specialized knowledge. Most people think of the Amish when they think of hard-core agricultural living, but I can think of a few others.

Continuing the BDSM thread, most people I know who are in that scene have strong knowledge of first aid, even some EMT skills. They also have knowledge of rigging.

Living History groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism have many skills, and will normally teach them for MUCH cheaper than some of the rural skills colleges I've found.

Ultralight hikers learn how to live for months at a time with a bare minimum of supplies. The whole minimalist movement that's popular in blog circles is another case study.

Philosophers worth their salt can teach you how to think and question. I think Symbolic Logic should be a requirement to get out of middle school, let alone high school. That stuff is too valuable to leave to colleges. I think my sister is going to hate me for teaching her children dialectic skills when they get old enough.

Excellent post! Now back to planning the garden.

1/27/11, 6:17 PM

Twilight said...
Well - quite an impressively wide scope of topics compressed into one post, and it ties together pretty darn well for all of that! It even includes some things of which I've been blessedly unaware (and plan to remain so).

Of late I've come to regard "exercise" and "workouts" as somewhat frivolous substitutes for actual physical labor, which were mostly unnecessary prior to the industrial age.

I enjoy physical labor, and generally use hand tools as much as I use power tools. On the other hand I dug the place out with the front end loader after today's snow, and while I split all my wood by hand I am in no hurry to start cutting with a handsaw. That's because I've grown to understand that people who live in a world without fossil fuels and who live by their own physical labor need living arrangements different from our modern nuclear family. And they cannot hold down 40hr weeks with a commute while doing it. By myself I could not do this without some (relatively small) fossil fuel inputs.

Those inputs do not need to be large though. Compare the chainsaw fuel (a few gallons), plus the fuel for the old 12hp Wheel Horse and a couple of gallons of diesel for the tractor (for hauling) to the large amount of heating oil we used previously, and it is modest indeed.

I can't say enjoy I enjoy all such tasks - for instance digging is not much fun in and of itself anymore - but I do enjoy the feeling of doing it myself, the feeling of being in good condition, and the confidence of knowing how to do it. There is always something to know about even the most mundane tasks - methods and techniques that mean the difference between success and failure

1/27/11, 7:24 PM

John Michael Greer said...
David, too funny!

Unlikely, that's fascinating -- I'd heard about prison bodybuilding, of course, but it hadn't occurred to me to check for traces of physical culture there.

Twilight, granted, if you've got a lot of physical labor in your life, you probably don't need physical culture. I'm not in that category; writing's a sedentary job, and the exercise I get gardening and doing without a car doesn't keep me as fit as I like to be. Now of course a lot of us are going to be doing much more physical labor than we're used to in the years to come, but for the time being, my t'ai chi and ch'i kung workouts are pretty much a necessity, and I'd encourage anybody else who has a sitdown job to be sure they're keeping themselves exercised by whatever means appeals most.

1/27/11, 9:45 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
If I could hang onto just one power tool it would probably be the chainsaw. I once, foolishly, decided not to use it while sawing through a two foot thick olive tree. I'd say it took three days to get through it, with me attacking it in fifteen minute sessions until my arm felt like it was about to fall off.

Speaking of physical culture as represented in sci-fi, I recently watched Metropolis (1927). In it, the 'chosen few' in the upper class of the future spent their days engaged in athletics and other healthy pursuits and were the picture of fitness. Fast forward 80 years to Wall-E and the future humans are feeble blobs who cannot even stand up.

Who was it who said that sci-fi projects our fears of how things stand at this moment in time?

1/28/11, 12:50 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Thanks for a timely reminder as to how important physical fitness is in a time of peak oil. I guess eventually the service economy won't employ quite so many people. This will be something of a wake up call to many.

Actually peak oil and health have a lot in common. Most of the information is out there, it's just that most people think that it doesn't relate to them.

I have two mates now that have diabetes type 2 which is purely a lifestyle disease and could have been avoided had they chose to do a bit more exercise (or indeed any).

On a funny note, I remember a person from years ago that used to drive to the gym to use a walking machine. That always made me laugh.

Good luck!


1/28/11, 1:38 AM

Scarlet Imprint said...
Good post John, we're always encouraging the pagan and magical community to actually remember the existence of their bodies.
There is nothing more embarrassing than seeing someone hold forth on sex magic or animal transformation who cannot touch or see their own toes.
We also favour the kettlebell as the simplest raw tool for strength, as it builds the functional long muscle chains rather than isolated lumps of cosmetic muscle.

1/28/11, 2:07 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
About structured physical exercise as something that is unnecessary if you have a physically demanding life...

I'd have to say quite the opposite. Even if you have a life that gets you regular physical activity and moderately heavy lifting, odds are that there are occasional events when you have to exert yourself beyond the usual routine. Sure you may have to haul 50 pound feed bags and 80 pound poles every day, but occasionally you might have to move a 400 pound piece of equipment or subdue a very strong uncooperative animal. If all your conditioning is to hoisting 50-80 pounds at a time, tackling tasks that far exceed these limits is a recipe for failure and personal injury. How many men with physically demanding occupations also wind up with wrecked backs? Enormous numbers of them. A discipline of strength training gives you the balanced muscle development and the proper body motions for handling these tasks, as well as making those 50 pound sacks and 80 pound poles much more manageable on a day-to-day basis. So yes there is real value in being able to deadlift 500 pounds and bench 300 pounds when it comes time to load that piano up in the back of the truck without injuring yourself; which, unless you are a professional piano mover, is not something that will be part of your regular daily routine.

