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Seen, but Not Heard

Is freedom of speech going out the gym window? The reason you haven?t seen this column in a while is that Teagan has taken a vow of silence. As her husband I have a duty to support her when something bothers her, but when she came home one day and told me

The reason you haven’t seen this column in a while is that Teagan has taken a vow of silence. As her husband I have a duty to support her when something bothers her, but when she came home one day and told me what had happened to her in the gym, it was so shocking, absurd and downright un-American, I could hardly believe it.

She said she was on the chest machine, minding her own business, when a woman came up and asked her what the machine was for. Teagan began to show her how to use it, and instantly one of the gym’s trainers was all over them.

‘You can’t train people here,’ the man said to Teagan. ‘That’s my job. If she needs help, she can come to me.’

Teagan tried to explain that she wasn’t trying to take the man’s job and that all she was doing was answering one specific question. But the man wasn’t listening. He said that if she did it again, if she answered any questions about training in the gym, she’d lose her membership.

Where do I start? How about with the First Amendment, the one that guarantees free speech? Yeah, I know there are reasonable limits to that freedom, but what’s so unreasonable about talking about exercise in a gym? What if you were in a restaurant and someone asked you what you thought would be better, fish or chicken, and the waiter suddenly zipped in and said that if anyone’s going to be talking about food around there, it’ll have to be him?

What are people supposed to talk about in the gym? The weather? Celebrity divorces? Anything but training? Maybe we should make up code words for squats and curls. Or create veiled references for presses and crunches. Are gyms supposed to be like China, a place where you can talk about anything except communism’the elephant in the room that everyone is supposed to keep quiet about?

Maybe they’re worried about liability. They could be afraid that if Teagan shows some woman how to stretch her hamstrings and the woman tries it and hurts herself, she’ll sue the gym. Like hell she will. She’d sue Teagan. More likely, she wouldn’t sue anyone at all because she’d have the sense to know that if she hurts herself, it’s her own fault. If that doesn’t occur to her, her lawyer would almost certainly tell her that she can’t sue over advice she asked for and didn’t pay a cent for.

Chances are, it’s really all about money. The gym’s membership fee is apparently not enough. They want you to hire one of their trainers, too, at anywhere from $50 to $70 a session.

When I called Teagan’s gym, I was told that it had a strict policy: no outside trainers, even if it’s your own training partner who wants to show you some new moves at no charge.

The employee I spoke with noted that there is probably some unauthorized personal training that goes on anyway but those who are doing it are very discreet.

Great. Going to the gym has now become an experience right out of 1984’you’ve got to watch what you say and always be looking over your shoulder. And you get to pay more than $900 a year for the privilege.

When you pay that much for a membership, shouldn’t you get something beyond mere access to the facilities? Like maybe the right to talk with another member about physical fitness? Or to answer a question or two without having to worry about being thrown out? Beyond that, aren’t gyms more than just exercise facilities? Aren’t they also social institutions? If there’s a pleasant, convivial atmosphere in a gym, you’re going to be a lot more likely to spend time there. But who wants to spend time in a place where, if you happen to look fit, you’re automatically suspected of being an undercover personal trainer and constantly harassed?

At our previous gym it worked differently. Once you bought your membership, you did as you pleased. You could talk about training with anyone you wanted to, and train with anyone you pleased, provided he or she was also a member. It worked fine.

So why aren’t we still going there? When the owner heard that a big new gym was going to open nearby, he got scared and closed shop. I still curse him for doing that. But I don’t care if all of my 160 pounds settle in my ass: I’m not going to that new gym again. Not until they remember what country they’re in.

As for Teagan’s vow of silence, if that continues for another day or two, I think I can handle it.

Editor’s note: Stan Berkowitz is a television writer who’s just received his seventh Emmy nomination. Everything he knows about physical fitness he learned from Teagan.

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