Say, how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I’m going to take a flyer and guess they’re not going quite as well as you hoped. This is probably because your resolutions were admirable efforts to improve the world or yourself. What you forgot, in that golden dawn of 2018, is that people’s efforts to improve the world and themselves seldom last very long. Don’t believe me? Take a look around at people and the world and see for yourself.
I have a friend who is keeping to her New Year’s resolution, which is to spend some time each day ball-walking. What is ball-walking, you ask? I did too, and she directed me to a video clip hosted by a strange Germanic chap named Roland Warzecha, who is a medieval enthusiast specializing in olde-tyme swordsmanship. There he was in his medieval kit: odd-rust-coloured tights, a kind of tasseled caramel-coloured tunic, weird leather headgear, strangely form-fitting, foot-hugging leather booties. Roland is one of those modern characters who seems to believe that human beings were better off in earlier times, sleeping on pallets of lice-ridden hay and dying in childbirth. He’s a slender figure, perhaps because he follows an authentic medieval diet of straw, rat and the occasional poached swan.
Roland explained that people walked differently in the 15th century. They didn’t wear structured shoes with heels as we have today: their shoes were more like leather socks, which offered some protection against the treacherous world underfoot but not much. As a consequence, people didn’t walk heel-first as we do today: they walked they way you walk when you’re barefoot and poking your way through long grass containing snakes and thorns and pieces of lego, or when you’re crossing the disgusting wet shower area in the gym: stepping onto the ball of the foot before bringing down the heel, almost tippy-toe.
Roland demonstrated ball-walking, looking like a cross between a wading egret and Sylvester the Cat. Roland himself claims to ball-walk all day long, and he made some halfhearted effort to convince us of its benefits – it burns more calories, allegedly, and tones the calves and is less jarring on the joints – but we both understood instantly that the appeal of ball-walking doesn’t lie with any spurious promise of health or self-improvement, but in the sheer and simple joy of doing something secret called ball-walking, of being part of a club of two, of being able to send each other texts saying, “I’m ball-walking right now!”
I tried it out on my morning walk. Roland had promised us that it might seem strange at first but that a casual onlooker wouldn’t see the difference. I ball-walked tentatively down the sidewalk. Ball, then heel. Ball, then heel. It felt a little dainty but very precise. I felt like a tightrope walker, or Candy Darling, or maybe like a monk walking his evening devotions around his open-air white-pebbled monastery labyrinth. It felt like a more mindful method of ambulation. This was astonishing! Had I discovered some hidden principle of happiness? By one externally undetectable adjustment of my own biomechanics, had I unlocked a whole new thoughtful way of life, more closely attuned with my human origins?
“Hey, why are you walking funny?” said the woman at the doughnut shop as I mooched on by.
“Am I walking funny?” I said, blushing.
“You walk like you ruptured something. Have you ruptured something? My dad walked like that after he ruptured something.”
There are some words I don’t think should be allowed to exist at all, let alone be applied to me, and “rupture” is one of them. If Roland had lied to me about the invisibility of ball-walking to the casual observer, what else had he lied about?
I called my friend that evening. “I’ve been doing some research,” I said. “It turns out that chimpanzees and bears and the great apes all walk heel first, not toe first.”
“So, walking heel-first is the more natural gait for a human being. It’s more efficient. Can take us further. When kids start walking, they don’t walk on the balls of their toes.”
“So Roland is having us on. How does he even know that’s how people walked in the middle-ages? Just because the people in those old paintings and tapestries seem to be stepping tippy-toe? That’s not evidence! That could mean anything!”
“So?” she said.
And then I remembered what I had briefly forgotten: that the utility of a thing isn’t what makes it worth doing. That what makes us humans, besides the inability ever to improve ourselves much, is the pleasure of doing something just because we can, because it amuses us, because it’s a joke we can share with someone who gets us.
“I’m a ball-walker!” bellowed my friend down the phone. “I’m a ball-walker till I die!”
“Hey, you know what?” I said. “I’m ball-walking right now!”
Times, 1 February 2018