Now as for cardio, that's another matter. If you bike to work or walk 10 miles around your ranch up and down hills every day, you probably don't need any extra cardio conditioning.

Yoga and martial arts style practices also serve a very special function that you are not likely to get in your daily routine of manual labor no matter what your occupation (with a few exceptions, of course).

1/28/11, 6:58 AM

blue sun said...
I am a huge fan of Jack LaLanne, and I have begun collecting old books of his (surprisingly they're quite rare) with the thought of cultural conservation. It appears a bit ridiculous to actually say that since there are probably more important books to save. But I see in his life and words something that I've never seen anywhere else.

Very important point you made. LaLanne himself, in almost any interview he gave, would always mention that his first inspiration at age 15 was from seeing health speaker Paul C. Bragg. I don't know anything about Bragg, but no doubt he was influenced by the physical culture movement.

1/28/11, 10:35 AM

Hal said...
I studied t'ai chi, hsing-i and Northern Sil Lum in the 70s and 80s from a celebrated instructor who was one of the "pioneer" non-Chinese to study at one of the major schools in SF. The name of the school translated as "Chinese Physical Culture Association." At the time I considered that sort of inappropriate, since I thought what we were about was a lot "deeper" than physical culture. I was very young then...

This week I went to an auction and bought a tractor that happened to be equipped with a backhoe and front end loader. I wasn't after a backhoe, but I got a really good deal on the tractor, and eventually I plan to sell it to defray the cost. Before then, I plan to use it for a construction project around here, and the loader will always find enough jobs to justify keeping it. Just the same, there I was today with a pick and shovel digging in hard gravel on a 100 foot ditch I've been working on for the last month between freezes and rain. Yeah, it would be easier with the hoe, but it would damage a lot more ground, and for now, I don't need it.

1/28/11, 6:50 PM

Ponter said...
Can't help passing along this timely article. While the conclusions drawn -- relating self disciple/self control to conventional success -- is not quite what you were getting at, it does demonstrate the general idea of your post.,0,337942.story

In short, I am in total agreement with your post. And I despair at the profound lack of self discipline in our culture. Without it, I don't see any possibility of America halting its decline. But localized self-discipline will at least help some of us muddle through.

1/28/11, 7:35 PM

Bobby said...
JMG and all, it seems as though the healthy eating aspect of this discussion took a major hit today, at least in the Corporate States of America anyway. I am sure others have heard of this morning’s horrible news on the agricultural front that the USDA, in all of its infinite wisdom, approved Monsanto’s genetically-modified alfalfa lock, stock, and barrel. Like all of the other GMO garbage that this company has pumped into the U.S. food system, GMO alfalfa now runs the risk of spreading like wildfire through U.S. agriculture, including the organic sector, because of how easily it is propagated by insects. R-selected industrial agriculture wins yet again, this time possibly at the expense of K-selected organic and sustainable farmers.

While I am not surprised at how our leaders bowed to the demands of corporate interests (I seriously think these morons would contemplate selling the limbs of their second-born child if it could guarantee the creation of about five jobs), I am horrified about the detrimental environmental impacts that this decision will likely cause. These seeds will poison thousands of new acres of U.S. farmland as RoundUp and other petrochemicals will be utilized in conjunction with these genetically-modified seeds, which is just the way Monsanto wants it. I have seen stats that indicate that 1/3 of U.S. agricultural land, and about 1/10 of global crop land is now planted with Monsanto seed, which means that is also being sprayed with toxic chemicals that kill the soil and run-off into adjacent ecosystems.

The answer to this, of course, is local, sustainable agriculture of the type that you advocate through your blog and the Green Wizards project. I just think that this decision makes our work all the more crucial for the continued survival of our species at this point. The best way to defeat these entities is to deny them what they want, which is profits by eating local, rejecting industrial food, growing your own, and saving seed. That, coupled with the fact that they are playing a fool’s game by continuing to rely upon dwindling petroleum stocks to feed their gluttonous, greedy behavior, I think, will be enough to secure the future for those that do not wish to pollute our planet, or our bodies.

1/28/11, 8:08 PM

Hal said...
Actually, JMG, I'm not sure if I totally agree with your comment to Twilight. You are probably aware, as are many acupuncturists, acupressurists and other bodyworkers of the power of intention. (LaLanne, as a chiropractor might have been on some level.) I have had many hard physical jobs in my life, but they are never the same as a good, solid program of physical fitness. In fact, I came to believe over the years that hard work can be very damaging if you don't also have a workout system. It may seem paradoxical, and no one feels like doing before or after a hard day's work, but it can be the best thing you can do to avoid injuries and keep systems that you don't happen to work in your job from stiffening up and atrophying. Also very few of the most arduous jobs give you proper aerobic conditioning.

