My office recently moved locations. Part of adjusting to this has meant that, over the first few week, I’ve been trying out new methods of bike commuting, exploring the running routes and walking paths around the new building and looking for ways that I can incorporate exercise into my workday. One of the first things I was looking for was a good location to put up gymnastics rings. I’ve written previously about what a quick, cheap and effective tool these things are for lunch hour workouts. I was fortunate enough that my former office had a park right across the street, home to both a swing set and several trees with branches that were the right height and roughly horizontal. My new building has no such convenient swing set but, after a little bit of looking around, I was finally able to locate a suitable tree that was large and sturdy enough and had an accessible branch around which it’d be possible to loop my rings.
One day the other week, I decided to bring the rings and give it a try. Everything went fine – I put the rings up, headphones on, hammered out an initial set of muscle-ups and then took a break before the next set. While I was waiting, a guy walking down a nearby (maybe 15-20 yards) staircase was trying to catch my eye so I took off the headphones. Turned out he wanted to know where I got the rings and we got into a brief conversation about using them and different exercises they could be used for, etc. All in all, nice guy, good chat – he left and I turned back around with the intent of doing my second set when all of a sudden I see a security guard walking toward be on the sidewalk below (the tree was on a little hill, maybe 20 yards from a sidewalk and parking lot).
“Excuse me sir but do you have authorization to use that tree?” The question was so ridiculous that it took me a bit off guard. I work in a massive government department so I’m used to absurd bureaucracy, but I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Was it the tree, whose authorization I required? The Prime Minister? The Queen perhaps, as our formal head of state? I responded, perhaps a bit dickishly, that no, I hadn’t submitted a formal briefing note asking for authorization to use a tree branch at lunchtime to exercise. He didn’t get the joke and proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to use the tree in “that way” (sounds perverse, I know). I tried to show him my security pass in an attempt to assure him that I did indeed work in the building and wasn’t just someone off the street. It didn’t help however and we ended up getting into a lengthy argument on the subject. I probably said a few things that I shouldn’t have, although I did manage to refrain from saying what was really on my mind (namely that, if he’d give exercise a try sometime, perhaps he wouldn’t be so morbidly obese). Unfortunately, after arguing for a few minutes it became clear that, even if there weren’t going to be any great repercussions (I had suggested he call the police), I realized that he wasn’t going to leave and my workout was basically shot. The chance of finishing my remaining sets with any sort of intensity with this guy just standing there staring at me was about as likely as (quoting Bill Maher) trying to maintain an erection while the cat walks across the keyboard.
So I took down the rings, packed up my bag and told the guy that I wanted to talk to his boss and see something in writing (some sort of policy) that prohibited the use of tree branches for exercise. As I was packing up, one nearby onlooker, out for a smoke break on a balcony above, gave me a sympathetic nod and shouted how ridiculous it was and how he hoped I’d be victorious in my appeal. It made me feel a bit better. At least not everyone’s a tool. We went to the security office, where I spoke to someone else who wasn’t able to give me any better information, other than a definitive “well, you just can’t do that”. Ultimately I managed to get them to call someone from the building property management office. Not to name names, but the complex in which I work may or may not be managed by a certain Montreal-based company with alleged ties to a North African dictatorial regime. Perhaps that predisposed the conversation which followed...
It took another 10 minutes of waiting before two people came down to see me. By this point, I had already more than exhausted my lunch break, but I figured that I may as well keep going out of principle (even though I had decided that, in the future, I’d just walk a few minutes down the road to the parkland along the riverbank and find a tree there). The building property manager that I spoke to was a mindless automaton. He parroted his response to me without any regard for the specific situation or any willingness to think outside the box. There were concerns that I could damage the tree (ridiculous, as the tree was thick and probably 75 feet tall – it didn’t even register my presence!). Apparently there were liability concerns. I could hurt myself. I tried to argue that I could just as easily hurt myself walking down a stairwell or slipping on a wet floor in the foyer. On the rings I was perhaps a mere foot or two off the ground (soft, spongy woodchips even!). Surely as a worker here, I was covered by standard workplace insurance? What about the fitness club in the building? Why were people allowed to exercise in there and not on a tree? His response was comical. “The machines in there are designed for that purpose – the tree was not designed for that.”
WTF!!!! For what exactly was the tree ‘designed’? Was this actually an invitation for a religio-philosophical discussion on the teleology of a tree?! Did he really want to discuss the theological underpinnings of man’s dominion over nature? Perhaps the evolution of our species as largely frugivore primates with opposable thumbs, ideally suited to tree-climbing? Perhaps even the crazy hypothesis that trees evolved scalable branching structures to encourage species such as ours to seek shelter and sustenance, thus providing a vector for the transmission of their seeds (via fruit and nuts) to other locations. This all would have been interesting fodder for conversation, had I been speaking to a reasonable and flexibly-minded human being. But of course I was not. Trees were apparently not ‘designed’ for exercise – not like the plethora of ill-conceived, bulky and useless machines that populate the building’s (fee for service, of course) fitness centre. Employees are not prohibited from, and are actually encouraged to subject themselves to Smith machines, leg presses, stability balls and countless other damaging and ineffective exercise paraphernalia in that context….but god forbid a tree! I’m guessing all that fitness centre members need is a signed waiver saying that they’re medically ‘fit’ to attempt physical exercise. No one is showing them how to exercise properly. They’re turned loose on a gym full of questionable equipment and assumed to be safe. The chances of someone doing short or long term damage to themselves there is exponentially greater than the chances of me hurting myself on a tree. I even suggested to the property manager that I could sign a waiver, absolving them of any responsibility should I hurt myself. It of course fell upon deaf ears.
Having wasted enough time, I concluded the conversation by simply asking where the property line officially ends, ensuring that next time I find a tree just beyond it. Of course, if I’m feeling in the mood for a little civil disobedience, maybe I’ll try another tree on the premises and see how long it takes ‘the man’ to get me again. Or maybe just a set of push-ups in my cubicle, or the sidewalk out front....yeah that’d be safer...oh, except that’s obviously not what the ground was designed for.....