I've mentioned here that I live in the suburbs, I think. The car-based, mall-based suburbs. I'm in an NJ suburb of NYC, so it's very sophisticated, as far as suburbs go, based on my experience at least. But it's still a suburb. I get into and out of the car for just about every
thing. Almost nothing is within walking distance or is walkable - except, of course, just going for a walk around the 'hood. But what I am talking about is that the suburban life does not naturally include, as part of the suburban environment, any exercise. In fact, the very structure of the environment, minimizes physical activity.
To get physical activity, you have to plan it in. It does not, will not, occur naturally within this environment, that is, as simply part of living your life in this environment. And for that reason, the contours of the universe seem to contract; the universe tightens around you, such that going up to the attic feels like going all the way up to the attic
, or needing something in the basement when you're on the second floor is an annoyance because it's all the way down in the basement
. You get really used to this frame of reference, this tight little universe that's based on very little naturally occuring physical activity.
Whenever I travel, I re-awaken to this reality. For example, when I was in Japan this summer, I noticed (how could you not?) the bicycles just every
where. It seemed like nearly every person in Japan rides a bike, at least in Kyoto. We even rented bikes for a day, and I felt so cosmopolitan, riding around Kyoto's streets and canals, ringing my bell to alert pedestrians in front of me that I was approaching. Actually, it was riding a bike there myself that alerted me to WHY so many people on bikes were ringing their bells (duh). And when I travel, I make it a point to take as much public transportation as possible, to get as close to the people as possible. If you take public transportation, you already know that even though it's transportation, public transportation has a big on-your-own-transportation component to it also. That is, you've got to get your bad self to the station, on the platform, off the platform, out of the station, and from and to that station, to and from whereever it is you started and are ending up. Public transportation entails a lot of walking - at least a lot more than hopping in a car does.
This past Friday I took my SD on two college visits, one in Brooklyn, one in the East Village. We drove to Newark, took a train from there to Penn Station, then took subways for the rest of the day. It was a lot of walking, as every trip to NYC always is for us. And it was exhaust
ing, because I don't do that all the time.
But it was also eye-opening, because when I got home, my perspective on my tight universe was shifted. While waiting for a take-out dinner, I walked up to the grocery store in my little village; a walk that ordinarily might seem like a little bit of an inconvenience seemed like nothing
after schlepping around the city all day. This is even with tired feet and legs. When I got home, I was running up and down between 3 floors several times, again thinking nothing of it, when this would ordinarily seem like a pain to me, when I'm tired, at the end of the day
, that sort of internal whine usually kicks in and says.
It's interesting to me, to consider how personal perspective is so susceptible to and shaped by actual physical environment, even in the short term. I really wish I lived in a city or other setting where exercise was just a natural part of getting through your day - like the Japanese in Kyoto, so many of whom ride their bikes everywhere, like New Yorkers who walk to get their groceries and meals, walk to public transportation, walk walk walk as simply part of getting their day done. Obviously New York has no monopoly on this, many large cities have a similar physical environment but other large cities like Atlanta and L.A., definitely don't. I really wish I had a different physical environment, where getting exercise wasn't something "extra" to be done, but rather something that naturally occurred as part of my day.
With all the talk that you hear of personal responsibility, environmental conditions get lost or, when raised, are poo-poo'ed. "It's just a matter of personal choice", people say, blaming anyone who isn't making the "right" personal choices. But this ignores the reality that every personal choice occurs in a distinct environment, and the significance of that environment. Your choice of food, or transportation, or method of communication, in the middle of a jungle is necessarily going to look very different than your choice in the middle of Manhattan. My range of reasonable and feasible "choice" in NYC or in Kyoto is much different than my range of choices in my little suburban village. I'm not blaming my environment. But I am saying it counts - I think that should be obvious, actually. And I wish my environment looked a little different.