In saying all of this, understand that I'm not a very good example. I have really let myself go the last few years. Just recently, I've started a little stretching and doing my t'ai chi again. Thanks for adding to my inspiration to continue.

1/28/11, 9:35 PM

sofistek said...
"Phase out your dependence on the resource before you have to do so, recognizing that the actual requirements of human existence are quite modest and can be met in many different ways, and you put yourself in a much better position for the future."

This is what I try to instil in my (adult) children. I try to encourage them away from dependence on society and technology as it exists but the degree to which they have done that is almost immeasurable. They kind of understand what is coming, though, obviously, not totally. I'm not sure what else I can do but it sure makes trying to extricate myself from the primary economy very difficult.


1/29/11, 12:06 AM

tom rainboro said...
I've known 4 generations of people here in England. Grandparents, born 1880s, were certainly fit in a wiry sort of way. Very poor nutrition though. Oppressed by poverty. Health has actually depended on the relative political strength of Capital and Labour. I've seen gravestones in a mining area where parents buried more than six of their young children. When WW1 started the authorities were apparently shocked by the general poor physical shape of people. The reason was poverty.
My parents were born in the Depression. They had poor nutrition till WW2. Mum had polio in 1952, never learned to drive but would always walk to market and bring home groceries in a baby buggy. Walking, cycling kept them fit. The wartime siege diet was excellent (fresh local veg, food rationing till 1954). That generation sort of went crazy on prosperity in 60s and 70s - sugars, fats, booze, tobacco - heart and lung problems, bad teeth. The coal man of my childhood could carry hundredweight sacks all day - now the legal limit is 25kg for men. We should be aware that repetitive work like that grinds us down. We need to keep healthy backbones as long as possible in life.
My 50s generation has had good nutrition in later life. Also I'm the first generation for a long time that hasn't had to go to war.
I'm certainly stronger than most twenty-year old born in the 80s. That generation is maybe six inches taller than my grandparents but knows little physical work. There are at least 4 sides to fitness - Strength, Suppleness, Stamina and the cardio.
BDSM? You are sooooo sophisticated over there. Here we have Morris Dancing.
Ref last week's post: This has made national news here. Is it catabolism in action?

1/29/11, 2:04 AM

Jason said...
That JMG also mentioned chi kung got me thinking -- people might not turn out to see someone tie a knot in a horseshoe if they're caucasian, but how about if they're from Shaolin Temple? Suddenly it's ok. :) No need to marginalize someone's physical achievement level if they're already foreign. :)

Mind you, since chi kung has been so revelatory to me, I am not complaining about the Chinese influence at all. And I agree with Bill and Hal -- I'm not doing one jot less of that should my lifestyle get more physical, because it actually gives me energy, it's at the centre of my spiritual life also, and I don't want my arthritis back.

Having said that, I still love western-style workout regimes. And JMG's crusade to remind people about physical culture also has the effect of helping to change the somewhat unhealthy, 'pale-goth-needs-more-sun' image that western occultism has for many! I don't know why that's there -- after all even dissolutes like Crowley turn out to have been capable mountaineers -- but for people like Stebbins and Greenstein, the sheer unhealth of the average lifestyle of their day absolutely made spiritual and physical development necessary partners. We just don't happen to accord as much legitimacy to that as to the asceticism of monks from thousands of miles away.

And how the nature of words changes! To belittle the western traditions of personal discipline seems the goal there too. 'Stoic', 'Epicurean' and 'Platonic' don't mean to us anything like what they would have meant to classical humans. And that word asceticism -- it basically just means 'training'! But the modern world paints an ascetic as: "unhealthy self-hating person who won't use the shopping channel and makes others feel bad by living in miserable discomfort yet pretending to like it"...

1/29/11, 4:50 AM

logic11 said...
Parkour is one place where a lot of what made the body culture what it was is coming back. So far it's pretty limited in scope, but it's out there and it's mostly younger people (although I train and am in my mid 30's and my mother also trains and she is in her mid 60's). David Belle is a huge fan of the Method Naturale and believes that the feats his father (a french vietnamese army scout who grew up in the jungle and became a firefighter) could achieve are beyond anything he can do (google David Belle to see some stuff that will blow your mind).

There are kids training this right now. Learning things like how to run up a 15 foot wall or jump 10 feet down and across onto a small railing. They train week in, week out, in the outdoors whatever the weather. My community here has trained in hurricanes, blizzards, done 2+ k runs that involve crossing the top of buildings on the hottest days of the year, etc. All of this with nothing but loose clothing and a crappy pair of trainers (most of us train with cheap shoes, sometimes we train barefoot).

I also run a group called the way of the preserver (aimed at survival skills and preservation of knowledge) and we go out in the woods and build stuff by hand. At the beginning the mostly young, mostly urban members of my group complained bitterly (with the exception of the ones who are also parkour practitioners) but most quickly came to prefer the part of the day where we work to the part where we plan. My son has become good at slicing bows with a machete after only ever showing an interest in skills that involved computers and electrical engineering.

@Harry J. Lerwill: There is one genre of Science Fiction that appeals to people in dark times, Cyberpunk. Right now I see a lot of Cyberpunk on the shelves with the escapist fantasy, but precious little hopeful shiny future stuff.

