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Black Lamb


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Embracing the vertical

January 1st, 2014


I’ve given up sitting.

I spend my days upright now, like a solid old piano, a sturdy fir, a non-leaning tower of no pizza. I read standing up, I write standing up, I eat standing up. Other than when I’m in bed, or when I’m in the bathtub, I stand for all but an hour or so every day. I do sit down when I talk to clients at my desk, because standing would seem too preacher-posturey. For all other things, though, standing seems appropriate, even “natural,” and I don’t know why I sat all those years. Now I have space around me, because chairs and couches don’t clutter the area. I can change positions while standing. I can balance on one leg; I can tap dance, I can lean or stretch. I can slouch. I can shift my weight.

I can see farther than I did when sitting down.

Most of my work is done at a computer, so both my so-called “work stations” are set up for standing. I didn’t buy or build anything; I stacked boxes. Function over aesthetics. I have to say, I like it a lot. It’s been many months now, and I really like it. Going back (or down) would seem really odd. I think, having taken a stand, I am committed.

Proponents of the vertical life might say I breathe better, that my posture is better and my blood pressure is lower or my core is stronger. They might say I am “healthier.” I have no evidence for that. It’s possible I think better, but I was always a very adept thinker — in fact, I got to thinking: why do humans sit? When did they start? In representations of early humans, we see them walking, running, and crouching. We don’t see them sitting.

More thinking: why do humans have buttocks? Chimpanzees and gorillas don’t. Most hominids don’t and never have; yet our progenitors had them, before the invention of chairs, before horses became means of transportation, certainly before anyone sat on a bicycle, and even before, I surmise, a rock or log became an object for butt plant (another reason standing is better, for me, than sitting: my nether cheeks are not well padded).

Well, it turns out humans have buttocks not because we sit but because we run. We run bipedally, and gorillas/bonobos/chimps/orangutans don’t. (But I wouldn’t try to outrun a chimpanzee, nor should you.) The buttocks of Homo sapiens distinguish that species from Australophithecus. But it’s been many centuries since “sitting on one’s ass” has replaced “sprinting through forests” as a key use for the glutei maximi. Nowadays, in industrialized countries, people sit.

And sit some more.

And still more.

Blood flow slows and inflammation grows. The trendy term is “sitting disease.” Yeep.

I found a photo of a clay chair model dating to about 4,700 BC. But chairs do not appear anywhere in cave drawings, and it’s clear that chairs are a “western” addiction. In many cultures, and for many eras, a chair was a symbol of status: judges and potentates sat in chairs, as did the elite who were entitled to repose or to literally elevated positions. But humans sit in other parts of the world now, too, not merely in the west; it’s just that they, or many of them, sit on the ground or on the floor.

Dr. Galen Cranz, who teaches environmental design at U.C. Berkeley, wrote a book called The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, and she takes issue with almost everything chairlike, suggesting that right-angle furniture for sitting isn’t practical in any imagined sense. There is no way to sit without creating stress or pain or discomfort of some kind. In the last thirty years or so, designers and “chair potatoes” have played with the idea of beanbags, recliners, mushroom seats, exercise balls, pillars, and perches. I can’t say I’m a fan of any of them. There are even chair versions of the earth shoe. There is the Balans kneeling chair.

And maybe no one should “chair” a meeting or committee: when did chair morph into a verb? Let’s “head” a committee and table the verb “chair.”

Who decided it was better to sit than to stand? Why do we not drive cars or ride bikes in an upright position? After all, you stand on a Segway. You stand at a podium. You stand when you deliver your valedictory speech. Why did we start sitting? Well, because standing is hard on the body. Our spines weren’t designed for it. One big reason workers began sitting about a century ago was to avoid feet problems, leg problems, and spine problems. So what you need to do, I’m told, is alter your position. Sit some, stand some, walk some, stretch a lot (popular term is “postural rotation” but that makes me think of car tires or 33-1⁄3-rpm vinyl platters). I say rotate your dances, too, from frug to samba to cha-cha to boogaloo to mashed potato to bossa nova and salsa. Sit, stand, jog; but don’t lie down. And don’t forget reggae (thank you, Mr. Marley): “Get up, stand up, stand up.…”

“Sitting disease” has been in the news for a while now, and the refrain is “kill your chair before it kills you.” Such warnings didn’t necessarily precipitate my lifestyle change, nor can I attribute it to the fact that sitting sometimes makes my legs and feet burn and spark like a hair dryer tossed in a bathtub full of Epsom salts; or the fact that my coccyx is a lifelong antagonist. I just came to a place where sitting felt indolent and somehow “wrong” for anything but short periods. I like to be vertical.

And how can I do standup comedy while sitting down?

There is nothing new about the so-called “standing desks.” Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson used them. Another “taking a stand” luminary: Leonardo da Vinci (who also foresaw bicycles, so why didn’t he design a stand-and-cycle unit?). Michelangelo, who had to paint supine in the Sistine Chapel, supposedly scribbled while standing. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a model of fitness if not of lucidity, slung his bombastic “snowflake” memos from a stand-up desk. In fact, he assaulted the “pansy” limits on how long Guantanamo interrogators could keep detainees on their feet in the so-called “stress position.” Rummy blared, “I stand for eight to ten hours a day,” so why, he wondered, are the purported terrorists allowed to sit after only four hours? This isn’t cruelty, Rummy snarled.

Whatever you think of his political stance, you have to admit he didn’t spill out of his suits.

Standing desks are the rage at such trendy corporations as google, facebook, and Twitter. There are desks that convert from standing to sitting with the touch of a button. (Where is the “eject” button,
I wonder?) Mutual of Omaha and Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield have installed desks with treadmills — what? no whack-a-mole?) — so workers can walk while doing cubicle duty. You can’t walk at a pace of more than two miles an hour (sprinting would make the coffee spill), but treadmill desks are a boon to health. Work-related injury claims decline in number, so it’s worth the investment to put workers on a moving walkway.

One of my favorite anecdotes, cited in Bloomberg Businessweek, is from A.J. Jacobs, who wrote Drop Dead Healthy, a chronicle of his pursuit of perfect health (and a bit of a treatise on the wellness cult). He jury-rigged his “walking desk” while researching the book, and he has continued using it, balancing his laptop on two photo albums and a large toy train whistle (!) stacked on a treadmill. I love this image! He says he tries to get in five miles a day. If he sits, he falls asleep.
Jacobs is king of the so-called stunt memoir (he’s the guy who read the entire unabridged Encyclopedia Britannica) but I don’t think the treadmill desk is purely stunt. I am all for standing. So far I haven’t gotten shin splints or strained Achilles or spinal curvature from being upright all day, and unless my legs are amputated, I won’t return to sitting.

Are you sitting as you read this? Is your blood pressure 115/75 or lower? Are your triglycerides in quadruple digits? Is your midsection spilling out onto your keyboard or lap cat? Repent! Repent! Rise and repent! •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 11th Anniversary Issue, Browning | Link to this Entry


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