Rowing Nowhere
3 min read

Rowing Nowhere

or, j/k, rowing

You’d think I would enjoy having a hundred dollars, but in fact, when I do, I’ll take any opportunity to get rid of it. Viz., just before I moved to my current place, I bought a rowing machine. It turns out this is the right thing to do for a man who enjoys feeling like a confused god.

My rowing machine sucks. It costs half the price of a decent entry-level model. Instead of a long line to haul like a sailor, I have a lever to pull, like a man operating a railway handcar, or blowing something up on a long fuse. As the machine’s pneumatic workings (I call them that because my father is an engineer, so I don’t understand even what they call “simple machines”) get warm with my exertion, they start to resist me less. I have to keep adjusting the tension level to keep the lever from going slack.

Exercise is a metaphor, if the tangle above did not make my position clear. You do one thing to represent another. You do fake work to represent real work, and if you try to go from the fake work to the real, I’m sure that you find yourself subtly off, Uncanny Vallified, with the strength to row straight forward (for example), but no understanding of what it takes to steer, or the different conditions of the water, or what it means when someone shouts “scull.”

Previously, I’d always been more drawn to kinds of exercise that involve more elaborate metaphors. Yoga is a paradoxically embodied/disembodied experience. It’s the most metaphorical of body work, where you’re pretending to be a baby, or a cat which keeps turning into a cow and back, or — most brutally — the crow. Lately, though, I’ve been loving the baldness of rowing, the way it barely, lazily pretends to be a metaphor. It’s called what it is.

I’m aware as I write all this that everything I say about exercise is underlaid with assumptions I’m drawing from my background. Why do I see running as “fake work” — exactly what saber-toothed tiger bullshit do I imagine when I think of the “real work” equivalent? Do I see yoga as femme work, being more imaginative and such, and if so, exactly how laden and interleaved with Orientalism is that assumption? There’s a lot here that I need to interrogate more, but for what it’s worth, where I happen to be, I’m in the mood for a kind of exercise that’s less literal, less cerebral, less imaginative, and more clearly pretend because it is more similar to the real activity. Nobody finishes a round of yoga thinking, “Now I know how to be a mountain,” but I bet a lot of machine rowers have mistakenly assumed that they could kayak right now if they tried.

Rowing is good exercise, as it turns out. It’s cardio, and it builds muscle. I’m sure it doesn’t strengthen the heart like running does, or build muscle like lifting does, but if you’re like me — basically uncoordinated, body-confused, hereditarily bad at walking, like, my mom has a habit of falling down and breaking bones while walking down the damn street, and I have scars to testify that I take after her — it’s good stuff, and if you have a lot of testosterone in your body for one reason or another, it’ll build you up.

In my case, I’m actually a little alarmed by what it’s done for me. I’m used to my clothes fitting from month to month, and yet today, they do not. Shoulders exist; pecs exist; a butt exists, which I don’t recall asking for; a series of clenchings and finger-pokings have revealed abs under my belly. As with many aspects of transition, it’s what I signed up for and what I’ve wanted all my life (except for the butt part), but it’s also confusing and embarrassing. This is another paradox of exercise: it’s the mixture of control and lack of control, where you intentionally change your body and then are annoyed that your changed body needs new pants. Butt pants!

And besides, I’m shy. I’m not used to my body displaying what I want like an LCD screen. Over the years of not transitioning, you get used to one of the consolations of not transitioning, which is that your body hides your thoughts and desires — which is useful, if they are all about looking completely different in a way you don’t think other people would like. I don’t know what you’re picturing after all this brolic description, but I haven’t changed that much to the eye, though one of my flirtier friends did observe during a recent video call that I had “shoulder meat” and needed to “visit New York.” Nonetheless, it is a different body. It is stabler, it is more forceful, and it is at a point in Uniqlo shirt sizing where the message is “I thought you’d be taller.” Possibly, it’s even a little more capable of rowing, but I wouldn’t bet a hundred dollars, if I had it.