1/29/11, 7:31 AM

Kevin said...
I don't know about S&M or Bondage and Discipline from within that scene, but have the impression that it's in some degree related to cultural context. In societies that have a history of imposing strict social or sexual regulations upon the individual, it seems to flourish. I gather leather is big in Germany. In Japan, reputedly a rather agonistic society, S&M-related material forms a substantial part of the manga market, which seems in part to function as a kind of safety valve. By contrast, in easygoing Thai society with its relatively relaxed morés and emphasis on being "sanook" (fun, lighthearted) there doesn't appear to be any sadomasochism. The Thai just can't relate to that phenomenon, and it completely baffles them, or so I've heard.

I don't really believe that a resurgence of S&M is the result of ever more permissiveness. The Romans didn't practice it that I've ever heard of, and they had far fewer sexual restrictions than any post-Christian western society. Perhaps they didn't play master-slave games because they had real masters and slaves. The closest thing to a reassignment of power relationships in that society that I've ever heard of would be the reversal of roles during the Saturnalia.

Too bad no Dr. Kinseys can time travel back to that festival to report for us what really went on. I fancy Caesar Augustus and his successors might have found quite interesting the notion of statistical analysis, if they didn't have their own prototypical version thereof.

1/29/11, 1:18 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jason, one of the things I expect to see is a few power tools remaining in use, simply because it's so much easier. Chain saws are among them.

Chris, that's what I call "yuppie logic" -- driving to the gym to pay to use a walking machine, mowing the lawn with a riding mower and then paying for aerobics classes to get the exercise you didn't get from a push mower, etc. Gah.

Scarlet, I didn't know that was something you were into! We may need to have a conversation about that sometime soon.

Bill, hmm. Do people in cultures where everything is done by muscles have exercise programs?

Blue Sun, excellent! You get today's gold star for cultural conservation. Don't let anybody tell you that the stuff you're saving isn't important, either.

Hal, good. There's some evidence that Chinese martial artists were up on what was going on in Western physical culture, and borrowed things as needed; and there's even more evidence that early writings in Europe about kung-fu were a major influence on the birth of physical culture in the first place.

Ponter, all we can do is learn self-mastery ourselves, and teach it to those who are willing to learn. Fortunately, that puts Darwin on our side.

Bobby, it was pretty much inevitable, and yes, the best response is local action -- with growing your own organic garden high on that list.

Hal, I wonder whether it's largely a matter of strenuous jobs in an otherwise unstrenuous life.

Sofistek, you can lead a horse to water...

Tom, I'll take morris dancing over the latex-lingerie business any day.

Jason, that's an excellent point.

Logic, that's great news. Get kids to start having fun in nature again, and it might just be possible to salvage a little more of that generation.

Kevin, I don't think the popularity of sadomasochism has anything in particular to do with permissiveness; it's about the locus of control. I've heard a lot of people in the scene talk about how BDSM pushes them past their limits, or makes them feel safe in somebody else's control, or what have you. You don't need fetish wear to do that if you choose to push past your own limits, and control yourself! All you need is the concept, and the values, of self-mastery.

1/29/11, 2:47 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG -- dunno, this sort of cross-cultural info is your specialty, not mine. How prevalent are yoga and martial arts disciplines among asian peasants? How widespread were athletics among working-class youth in 19th Century America? I don't know whether or not farm hands and cowboys then engaged in any physical activities beyond the demands of their jobs, or if their jobs left them any time to pursue this. There's also the point that just because something is not done, that doesn't mean it is not a good idea... especially when you are talking about self-discipline.

1/29/11, 3:16 PM

LewisLucanBooks said...
I had bad back problems for years. Sometimes I'd throw it out so bad I couldn't climb stairs or get in and out of the shower. Then I got a copy of the "YMCA Better Back Book" and developed a little 10-15 minute routine that I do EVERY morning. It doesn't take much but it has to be done consistently. Haven't had a problem, except for a couple of minor strains, in years.

Also, guys, get that d***** wallet out of your back pocket. Sitting on it, for even short periods of time, throws everything (the alignment) out of whack.

1/29/11, 4:25 PM

Rita said...
Has anyone else noticed these two articles about the world economy in Foreign Policy?,1,9

Especially pertinent given that much of the unrest in Egypt seems to be sparked by lack of economic opportunity. Too many deperately poor people living in the shadow of luxery buildings, seeing their leaders leading a life richer than any pharoh while they struggle to survive on $2.00 a day.

1/29/11, 8:51 PM

nuku said...
JMG, thanks for such a down-to-earth and rational take on reality.
Eggs: I spent 17 years on my 40ft sailboat cruising around the Pacific, and before that lived off the grid for 5 years on 180 acres in Big Sur California. We used to coat eggs with Vaseline to keep air from penetrating the shells. Treated this way, and turned end for end once a week, eggs lasted a couple of months.
Low repairable tech: I went to an engineering supply house here in Nelson New Zealand, where I now live, to get a 6” extra slim taper triangular file to sharpen a beautiful old crosscut handsaw I’ve owned for 40 years. The young kid behind the counter told me he never heard of anyone sharpening a handsaw. (That was because all the new shiny made in China ”homeowner level” ones have hardened, non-sharpenable, teeth). He said just throw the saw away and buy a new shinny one. When I insisted I wanted to keep the old saw, he said “then you want a round (obviously thinking ‘chainsaw’) file don’t you.” So sad.

