On a whim, I bought myself a slackline for my birthday. I make very, very few impulse buys, but I’m grateful for the occasional minor rust-spot on my otherwise sterling consumer reputation. (On the annual family beach vacation, I remember shielding my eyes from low-buzzing biplanes dragging fluttering advertisement banners in their stream: “I refuse to be advertised to!” I would declare imperiously to my siblings.)
The slackline has proven to be a lot of fun, good exercise, and a hell of a challenge.
Almost as if by magic, my son (nearly 10 months old now) began firing up his pistons and leg-pinions the very same day I bought the slackline. He took a single step that day, then a couple the next, and now a week later, he managed to take 11 steps in one go. Not that he’s covering any great distance, or making it look particularly easy. He actually looks like he could pitch headlong at any moment into the surface of the earth he’s attempting to conquer. He kind of looks like a zombie, truth be told. But, it’s beautiful, it’s hilarious. And it’s a bit nerve-wracking.
The funny part is, I realize how utterly disjointed and absurd I, too, look on the slackline, attempting, as it were, to walk for the first time: a fully grown man legs akimbo, arms and hands wildly weaving about, pitching headlong to the ground at random intervals. Quite frankly, I underestimated the amount of patience and focus and time it was going to take to learn how to use this two inch wide length of webbing. Strung between two tree boles. Hand-tightened, taut yet reeling. I feel as if I’m walking for the first time. I can relate more closely with my son as he shakily lurches, first one foot then the other, toppling backward, forward, sideward, irreverent supplicant he is, diapered, drooling, grinning with two sharp teeth.
Another whim (no money was exchanged in this transaction, no consumer guilt clouding my sights) led me to search the web for “how do babies learn to walk?” I poked noncommittally around the first few results until I found a PDF purporting to be from NYU Psychology. What I found was an article titled “How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls Per Day” by Adolf et. al. ‘Twas an interesting little read, with a few tidbits I’ll share, but I also am deeply ambivalent about this type of research sometimes. Sometimes, certain aspects of existence seem so obvious to me that a battery of tests and millions of dollars seems superfluous, wasteful, idiotic even. How do we learn to walk? By watching others, trying it out on our own, falling a hell of a lot, falling some more, and repeated attempts over enormous amounts of time. It seems rather straightforward to me. So, why the team of doctors? Because we can, I suppose. Because someone needs something to do with all this time we have in our lives. Thankfully, after sifting through the overtly and overly-academic jargon and doublespeak, I landed on a question that actually seemed to be worth asking in the first place: Why do we walk?
At first blush, this question may seem ridiculous, inflammatory even. We walk, of course, because that’s just what humans do! It’s more efficient than quadrupedal locomotion, you fool! Yes and yes. However, the NYU study seemed resolute. Staunchly opposed to such facile rebuttals: even so, why, pray tell, do we walk? They ask: “why would expert crawlers abandon a presumably stable, quadrupedal posture that took months to master in order to move in a precarious, upright posture where falling is rampant?” It’s a fair question. Quite fair, really. My son has at long last mastered (though this is a relative mastery) the art of crawling, only to abandon this mastery – the efficiency of movement, the fluidity, the speed, the confidence and fine adjustments he can make at top speed – for the utterly horrifying reality that is walking upright. (Yes, I’m talking about the slackline, too.) Why bother making the switch?
The NYU team invited a few hundred kids – tiny humans new to the whole walking scene – to come to their lab to do just that: walk. They set the place up with furniture, toys, the works. Just like home. With a bunch of nerds gawking, rolling their ballpoints between calloused forefingers and adjusting their horned-rims. Yes, just like home.
Below are the actual illustrations from the report.
In the first, you’ll see the “ideal” walk by the “ideal” walker: a straight, unveering, measured, metered, casually quasi-professional gait down a long section of carpet. In the second, you’ll see the unholy, all-electrifying reality of little 15 month old humans scrimshawing their way across the surface of the earth.
What we think babies should be doing when learning to walk.
What babies are actually doing when learning to walk.
As you can see, the two pictures are basically identical. There’s this rather annoying strand of what appears to be gigantic spaghetti in the second one, though. Hmmm, I wonder what could be the reason for… Oh wait. That’s right. Kids don’t give a shit what we think they should be doing. Little Tommy was asked to show his walking skills to the grown-ups. They would have been thrilled to see a dozen marching strides straight down the center of the “gait carpet” (that’s what they actually call that thing). Instead, Little Tommy smirked at them, stuffed a fat forefinger with a grubby, ragged nail up his left nostril, and proceeded to ransack the place like a cornered badger. “Children fall approximately 17 times/hour,” the report dryly stated. I am glad for the illustrations: they help to explain why this rate is so high. It’s because kids are fucking maniacs. (That exact phrase didn’t seem to be anywhere in the report, as far as I could tell.)
In another taciturn, bespectacled moment, the researchers stated: “Immense amounts of time-distributed, variable practice constitute the natural practice regimen for learning to walk.” That’s what it’s all about: practice, and endless amounts of it. Again, nothing earth-shattering being studied here. Just like I won’t be shattering anything on the slackline. Oh wait, no, no, I might actually shatter something. Shit.
Not to get too far away from that interesting query from earlier: why walk in the first place? If walking presents such a “precarious” state compared to the relative ease and comfort of crawling, why bother? That is, why aren’t we all still dragging our knuckles on the way to the office or grocery store?
Turns out, after much research, much belabored observation and plotting, charting, graphing, analyzing, reanalyzing, adding, subtracting, rationalizing, theorizing, and analyzing some more, the answer is: crawling is not actually any safer than walking. This seems suspicious, but when “when we normalized fall rate by the difference in activity between crawlers and walkers, the difference in fall rates disappeared and walkers were no longer at a disadvantage.” That is, when the researchers took into account the distances walkers were able to cover compared to crawlers, the number of falls each took were about the same. That is, you might technically take a few more hits on two legs as opposed to four, but the amount of terrain you’ll canvas makes it worth the risk. As the NYU researchers themselves put it, “Thus, part of the answer to “why walk?” is “why not?””
And there you have it: “why not?” Why not slackline? Why not look like a complete fool in my front yard in the time after dinner and before bed? Why not move from a quadrupedal setup to a much more dubious bipedal one? Why not?
I wonder who will learn to walk first? Abraham is a bit ahead of the curve, but he has a long way to go before he’s dashing about synaptically, fearless as the breeze, fall-free and nimble. I managed to take four consecutive steps tonight on the line: seven shy of my infant son. (In all fairness, he’s been ambling about every day, and I’ve missed a few days because of evening thunderstorms.) The distance to my goal of walking comfortably is perhaps on par with my son’s. It may well be that we both end up walking confidently around the same time. And how cool would that be? And as soon as he can walk on solid ground, he’s going up on the line. Give him a head start. By the time he’s having kids of his own, he’ll be doing stuff on a high line that most folks would be afraid to attempt from the safety of their couch. I look forward to that day. I hope I’m not on crutches.
Karen E. Adolph, Whitney G. Cole, Meghana Komati, Jessie S. Garciaguirre, Daryaneh Badaly, Jesse M. Lingeman, Gladys Chan, and Rachel B. Sotsky
How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls Per Day