A Field Guide to Joggers

WHEN my Amish farmer friend got out of the hospital, he was a bit restive under the instructions sent with him. He was supposed to walk a certain distance every day, whether or not he had anywhere to go. It was the last part that went against the grain. Dan had been accustomed to walking all the time, to the barn, to the field, back to the farmhouse, always with some purpose. To walk just for the sake of walking didn't seem natural.

Dan, meet Lou.

Lou is another friend, a retired executive from a Fortune 500 company. The last time I visited him he played me his tapes. They had been painstakingly selected for his aerobics class. Not a class he is taking. A class he is giving. He has become an aerobics teacher, complete with accreditation and spandex tights. He showed me some of the moves in his living room.

I imagine that for Dan, the only thing more mystifying than walking without a goal would be giving, or taking, a class in how to jump and stretch and carry on while staying in one place. I imagine Lou finds aerobics simply a refinement on the group calisthenics we had to do as students and as military recruits, when we sometimes carried a rifle for additional interest, the way some aerobics folks and power walkers carry weights, now available to be filled with water and later conveniently drunk from.

But a wayward thought occurred to me as I was bicycling to work - I never bicycle without a destination - the other morning. I travel many of the same streets and riverside paths as runners, walkers, and joggers, and I began to think that Dan and Lou and I may be part of one of the last generations to know a world before joggers and aerobics. We may be a little like the last generation to remember a world without television or without rock-and-roll or without Velcro.

Here, then, are a few notes from one of the last of the nonjoggers.

Jogging used to be associated with prizefighters and maybe some other athletes. No ordinary private citizens jogged along the memory lanes of my small-town childhood.

To be fair, some people took walks around the block or through the park. But they were more like the saunterers whom Thoreau equates with walkers in his celebrated essay called "Walking" (1862). Thoreau said he sauntered for "four hours a day at least," and "the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise."

It may have more to do with people like T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock: "I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach."

Now, in city, town, or countryside, at home in America or abroad in various places, I rarely go through a day without seeing somebody jogging or walking in a manner akin to taking exercise. Most people know they don't have to walk or run to get where they're going. They could take mechanical transportation, so using their feet is a sign of luxury. They're like John Lyly 400 years ago saying, "It is good walking when one hath his horse in hand."

At one time the morning joggers were mostly men. Now as many or more women are out. And there's a similar mix when I'm on the way back home in the afternoon.

I've memorized the scenery, so I look at the people when I ride. There are more species of jogger than most people can imagine.

There's "Mr. Grim About It." He may be straining for the alleged euphoria of reaching a certain plateau of exertion - but he does not appear happy at the thought. His arms and legs pump like factory machinery. He often wears a sweatband. The female of the species is exactly the same.

There's "Ms. Close Fit." Her leg designs proliferate in black, yellow, floral prints, abstract whorls, assorted stripes, all apparently painted on. The male is rarer and usually sighted in solid blue.

This species may be threatened by the "Neo-Baggies."

There's the "Top-Knotted Heel-and-Toe Strider." I've sighted only one complete example of this species, which is fairly well described by its name, but I've sighted that one, a blonde of mature years, many times. With such familiar, frequently sighted individuals, I often find myself a participant in what might be called locomotion bonding, even though we never speak and I have no way of knowing if the bonding is mutual.

For a year I bonded with a pleasant-faced walker carrying a briefcase, whom I suspected of not really exercising but going to work. Then I started taking a different route. Six months later I tried the old route, and there he was again, though his hair had gone quite gray around the edges. Occasionally, after awhile, I venture to say good morning to an often-met jogger. A few times he or she hasn't seemed to realize we have bonded.

Then there's the "Audio Ambulant," who comes in many varieties attached to earphones. Main species has belt clip-on technology. Beginners carry audio device, often yellow, in hand. Wild and crazy guys may have giant headphones with nutty little antennae like space creatures. Higher than average percentage of roller blades in this population.

There's the "Merry-Eyed Smiler." This is the ineradicable species that can't help smiling when meeting a fellow human being. The characteristic applies to either sex, but somehow the smiles of young women especially glow at the sight of a senior cyclist in a business suit and a lemon yellow helmet with luminescent stripes. Does my heart good.

What a shock it would be, albeit a pleasant one, to meet farmer Dan walking or jogging, encased in Lycra, with no chore in sight.

But probably no more than the shock of being in an aerobics class led by Grandpa Lou with Madonna singing "I'm Breathless" on his tape machine.

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