Just thinking

In support of push-ups -- whether I can do them or not


An agitated flurry rippled across NPR land in August 2012 when a Virginia woman discussing the upcoming presidential election told a reporter that she didn't like Michelle Obama. She didn't act like a first lady should act, and she didn't look like a first lady should look, the woman said.

The apparently racial comment caused fur to stand up on the backs of many NPR listeners. They criticized the remark and NPR's decision to air it.

Two months later, the same NPR reporter happened to run across the woman again, and she clarified her comments.

"She doesn't look or act" like a first lady should, said the woman, whose name is Bobbie Lussier. "I mean, can you imagine, you know, Kennedys or the Bushes or anybody doing pushups on the floor? I mean, you know. That's just not a first lady."

A lot of listeners thought her earlier comments were racially motivated, the reporter said. To which Lussier said, "I don't care what color she is. I mean she's more about showing her arms off. ... I think that's very inappropriate for a lot of functions that she goes to."

First, I'm grateful that Lussier refrained from saying she didn't care whether the first lady is pink or green or purple. Not hearing those words was a huge relief, like watching the police car I thought was pulling me over stop another car instead.

Mostly, though, I marveled at Lussier's objections. She doesn't think the American first lady should be physically fit? She's offended by Mrs. Obama's buffness?

Personally, I've always admired the first lady's arms. They're precisely what arms were meant to be: strong and useful. If Mrs. Obama suddenly decided to, say, exchange the furniture in the Blue Room with the furniture in the Green Room, she wouldn't have to call Buildings and Grounds; she could sling chairs and tables around all by herself.

Furthermore, the Obamas have two daughters who need parents not afraid to model the kind of behavior that results in arms so toned an entire nation notices them.

Except Bobbie Lussier thinks toned arms give the wrong impression. As for Mrs. Obama's message "Let's move!" I suppose she'd rather hear "Let's move straight to the couch." Or "Let's move little if at all."

President Kennedy took over a physical fitness program in 1961, and before long schoolkids nationwide were doing sit-ups and pull-ups and running insane distances out on the ball fields, watched over by adults with clipboards. It was all very everyone-out-for-calisthenics, but I for one didn't become a true runner for another 28 years.

What I did do was play. Outdoors, in the backyards of my neighborhood. The neighborhood kids -- we seemed to be a huge group, but in fact we numbered seven to nine -- played the usual yard games: Colored Eggs, Statues, Duck, Duck, Goose.

We also had games peculiar to the neighborhood: The Around-the-Block Game, for which we divided into two teams and spent the rest of the afternoon plotting against each other. Camping around the Block, which involved pulling a wagon full of gear -- doll blankets, snacks, water -- around, you guessed it, the block, stopping here and there for the night.

Sometimes we played house, a complex game in which people drew from a hat what age they'd pretend to be in the game, what name they'd take and what sort of personality they'd have. Sometimes we'd spend most of the day making these decisions and very little of it playing house.

But my point is, we were outside nearly all the time, swinging Wiffle Ball bats or drawing hopscotch grids or -- when my sister was still in charge of the neighborhood -- tying a clothesline to two trees and holding it taut while she attempted to walk across it, holding a clothes pole for balance.

I often read that children don't play outdoors anymore. They go to Parks and Recreation classes or play Youth Athletics Association sports, but they don't bundle to the teeth after the first snow of the winter and spend six hours floundering through every drift they can find and sledding down somebody's sloping side yard and making a snow house with several rooms connected by tunnels.

I wasn't thinking about calories in those days, but I was using up every single one I absorbed. The years of fretting about calories and weight and dieting and self-denial were still ahead.

They began when I stopped playing outside. And now going outside to play isn't done anymore.

Our first lady has taken some heat for having sculpted arms, but she won't get any criticism from me. In fact, I'll be glad to show her how to play my neighborhood's version of Statues. It involves a lot of performance art, and then all the statues have to run over to that tree.

Write to ThisWeek News copy editor and columnist Margo Bartlett at mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.