I bet you’re sitting as you read this. Well, good. Please stay where you are.
Sitting, it seems, has gone the way of the triple-bacon sandwich. It’s bad for your health, a lousy habit, the new smoking, say myriad medical reports, which warn that prolonged periods on one’s derriere increase your chances of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
To which I say, thanks for the health tip. We must move more. I get it. But this is a column about the pleasures of sitting; I am making a stand.
Just the other day, I was sitting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, thinking how glorious the act of it is, how it possesses a certain innate regality. There I was, a Hercule Poirot minus the mustache, behind a fern, watching people come and go. I was a still point in the parade of a thousand human interactions: those men in the corner, facing each other over martinis in wingback chairs; elegant ladies entering with armfuls of shopping bags; the polite waiters in their brown uniforms, dipping down to ask if the seated woman in the hat would like another flute of Champagne. And the room, like most, asks you to take a seat in it, to take in its fabled design, the dark paneling, the sparkly chandeliers, the ghost of Dorothy Parker. The space was like a warm bath. And you never stand in a bath, now do you?
On a comfortable divan, I draped myself, one leg crossed over the other, my dress fanned out over my knees, an arm along the back, the other employed to lift a glass of malbec. The body is so perfectly designed for sitting, hinged in all the right places, capable of instantly producing a handy lap, bending here and there, allowing the contemplation of one’s very pretty, expensive new shoe by the lifting of a foot. I felt like a magnificent Alessi device.
I know that medical professionals have our best interests at heart when they describe the perils of a sedentary life. According to the Mayo Clinic, 50 to 70 per cent of Americans spend six or more hours a day on their duffs. If that amount could be cut in half, people could reportedly add two years to their lives. Even two hours of continuous sitting increases one’s risk of developing chronic conditions. And exercise before or after does nothing to mitigate the risks, they say.
But I ask you, how in the world would things get done without sitting? To be sure, workplace culture is changing, as walking meetings (requiring people to stroll, chew gum, think and talk all at the same time!) and standing desks become more common. And that’s all fine. But what would become of literature? Every writer is familiar with – or should be, anyway – the trusted practice called AOC (or Ass On Chair). During the act of writing, there’s the temptation, when you just can’t sit a minute more in front of a blank screen, to get the sentences flowing by going out shopping or walking the dog.
But that’s really procrastination.
Writing happens in front of a computer on your fanny, I’m afraid to say. This column, so far, has taken 2.5 hours in a chair.
Rodin’s most famous sculpture, The Thinker, wasn’t standing, was he? He needed his knee to prop his elbow on, to hold his chin and so on. Many poets understand the relationship between thinking and sitting. “I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world,” wrote Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass.
“I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen,” begins a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien.
On sitting, I am in agreement with Lewis Lapham’s view on smoking. “Cigarettes are life,” the author and former editor of Harper’s magazine once told me when he was in Toronto to promote a book. The 79-year-old, who now edits Lapham’s Quarterly, smokes two packs a day, having started at the age of 17. Recently, when asked by a reporter why he hasn’t quit, he explained, “It’s a childish unwillingness to go along with authority, really. I resent being told that something is prohibited, you know … I resent governesses and government surveillance in general.”
Indeed, living is bad for your health, if you start to think about all the things we’re told not to do.
Regarding sitting, there has long been meaning to the act, of course. In my childhood, my parents would admonish us to get up from the sofa and stop being “lumps on a log.” It was thought of as lazy. To some, sitting suggests a lack of participation in the act of living.
They are choosing to sit out this particular dance. The boys in my family were taught to stand when a lady entered the room.
To remain seated was disrespectful.
And as time marches on, sitting suggests surrender to the challenges of aging. Walk into a room of elderly people and few are standing.
In 2007, in an interview with Christopher House, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, I asked him why dance is so emotional, producing a powerful response. “Movement really is life,” he told me. “If you can’t move, that’s the end, both in real terms and as a metaphor. We just slow down and then, eventually, all movement is gone.”
This is true, but to be human is also to take a seat on occasion, to be still for a while and to think about what it all means.