For years I've been thinking nothing of forking out $50-plus a month for a gym membership so I can drag myself out of bed at 6 a.m. weekdays and beat myself ragged with weights and other assorted torture instruments designed to keep urbanites like me fit.

And yet, when my wife Brenda and I talked about plunking down $40 for a year's membership at The Rooms the other day so we can stay not just physically but culturally fit as well, the miser in me briefly cleared his throat.

I ignored him. He's never around when it counts, when we go to another restaurant we really can't afford or splurge on something else we don't need. He never said no to my gym membership. Why would he try to say no to The Rooms?

So we joined and promptly did the round of the exhibits.

It reminded me of a previous visit some years ago with an old friend of mine. We'd come to see a collection of prints and sketches by various artists featuring scenes from Gros Morne.

"I like what's come out of the generation that shaped the arts since this place became part of Canada," I remember saying as we stood in front of the first wall of prints. "I like its raw energy, its ties to the still breathing past. You know, its refusal to be seduced into the anxieties and abstractions and boredom of trendy individualism. There's a basic innocence and taste for real shapes here which to me lie at the heart of all good art. Above all I like it because it still has the quality of common property."

"Oh, come on," my friend replied. "You know better that that. This place is a curse, and I tell you why. Pride is one of the deadly sins in art as it is in life. And pride of place is the worst.

"Look," he continued, sweeping the wall of prints with a gesture of his hands. "Have you ever noticed how few local artists bother with depicting people? It's always about place. Where's the search for the human condition in all this? Why, you can literally smell the fear of self-discovery, the dread that after all the old betrayals and sufferings have been trotted out one more time, we're no different from the rest of the world. A bit more honest self-reflection might tell us what this famed friendliness of ours is really all about - nothing more or less than cruel necessity and the follies with which we respond. But no, we're so used to this place staring us down, we mistake our submission to it for love."

I couldn't let that go unchallenged.

"You're not being fair," I said.

"Fair?" my friend replied. "What's there to be fair about? How much more time are we going to waste on this kind of stuff?"

We drifted apart after that, each taking in the rest of the exhibit at his own pace.

We met up again at the coffee shop for sticky toffy pudding and tea and picked a table at the windows with the city and the harbour laid out spectacularly below us.

"How much like a painting," I couldn't resist pointing out. "You see, all the city with its quaint streets and colourful houses, its jumble of roofs and chimneys, and the odd cluster of modest high-rises can't distract from the basic, brutal shapes around it — the cliffs and scrubby highland of the South Side, the massive rock gate of The Narrows, the barren crest of Signal Hill. There will never be enough city to undo those primitive shapes. They will forever be the first art, the first inspiration."

From the way my friend kept stabbing at his pudding without replying I could tell he was done with the topic. I said to myself, fine, we were paying good money for our after-culture treat, and there was no point in spoiling it. So I changed the subject.

But I knew, and he knew that I knew, that I was right.