1/30/11, 2:28 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

I really enjoy this blog and all of the comments!

I can't quite understand why no one seems to question why are we working to an 8 hour, 5 day week schedule (possibly far more for some)? Obviously it's based on the industrial model developed in the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries. But for physical labour, this model makes no sense as it physically wears your body out. Especially if it is repetitive.

There was a comment that you made many weeks (or months ago) that stated that medieval peasants worked far less than we do today. I always decide what I'm up to a couple of days in advance based on the weather and season. Everyone around here talks about the weather as part of the normal conversation! Sounds like a rural cliche! hehe!

Working around the weather though, provides me with a highly varied work week (physically and mentally) and I'm wondering whether this is part of the picture of disconnect in our society?

You can also see that peasants would have had quite a lot of "off time" during the non growing seasons which would have allowed for much recuperation.

What do you think?



1/30/11, 2:58 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Ana's Daughter,

Not all women are "submissives who are collared and owned by a male master". Some are far better educated, take the more technical role in business and assist with every aspect in the construction of their own house. Who is this paragon? My wife of course, who is not collared and submissive (neither am I for that matter!).

Feminism has won many gains. My mother who was a single mother, had to get her own father to guarantee a mortgage in 70's despite her job status and income. This wouldn't happen now.

The problem is that cultural programming is very hard to fight and that we as a society are easily manipulated. Women are told that they can have it all which is clearly a lie. Keeping all options open is not possible for anyone.

You have to pick and choose what you are going to do in life and with every decision comes benefits and sacrifices and may close off some paths. Outcomes are also unkown and the future is never certain.

Remember also that to make no decision (or be apathetic) about your life is actually making a decision with very uncertain outcomes (and usually not good ones either).

It can be quite eye opening to recognise and accept that the decisions that you made in the past present you with the circumstances that you face today.

I think it's really difficult for women to find role models that aren't proceeding along the social norms. There's not that many out there and women are subject to a massive barrage of content (and condemnation from other women) everyday which is aimed at unempowering and normalising them. Or at worst making them insecure.

There's no easy answer.

PS: Fat is an indicator but not necessarily a correlator of health and strength. People tend to overlook this point.


1/30/11, 3:32 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hey Sofistek,

Inertia is a pain! Few people seem very interested in the subject, much less want to make any noticeable changes to their lives. I dunno either! Maybe time will tell. Personally, I think nature will tend to sort it all out.


1/30/11, 3:35 AM

Brad K. said...
@ EatCloseToHome,

I have trouble moving a 50lb bag off the floor, let alone to my shoulder, and I haven't been starving half the winter. :/

Unfortunately, if I were starved to the point of actual emaciation, I would have more than 100 lbs less of myself to move around.

@ Cherokee Organics,

I remain convinced that the universal assumption of affluence - of subtle to unbridled ambition for at least the appearance of affluence - is key to the weakness of spirit in America, and perhaps much of the rest of western culture.

When social respect and value depend on appearing to be affluent, then the man that brags he couldn't build a bookshelf, or someone that eats 'only the best', is building social stature – in a sick society.

If affluence is the ability to command resources and others regardless of waste, is striving for the appearance of affluence then decadent? It might be one measure. I doubt we will ever be free of the "my dog's better than your dog" (h/t to Ken-L-Ration, tm) of one-up-manship being sought, instead of pride in doing the best that we can do.

But then, I contend that it isn't the hamburgers and fries, and high-fructose corn syrup so-called 'beverages' and the ice cubes that make McDonalds and Burger King a hazard to American health - it is the constant electronic barrage about being 'better'. In other markets the constant electronic barrage about 'sexy' or 'alluring' or 'best value' orients the thinking of whole populations toward social appearance, the cachet of eating/being 'the best'. That is what has replaced character, respect for truth and honesty and honor that emphasizes appearance over substance. Today, what with the neurological programming of modern media (even before texting and the internet) and the short, abrupt, professionally crafted messages oriented to ambition and appearance and intended to disrupt a narrative, it is a wonder we don't elect empty suits with no (legitimate) background or (moral) substance to high office.


1/30/11, 11:01 AM

Brad K. said...

There is a minor sub-industry in the US, based loosely around family oriented (i.e., not a sex playground) social nude recreation. Part of the Naturist Society history traces back to Germany and one of their interpretations of physical culture. It isn't a long stretch to regarding the health and fitness of the body to challenging Victorian coverup taboos rather than hamper the movement of the body, or deny the touch of wind and sun on so much of that massive, major natual sense organ, the skin.

I have no problem, myself, in condemning the decadence of the Victorian era for it's amorality and brutality between classes. Yet one invention of the Victorian age, an abhorrence of nudity (as well as prurient obsession) is still active in many people today.

Another aspect of revisionism and popular sensitivity is folk songs.

There are a lot of folk songs, spirituals, and lullabyes that seem to offend some revisionist or other. Which means that we are likely into the second generation of children that were never taught that aspect of cultural history - not of any culture older than 1990.

