It was cool and mildly breezy around 8 PM today. So I went for a walk, and I noticed something. Though I passed a couple of hundred people, nobody else was taking a walk. There were people returning from work, people going places with purpose-laden bags, people running, people going to the store, people sipping slurpies. But nobody taking a walk. Young women working their phones, but not taking a walk. People walking their dogs, or pushing a stroller, with the virtuous air of one performing a chore for the benefit of another, but not themselves taking a walk. I was the only one taking a walk. The closest activity to “taking a walk” that I encountered was two people walking together and forgetting, for a moment, to talk to each other. The moment passed. One of them said something and they slipped back into talking rather than taking a walk.
My observation surprised me, and I tried to think back to other walks. I take a lot of walks, so there are a lot of memories to comb through. In my 13 years of taking walks in the United States, I could remember only ever seeing one native-born American taking a walk. All other examples I could remember were clearly immigrants. Middle-aged eastern European matrons strolling. Old Chinese men walking slowly with their hands behind their backs. Even elderly Americans don’t seem to take walks the way elderly immigrants do. They walk slowly, but they look like they’re doing it for the exercise. They often look resentfully at young runners.
It is not hard to take a walk. The right shoes are the ones nearest the door. The right clothes are the ones you happen to be wearing. You will not sweat. You may need a jacket if it is cold, or an umbrella if it is raining. If you pass anybody, you are not walking slowly enough for it to be “taking a walk.” If you need to make up a nominal purpose like “get more bananas from the store” you are not taking a walk.
Taking walks is the entry drug into the quiet, solitary heaven of idleness (the next level up is “sitting on a bench without a view”). For modern Americans, idleness is a shameful, private indulgence. If they attempt it in public, they are stricken by social anxiety. They seem to fear that the slow, solitary, and obviously purposeless amble that marks “taking a walk” signals social incompetence or a life unacceptably adrift. If a shopping bag, gym bag, friend or dog cannot be manufactured, nominal non-idleness must be signaled through an ostentatious “I have friends” phone call, or email-checking. If all else fails, hands must be placed defiantly in pockets, to signal a brazen challenge to anyone who dares look askance at you, “Yeah, I’m takin’ a walk! You got a problem with that?”
In America, visible idleness is a luxury for the homeless, the delinquent and immigrants. The defiantly tautological protest, “I have a life,” is quintessentially American. The American life does not exist until it is filled up.
Even a pause at a bench must be justified by a worthwhile view or a chilled drink.
Worthwhile. Now, there’s an American word. Worth-while. Worth-your-while. The time value of money. Someone recently remarked that the iPad has lowered the cost of waiting. Americans everywhere heaved a sigh of relief, as their collective social anxiety dipped slightly. The rest of the world groaned just a little bit.
The one American I remember seeing taking a walk was Tom Hales, then a professor at the University of Michigan. He was teaching the differential geometry course I was auditing that semester. One dark, solitary Friday, while the rest of America was desperately trying to demonstrate to itself that it had a life, I was taking a walk in an empty, desolate part of the campus. I saw Hales taking a walk on the other side of the street. He did not look like he was pondering Deep Matters. He merely looked like he was taking a walk.
That year he proved the Kepler conjecture, a famous unsolved problem dating back to 1611. A beautifully pointless problem about how to stack balls. I like to think that Kepler must have enjoyed taking walks too.
[Addendum: A fascinating discussion of this post has developed on Hacker News]