The Magazine

Step to It

Matt Labash, intolerable bore.

Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By MATT LABASH
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THE MOST DESULTORY happenstance can irrevocably alter our lives. So it went last Christmas, the day I became an intolerable bore. My sister-in-law, who'd finally exhausted the effeminate sweater collection from Banana Republic, decided instead to buy me something I'd actually requested. I'd wanted a heart monitor, to make sure I was properly taxing myself in the gym. She obliged, and unbeknownst to both of us, it came with a little freebie plastic rectangle that clipped to my belt and counted my every step. It was a pedometer--or as I've since come to know it, "the future."

Most recipients would've been more interested in the pattern of the discarded wrapping paper or the discreet note asking for a mistletoe make-out session (it's a very close family). But I immediately recognized the pedometer for what it was: a miracle of modern science on a par with the polio vaccine or maybe even the juice box.

I'd spent most Christmases tucked into the wassail or weeding cashews out of the mixed-nut bowl, lazing away the morn while the womenfolk did the heavy lifting. But no more. Now I was shot from a cannon, racking up valuable steps on makework errands. Kids need their presents taken to the car? Great--42 steps round-trip. Uncle Drippy Drawers's colostomy bag leaking? I'll fetch the spare--37 steps.

At home, I found new ways to lend meaning to the meaningless, to make order out of what I'd formerly regarded as chaos. Toddler plunging the toilet with his foot again? I'll stop him (24 steps). Older son has screaming younger son in figure-four leglock? I'm on it (19 steps and a scissor kick). Meddlesome neighbor ringing bell to extend unwanted dinner invite? Got it covered (32 steps and a drop-and-roll behind the armoire).

Mind you, I'm not one of those obsessive-compulsive wack-jobs who pulls patches of hair from his head or rewashes his hands if he's touched the soap dispenser. Though I regularly and effortlessly exceed the doctor-recommended 10,000-steps-a-day benchmark for heart healthiness (in my house, we just call it being "in the bonus"), for me, it isn't about that. Rather, it's about watching the seeming emptiness of everyday actions add up to something quantifiable. And it does, too. I've got the spreadsheets to prove it.

Admittedly, I've become an addict, and pedometers are my crack. I would never think of sleeping in the raw, because upon waking, I reach for my pedometer before I reach for the alarm, so that I can clip it to my underwear waistband. Wouldn't want to lose paces on the way to the morning squirt (12 steps). Since that fateful Christmas Day, I've ripped through seven pedometers. Some I've lost to swimming pools or crushing mishaps. Most of the time, I keep a backup handy, which allows me to run controlled experiments between models to measure accuracy (say, the bottom-of-the-line pedometer included in a McDonald's Happy Meal vs. the top-of-the-line Omron HJ-112). Walking around with two pedometers hanging from either side of your belt, you do draw a fair amount of ridicule from friends and detractors. But as a romantic, I like to think I look like Wyatt Earp instead of a clerk at Circuit City.

Less visionary types don't always understand such depths of devotion. Usually, I dismiss them, telling them to wallow in their inertia and have another Big Mac (walking one off requires 11,000 steps). But this is not always advisable. Recently, after returning from a trip, I told my wife how, on the train, I was in the lavatory, and my pedometer fell into the waterless steel commode. A cheap model--maybe a Q-One or a Q-One Plus--it didn't even have a calorie counter. Still, without a backup, I had no choice but to fish it out with a pen, cadge a Sani-Wipe from a fellow passenger, clean the little bugger up, and put it back into commission. She looked at me like I'd grown a third ear, then hugged me in mock consolation. I gave her a good shove.

"Why'd you push me away?" she asked.

"Because you might accidentally reset me," I said, favoring my pedometer side.

She's a sensitive one, my wife. So she ended this revelry and took off up the stairs to our bedroom (29 steps). This got me to thinking that there is a fine line between fixation and the descent into madness. I'll probably be the last to know where that line is. But at least I'll know how many steps it takes to get there.

--Matt Labash