Is it any wonder that a fry cook would be texting while cooking, when she never learned "Can she bake a cherry pie", or "Red River Valley", or even the tuneful "Blue Danube Waltz"? Electronic and other social media are no substitute for regular, personal ties to the past, to cultural history, to reminders of the way things were done and could be done again.

We don't teach the old stories that carried wisdom that our grandparents learned about trivial things. Like getting up in the morning, keeping your word, being honest with your family and self as well as with others.

Yes, there are new stories told that are more current, new books of value. But there is value, too, in knowing the same songs and stories your parents and grandparents knew.

@ Siani,

A thought about exercise. In software engineering we learned that you measure what you want to improve. I think that goes for fitness and health, as well. I took a class in yoga some years ago, and one of the more important benefits was learning balance (so I can stand on one foot while putting on the other sock) - and learning to sense and affect distinct parts of my body. I have a much better awareness of what might be bound up, how far from the uncomfortable spot the actual binding might be, etc.

What we call 'yoga' is actually introductory yoga. The Yoga teaching goes that the student needs a sound (pain free) and strong body, well connected with and under conscious control of the mind, before the student is ready to study the heart of the beliefs of the religion. I can see various aspects of yoga that showed up in elementary school and in US Navy boot camp; apparently others think that formal exercise helps integrate awareness and control of the body, to the benefit of all.

Using your work as your exercise program adapts your body to your work, and your awareness of your body is partly limited to how your body affects, and is affected by, your work. I wonder if there might be a wider scope of awareness, both spiritual and secular, if you prepare for a 'wider' horizon.

1/30/11, 11:20 AM

sofistek said...
Hi Chris,

Yes, there is a lot of inertia around. But when it's close to home, it is very difficult to cope with.

I often read the environmental optimists who claim some resurgence in organics or simpler living, or whatever. But I see no evidence of that resurgence. It's a bit like the statistics one hears about of some type of accident or the likelihood of contracting some disease, or the rise of energy from potatoes; a 30%, or even 200% rise seems like a lot, until you figure out that the actual quantity is tiny - like a 200% increase from 1 to 3, is not really much.

I don't see any evidence, myself, that people are getting the message and demanding a change. Even the recent protests in European countries seemed more about continuing the status quo (against austerity measures) than wanting their governments to grasp reality.

It makes me wonder how some (a few) people can manage to extract themselves from the messages that they have been immersed in for decades whilst others can't, even though they appear to understand our predicament. I guess the obvious response is that they don't really understand our predicament but the question remains, why?

1/30/11, 1:35 PM

sofistek said...

Your comment on the working day reminded me of accounts of hunter-gatherers who couldn't distinguish between work and leisure (i.e. it was all part of their normal life) but who probably "worked" for a tiny fraction of their lives (maybe 10%). Unfortunately, that type of life is lost to us now, as we've ruined so much of the planet and have raised our numbers so greatly.

However, I retain the hope that permaculture techniques can really cut down on the amount of time we have to work to survive and that we can treat making stuff for ourselves as leisure.


1/30/11, 1:43 PM

Ruben said...
re: physical culture...I really enjoyed this article.

1/30/11, 3:44 PM

hapibeli said...
0Kinda funny, the reactions to your BDSM passage ( heh, heh, pun intended). Methinks the commenters doth protest a bit much...:-) :-) :-)

1/30/11, 3:58 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Brad K,

That's a tough question and some interesting insights. I reckon we've swapped quality for quantity.

You see it in the housing stock. As a society we could build better quality housing, but we mostly choose larger housing which has a shorter lifespan and requires more energy to be able to shelter it's occupants from the environment. The upfront costs are low, but the ongoing costs are huge.

It's not really possible to build a large house that embodies sustainable low energy principles. Some may argue this point though.

Another goodee is motor vehicles. Do you really need to drive around in a vehicle that weighs 2.6 tonnes and carries only a single person? The greater the weight, the more energy is required to move the vehicle. Little wonder electric vehicles haven't taken off. Inertia again.

It kind of just feeds peoples ego's and social standing if they control (or have the appearance of controlling) more stuff than others.

In the past people were measured based on what they produced, now it is based on what they consume. Sad.

Hey sofistek,

The turning point for me was reading a couple of books:
Dr Clive Hamilton - Affluenza;
Dr Tim Flannery - The weather makers and The future eaters;
Dr James Lovelock - The revenge of Gaia and The vanishing face of Gaia;
Paul Roberts - The end of oil; and
(this inclusion is serious too!) Neil Strauss - The game

All dismal reading (except for, The game of course), but clearly puts things into perspective. As a person I seemed to be aware that something was not quite right and that the environmental and social books aren't quite balanced, so I researched what was going on in the world.

At the time, I also worked for this very wealthy dude, who I realised after a few years was like a black hole in that no matter how much energy you put into him, he would always require more. He was a pretty good metaphor for society. I rejected activisim because the system quickly also swallows you up (which is incidentally also handy for it) and so set out to live differently with an eye on the long term.

It was a hard decision to make, but I saw a difficult future ahead.


