Essay: Rowing Nowhere

A guest essay by Hank Stephenson
Rowing Nowhere Illustration Man On Home Rowing Machine In Blue Shirt
Courtesy photo.

Not all bad decisions are snap decisions. Sometimes I think for a very long time before I do something stupid. And when it came to the rowing machine, I had my reasons.

My exercise lifeline during my two (and counting) Wisconsin winters had closed due to the pandemic. I knew that purchasing some home equipment was the right thing to do, because things happen to me when I don’t get enough exercise.

First, I burst into song and start to dance around the apartment (more than usual), and my wife gives me a look that says “please God, no.” Second, I develop an overwhelming desire to pick up my wife and squeeze her as hard as I can, which is not advisable. Third, I feel phantom aches in my chest and start to Google rare diseases. It unravels from there.

So, toward the beginning of the pandemic, I took a tape measure to our apartment and decided that the closet could accommodate a vertically folded rowing machine, to be rolled out in front of the TV for bouts of Netflix and not-chilling. I researched, researched, researched, searching for something between the hyper-modern machines equipped with “water flywheels” and rinky-dink contraptions that look like they should be advertised on late-night TV “for five small payments of $19.99.” I found it, bought it and felt a brief burst of pride at outsmarting my own crazy: Come winter, this rowing machine would save my wife a lot of airtime.

It didn’t take long for buyer’s remorse to set in. The machine was not as easy to fold and unfold as the advertising copy suggested, so every exercise session was sandwiched between frustrated assembly and angry disassembly. Even at its highest resistance levels, the exercise experience was unsatisfying — more like jerking a loose chain toward my chest than graceful rowing. But the worst problem, the one that I should have easily predicted, was cabin fever.

I discovered that I would do just about anything to leave my apartment, including taking walks in quasi-dangerous temperatures. There are things to look at outside — beautiful, strange things that a North Carolina native still can’t take for granted, like frozen lakes and snowplows efficiently cutting through the streets. Neighbors out wrestling with their snowblowers would pause to let me pass, raising a hand in greeting or saying something nice and Midwestern like, “Cold enough for ya?”

Compared to that, rowing in front of the TV began to feel downright depressing. I could imagine someone taking a snapshot of me while I dripped sweat onto the hardwood floor as I watched Chris Hemsworth cut a bloody swath through a developing nation — then submitting that photo to Sad Man Magazine, to be featured alongside candid photos of Ben Affleck juggling coffees.

So I disrupted the narrative — by which I mean I sold the rowing machine on Facebook Marketplace. I won’t lie; it gave me an entrepreneurial rush. When it was done, and the nice young woman who bought it was driving it away in her SUV, I enjoyed a walk around the block, stopping to take pictures of my legs sunk knee-deep in the snow to send to my family and friends in North Carolina. “Wow!” they would all say, and it made my life feel a little bit like an adventure. I guess I needed that.

Hank Stephenson is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine.

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