Saturday, November 10, 2012

Three Miles in My Shoes

I don't know about you, but I've had about enough of these hurricanes.

When really upsetting natural disasters take place, I have a shameful tendency to stop watching the news coverage. It started with Hurricane Katrina, when I would sit on my dry couch in the comfort of my dry home, and shout at the CNN news helicopters, passing by desperate victims on their rooftops with home-made signs, begging for help. I may not have emergency management experience, but something about a guy flying a helicopter to get flashy news shots who doesn't at least try to throw a rope down and grab some victims seems immoral to me. Feeling frustrated and helpless, I made a few meager Red Cross donations and turned off the television. It was just too hard to watch.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, it wasn't as easy to bury my head in the sand. Facebook made the difference, as friends living in New York and surrounding areas reported the latest developments. I laughed when my fashionable friend who works at Barneys posted, "Moving all my couture to a higher floor."  But he was fortunate. He was certainly inconvenienced, losing power and finding transportation challenging, but he didn't lose his home (or his couture!). Others weren't so lucky, and the news stories reported tragic loss and devastation. Once again, I made the decision to avoid the televised hurricane coverage.

So when I was driving to work and heard an NPR report on Manhattan-based businesses dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I considered changing the station but kept listening. Always amazed at the sheer will and determination of New Yorkers, I was captivated by the story of Paul Nicaj, owner of Battery Gardens Restaurant, who stayed behind to save his restaurant, despite orders to evacuate, and in the process, a marble table fell on his toe and broke it. In classic badass New Yorker fashion, Nicaj taped it up and kept on working. I break toes all the time (okay, about every two years, but still), and can tell you from experience that breaking a toe and just getting on with it is a pretty impressive accomplishment. 

But even more impressive than the strong-willed, hobbling restaurant owner? The employees who came to work the next day to help clean up. Especially those who walked 15 miles to get there.

I simply could not get this image out of my head. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, -- and I believe that everyone who eats in restaurants should wait tables at least once in their lives-- you know how hard that work can be. Imagine going to your restaurant job after adding a little 15-mile stroll. Imagine doing that after God knows what happened to your house when a hurricane came to town.

The mental image of these restaurant workers walking to work lit a very strange fire under my otherwise lazy butt. I imagined what it would feel like to walk to my office downtown from my cozy nearby neighborhood. I mapped the route. 2.7 miles. I considered that often, when I'm walking on a treadmill, I get bored or tired, and stop halfway through to do something more interesting, like eat a scone.  I thought about walking for transportation, and how if I were walking to work, I couldn't stop halfway through, because that would look silly, and I might get fired. I also thought about the fact that many people have no other option. I began to realize how lazy I really am, and how choosing to walk for transportation would be a refreshing change from walking out of a self-imposed guilt trip to exercise for health. Something clicked.

Monday morning, I put on workout clothes, borrowed a manly backpack from my amused husband, and crammed it to the hilt with all of the gear I'd need to dress professionally after arriving to my office. I filled up a huge water bottle, found my iPhone exercise band (hardly used), and my good headphones with a speaker for calling 911 in the event of an emergency. I'm surprised I didn't pack a first aid kit. As much of a deal I made of packing, you would think I was leaving for a month-long hike in the Serengeti.

I walked about ten steps and called my sister, ready to brag a little about my walking project, and hoping for some moral support. My sister was both amazed and cracked up that I had taken on this personal challenge. If you don't know me personally, I'm not exactly Sporty Spice. I detest tennis shoes. Sports bras make me claustrophobic. The many years I spent starving myself to weigh less than 120 pounds have come back to haunt me, so my battle of the bulge is more like the battle of a few bulges I'd rather not talk about.

So imagine my surprise when 55 minutes after calling my sister, I found my reflection in the elevator of my downtown office building, pink-faced and smiling. I won't lie; some of it was challenging. First of all, I had an extra 25 pounds of crap on my back. Also, some of the hills in downtown Austin were a bit daunting. But the stroll through the University of Texas campus was lovely. Not once did I experience road rage. I saved myself the irritating exercise of navigating my impossible office parking garage -- a parking garage designed by an engineer who clearly hated cars and their drivers. I felt fantastic the entire day. My coworkers were like my sister, impressed and amused all at the same time.

By Wednesday, I was eager to walk again. I worked out the logistics with my husband so I could walk home. Walking home was a bit less exciting than my first day, where my sister stayed on the phone the entire time to help me count down the blocks and keep me motivated. Yet, as the sky grew dark and I walked through the UT campus, I thought about what I'm normally doing on the short drive home. Cursing at the Ford F150 driver in front of me. Rolling my eyes at the endless stoplights. And even though about halfway through the walk home, my back ached and I felt a little tired, I thought about those restaurant workers, trekking 15 miles to help their boss save his restaurant, and realized that my little walk was only a fifth of that journey.

Thursday, one of my cute coworkers, a runner in her 20's, showed up to work with a backpack, and announced she was going to walk home. 

"You inspired me!" she said cheerfully. "It took me an hour to drive home in traffic the other night, and I starting thinking that I could get home just as fast if I walked, and I would enjoy doing it."

Imagine me, a lazy 40-year old woman, inspiring already-healthy people to consider commuting on foot. Crazy! Yet, when Friday morning rolled around, I walked to work again. By the end of the week, I'd walked 9 miles.

I'm sure that you're expecting me to tie this story back to a grand philanthropic effort to walk to help the hurricane victims. I can't say that's the case, but maybe I'm on to something here. What if every now and then, we walked somewhere in a reasonable distance, sacked away the gas money we saved, and sent it to the charity of our choice? 

It may not be for you, and I totally get that. You're probably a motivated individual who actually exercises regularly, and that's fantastic. But for those of us who struggle to find motivation, this idea of walking for transportation is really quite rewarding. On top of the obvious benefits - saving gas, reducing stress, helping prevent heart disease - when I ended the week with nearly 9 miles under my belt, something truly miraculous happened. The cute pink dress that hung in my closet that caused an unfortunate sausage effect when I tried it on last weekend? I tried it again last night, and it slipped on effortlessly. 

And that, friends, is reason enough for me to squeeze into a sports bra and keep on walking.

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