Monday, September 24, 2018

Muscle Beach

 Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution, by Marla Matzer Rose (St. Martin’s, 2001), tells how the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles sparked local interest in gymnastics. Paul Brewer, a student at Santa Monica High School, was frustrated when the construction of his school’s planned gym was delayed on account of the 1933 earthquake, so he and his friends began to exercise on playground equipment on the beach, near the base of Santa Monica Pier, four blocks away from the high school. Local adults helped the kids add a tumbling carpet, parallel bars, and high rings. Over the next few years the area became very popular as a place to practice and show off not only ordinary gymnastics, but also group acrobatic routines involving young men and women doing handstands, making human pyramids and towers, and tossing and catching each other. It was a young bunch, attractive and also muscular, since strength training was required for some of these stunts. The people and their activity soon began to be noticed by the beach goers, who flocked to this section—by the end of the decade it was known as Muscle Beach—on the weekends.       Some of the young people who were regulars began to open their own gyms; others designed and distributed gym equipment that hadn’t been available before. Rose argues that participants in Muscle Beach activities, including Jack LaLanne, Vic Tanny, Joe Gold, George Eiferman and a dozen others who opened commercial gyms starting in 1936 were responsible for the American fitness trend, which accelerated when servicemen returned from the war in 1945 and has been steadily building since. At intervals over the years, the trend got an additional boost from good publicity. Muscle Beach regulars Buster Crabbe and Steve Reeves had movie careers, while Jane Russell was an occasional visitor to the beach athletic scene. Arnold Schwarzenegger, already a bodybuilder in his native Austria, was an import to a later manifestation of Muscle Beach up the coast in Venice, California after the original Santa Monica Muscle Beach was closed.      That closure came about at least in part because of a movement from strength and fitness training to an exaggerated emphasis on muscle development. According to Rose’s account, there was an intense effort at the weight-lifting aspect of gym activity early in the 1950s, leading to the triumph of the US Olympic weight-lifting team in 1952. This increased interest in weight training was reflected at Muscle Beach. The original athletic group at the beach, whose interest in weight training had been subservient to overall health and acrobatic prowess, gradually dispersed—a lot of them were working hard running their own newly-founded gyms—in favor of men who were exclusively weight lifters and body builders. And they were all men, since women’s body building had not yet acquired its later appeal. Not so many people came to Muscle Beach when muscles were all it had to offer. Watching biceps, pecs, and lats grow to what became, especially after the coming of anabolic steroids, exaggerated and even grotesque size turned out to be without the same appeal as watching well-but-normally-muscled men and women having a good time and entertaining the crowds at the same time. Eventually the Santa Monica conservatives, who were more than a little suspicious of the morality of hugely-muscled and nearly naked men walking around and flexing for each other, prevailed, and Muscle Beach was shut down.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Thoughts on Tradition in the 20th-century Brit Novel

     When I look at the men writing novels in the U.K. in the twentieth century, I see many great performances but nothing like a tradition. Not so with the women. Joyce and Orwell and Lawrence and Forster, Green and Greene and Waugh, the Amises, Burgess, Lowry, Golding, Fowles, and Ishiguro all seem to be working separate lodes. With the women there seems more continuity, more obvious signs that they noticed, if not emulated, each other. And absorption from the men, whom they do not ignore. When Woolf writes in the first version of her “Modern Fiction” essay about the “incessant shower” of impressions “composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself” and asks whether that isn’t what novelists need to convey, she also gives Joyce credit for trying. Woolf has read Joyce and Proust carefully, and it shows, but she also has read Sylvia Townsend Warner and Vita Sackville-West. These three in their turn are read by Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, and all are read by Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym and A. S. Byatt. These women after Woolf are not experimental writers, but neither are they anti-experimental; they all try to get down the incessant shower of impressions that we call life itself, though they might not make fireworks out of the shower.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Just a Note in Haste

Back in the day when we wrote letters to each other (with a pen or a typewriter or, in that odd transition time, writing on a computer, printing out the letter, and sending it through the mail), I remember more than one correspondent signing off with “in haste” above his signature. Virginia Woolf, reviewing some newly-found letters of Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose correspondence would eventually fill 48 volumes in the Yale edition, says that he often used some variation of “in a violent hurry” at the beginning or end of his letters. A whole bookful of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters exchanged with the Duchess of Devonshire was titled by its editor In Tearing Haste, because of the ubiquity of that phrase in Leigh Fermor’s letters—though from their length and the care with which he composed them, you would not have thought him in a hurry.
            No one writing an email or a text these days bothers to put down that she is in a hurry. When messages fly from writer to receiver at the speed of light (“twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is” according to Eric Idle and Clint Black), saying she’s in a hurry is superfluous. The medium is the message about speed here. Yet she still underlines her haste by skipping capitalization and punctuation, while abbreviating to the point of indecipherability. but u no im just :) 2 hear from her

Sunday, July 22, 2018


            In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson muses how odd it would be if a shattered mirror or a window that broke while someone was examining her reflection were suddenly to heal itself and become whole again, in the way a still pool into which I might gaze at my own reflection, disturbed by a pebble dropped into it, would soon reconstitute its reflective surface. The workings of physical reflection are odd, regardless of the reflecting surface. Hang up a mirror just big enough that your reflection in it fills it from top to bottom. Walk away, and then turn after a few paces to look at your reflection again. The image still fills the mirror; it is no smaller because of the distance, nor will it cease to fill the mirror if you move another ten feet, or a hundred. If you return to the mirror and measure the image of your face in it, you will find that image is just half the size of the face it reflects. All of this is completely, if not satisfactorily, explained by the laws of optics. So, too, is the odd fact that mirrors reverse left and right, but always leave top and bottom alone.
            Consider figurative reflection, and specifically self-reflection. Is your image of yourself in your mind’s eye diminished to half? Mine is not. David Foster Wallace famously pointed out that in perception or reflection, we can’t help being centered in the view and the whole field is ours, is us.