22 May 2015

Some healthy competition

A few weeks ago, the NYTimes magazine focused an issue on walking around NYC (April 23, 2015). Contributors shared some favorite city walks, while other articles explored how NYC pedestrians and cars co-exist, and how much distance urban rats actually cover in their scurrying about the Big Apple.  A small collection of human New Yorkers were given fitness trackers to reflect the distance they cover on foot each day (see Sweeney, Camille. "City of 10,000 steps.").  Their short profiles in the paper edition of the magazine indicated how much of the walkers' daily walking distance was achieved often just by getting to and around work.  I found myself wistfully remembering my similarly pedestrian existence in Aix-en-Provence, France, where most of my errands were on foot, and even getting to the (single) family car required a walk down three flights of stairs and across a city block.  I didn't have to plan to walk, walking just happened.  Sometimes the walking was exhausting but overall walking everywhere enriched the social experience of getting to know a city and its people and customs (and it seemed to be good for my physical fitness too).

Back in the States, I am finding that more and more, I have to create reasons to walk and places to walk to because my daily life is so chair-bound as a professor or car-bound as my children's chauffeur.  The services that I need regularly are also no longer difficult to access without a car. I shop online, I renew licenses and turn in paperwork online.  A walk to the post office has become rare.  This hearkens back to the assertion made in a Slate magazine article several years ago, that walking has been engineered out of existence (see Vanderbilt, Tom. "The Crisis in American Walking, April 2012; I cited this in an earlier post on walking in France, A pied April 2012).  Indeed, without my standing date to walk for an hour with a friend several mornings a week, and occasional spontaneous walks, I am fairly inactive in comparison to my life in France or even to my life in Seattle a few years earlier when I walked my kids to elementary school every day.  In my current situation, I simply don't need to exert myself to accomplish daily life.  Unfortunately, this appears to be detrimental to my waistline (as others have also experienced).  Clever people at Northwest companies like Synapse, Nike, Microsoft must have seen this coming, because they have been hard at work at reconceptualizing walking, or re-engineering it, into a game-like activity, rather like a leisure sport. Now we can wear fitness trackers on our bodies--the currently popular ones are wrist bands--and try to meet daily goals (10,000 steps or about 4.5 miles is the goal on the Fitbit tracker, the one I took over from my spouse a few months ago).  Progress can be tracked by looking at the number of blinking lights on the wristband, or by checking the actual number of steps on a smartphone that is hooked up to the tracker by Bluetooth connection.  A strangely satisfying sustained vibration on the wristband indicates when the target has been met.  That alone is somehow motivating; NYC walker Chang who tried out the Fitbit for a week reported that she'd stand in her living room and do jumping jacks if she hadn't hit her 10,000 steps by the end of her day (see Sweeney above), and I've seen a funny picture on Facebook of my cousin's motivated wife going up and down the steps in her home one evening in an effort to meet her step goal.  My neighbor and I have been known to pop out together for a quick 350 step walk to meet our daily goals.  To appeal to Boy or Girl Scout types, some fitness trackers proffer digital badges and accolades when particular cumulative distances have been covered, while competitive types can share their distances on Facebook or become Fitbit friends, tracking and competing with each other via their smartphones. These same friends might even try to one-up each other by sporting the best Fitbit bling, or jewelry attached to the relatively ugly rubber wristbands. Designer Fitbit bling is available at Nordstrom, while less expensive alternatives can be found on Etsy: see mine below.

What makes this sociological?  For one, approaching the act of walking this way, as something that we do for fun (okay, maybe to achieve a relatively difficult to measure outcome--better health), and that is to be tracked, with the goal of the more, the better, is definitely a reflection of our time and of relative privilege.  It seems unlikely that our ancestors would understand why our fitness goals are to take as many steps as possible, when reducing the number of steps it would take to get somewhere or to accomplish some task has been a major goal for much of human history.  People in our society and outside it who are without access to good, reliable transportation, who must rely on a great deal of legwork each day, are also not likely to appreciate the attractions of counting daily steps for fitness. They may also not understand how fairly worthless markers like blinking lights and flashing digital badges are motivating.  They might better understand the motivation derived from competing with one's self or with other people, but even this motivation appears to be fairly flimsy, dependent on battery life. A friend and I have both admitted giving up on walking for the rest of the day on occasions when our fitness tracker batteries have run out!  We seem to have reached a point where we just don't see the point of continuing, if our steps aren't going to count towards our daily total.  I'm not sure what that says about me, but I'll ponder it as I work on my step totals over this long Memorial Day weekend, on a fresh battery charge.

28 April 2015


We live in a time where we disclose a great deal about ourselves in public spaces such as on social media. We tell each other what we had for breakfast, how many miles we've run and our route, how our children are doing, and what we think about particular news stories.   Sometimes we reveal too much, as I had to remind a student recently who forgot to filter his information as he recounted his day of privilege and oppression for an assignment.  The presentation of self matters: you never know who is going to see what you put out there online.  Will it be a future employer?  Someone you care about?  Manage those impressions and avoid TMI! (Too much information!)

The student's ability to filter appropriately may be influenced by this time in which he is coming of age, but it is also affected by his youth.  The ability to filter or to selectively disclose is something we learn from experience.  I noticed author Sherman Alexie doing this skillfully at his talk at Cascadia College yesterday.  He draws heavily from his life experience in his writing and speaking, but the moments that he describes are embellished, fictionalized, drawn out, to make bigger points. Yesterday's story about the cherry red lip gloss and young love felt very personal, very revealing, but Alexie was really talking about complicated social identities, about race and poverty, about being an immigrant to the culture.  His first love wasn't really named Lori, (and she may not have even been his first love), but the messages intertwined in his re-telling were real, honest, and sometimes painfully so.  The story is how he gets to the points he wants to make or offer.

Alexie's books for sale after his talk at Cascadia College
Sometimes, the problem isn't filtering but unraveling and finding information.  Despite the ubiquity of social media, there are times when the big picture and the grand conclusions are not completely knowable, and it is the journey along the way that grabs us.  I picked up a book recently in which this is exactly what happened, where the author's meticulous research process was part of the story, perhaps the more revealing part, because it shows us that we can dig and dig for information, but sometimes we can't get to the very bottom of a story.  In this case, time and place and context complicate our ability to know about a life, especially one that was so carefully guarded, at a time when documents were on paper and easily lost or destroyed.  In Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France, writer Nicholas Shakespeare sets out to discover what really happened to his aunt,  a fairly ordinary, if beautiful, woman stuck in France during the Occupation, (New York Times review here).  By the end, we don't know exactly what happened to his aunt.  Talk about impression management! Priscilla was discreet, she was the master of what the French call les non-dits (the unsaid things).  We do have tantalizing details of what may have happened and we have a story about research discoveries, detours, and dead-ends.  (It's reminiscent of the metawriting in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks where author Rebecca Skloot also reflects on her research processes.)  In the case of aunt Priscilla, there's no great spoiler alert necessary for what happened to her--the story is as fully realized as it will ever be.

Will the story recounted in the podcast Serial that I've just started be similarly ambiguous, or will it come with a tidy ending, with the full story and details?  Already, the difficulty with reconstructing events that happened not quite two decades earlier, but before many of us had Internet profiles and facebook feeds, has grabbed my attention.  I know I can go find the spoilers on the Internet for this one, but sometimes the story along the way is as interesting as the discoveries at the end.