1/30/11, 8:07 PM

hawlkeye said...
I don't share too many of the objections to permaculture that have popped up on this blog from time to time, but I do have a beef with what seems to be it's deep aversion to physical labor (the permies, that is, not the druid!).

The idea that permaculture will somehow produce a long-term food supply for us and save us a lot of work in the meantime, is a conclusion held by many of its books and students, although not by those who actually stand beneath some righteous canopy of their own making. They know better.

In practice, feeding ourselves any which way requires a tremendous amount of work, and work-avoidance shows its smiley-face like a Betty Crocker mutant at the mere mention of digging and hoeing. Why not just lay the cardboard all about, then scatter the clovers and wait a few years? Then do what, study Zen?

I think it's precisely because we've made such a muck of things that we must work even harder to re-build the fertility and plant the orchards. And re-learning how to work is essential to any re-skilling curricula.

The path to any permanent food supply must proceed through the annual garden; it's simply called Year One. And there's a place for every technique at the table, but none of them will actually set the table for us. Bye-bye, Betty.

Maybe industrial minds are stuck on work/no work just like the false polarity of work/leisure because far too many of us don't do any actual work, since so many jobs are cubicle-surfing, life-sucking, hemorrhoid-makers.

For me, making compost is a deep joy; a hard piece of work that's profoundly rewarding as well. I never say, Oh crap, I've got to go turn the pile, and then when I'm done, thank God that's over, now I can relax.

There's a pace to hard labor that allows it to be done all day; I finally have a taste of it in my fifties. Yet I find I can go for hours in the summer if I let myself nap more in the winter.

These rhythms of the day and year are lost to the time card, and their depths can find no place within us by working a clock. That type of life is exactly what we must embrace in order to shed the toxic life we've inherited.

Monkey-wrench the insidious machine mind: think like a plant!

1/31/11, 6:44 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Brad and JMG -- kind of a late comment, but...

I think attributing the presence of street protests in Tunisia versus their absence in Michigan to a relative lack of American self-discipline is a bit of a reach. I think this has a whole lot more to do with the fact that the things motivating the multi-national uprisings (e.g. government brutality, violent oppression, food insecurity) are not things that typical mid-level Americans really experience. In spite of ample angst, most Americans still remain free, comfortable, and well-fed compared to our brethren in many (most..) other nations. Please, don't bother trying to contradict me by pointing out that there are millions of Americans who do experience these things on a daily basis; of course I know this. The more important point is that there are HUNDREDS of millions of Americans who do not and have not experienced these things other than as vague fears and occasional brief brushes. Those here who do live under these conditions are also our weakest groups, politically; they do take to the streets and hardly anyone listens.

When the middle classes here really do experience significant food insecurity you can bet your life that they WILL take to the streets (and will probably be rather well-armed...). And if real (not just rhetorical and demagogic) jack-booted thugs come in to put them down, I doubt the resulting mass uprisings will be very "velvet."

1/31/11, 8:59 AM

lancemfoster said...
JMG, I wonder if you are going to come up with a post sometime about what people who don't have health insurance can do to deal with their situations now (and family and community) as well as prepare for the future. Obviously being in good shape as discussed in this post is crucial and foundational. But what about herbalism, naturopathy, home remedies, military medics with basic training in surgery, home dentistry and eye care, etc. A lot of us are on our own now, and more will be in the future.

That might be an issue you can fruitfully address.

1/31/11, 3:24 PM

SophieGale said...
Oy! What a week! In an interview with a hot new fantasy writer I was informed that my tastes in fantasy brand me as a conservative racist, classist escapist. Then I was sneered at by four "conservative" science fiction writers for liking over-the-top "socialist" authors. And I feel like I should somehow apologize for the whole Pagan-BDSM thing, and that's all on paper! Can we go back to the astrology argument? I am, at least guilty, of casting charts in my misspent youth.

1/31/11, 11:07 PM

Jonathan said...
Re: "Do people in cultures where everything is done by muscles have exercise programs?"

Below is from Eduardo Galeano's Book of Embraces:

Alastair Reid writes for the New Yorker but rarely goes to New York.
He prefers to live on a remote beach in the Dominican Republic. Christopher Columbus landed on this beach several centuries ago on one of his excursions to Japan, and nothing has changed since.
From time to time, the postman appears among the trees. The postman arrives staggering under his load. Alastair receives mountains of correspondence. From the U.S., he is bombarded with commercial offers, leaflets, catalogues, luxurious temptations from the consumer civilization that exhorts him to buy.
On one occasion, he found in the mass of paper an advertisement for a rowing machine. Alastair showed it to his neighbors, the fishermen.
"Indoors? They use it indoors?"
The fishermen couldn't believe it:
"Without water? They row without water?"
They couldn't believe, they couldn't comprehend it:
"And without fish? And without the sun? And without the sky?"
The fishermen told Alastair that they got up every night long before dawn and put out to sea and cast their nets as the sun rose over the horizon, and that this was their life and that this life pleased them, but that rowing was the one infernal aspect of the whole business:
"Rowing is the one thing we hate," said the fishermen.
Then Alastair explained to them that the rowing machine was for exercise.
"For what?"
"Ah. And exercise--what's that?"

