You need to walk the walk.

Now that I’m older, I guess I should pay more attention to these things. Staying alive isn’t about just eating more carrots, or getting a good night’s sleep as my mother used to insist. Most of it is probably just luck I suppose, but there’s also training you can do. Should do.

I am still learning, though. I assume that’s a good thing, but each new thing I learn reminds me of how much I don’t yet know -and might never have thought to investigate had I not stumbled into it on my way to something else. But I suppose that’s how things work, isn’t it? Serendipity often out-performs goals.

Who would have thought, for example, that the way you walk might determine your vulnerability to danger even more than age, size, or gender? The BBC did, and I felt I had to read the article -just in case I was doing something wrong:

‘A small number of criminals commit most of the crimes, and the crimes they commit are spread unevenly over the population: some unfortunate individuals seem to be picked out repeatedly by those intent on violent assault.’

‘ Back in the 1980s, two psychologists from New York, Betty Grayson and Morris Stein, set out to find out what criminals look for in potential victims. They filmed short clips of members of the public walking along New York’s streets, and then took those clips to a large East Coast prison. There were some expected differences, in that women were rated as easier to attack than men, on average, and older people as easier targets than the young. But even among those you’d expect to be least easy to assault, the subgroup of young men, there were some individuals who over half the prisoners rated at the top end of the “ease of assault” scale.

‘The researchers then asked professional dancers to analyse the clips using a system called Laban movement analysis– a system used by dancers, actors and others to describe and record human movement in detail. They rated the movements of people identified as victims as subtly less coordinated than those of non-victims.’ I’m not actually sure how many muggings the dance troupe had to perform to credential themselves as experts, though.

‘Two decades later, a research group led by Lucy Johnston of the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, performed a more robust test of the idea. The group used a technique called the point light walker This is a video recording of a person made by attaching lights or reflective markers to their joints while they wear a black body suit. When played back you can see pure movement shown in the way their joints move, without being able to see any of their features or even the limbs that connect their joints.’

In summary, it would appear that you can teach people to look less vulnerable when they walk. It seems to involve longer strides with more confident arm-swinging, I think, but despite walking through the original paper as well as strolling inside the BBC article, I’m still not sure. I am certain, however, that it made me feel more vulnerable.

My subjectively verified strategy from many primary school encounters was to run first, and then look back when I could no longer feel breath on the back of my neck. My fall-back plan, if surprised in flagrante delicto -or whatever you call taunting someone on the playground- was to drop to the ground in a fetal position with my eyes closed, and pretend I was hiding. But, I suppose what works in Grade 4 does not necessarily translate into a workable adult stratagem.

So, without the benefit of any diagrams or point-light-videos as a guide, I decided to test out the stride-swing deceit on a trail of my choosing. Not that I ever felt remotely vulnerable on the path, or anything, but sometimes people become aggressive if I sneak up behind them while they are standing by themselves in the bushes. It’s good to be prepared.

I felt a little foolish practicing the exaggerated arm swings at first, but after a few couples huddled together and pretended to look away when they saw me coming, or detoured to another trail with worried expressions I realized I was on to something. I mean, let’s face it, the best defence is pretence. I read that somewhere -maybe it was buried subliminally in the article. Or maybe it was liminal -I’m still not sure what it actually said.

It was only when I met someone I sort of recognized coming the other way, that I began to doubt.

“Hi, G,” she said with a familiarity that suggested she knew more about me than just my nickname.

I couldn’t for the life of me remember who she was, so I just smiled, and swung confidently past her.

“You’ve got one of those Fit-bits,” she said as I breezed by, her eyes glinting as if she’d seen a piece of lettuce hanging from my nose, or something.

For some reason I thought she said ‘ick bits’, so I stopped, mid-swing and turned to ask her where she meant -and to please point it out. I have to admit I also blushed, and swung my arm up again as if it was all part of checking the usual places on a face where food ends up.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to be nonchalant, while at the same time thankful. It’s always good to know about something like that.

“I mean, swinging your arm like that isn’t really necessary, G…”

I must have dislodged whatever it was with my hand, so I smiled to thank her for noticing. “I was just practicing,” I said, and ran my hand over my face again, just to show her.

Her smile broadened as she turned to leave. “Well, have a good walk, eh?” she said, and headed down the trail again.

I can’t tell you how good that made me feel -Science really works. I didn’t feel the least bit vulnerable, although I did decide not to order the salad at MacDonald’s the next time. The article was right, you have to be careful.


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