I am constitutionally inclined toward sedentary behavior. Despite the Asheville area’s many attractions — the Blue Ridge Parkway, drum circles, miles of hiking trails, LaZoom tours — I prefer the comfort of my mostly unoccupied living room, watching Netflix or NBC’s “The Voice.” My idea of activity is to rise from my semirecumbent position, walk to the kitchen for a snack, then settle back into my cozy, inviting chair to finish the latest episode of whatever.
I sat through a Netflix documentary recently about a man who’d spent a year working in the Arctic Circle. The whole company functioned underground: Employees lived in dorms and walked down corrugated steel hallways to the dining hall or their work cubicles. I’m ideally suited to this type of arrangement. The entire operation was indoors, and nobody nagged the man about how pretty it was outside and didn’t he just want to dash down to Carrier Park for a quick bike ride by the river.
Occasionally do I feel a tug of guilt that the area’s endless list of outdoor activities and gasp-worthy beauty are wasted on a TV-watching bum like me. But it passes as quickly as the blurred images from the commercials I fast-forward through to get back to my show.
A fateful decision
All this indulgent behavior has changed, however, thanks to a tiny device that I clip onto my bra strap. Like the minuscule rudder that can command a gigantic ship, this unassuming device has become my captain. My sister handed it to me over the Thanksgiving break.
“It’s called a Fitbit,” she said proudly. I was immediately suspicious, because it had the word “fit” in it. Additionally, my size 4 twin sister (my own number is in the double digits) is a workout wonk. She runs, “does” Pilates (whatever that means) and fills what could be perfectly peaceful, slothful moments with pushups or circling her arms while holding 2-pound weights.
“You don’t want to bulk up,” she explains, nodding to the weights now held over her head like a halo. Merely watching her movements exhausts me.
She frequently texts me about celebrity sightings in her hometown, Los Angeles. “Sitting near Ted Danson,” she’ll write.
“Just saw him on “Cheers,” I text back defensively. I don’t like her insinuating that her city is more exciting than mine.
Her latest thing is a Hollywood shop that sells clothes used on TV and movie sets. She claims her new sweater is from “General Hospital.”
“Yeah, but how do you know if Laura actually wore it?” I challenge her.
She says the store can’t confirm who actually wore the garments but can verify that they came from the studio. I look over the sweater, pretending indifference.
“It probably belonged to the gaffer,” I say, but she’s already busy with her jumping jacks.
“The Fitbit tracks the number of steps you take each day,” she tells me.
“If it’s so great, why are you giving it to me?” I ask suspiciously while stirring the custard for the chocolate cream pie I’m making, a recipe I got from “The Pioneer Woman.”
She says she got an updated version she can wear on her wrist, adding that we could become Fitbit friends through the device and track our progress. I should have known better — after decades of twinship, I know my sister’s fierce competitive streak — but the chocolate custard was just thickening, and “House Hunters International“ was waiting for me to hit “play” on the remote. So, in a moment of distraction, I took the Fitbit from her bony hand.
Step by step
Little did I know this mindless transaction would alter me in ways I could not have foreseen.
The first day I wore it, I walked 3,000 steps. I didn’t change my routines or do anything special.
“Three thousand steps! Can you imagine?” I proudly asked my husband that night.
“It says here that the average person should aim for 10,000 steps a day,” my stepdaughter announced after a quick check on her phone in that nimble, teenage way they have.
I was instantly deflated. I couldn’t imagine a world where I’d have time to add 7,000 steps to my daily tally. It seemed outrageous: I saw myself walking from my little house in Weaverville all the way to Montana before my Fitbit would register a number that high. As with all things related to fitness, however, I was wrong.
I began by walking 10 minutes every hour. I work in the English department at a local community college and can easily pace the hallways between classes. This subtle shift in my daily routine was enough to boost my total to 7,000. And at that point, I was so close to being average that I was inspired to start taking after-dinner walks before “The Walking Dead“ on Netflix.
