Walking With JT

I never understood how vital daily exercise is for prisoners until my own home confinement.

With sheltering in place a way of life for the indefinite future, getting out to take a walk and embrace a change of scenery is the highlight of my day. I look forward to my walk, savoring the sense of freedom it brings to our new normal.

I’ve been walking, or “pacing” as one of my brother-in-law’s calls it, since my late ’30s, crediting it with leveling me out when I’m under stress. I walked the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard at dawn every day when dealing with my fussy and colicky infant daughter, finding it the only source of solace in my day.

And I’ve used walking to navigate other stressful times, including the deaths of my father and in-laws within five years of each other. During one particularly bad patch, I remember walking and muttering different mantras, including “I feel out of control.” Somehow, just saying the words in time with my feet helped.

Someone once told me that nicotine is among the hardest drugs to quit because it can relax or stimulate you, depending upon your needs.

Walking is the same thing for me. I can tune out and shut my mind off by blasting music, or tap into my deepest thoughts and come up with startling revelations in silence on my walks. A lot depends on my mood and state of mind, what I need on a particular day. Lots of times, I have no idea what that is until the walk is over.

I do 95 percent of my walking alone, mainly because I want to escape on my terms and my schedule often doesn’t jibe with others. But there are days that I can’t bear the thought of walking alone, texting siblings or friends to keep me company.

The other day, I called my sister Patty to ask if she’d walk with me, confessing “I’m lonely.” That’s a hard thing for me to admit, though a lot of other people feel the same way these days. And though I’d ordinarily feel pathetic saying that about myself, I was being honest. I don’t remember feeling this lonely or polarized in a long time.

I’ve never been a podcast walker, but circumstances sometimes require a change in attitude. Over the past week, I’ve been listening to a lot of James Taylor on my solitary hikes through the woods with the dog. Something about James’ voice and message is what I need right now: mellow, relaxing, soulful, beautiful.

So when a free Audible book by James Taylor popped up on my Amazon home screen, I immediately ordered it. Called Break Point and narrated by Taylor, it tells the story of his early days growing up in Massachusetts and North Carolina, his love of Martha’s Vineyard and his dysfunctional family.

It also tells the story behind many of his most famous hits, which as a lifelong fan, I found fascinating. In addition, he dishes about being discovered by a famous band and his run-in with one of the most notorious killers of our time. I won’t spoil it for you if you plan to listen.

He packs a lot of information and of course, a few strums on his guitar, into his 90-minute Audiobook. Best of all, he’s a great storyteller, managing to get me to laugh out loud several times, and nod my head at his wisdom. Having the ability to amuse and teach is an enormous gift, particularly during these unsettling times.

And seeing the way he managed to survive tough times and flourish is a great reminder of the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.

Walk This Way

Male eagle keeps watch on a nearby nest. (Eagle photos by Cindy Gerstl)
Cindy spent about 45 minutes photographing the eagle couple, and came away with some amazing shots. Thank goodness one of us had a great telephoto lens.

My I-Phone and I are having boundary issues.

The phone makes assumptions about where I’m headed, informing me that I’m 35 minutes from home and should take the highway because traffic is light. I don’t want to tell the phone that I’m not going home, nor to a monastery 14 minutes away or a hiking trail in the next town.

I don’t remember the “frequent flyer” notifications on earlier versions of the I-Phone, and most of the time I simply ignore them or chuckle at their incorrect presumptions. (For awhile, the phone always assumed I was heading to a liquor store, making me rethink my relationship with alcohol.)

But now I’m having issues with the I-Phone’s health app. No matter what I do, the I-Phone comments on it and I’m always on the losing end of the conversation. It’s like living with an overbearing parent or spouse, where nothing you do is ever good enough.

My numbers are up in March. Then again, the month has just begun.

“Your step count is lower today than yesterday.”

“It looks like you’re a lot more active today than usual.

“You’re walking more by this time of the day than you usually do.”

Even when it’s trying to be encouraging, it manages to get a dig in. Who knew that a phone could be so critical?

I didn’t ask the phone for its opinion, but it doesn’t matter. Along with my step count, it gives me a running commentary on how I’m stacking up compared to yesterday, last week, last month and last year in everything from steps, active and standing hours, flights climbed and hearing health.

And even when I think I’m doing well, it’s never enough for my phone:

Your step count last week was lower on average than the week before.

Your mileage was lower today than the previous day.

Your average headphone audio levels were LOUD over the last seven days.

It almost makes me long for the days when everyone just walked and didn’t worry about steps. But we’re a results-driven society when it comes to nearly everything, including walking. I’m not sure it’s great, but it’s the way things are since the first Fitbit came on the scene in 2007.

I got an Apple Watch for my birthday last August, and it wants me to hook up a feature that alerts you when you have an irregular heartbeat. I can see the benefit of this, but I’m not interested. I’m an anxious person, and I’d be worried about having an irregular heartbeat. I don’t need more things to obsess about.

I felt a little better about ignoring that feature after consulting my buddy Richie, who is a heart surgeon. When I asked him about the feature, he said, “Unreliable.” That was good enough for me. If a watch is going to send me into a panic, at least I want to know it’s accurate.

Today, nearly everyone is tracking their steps, with 10,000 steps a day being the gold standard. https://blog.fitbit.com/should-you-really-take-10000-steps-a-day/ I know some people who reach their goal just going about their day, but I usually need a 75-minute brisk walk to reach my daily goal.

I don’t always achieve it, but it’s a good incentive to get moving. As a nation, we’re a sedentary bunch, leading to rising levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems. Having a step counter keeps you honest, or at least shows you how much of a slug you are on any given day.

