Narratives and Why I Walk


I had a pleasant conversation the other day. Chuck was getting his hair cut, so I found myself totally at my leisure at an outdoor mall. With no time constraints or definite purpose, I decided to take a second go at a store whose sale strategy has intimidated me in the past: I walked into the Lululemon.

I found that, counter-intuitively (but following a pattern in my life I should really have recognized by now), I was much more comfortable engaging in conversation with the sales staff there when I was alone than I had been about a year ago when I went into their Madison store with Chuck. Specifically, I found myself better-equipped to answer the question that the woman in the yoga section asked me: What kind of exercise do you do?

"Well, actually, I'm a walker, even though I know that's strange coming from someone under 60."

First mistake: poking fun at yourself as a way of showing your comfort with the way you're positioning yourself in a conversation is something people do in academia, probably not so much in the fitness apparel world. So it's possible that what followed was caused by her reading my comment as dissatisfaction with my status as "walker" (because in this world, make no mistake, there is status at stake here).

One of the photos I snap on my walks, part of connecting to a sense of place.

She helped me out, showed me some great pants for winter walking that I absolutely intend to own (though I haven't quite worked up to shelling out the cash yet). She listened to my concerns about wanting to be able to walk in blizzards without my thighs going completely numb, and she was very helpful, passing me off to the woman in the pants section to advise about fit.

When, after trying the pants on, liking them, and handing them back to the pants-section woman, I wandered back to the other part of the store to look at warm upper-body options, the first woman engaged me again. How did you like the pants? They were great; I might buy some. And then she asked the question I had been so thankful to her for not asking before: So, why don't you run?

Why don't I run? I started by answering the question I wish she'd asked: why do I walk? But I put it in comparative terms so as not to be completely rude:

"Walking is more the right pace for me--it gives me more time to really get a sense of a place, get a good look at the houses." Then I started to add on, nervously: "and anyway, I can't listen to books when I run. I need to listen to music to keep my energy levels up for running, but I prefer to listen to books." I don't know whether I volunteer the additional information because of the energy I'm getting from her or because of the skepticism I'm expecting to encounter. 

And how can I explain that I need to listen to books, that I have a list I've been working on since I started grad school of books that I "missed," that I should have read by now, and that the only way to work them in without completely destroying my eyesight or giving up on exercise altogether is to listen to them, when I drive and when I walk.

At this point, I'm wrapping myself up in my own narratives, so I'm not listening or understanding very quickly when she says something about running for a few minutes to get started and then walking. Why? I mean, it is actually unclear to me what the purpose of this would be: to work toward a running routine? To get sweaty beyond the point of turning back so that I might as well work hard for the rest of the workout? Unsure, but certain I don't want to pursue a conversation in which I am being converted to running, I make a polite shutting-down-the-topic comment: "Oh, yes, that would be a good way to get nice and warm." I walk away to take a second look at some scarves, and I leave.

I want to stress again: this entire conversation was completely pleasant. We smiled, we exchanged comments in tones full of positive energy. It was a good experience. But I was left wondering afterwards why, even in a pleasant conversation, even in an environment where the philosophy is geared toward the fulfillment of individual goals, I was unable to make myself understood. 

Then later, when I told my fiance about this, it clicked. He wondered why I hadn't mentioned my tachycardia or the problems with my knees, and my immediate reaction was revolt. "But that's not my story," I insisted. Sure, maybe I have serious physical obstacles to running, but that's not why I walk. 

This is someone else's default: people who can run should do so. If you can't, then you can find another form of exercise. Therefore, if I exercise in a way other than running, it must be because I can't run. 

What was interesting to me about this is how narratives colliding can look: here was no wailing or gnashing of teeth, just a perfectly civil conversation glossing over a complete disconnect in communication.