These daily strolls opened up a whole new world. Once, walking past two students huddled over a cellphone, I overheard, “And this is the first time I ever saw her. Before I even asked her out, I snapped this picture.” I kept walking, ever mindful of my numbers, but spent the rest of my hallway lap wondering if I’d overheard a sweet love story or something more sinister, like a stalker.
Another time, I breezed past a lecture hall in the biology department and heard, “You pull back the outer skin of the vagina in order to sew it shut.” As I hurried away in fascinated horror, the professor added, “Of course, there’ll be too much skin when you release the retraction: There’s always too much skin, so you simply trim each side.”
I saw the backs of the students’ heads, all rapt with attention, as the professor diagramed his lecture onto the giant smartboard. I guess I expected a riot of some sort as he calmly drew a long, straight line, meant to represent the vagina, but the students sat mute as he added six tidy circles over the line, representing the sutures. I rushed toward the next classroom door, praying it would be a history class or, better still, discrete mathematics.
Still, these glimpses into others’ lives would never have happened without my Fitbit.
But the device has also afforded me subtler observations. I’ve lived here for six years and felt I truly understood this offbeat, dog-loving, music-playing, beer-drinking conglomeration of a city. Using the Fitbit, though, was like watching Asheville in slow motion.
I’ve done this frequently with the remote when complaining about a show’s poor editing job. “Walt’s Scotch glass is almost empty from this angle, but look —” and then I rewind and play it in slo-mo. “It’s three fingers thick in the cutaway.”
The Fitbit has made me aware that when I walk down a sidewalk in the rain, the sound is amplified, and happier, when it falls on leaves rather than on pavement. I’ve learned that the Well-Bred Bakery & Café washes out its trash cans with soapy water that smells like fabric softener — the expensive kind. I discovered this on a night walk that had taken me down a little alley behind the shops. As I was passing by, one of the workers dumped the soapy water into a drain near my feet. A little bubble of suds splashed onto my red shoes, and I felt so happy, there in the dark, with the water gurgling down the drain. I was connected to my neighborhood in a present and tangible way.
The day after Thanksgiving, I noticed that 16 of my neighbors had their Christmas lights up, but only two of them had the old-fashioned, fat, colored bulbs. The rest were all generic and white, and I judged their owners to be lacking in true Christmas spirit. Colored lights felt like a celebration, while those uniform white lights felt like an obligation.
I’ve also learned that people who walk gigantic dogs tend to use skinny leashes, while the ones with little dogs hold thick straps, often attached to the dog by an elaborate harness. And the darker it gets, the fewer dog owners actually carry those indecorous baggies to haul away the unmentionables.
Pastor Mitch, who lives the down the street, pushes his kids outside after dinner. They laugh and play on a big rope swing hanging from a venerable tree in their front yard while he and his wife sit and talk in their front room.
Lots of folks in my neighborhood watch Netflix: The telltale red screen lights up their living rooms as I walk past. A young couple living around the corner from me sit at desks lined up like a schoolroom. She stares at his back while he stares at his computer, their faces lit up in their screens’ watery blue light.
Several of the bigger houses have only one light on at night. I picture them huddled together in a warm room with a fireplace, playing charades and eating chocolate-covered cherries.
I recently spotted some Cheez-Its scattered on the sidewalk: engorged with rain, bloated and puffy but still perfectly square. This was an impressive accomplishment, and I envied them their ability to stay true to form despite adverse conditions. I wouldn’t have had their tenacity. Farther down the sidewalk, I passed the child who’d dropped them, and both he and his mother waved to me with equal enthusiasm.
The people in my city play together and make raking their lawns a family activity. They laugh on their front porches and sip coffee from ridiculously large mugs. They drive Subarus peppered with bumper stickers, the back seats piled with cloth grocery bags. They help their neighbors, wash their trash cans and are drawn from dark places into a single bright room for fellowship.
My sister can keep her movie-star sightings and her earrings from “Pretty Woman.” And I’ll keep my Fitbit, because it forces me out into Asheville’s shops and into neighborhoods where Christmas lights twinkle, where the neighbors always wave and where, two houses down, a round, inflated Frosty flashes his eternal smile.
Abigail Hickman lives in Weaverville with her husband, her stepdaughter and her Fitbit.