In Praise of the Lindy Walk

One Step at a Time

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Covid hit New York pretty badly in the months of March, April, May and June. The death toll was rising fast and the city was ground zero for the virus. The government responded by closing all gyms, public parks and put a curfews on businesses. Fear was in the air. People were scared. No one knew how contagious or deadly this virus was. In fact, no one knows much about the virus even now, but back then the situation was more opaque, people were still questioning if masks even worked. I was living in New York during that time, in an expensive but small apartment right outside of Manhattan. Slowly the city was turning into a giant jail for its inhabitants. Staying indoors meant depression, dark thoughts and stale air. Not a good place for a Lindy Man.

Fortunately, I reached back in time and decided to do the one thing that was available to me: going for a Lindy Walk.

No Destination

One of the components of a Lindy Walk is there is no end point or goal. You walk to walk. You are not really sure where you’ll end up. A Lindy walker is someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his destination so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained. Similar thing happens in entrepreneurship or research, you are looking for optionality. For someone like myself who is an employee and is on a schedule all day, this is a nice change of pace from normal existence.

In New York I would walk around Queens, sometimes I’ll go to Astoria and see the different architecture, different eras being represented. I would see the numerous phenotypes of people, the shops, the restaurants, although during those months they were mostly closed. I would see people of all ages going about their day. The long lines at the supermarket, fear in the air, people stocking up food. Who knows what was coming? I was completely aimless. Ducking into a few residential streets, making a left, or a right if I felt like it. Then finding myself back by a large road. I felt very human.

The geographer Strabo preserves an amusing anecdote about the interaction of Romans and “barbarians” on the Iberian peninsula in the first century bc. Although the Romans had formed a political alliance with the Vettonians, there was inevitably a certain degree of culture clash (Geog. 3.4.16):

*(“Walking in Rome” by Timothy O’ Sullivan)

Here we see Strabo portraying leisurely walking as part and parcel of civilization. Of culture. Of the Greco-Roman identity. If you do not walk you are a barbarian, only slightly above the level of a dumb animal.

Thinking and Walking

An interesting thing happened when I walked. I had thoughts popping into my head. Waves of ideas would come through. I wasn’t “trying” to think or even come up with an idea. It would just appear. Like magic. So I would take my phone out and tweet the thought. I did this so much I decided that the only worthy mode of tweeting is a system 1 approach. Tweet the thoughts in your head in real time, and don’t think about it too much (System 2). It did stun me how writing is mostly done while walking, it was a physical activity. Sitting and writing down was almost secondary. I am not alone in this thinking. A host of anecdotes from antiquity back this up: from Diogenes wandering the world looking for an honest man to Thales stumbling into a pit while lost in thought, attest to a real connection between walking and Greek philosophical practice. The association has been strengthened by a long history of reception; European philosophers and artists embraced the culture of the pensive stroll. Kant’s walks were such a regular feature of his day that, according to Heine the natives of Königsberg set their watches by them. Kierkegaard too was famous for his walks through Copenhagen. Inspired no doubt by both modern and ancient practice, Nietzsche pushes the association between philosophy and walking to its logical extreme:

The Walk Deprived

Many people think walking is useless. So they use new mechanical vehicles (cars, bicycles, etc) to travel and then get their exercise at the gym. Or sometimes you’ll people “power walking”, or walking with nordic sticks, or with holding weights on their arms. They do not realize, for reasons invisible to them that it is necessary for a human being to walk at a level below stress. Not beneficial, but necessary. You’re starting to see articles in the press about how walking is good for your mental health

No Shit. Walking is as necessary as sleep. People go nuts without sleep and they go nuts without a walk. The symptoms start small, they’ll pace around the room while talking on the phone. Then it snowballs into something bigger…

All our ancestors for a million years walked. Up until 70 years ago you would just walk everywhere. What happens when you take that away? Probably a lot of bad stuff I don’t want to think about.

Thankfully I’ve lived in places that were easy to walk in. Cities or beach towns. Most people live in car culture centered suburbia where the only people you see walking around are broke, illegal immigrants or lost their license from too many DUIs.

Human Centered Perspective

When you walk around you start seeing how people move while they walk. How they carry themselves. This is not something you notice while you are in a car. You start recognizing gait. You start seeing patterns on how people move to their station in life, their mood or the environment they are in.

For the Romans, walking was not just about the body. There was a pervasive belief in antiquity that the movement of the body reflected the movement of the mind. Seneca’s tragedies frequently stage acts of gait interpretation, with the act of walking becoming a unified performance of physical and mental activity. There were precedents for such an association in ancient playwriting, so in one sense Seneca was the heir of a robust dramatic tradition. Yet a careful study of his other writings reveals that the gait had a philosophical meaning as well: as a Stoic, Seneca cared about how people walked. The path, after all, was the principal metaphor for the acquisition of Stoic principles; for students of Stoicism, even walking like a sage helped them advance on the road to virtue.

The Roman Lindy walker flaunted his economic independence, he did not need to use his body to earn a wage, and could instead walk back and forth with no particular destination. If you’re in a downtown district during the day you’ll see people walking very fast to get to their destination. This is how slaves walk. They are going to be punished or lose their wage if they do not get there quickly. Meanwhile, the Roman walker is a slow walker. He takes his time to engage with his surroundings.

The leisurely stroll was the equivalent of a wasteful water display in an elite villa: the use of a basic natural “resource” (the legs) for pure enjoyment. The anecdote about the cuckolded pauper from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses hinges on just such an idea. When the laborer comes home early from work unexpectedly one morning, his adulterous wife hides her lover in a jar and prepares her best defense: a good offense (Met. 9.5):

The implication is clear – even his wife expects this man to use his hands for something more than entwining behind his back. The leisurely walk shows the same disregard for the economic potential of his legs as his alleged pose does for his hands. The irony of course is that the wife, not the husband, is the wasteful one: she has “filled” the jar in the corner with her lover, rather than something of commercial value.

Lindy Walking during a Pandemic

Lindy walking during a pandemic was a unique experience. New York was mostly dead and people were worried about their personal survival. The city changed into something else. Something that it was not. Almost like the volume was turned down completely. Gone were the crowds or buzzing commercial activity. I remember seeing mostly men on the streets during the first month, gender roles usually appear during extreme circumstances. People stopped picking up their dog shit on the street. Society changed a little bit.

One thing I know is that Lindy walking preserved my mental health. If I was sitting at home for months, I don’t know what would happen. It’s like asking me what would happen if I stopped sleeping. I’d probably go crazy.