Nerds of Steel

(In a 2006 satirical essay, the former Village Voice writer Nick Sylvester chronicled these “ripsters”: “[R]ipsterism went dormant in the early naughts when post-graduates realized they could subsist on art-gallery cheese and still remain feeble chic. But when news spread that the double shot of eating Gouda and smoking cloves would accelerate heart failure, ex-ripsters switched back to veggies and bread—and weight gain. … How do you know if a ripster’s a ripster? Admittedly things are tricky, since the degree to which a ripster’s a ripster is the degree to which his ripsterdom remains elusive (i.e., ripped). Not to get all Jeff Foxworthy here, but you know you’ve spotted a ripster when the guy next to you at the gym is wearing a pair of expensive running shoes with the air cushions popped so they look worn in and a tank top that says something like “I lost my sleeves in Iraq.”)

“I think there are certain traits associated with being someone who exercises that don’t fit with the general esteem of slackerness that goes with the literary world,” a 28-year-old magazine editor told The Observer. “You don’t want to be seen as trying too hard or being vain or being someone who cares about what they look like. Because of the exertion and effort, it implies caring too much in a way that isn’t cool.”

“Isn’t the whole point of being a hipster taking pride in your Grover body?” asked a 32-year-old guy who lives in Greenpoint. “Or feigning pride, at least.”

Indeed, several of the literary world denizens contacted by The Observer demurred when asked to speak about their workout habits. “I like going to the gym and am totally embarrassed by the fact that I go to the gym, and sometimes lie about it,” said one, before refusing to be quoted in this article.

“I do not feel that there is any way to not come out looking like a total douche bag,” said another.

“I’m formerly secretly buff. Then I had a kid, and no longer can get to the gym five days a week,” said yet another. “Anyway, I definitely don’t want to be in your piece.”

“It’s contrary to the whole enterprise to be quoted in The Observer talking about how fit you are,” said Mr. Nugent, who lives in Clinton Hill. “That makes you, like, the hugest hedge-fund douche bag, like, ever.” (After Mr. Nugent ate lunch with The Observer, he e-mailed to clarify that he “would never apply the term ‘buff’” to himself.)

The only way for the buff nerd to participate publicly in physical fitness is in some sort of vaguely ironic organized sports effort, like the weekly football game in Prospect Park played by an assortment of Brooklyn literary types. Also acceptable: kickball, dodgeball (particularly at free McCarren Pool indie rock concerts), croquet, pétanque, bocce, ping-pong, four-square or potato sack races. But to take any of these games too seriously is to reveal one’s latent competitiveness, which is seemingly at odds with the values of this cohort; those are jock values!

“I went to one kickball game in McCarren Park, and one of my own teammates knocked me down while we were both playing outfield, and he didn’t trust me to get the ball,” said a 36-year-old freelance writer, who lives in Williamsburg.

Buff, and Proud?

Luke Stiles, a 33-year-old director of technology at MTV, seems to think all of these equivocations are hypocritical. Mr. Stiles, who wears oversize silver-framed “nerd” glasses and is called, barely facetiously, “the macrobiotic bodybuilder” by friends, took up cycling in college and now works out regularly at a midtown New York Sports Club near his Times Square office. (“It’s clean, etc., etc., but it’s a shitty scene.”) “I’ve been accused of all that business but I’m not too worried about that shit,” he said. “My favorite is people who clearly work out but are like, ‘Oh, I don’t do anything.’ Men or women, but I think it’s more prominent in men. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I just naturally have these pecs.’

“My experience with real intellectuals—like honest-to-goodness Ph.D.’s—they don’t give a shit,” Mr. Stiles concluded.

There’s also more than a little bit of intellectualization that goes into working out for many buff nerds, an approach to exercise that resembles nothing if not a lab report. Hypothesis: Even a nerd can become buff. Materials and Methods: Weights, running, push-ups, pull-ups. Repeat as needed. Results: Six-pack, muscled pecs. “On the first interview with Beauty and the Geek, I explained that being a true gym rat involved applying biology to real life, everything from amino acid synthesis to cellular respiration,” said Jason, from the show.

“When I’m running in the rain, Rocky-like, from Clinton Hill to the Fort Greene Crunch, I have to come up with these sort of really strange literary rationalizations for what I’m doing,” said Mr. Nugent. “It’s like, if I allow myself to be depressed and angry, I won’t put my best foot forward in my writing, so this is therapeutic, like it’s enabling me to drain myself of some sort of selfish depressive emotion.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all and I stop thinking it, but it’s necessary to get me through that five- to 10-minute run to the gym every morning.”

The 28-year-old magazine editor feels similarly. “I enjoy exercising for all of the mid-’70s-craze, endorphin-type stuff. I buy that. If I go for a week without exercising, I feel anxious and nervous. It’s kind of an addiction,” he said.