A few years ago, I read that some fitness coaches require clients to have step counters because it’s like having a personal trainer on their wrists. It made sense, so I bought a Fitbit Flex, and then another one when the first one inexplicably broke about a year into the experiment.

Having a Fitbit was a lot of fun. For awhile, I was comparing step counts with siblings and friends, and earning badges for walking imaginary trails with my dog. But there were blips – lots of them – along the way.

The Fitbit always needed to be charged, though I never knew when it was low on juice and it would often be dead after I’d logged the longest hike in my life with no steps to show for it. And you could log steps with the Fitbit just by shaking your wrist (not that I’d ever do something so ridiculous).

I knew one tennis instructor who logged about 30,000 “steps” a day, though many of the so-called steps were from moving her wrist, not her feet. And yes, I may have been guilty of shaking my wrist a few times just to reach the 10,000 step mark some days. Sad, but true.

So I rejoiced when I discovered the I-Phone’s health app, which is like having a built-in step counter without all the hassles. The only hitch is having your I-Phone with you at all times. The other day, I stuffed it into my pants playing Pickleball just to get the steps (4,400 in 90 minutes, by the way).

I shared my frustrations about the health app with my buddies Cindy and Mark while eagle watching the other day. We had to walk from the town harbor to the nesting grounds near Long Island Sound so as not to disturb the eagles, and naturally I’d left my I-Phone in the car.

“Damn, this walk isn’t counting for anything,” I said.

“Why don’t you just put your phone in a drawer if you don’t like it?” Cindy asked.

She has a point, but it’s not that simple. I want to track my steps. I’m a person who needs to be accountable. I just wish the phone would give me the step count and hold the commentary.

For now, I’m taking the bad with the good, opening the little health app Heart to see how I’m stacking up every day. And if it ever gets too much, there’s always the drawer.


Truth In Avatarsing

Avatar: An icon or figure representing a particular person in a video game, Internet forum, etc.

I’ve never had an avatar. In fact, I only recently discovered that’s the name for the cutesy cartoon depictions that people create for an online presence.

My blogging buddy Waking Up on the Wrong Side of 50 added an avatar to her site several months ago. Though it’s not her actual picture, it gives a glimpse into her general appearance.

People are naturally curious about what writers look like, or what lurks behind the keyboard. After reading several chapters of “The Yellow House” by Sarah Broom (by the way, one of the best books I’ve read in years), I Googled Ms. Broom to get a sense of what she looks like.

I did the same thing after finishing a piece by New Yorker cartoonist Emily Flake, who questioned why she was following an artsy-fartsy hippie family on Instagram. After Flake described herself as dumpy https://longreads.com/tag/emily-flake/, I decided to Google her, reasoning “I’ll be the judge of that.”

(Like many women, Flake is much too hard on herself. I don’t know why women do this, but the self-flagellation has got to stop.)

But back to avatars. Waking recently wrote about being hit upon by a man after he liked one of her Instagram photos, and she liked his. She was incredulous that this guy, whom she has since blocked, hit on her based on her avatar and the fact that she liked his photo.

I wrote saying I’d never had this problem, but some guys look for any opening, even one that doesn’t exist.

But now my curiosity was piqued. I’ve wanted an avatar since my hip neighbor Ken, who works in advertising and is always on the cutting edge of everything, debuted his avatar several years ago. Waking’s post reminded me that like a lot of things, I never got around to doing it.

I went on a free online avatar site and began building a virtual self-portrait. But I quickly moved on to Avachara http://avachara.com because the first had limited expressions that didn’t capture any of my moods, and lacked shoulder length hair with an off-center part.

I moved onto another site after I came up with this one on the first. I look like a crazy bodybuilder, and I’ve never worn a center part, even in the ’70s.

As I see it, there must be truth in avatarsing, or at least some semblance of it. But as I built my image with hair, eyes, eyebrows, nose and lips, I wondered whether I was building an image of what I want to look like, or an accurate depiction of me.

The good news is that avatar faces don’t have wrinkles, sagging jowls or dark spots requiring nightly No. 7 correcting cream. The eyes are devoid of crepy eyelids, under-eye circles, crow’s feet and bags that make you tempted to take the Plexiderm challenge.

For me, the toughest part was the nose and eyebrows. I initially selected a turned up nose that I’ve always wanted, but wasn’t at all like my Irish/Italian schnoz. I had the feeling that my sisters and friends would think, “Is she kidding?” when seeing it, so I returned to the noses and selected a more realistic one.

The other hitch was the eyebrows, making me realize how important eyebrow shape and grooming is to our appearance. I tried out several different eyebrows and none of them came close to my natural brows, which I’ve always tried to tame myself with a tweezer.

I finally chose what I thought was close to mine, but who knows? That may be wishful thinking too.

I had most fun dressing my avatar. It reminded me of when I was a little girl home sick from school. My mother would always buy me Colorforms or paper dolls to keep me happy when I was sick, the only upside to feeling punk.

I loved dressing up the paper and Colorform dolls, making my avatar styling like a walk back in time. I chose a white blouse, black blazer and dark washed jeans, but there were more wild choices, including a French maid outfit. I have no idea who would pick that.

Once built, I showed the Curmudgeon my avatar.

“Does this look anything like me?” I asked.

“She is awfully slim,” he said.

So I got to work on his avatar, which looks a bit like he did 30 years ago. In his younger days, people used to say he resembled Christopher Reeve during his Superman days. (I never really saw that, but he seemed to enjoy the comparison.) Last year, he was mistaken on Hilton Head Island for the golfer Jim Furyk.

I guess time and gravity have a way of catching up with all of us.

The Curmudgeon’s avatar.
Golfer Jim Furyk.