In our New Media Landscape, populated as it is by species struggling for survival, the most endangered species of all is that hearty, adaptable, and yet increasingly rare animal know as ‘reporting.’ We hear the refrain over and over again: It’s not commentary that’s in trouble, it’s reporting. What democracy really needs is reporting. Local reporting. Investigative reporting. Shoe leather reporting.
But The New York Times, yesterday, may have taken the need for shoe leather…just a tad too literally.
The gimmick: in honor of yesterday’s New York City Marathon, an intrepid Times metro reporter himself covered 26.2 miles…walking. In Park Slope, Brooklyn’s yuppie-bucolic enclave. Around his own block. Seventy-five times.
None of that is a joke.
In 26.2 miles, I could have walked to Yankee Stadium and back. I could have walked to Lido Beach on Long Island or Linden, N.J., to Rye, N.Y. (gateway to Connecticut!), to Hackensack or Hasbrouck Heights or through the Lincoln Tunnel and across the Meadowlands to Ho-Ho-Kus.
I chose, instead, to walk a marathon without ever being more than 416 feet from my home, a feat that may never have been attempted in the history of extreme sport, unless you count the nun in the Laurie Anderson song “On the Way to Jerusalem,” who wants to make a pilgrimage to the holy city but does not want to scare people with her order’s tradition of nuns wearing bags on their heads. Instead she circles her cloister for three years until she covers the equivalent distance; at the end, the nun dies. (Ms. Anderson said the anecdote was apocryphal.)
Buddhists and Hindus, too, circumambulate stupas and temples as worship, an acknowledgment of the spiritual gravity that lies in the center. And what place is more sacred than home?
Fifteen hours 50 minutes and 3 seconds later — I took a lot of breaks, to do some work and take care of my 5-year-old daughter — I finished my unlikely journey, in the same spot but a very different place from where I had begun.
In other words: This is not a farce! This is not a dark joke whose dry humor, dear reader, you are too dense to appreciate! No, this is Reported Narrative at its finest! The nods to the Eastern Philosophical Tradition (“Buddhists and Hindus”) make clear: walking in circles—which the narrow Western mind associates with redundancy and futility and the general wasting of valuable time—is not, in fact, a sadly ironic metaphor for the alleged insularity and self-defeating tendency of the newspaper industry writ large. The Times’s ‘Block-a-thon,’ complete with a ‘multimedia package’ detailing the circuitous route in question, is not a baffling symptom of reportorial laziness, or gimmicky desperation, or hipstery glibness.
On the contrary: it is nothing short of Epic, a Journey of Discovery, a Walkabout for the Modern Urban Male, a Vision Quest in which our Young Hero, accompanied by his trusty companion, the dog Barnaby, ventures out into the rocky terrain between Fourth and Fifth Avenues and comes to see The World, and his place within it, in a new and nuanced way. (“I started counting steps and discovered that my house was a good seven paces closer to Fifth Avenue than to Fourth. For eight years I had thought I lived right in the middle of the block.” Yes. Someone get Joseph Campbell.)
And then our Young Hero changes shoes—from New Balance cross-trainers to New Balance running shoes. This is probably symbolic, of something. And then—the passage-into-manhood ritual shared by cultures the world over—he gets a pedicure.
And that about brings it full circle.