2/1/11, 10:54 AM

K. said...
Mister Greer,

This one has only recently found your weblog, and well done. Please forgive that this comment is posted before the completion of reading your writings.

To put others on a useful path:

I've not seen you mention Permaculture. Perhaps you have. Permaculture, which by this time is a reference to transitioning toward a society with a "permanent culture" as much as to methods of growing and producing food, will need to be brought thoroughly into use.

One can start by looking at, and then understanding, the books by Bill Mollison, by Masanobu Fukuoka, and the other originators of the concepts.

I very much doubt that post industrial farmers, given proper education about their world and its web of life, would ever need to return to the toil and burdens associated in our cultural memory with the short and oppressive lives of peasant farmers in centuries past. The keys are dissemination, and practice.


2/2/11, 12:36 PM

MarcosLagoSalado said...
And speaking of sedentary, what about the e-book wave buffeting libraries and the book publishing industry [i work in a library]--i remain unconvinced that an electronic device [oil, plastics, rare earths] is the best way to read books, but also i think in the near term we need to give people what they want--but in the medium to long term i see this type of "book" as unsustainable. One little comment on last week's Chinese recently abt Chinese stealth planes and anti-carrier missles in the MSM--for me this was the end Of USA global military dominance. But I doubt the Chinese will need to use these in their brief decades of global dominance...the threat alone will keep carrier group actvities in their 'back yard" at bay.

2/2/11, 2:31 PM

Freyja said...

You're making me yearn for my compost pile!

I've been too busy pruning the orchard to really get going in the garden yet, but working the soil (with garden fork) gives me joy and a sense of accomplishment.

Last year I changed my lifestyle from life-sucking wage slave to agrarian producer. I lost 50 lbs. and have visible abs for the first time in my life.

I feel really sorry for all those folk who don't know the joys of hard physical labor in fresh air and sunshine.

2/2/11, 10:09 PM

John said...
One thing you may want to check out are the
Community Acupuncture (CA) Clinics

Traditional Chinese Medicine has been used throughout many crisises, wars and what not, very little resources are needed. The CA clinics were actually inspired by the "Barefoot Doctors" of China. When the Guomindang left China for Taiwan, Mao Zedong had a country of a few hunderd milion people, but no money. Quickly, they educated many people in herbs, acupunture and other traditional techniques to wander from village to village to help people. Being "barefoot" is a sign of extreme poverty in China, indicating that they were not high-status at all. (Which was undesirable in the political climate)

You may have seen an example of traditional medicine in the 2009 movie "Karate Kid".

2/3/11, 3:38 AM

Brad K. said...

"Ah. And exercise--what's that?"

I think exercise comes from two distinct directions. Formal, intentional exercise is performed for a purpose. Yoga - Hatha Yoga or introductory Yoga - comes from ancient religious practices in India. The concept is that a sound body and mind is required to begin the study of their religion. This intro yoga focuses on increasing strength and agility of the body, making the mind more aware of the body and improving control of the body, and on managing pain. This is not an example of indolent rich people with too much time and money on their hands.

Many religions include some carnal effort or sacrifice - from scourging to fasting (perhaps just for the period of a long sermon ;-)) and participation in rituals and community efforts.

Religion is a 'cost of living' that everyone - including atheists, I believe - choose what portion of their life to invest in individual and collective contributions.

'Exercise' that would improve the overall health and agility of the fishermen might include walking, tumbling, even martial arts training. Or quilting, a modest exercise of the hands - and of the mind and hand-eye coordination.

Cherokee Organics,

When you chose a different path, I wonder - how many children are you affecting, so that what you learn passes into the local and global communities and onto the next generation?

I am not criticizing. In contemplating the failure of many romantic relationships I have come to believe that failing to build a home with the intent of raising children is the primary reason for failure - that people aren't choosing a mate based on prospects of being a good co-parent to their children, and aren't building a home (whatever the structure) by intentionally building a (micro-)culture where they agree on what is right and wrong, what traditions and rituals they will observe, with the intent of informing and passing that legacy onto their children.

So I am curious, if you had considered building a family to hold your home.

I know I wish I had understood better about homes and families, years ago.

2/3/11, 8:41 AM

tristan said...

First off good to be reading you again. I got busy with life and have not had a chance to keep up.

Secondly, I am going to agree with you and disagree with you in the same breath. I am an old time hand at the BD/SM scene (I helped found an organization in Portland Oregon back in the 90s). At that time (and probably still today) the majority of submissives were weatlhy/powerful business men. The belief was that they spent their days being in charge and so they wanted to spend their nights having someone else in charge. This would fly in the face of you "submissives are looking for discipline from someone else" theory. These guys had plenty of discipline in their day lives.
But that said I also had (back in the 90s) already encountered a few people who were looking for someone to "take care of them". They were often at a loss in their lives, without direction. They usually had very low end jobs or even no jobs. As one of them put it to me, "I have known since I was a kid that I was supposed to be taken care of by someone and that they were supposed to give me the space to spend my time focused on my religious calling. In return I would take care of them. I can't understand why I can't find that person!"
I would not be surprised if that attitude begins to supplant the first one.


2/3/11, 10:35 AM