Intentionally Unreasonable: 1 step at a time

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My wife recently gave me a device that straps to my wrist, promoted by the manufacturer as the “ultimate fitness super watch.”

This super watch (Fitbit) from my super wife, communicates with GPS satellites high above the earth, monitors every beat of my heart, and keeps track of every minute of my sleep. It also syncs to my iPhone while shooting bits and bytes of information back and forth, tracks miles walked, stairs climbed and automatically sends notes to my wife 10 times a day reinforcing my eternal love. (All true except that last feature, which would be great.)

One other core function of my super watch is its ability to count “steps” – the latest and greatest metric to measure exercise.

There is a general recommendation from various fitness gurus that the average adult should take 10,000 steps (or the equivalent in other exercise) each day. This equates to about five miles per day of walking, or an annual total of 1,825 miles  – roughly the distance between Portland and Denver.

Before making the commitment to Fitbit-ing myself to the Rocky Mountains over the next year, I took my ultimate fitness super watch for a spin around the Maine Mall last week.

In fact, I didn’t just visit the Mall, I immersed myself in a two-hour, 4,234-step, 2-mile-plus, 98-heartbeats-per-minute safari through Maine’s biggest shopping jungle.

First, I must disclose that I would rather endure a triple root canal performed by a guy named Bubba at The Home Depot with nothing but a pair of rusty pliers, a DeWalt drill and a shot of WD-40 than go shopping.

Starting with my first step at the Food Court and hugging the right-side wall, I circumvented 1.2 million square feet of space and visited 135 stores, restaurants and retail spaces while navigating past 382 different variations of “Can I help you?”

By step 1,000, I had perfected a non-verbal expression that conveyed my inner voice: “I’m not here for help, I’m not here to buy anything, I’d rather be at the Home Depot getting a triple root canal, so please just let me step away. I must now walk 453 steps through the Sears store to achieve the highest level of consumer-depression.”

Built in 1971, the Maine Mall is the biggest shopping center in Maine. Like all malls from that explosive period of retail expansion, the primary purpose of the Maine Mall was to efficiently serve the buying needs of the emerging car-centric society. Previously, in the 1950s and 1960s, towns and cities hosted the bulk of retail stores in community clusters.

Growing up in Needham, Massachusetts, we bought hardware at Harvey’s Hardware store, where Harvey himself would personally greet each customer with a big smile and then launch into a funny story. I went to school for years with Harvey’s son, Jeff, who now runs the store.

We bought shoes at West’s, a tiny clothing store in the center of town where the same owner greeted me and my family by name for more than a decade. My entire sense of fashion started and ended at West’s. (My wife would not celebrate that fact.)

Our local drugstore wasn’t a drugstore, it was an apothecary owned by Len Kaplan, an early baseball coach of mine. And whenever you went to pick up medicine from Mr. Kaplan, his smile, warmth, and empathetic connection made you feel better before you even left the store. His son, David, was a friend and classmate of mine for many years.

Back then, shopping was mostly an experience shared by neighbors that went beyond simple sales transactions. Experiences that I remember fondly, even 50 years later.

People on both sides of the counter knew each other, cared about each other, and in many ways depended upon each other – valuable human dimension that malls can’t provide at any price. Many deep human bonds and generational connections were destroyed when malls were built. Such is progress, we were told.

In a capitalistic society, which has many social and democratic benefits, one downside is the constant tectonic pressure to squeeze more efficiency out of every aspect of our economy – with profit over people as the core operating system. For many decades, malls were the thuggish bullies on the economic retail block, crushing thousands of businesses here in Maine and across the country.

Today, it is the malls themselves that are getting beat up in the face of the more efficient and powerful forces of the internet and online shopping.

My walk through the Maine Mall ended where it started – in the Food Court with me feeling nostalgic for my early shopping experiences with Harvey Katz, Len Kaplan and Mrs. West; missing them, missing the me of yesteryear and sad that my own children will never know those same special connections.

Exercise will be a higher priority for me going forward, with or without any help from wrist-mounted technology. I’m just not sure if I ever need to visit another mall.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard Saturdays at 11 a.m. on WLOB 1310 AM and 100.5 FM.

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