The luxury of inattention

I read a lot about fitness.

Non-fiction about fitness can be motivating. I find it especially useful to read when I shouldn’t workout due to injury. It lets me maintain momentum through a period when I’d otherwise be idle. I also find fiction about getting in shape to be motivating. (Either one is generally a lot more motivating than most of what passes for fitness motivation. I’d meant to link that to the motivation stream in the “Fitness” community I follow in Google Plus, but decided against it. Too much of the so-called motivation is either demotivating or outright offensive.)

There’s an issue with this source of motivation: both fiction and non-fiction come with a worldview—a model of what fitness is, what it’s for, what behaviors lead to it.

This is noticeable in non-fiction, particularly when the model is weird as to its goals or methods. But it’s especially noticeable in fiction, because then it gets bound up with the goals of the fictional characters. For example, the hero in Greg Rucka’s Critical Space (I’ve mentioned the fitness montage in the middle of that book before, as a good example of the sort of thing I find motivating) is getting in shape to be ready to defend against an assassin.

As long as I’m choosing reasonable behaviors that lead to fitness in a model of my choice, I figure the fact that there’s an action hero doing some of the same stuff is harmless.

Sometimes the fictional character’s worldview resonates with me. For example, one thing Rucka’s hero describes is that learning how to carry himself—learning how to be balanced, centered—teaches him how to see that in other people. My taiji practice has begun to produce the same result in me. I notice when people do or don’t have a good vertical structure, something that I never would have thought to notice before.

Other times the fictional character’s worldview holds nuggets that are genuinely worth picking up. It’s common, for example, for a hero to get better at paying attention to what’s going on—to be more vigilant and watchful. Clearly a useful perspective if you’re living in a thriller or an action-adventure, but probably even if you’re not. Paying attention to what’s going on around you is just good advice. Even if you’re not being targeted by an assassin, being inattentive makes you more vulnerable to everything from muggings to being hit by a car.

Which brings me to the title of this post. As someone who does not live in a thriller or action-adventure, I have the luxury of not paying attention.

As one specific example, when I play Ingress, I pay very close attention indeed—but the focus of my attention is on the fictional augmented reality of the game. Despite its grounding in the actual built environment of public sculpture, the game really distracts me from paying attention to the people who are nearby. I do make a point of being very careful about cars—I don’t cross roads or driveways with my head down at my phone—but I’m much less attentive to people nearby.

While I’m playing Ingress, an assassin would have no trouble getting to within arm’s reach completely unnoticed.

The other augmented reality game I play, Zombies Run!, isn’t as bad, because it doesn’t occupy my eyes. Even so, its fictional world colors my perspective of the real world.

I’m not alone in this. Mur Lafferty describes the immersive power of the game this way:

I was running to avoid a zombie chase . . . and I passed another runner going the opposite way. I nearly yelled that she was running right toward the zombies and she should turn and race away like me. But since I don’t want to be labeled the neighborhood crazy lady, I didn’t do this. I also feel a need, when I pass someone walking, to tell them that they should pick up the pace because of what is behind me . . .

An immersive game is fun. It is a great luxury to feel safe wandering about in public with my attention on a fictional world rather than the real one. I probably indulge myself a bit too much.

In this case, it would probably be wiser to take the advice of my action heroes, and pay attention.

Arrow, superheros, and gamifying exercise

We’ve enjoyed the TV series “Arrow” right from the start, and I’ve been particularly amused this season, when it appears that everyone (except the police captain, and maybe poor Felicity) is now a superhero (or supervillian): All of the Arrow’s team have what amounts to superpowers, Merlin has long had them, and now Thea is all trained up, and her sister Laurel is working on it.

In fact, in the Arrowverse, it seems that anybody can develop superpowers with a fairly short period of intense workouts.

Since back in season one, where one could already see this principle at work with Oliver, I was trying to convince Jackie that we ought to become superheros. She expressed a willingness, although I suspect she was just humoring me. I can’t speak for Jackie, but I so far do not seem to have superpowers. Probably my workouts have not been intense enough.

Anyway, the upshot is that I was an easy sell for Six to Start’s new Superhero Workout game, which was just released for Android. Like their “Zombies, Run!” game that I’ve mentioned several times, it gamifies exercise, and I’m a sucker for that. (Not to mention being a sucker for fictional characters getting into shape.)

So far I’ve just done the tutorial and part of the first storyline workout. But even in that little bit, I was already exercising more intensely than I have been. A few more weeks of this, and I’ll no doubt be besting multiple ninja warriors both unarmed and with swords.

Fictional characters getting in shape

I’m a huge fan of a particular sort of scenes in stories—the scenes where the hero gets into shape.

I was reminded of this recently, after reading Greg Rucka’s Critical Space, a thriller I read after it was mentioned by Marissa in a recent post, which has an excellent instance of this sort of scene. The getting-in-shape sequence in this book takes the form of a montage (much as you might see in a movie with such a sequence) written in second person. You swim. You run. You do yoga and ballet. You take supplements and you eat lots of fruit. You lift weights. You see the changes in your body. You learn to be an assassin.

I have long been a fan of these scenes, both in books and movies. They’re a key part of the original Rocky movie, of course, and are practically all there is in Rocky III. I’m especially fond of the getting-in-shape sequence in the book Man on Fire by A. J. Quinnell, and I’m still bitter that the movie completely omitted the sequence. (Easily the best part of the book.)

A lot of sf and fantasy stories have versions of these. For example, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liad books often have characters learning a martial art. In these, as in a lot of fantasy stories, the hero or heroine often turns out to have an especially high level of natural talent for the art. I view this as a negative—it’s more interesting to me when the hero lacks any extraordinary skill, but manages to excel through hard work. Patrick Rothfuss’s Wise Man’s Fear does a particularly good job in the scenes where the hero learns a taiji-like martial art. Instead of the hero having preternatural talents in the area, his success comes from seizing an opportunity (and, of course, having preternatural talents in other areas).

A whole genre of its own is the boot camp story, where the heroes not only become fit and learn a lethal skill, but also learn something about teamwork and camaraderie.

Anybody out there like these sequences as much as I do? Can anybody point to books or movies with particularly good instances?