Walking

Months ago, I read a post from Nadia Eghbal:

I made some lifestyle changes in order to make the days more tolerable. I hiked up my rent and upgraded to a bigger place with a spacious backyard. I put myself on a diet. I bought a car for the first time in my life. It's a convertible. It's fun to drive, but I can't help but wonder whether this is the equivalent of a pandemic midlife crisis.

My weeks are a mushy, meaningless blur of swirling rice in a pot of cold water, watching sunsets off my deck, floating on gymnastics rings in my backyard, careening down San Francisco hills towards the water.

When the pandemic got serious, Lauren (36) and I (39) bunkered in our SF apartment, worked our jobs (social worker at a nursing home, product engineer at Airtable) and looked after Jake (2). Because I have heart trouble that makes me especially vulnerable to COVID, the three of us have been bunkered since then.

Months later, I read Eghbal's post and tried to talk Lauren into the idea of moving to a new place with a garden, or maybe even moving somewhere more rural for a bit (“Sonoma?”). That way, Jake (really, all of us) could run around and be outside without masks on. But, Lauren, quite reasonably, pointed out that a) we were committed to our lease and b) she, now back to working from work in Alameda, couldn't live in Sonoma.

The days are mostly packed with work and looking after Jake and life maintenance. But we have some time at the weekends to relax while Jake naps. Usually, we would watch a show. But, for some reason a few weeks ago, I decided to go for a walk, instead.

I just walked around our neighborhood. Up and down hills, trying to get to the highest point.

It was a revelation.

Since then, I've walked each Saturday and Sunday between 12.30pm and 3pm.

Back in the day years ago in 2012 when I lived in London I went through a phase of walking by the canal near my house in Shoreditch in the summer evenings. Someone I'd known at university had died, and I was about to move to NYC to go to the Recurse Center (a writer's retreat for programmers). I walked and listened to Éliane Radigue with the early evening sun in my eyes.

After a while, the sun would dull my awareness of the world and I would enter a haze, my mind mostly on the feel of the sidewalk through my shoes and in my calves as I walked, and I would be content to just step and feel the bump bump of my feet on the ground.

Now, when I walk during Jake's naps, I get similar moments. A couple of weekends ago, I walked up from our apartment in Noe Valley to Twin Peaks. When I got to the top, I walked along the road that winds around the back of those mounds of earth. That wide road that seems like it should have cars on it but only has people walking, plus cyclists pumping up or arrowing down and kids practicing skateboard tricks or sitting on their boards talking, backpacks in a big pile.

The sun reflected off the tarmac, and I got the haze again: not being able to see too well, losing awareness of my surroundings, just the step step and calves flexing and the peace of being an hour into a long walk.

What's weird is that I had to rediscover going for walks. I discovered it in Shoreditch when I was 30, forgot about it, and rediscovered it in San Francisco when I was 39.

Besides the haze, walking gives me a chance to get into meaning making mode.

There is something about walking around and listening to an audiobook or a podcast that puts me in a mode of making new understanding or getting new ideas.

For example, I was listening to The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. He wrote [paraphrased]:

The job of a decision maker is not to be right but to play the odds correctly. This seems obvious. But the corollary is that you shouldn’t look at outcomes when making gambles. They may mislead you. If you make a bad bet by choosing an option with a poor return, that's not great. But if you get lucky and your bad bet wins and you conclude you made the right call, you’ll make matters worse.

I was reminded of something my friend, Alan, said. He used to play poker for a living. He said the hardest part was persisting through a string of losses with a strategy that he knew was correct.

It's these connections that I'm looking for. Small increases in understanding. New ideas for things to try.

For another example, as I walk, I love listening to interviews with this self improvement person. I won't say who he is. I mean, he's not good. But these interviews are a brilliant reflective tool. The guy says things about broad topics like goal setting or skill building, and associations with my own work are triggered and I have a reflective thought. Like, for example, maybe my work at Airtable and my former job as a facilitator at the Recurse Center are both driven by the same goal: helping people make software. And if the Recurse Center is about helping people get better at programming, maybe Airtable gets at the goal more directly because it's about making software with minimal code, which makes it more accessible to more people.

A small step forward in understanding.

The pandemic has felt mostly like something to be got through. But these walks bringing new ideas and new understanding have made things different. Finding the logic in the world. The promise of doing higher quality work through that understanding. Potential.

That is: the existence of a better future.