In both the realms of quantum physics and anthropology, it’s often said that you can’t observe something without changing whatever you’re observing. It’s a profound statement—one I probably first heard watching Jurassic Park or something—and it came to mind when I watched my mother pull out a yoga mat she hadn’t used in months, and lay it in front of the television.
You see, usually, when I gently suggest she should exercise more, Mum dismisses me. In her mind, she doesn’t really see the point. “But all your kids have left home now,” I tell her, “so you’ve got the time. You really should be moving that body. It’s good for you, and you’ll sleep better.” So I suggest a few things to her: getting back into yoga, going for walks, learning to swim.
However, Mum’s a strong believer in the phenomonon of incidental exercise, and even has her own term for it: Jenny’s Exercise of the Month. If she has to chase a bus, that’s Jenny’s Exercise of the Month. If she has to walk to the grocery store three times in a day—because she forgot something each time—that back-and-forth pacing also counts towards her monthly quota.
But today, she knows she’s being observed for a story, and has scheduled some activities to make things interesting. First, she leads me through various yoga exercises, the first one being a warm-up that involves lying on her back, clutching her knees to her chest, and rocking gently, round and round.
“This is massaging my lower back,” she explains, squriming like an upturned beetle. Later, she forms a bridge with her body, her butt pointed towards the ceiling. “Now the blood’s feeding my brain.” Fifteen minutes later, she’s all done. “Well, that’s Jenny’s Exercise of the Month,” she says happily, dusting her hands.
For 32 years, Jenny was a full-time mother to five children, all of us with various conditions and special needs. The need to go to gymnastics classes; the need to attend tenpin bowling squad training. Now divorced, and her youngest child having moved out of home, Mum’s on her own, in a big empty house. Needless to say, the television is on constantly.
After yoga, when we sit watching television together, I realise we have something in common. Not a love for the small screen, but the fact we both need massages. But while I go to chiropractors and remedial massage therapists to treat my twisted muscles, she’s invested in various implements: a textured rolling-pin contraption for her feet; an ethnic wooden ball device for her hands. But the centrepiece of her holistic approach is an electronic massage machine: an orange latex cushion with rotating metal “hands” inside. Switched on, it looks like a foetus trying to claw its way out of the womb.
When I offer to book her in with a masseuse, Mum says she doesn’t like people touching her. The last time she got a massage, the woman stroked her boobs. She didn’t like that. “Anyway, I’m used to no one touching me,” she says. “It’s been a while. If anyone touched me now, I’d probably have a stroke and collapse from the shock.”
Throughout the day, when I ask what she’s up to, Mum says she’s “Busy, busy, busy.” A busy day means a packed free-to-air TV schedule. In between countless news bulletins, her afternoon viewing revolves around The Bold & The Beautiful. For a woman who will travel 100 kilometres just to see foreign arthouse movie, part of me is mystified as to why she watches a show she refers to as Staring, Staring.
“See: the whole episode, they just keep talking and staring at each other,” she explains. “Staring, staring; so much staring. They just keep staring each other.” In the middle of the show, I question whether she’s been watching too much television lately. Frustrated, she shoots back that I roll straight out of bed and hop onto my laptop straight away. “You’ve got a box; I’ve got a box,” she says, trimphantly. “So it runs in the family!”
Lacking any better response, all I can do it sit there, massaging my tired feet with something that resembles a cross between a rotating dildo and a corn-cob, thinking, “Touché, Jenny. Touché.”