Benchwarming: A Sit-Down Tour of New York City
Don't just do something, sit there.
-- Zen Proverb
The Wrong Way Regatta
A string of benches in Central Park follow the east shore of the rowing pond, just north of the graceful Bow Bridge. If you spend 45 minutes sitting on one of these benches, I can promise that you'll leave with an enhanced sense of self-esteem. It won't be the kind of self-esteem that follows accomplishment, nor the sort you might acquire after ten years sitting on a saggy psychiatrist's couch. No, this is a quick hit of good feelings with a half-life in ratio to your time spent on the bench; it is a rush of superiority that comes at the expense of others' inadequacies. But at least it's legal.
To achieve this therapeutic effect, you need to know the basic law that governs the act of rowing a small boat. I apologize to those readers for whom this lesson is unnecessary. The law is thus: Always row facing the stern of the boat. Although this makes it difficult to see where you're headed, it is the only way you will return to the boathouse without losing the full use of your back and arms. If you row facing the bow, you have to push the flat, stern end of the boat through the water. This activity is the equivalent of cutting day-old bread with the flat side of a knife -- but on a much grander scale. If you row facing the bow, you'll check several times to make sure you're not dragging an anchor. You'll curse your gym -- with its exorbitant monthly fees -- for it has seemingly done nothing to increase your strength or endurance. And even so, you still won't be able to see in which direction your boat is headed.
It's fortunate for those of us on shore that not all mariners are privy to this ancient secret of the waves; it is from this ignorance that flows the esteem-plumping quality of these remarkable benches. So sit down, get comfortable, and let the serotonin reuptake inhibition begin.
Watch the muscle-bound hunk wearing a tank top row facing the bow. He gives each stroke enough thrust to burst the tribal tattoos inked around each of his biceps. His girlfriend, sunning herself in a prone position, is oblivious to massive energy he exerts to force the boat forward at a rate of 20 yards a minute.
And not far off, an overloaded boat circles like driftwood, unable to free itself from a feeble eddy that pulls it ashore not five yards from our perch. At its helm, a slight man in a sweat soaked T-shirt is wrong-way rowing with all his might. His face is cherry red; his trembling arms make slow, shallow gashes in the water. Will we rise from our bench and offer him the simple guidance that will release him from this agony?
Sure -- we could. But we must consider the embarrassment our meddling would inflict. Nothing is more important to a man than his pride, after all. No, it's better not to interfere with the ecosystem of the lake. And much more fun, too. We must only hope that someone on board knows CPR.
But wait! A boat emerges from behind a grassy island. Its pilot faces the bow, but somehow his craft cuts forward through the water. Has this intrepid seaman reversed the laws of backward rowing? Relax: He's facing forward, but his strokes are re- versed. He uses his powerful pull stroke to with- draw the oars from the water and then engages his much weaker push strokes to power the craft forward. This technique will suffuse his arms with muscle-deadening lactic acid in less than 25 yards. Shortly, this guy will require a pond patrol rescue and will have to rely on someone else to comb his hair for the next few days. But he did give our egos a scare for one brief, terrifying moment.
But then we fall back into our euphoric state, watching a dad rowing his young son across the still waters. Dad shows his boy the finer points of wrong-way rowing and we smile as they inch across the pond, comforted by the knowledge that the next generation is being groomed for our amusement. We are assured that these benches will always provide a place for us to bask in a heady, if undeserved, sense of superiority.