[For a while, I've been contemplating inviting guest bloggers to write a Why Wednesday post for my site, so when my friend and colleague Keith Moon shared this wonderful essay with my department, I asked him if I could publish it here. I'm grateful that he said yes for two main reasons. First, he's a wonderful thinker and writer. Second, two of my most loyal readers (people who don't even share my last name) have taken classes with Keith and will appreciate his essay. Without further ado, my first guest post follows.]
by Keith Moon
April 30, 2020
A change in the weather is known to be extreme
But what's the sense of changing horses in midstream?
I'm going out of my mind, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart
15000 steps a day.
When the world began to stop in mid-March, that felt like a simple enough goal, especially since it seemed likely that we’d be getting back to normal in a few weeks. “During a typical school day, I get about 7500 steps anyway,” I reasoned to myself. “I might as well try to double that since there’s not much else to do until the kids come back.”
It took me a few days to rev all the way up to 15000—I was still in the car a lot in those early days, before the NBA called off its season and the country suddenly focused its collective attention on stopping everything. In the second week of March we were still going to stores and restaurants and the like; Hotchkiss was on spring break, after all, and “flattening the curve” was the technical lingo of epidemiologists and TV experts. Corona still sounded like a punch line, perhaps another near-miss media obsession like MERS, swine flu, or Ebola.
But beware the ides of March. By the second full weekend of the month, life began to stall completely. My younger son canceled his senior year spring break trip and came home from college for the remainder of the semester. Hotchkiss announced students would not return at least until April 13, before ultimately calling off the whole year. An end-of-spring-break trip to Utah for me looked more and more unlikely, as casual travel around the country suddenly seemed wildly inappropriate.
So I started to walk. It took me another week to get all the way to 15000 steps every day: in that third week of March, I’d still applaud myself for getting to my 15K goal and then I’d allow myself a day or two of 10 or 11000 to watch a little more Netflix or talk to a friend on the phone. When the original spring break period expired on March 23, though, I doubled down on my commitment. For the next 36 days, I’ve only missed my goal twice—and on both those days I made it at least to 12000. Rarely did I go above 16 or 17000: I have never really lost myself in walking; in fact, I’m usually acutely aware of how far I’ve gone. According to the trusty counter on my phone, 15000 steps is over 6 miles, which takes about two hours each time. That has seriously stretched the boundaries of my ability to keep boredom at bay.
I’m not much of an athlete. I love to swim, but that’s not an option right now; beyond that there really isn’t much I do well or happily. I don’t own a bike. I’m a lousy and whiny runner. On top of it, I am horribly undisciplined when it comes to basic calisthenics or exercise. But I recognized the importance of not just sitting on yet another Zoom call or in front of the TV, so walking became my fitness experience of choice, usually with my wife or son, but often enough on my own.
It’s hard to describe just how bad the weather has been over the last month. 43 degree rainy days have been as much the norm during the time of Corona as anything else; the grass keeps getting greener, but there really aren’t any leaves on the trees yet, though May 1 is now only a day away. After a mild winter, New England’s vengeance came roaring back with a cold, windy, and raw “spring,” as we all could have predicted it would. But COVID19 has knocked out all the indoor options: I haven’t set foot in Hotchkiss’s Main Building since March 22 and the indoor track at the MAC has been locked up tight for weeks. So out I go, every day, rain (often) or shine (seemingly never).
Where to, I ask myself, after I bundle up in my thick coat, wool hat, gloves, and rain gear? I like to pretend every day that this might be the day I’ll choose something different, but almost always I go back to the Hotchkiss track. Trained as a swimmer growing up, I always want to know just how far I’ve gone and how much more I have to do. So I do my laps, round and round and round. I love to see the people who are on my same schedule: there goes N. on his daily run in the woods; there’s A., who must be walking more like 25000 steps a day; young F. plays soccer and runs, rain or shine; C. and his wife (and, lately, her father) make their way from their campus house into the woods with the dogs. B, an epic walker even in better, less confined days, crosses paths with me at least once every few days.
On a decent day, there will be 15-20 people at the track or on Sprole, most of them carefully keeping their social distance from each other, but on the truly windy and rainy days, it’s sometimes just my wife and me. 578 steps is what it takes me to make one trip around the track. (If you were bored enough, you’d count too.) That compares favorably to the 460 steps around the MAC parking lot, the 333 steps around the “tear drop” at Bissell Commons, or the paltry 265 steps around the quad in front of our house. I challenge myself not to check my numbers until I estimate it will be at least 6 or 7000 steps in: I made the mistake of looking too early one day and I almost quit the whole challenge. So round and round and round I go: sometimes I’ll make 15-20 trips around the track in one fell swoop, driving my wife crazy with my constant conversational chatter or, if I’m alone, listening to the brilliant Bob Dylan tangling us both up in blue one more time. Once in a while, my wife or son will talk me into a lake road loop or a walk out to the ’49 Fields, but my feet always lure me back to the predictability and consistency of the track. At this point, it feels like home.
My favorite silent partner in pandemic escape is the young man--Jack from Kent School is all I really know about him—who does soccer drill after soccer drill, always alone and always for hours at a time, just to be ready for the fall. He’s a lover of routine too, I can tell, and the brief wave of acknowledgement we give each other, often while the cold wind lashes at us, is a highlight for two lonely guys just trying to get through all this.
I’ve walked a half a million steps since mid-March and at this rate I should make a cool million by June. I’m enormously grateful for the blessings of this easy-to-social-distance campus and the Herculean efforts of our dining services, still miraculously serving us lunch Monday-Friday, that have allowed me so much time to keep on walking. I won’t argue with it once the lake water warms up enough to give me an alternative activity, but for now I will pull my sneakers back on and ask my wife if she’d like to take a walk. I’m at 12646 steps so far today; time to get the job done.