Walk the walk

Most people walk, although many don't walk enough. United, we are a great walking shoal of fish. Some yearn for speed, slicing through the water. Others float idly; they catch the bus from one end of the street to another.

My dad and uncle are the sailfish racers of the shoal. They walk fast. Warp speed. They walk with a sense of mad urgency, as if the earth turns too slowly and they need to give it a jump-start. Walking with them is like trying to keep up with Olympic sprint walkers entering the stadium and coming down the home straight.

I’m a few steps behind them on the speedometer. I walk pretty fast: an ambitious tuna vying for shoal position. At the other end of the ambulatory spectrum we have walkers who are barely in motion. These walkers mull over every step, with a tea break in between. These are the plodders. Yes, them.

Plodders often lurk in the supermarket, conspiring to slow me down. Supermarkets are terrifying places. They are war zones where I am a noncombatant fleeing for cover in the wrong direction. Tall shelves with bright packages lean in and scratch at me with their marketing. I need my supermarket missions to be stealthy—in and out. Yet even when I just go to grab one thing (say, bananas), I’m often stopped dead: double plodders, dominating an entire aisle with a trolley each. They move as if through honey on a cold morning. Each step is considered and firmly placed. They pause infinitely to ponder which brand of peanut butter to stock up on. Crunchy? Smooth?

I’m left to scamper from side to side, looking for a gap. It’s no use being clever by doubling back and coming in from the other end—they’ll accelerate and meet you head on. Never meet a plodder head on in the supermarket, unless you relish the dance of social awkwardness, with trolleys.

Outside, the pavement is the natural habitat of the plodder. Plodders target high-stress situations, such as when you are rushing to catch an important bus. The art of the pavement plodder is to walk exactly in the middle, so that easily manoeuvring either left or right is impossible. This is also a common faux pas with averagely paced walkers unversed in pavement etiquette. (These are the fish that make the shoal look bad.)

The art of the pavement plodder is to walk exactly in the middle, so that easily manoeuvring either left or right is impossible.

A problem when negotiating walkers on the pavement is that accelerating to pass someone on foot seems overly competitive, which isn’t okay to a person from New Zealand. We generally prefer to be humble and understated. We want to overtake, but we don’t want to look like we’re overtaking. This pavement paradox is felt most keenly when you’re both walking at about the same pace. You’re forced to steam ahead at an uncomfortable pace to avoid the embarrassment of being overtaken back.

Plodders (or those ignorant of pavement protocol) give me a headache behind the eyes, but on reflection they teach me something about myself. Their plodding isn’t the problem; it's that I am in too much of a hurry. I am a slave to the marching of the hands. Time is the shark that stalks me and I swim madly to keep ahead of it.

Many of us exist in this state of perpetual hurry. Life is too fast, and we are swept along by its current. Have you seen eftpos lately? Even that’s too fast. There’s no downtime anymore to stand awkwardly at the counter waiting for that magical "Accepted"; it’s instantaneous. We need to slow down and drop anchor once in a while. Well, I do anyway. For the speedsters out there, you just keep doing your thing—embrace the zoom.

A small step I have taken is to plod a little bit. Technically I’m not engaging in a true, cumbersome plod, but more of a measured, relaxed gait. It's hard. It feels unnatural, but it feels good. Everyone else whooshes around me. My surroundings are brilliant and hard-edged, whereas before it was all a panoramic motion blur. Sometimes I even stop and smell some flowers, as a joke. Right now I probably sound a lot older than I actually am. That’s okay with me.

If you decide to take the slower path, your attitude towards time will have to change. Be sure to send out emails to colleagues and employees to let them know that you will no longer be on time to work. Remind everyone that any meetings or deadlines will need a special "lifestyle buffer" to allow for your new walking style and overall outlook.

It seems that the art of mindful walking is one of gliding like a contented fish through water—never really stopping, but never really hurrying. It’s a difficult equilibrium to master, and it may take some time, but I’ll keep plodding along.

Published in Sunday magazine (Sunday Star Times), 21 October 2012.