How to Write More and Exercise More AT THE EXACT SAME TIME (Or: One More Reason You Should Buy An Alphasmart NEO)

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 28 of 100.

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I am writing this on a treadmill.

I’ve really gone back and forth about whether this makes me the worst person at the gym or the coolest person at the gym — I’m walking quickly on this treadmill with a huge green plastic word processor in front of me, and some superlative absolutely applies. I decided to go with it, ultimately, because I felt that typing at the gym (1) isn’t technically against the rules; (2) is absolutely not hurting anyone; and (3) would probably make a good story for someone stopping by the High Ridge YMCA on a whim.


“Wife Jenny, guess what I saw the gym today, you’ll never guess.”

“Wife Kate, give me a chance to guess, please. Don’t assume I will never guess.”

“You’re right. Go ahead and guess.”

“Was it a person with a dog or a ferret?”

“No.”

“A baby on a treadmill?”

“No no no; it was some hipster trash glasses-wearing tattoo-having chick who was TYPING on WHAT APPEARED TO BE A TYPEWRITER FROM THE NINETIES while she was ON. THE. TREADMILL.”

“You should have let me keep guessing! That was my next guess!”

The scene I’ve painted above is a lively argument between wives, but at least it got the wives talking, right? The spark might be mostly out of the marriage, but now they’re talking about the person who brought a TYPEWRITER to the gym.

This is not my first time with a typewriter at the gym, and I am not using an actual typewriter. Let’s cover the latter detail first, because surely you’re thinking, “What do you mean you have a TYPEWRITER at the gym? What does this device even possibly LOOK LIKE?”

This device is called the Alphasmart NEO, and they don’t make them anymore, but they’re readily available on Amazon’s used section or eBay for close to $20. A hipster startup called FreeWrite is making a version of this machine right now and is marketing it to exactly the kind cactus-owning, hemp protein-buying, beanie-wearing cliche that I seem to be. This device, which has turned up in my Instagram ad feed, costs $200, and is incredibly bulky. The idea behind it is that we Millennials can’t really trust ourselves around the internet (fair), and we need a word processor that is old-fashioned enough to be COMPLETELY distraction-free. Someone had this idea in the early 2000s, but we weren’t scared of our smart phones enough yet, so it didn’t take off. Now the remnants of that failed business endeavor are readily available on the internet (I do see the irony in that), and man oh man do I ever recommend buying one.

The Alphasmart Neo is a comfy computer keyboard with a one-inch screen that allows you type, spell check, and transfer to your computer big text files. It’s that gray-green color that was very popular in the early days of computers, and the text that comes up on the little screen is pretty big — I’ve just taken a picture of it for you so you can see what I’m looking at. (I’m on the treadmill actively moving around, so I’m not really sure if the picture will turn out, but that kind of makes this whole reading experience more “live” and “real,” doesn’t it?)

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The most immediately wonderful thing about typing on the Alphasmart NEO is how satisfying it is to compose something. You can only see four lines at a time, so there’s no impetus to scroll back and edit yourself and delete things; you are sort of forced to charge forward with your writing. Because the text on the screen is so gigantic, it feels like you’re writing A LOT of words; like while you walk for a mile on this treadmill, you have simultaneously penned the Great American Novel (and hey — maybe you have!). The Alphasmart NEO doesn’t suggest to you that you might be writing a letter; it doesn’t scribble underneath your misuse of “their” with a green line; it doesn’t ping at you when your girlfriend texts you a cool picture of a fuzzy dog. All the Alphasmart NEO wants is for you to Keep. Writing. And for most writers, that’s a tough thing to do.

I teach writing at a high school, and I sort of wish that I could make my students sit in a room for an hour a day with no internet and nothing but the Alphasmart NEO. Yesterday I met with eight students, and all eight of them bemoaned that they “just didn’t know how to keep going”; they’d “lost the spark with this piece.” I know that feeling really well; I know from experience that this is a particularly damaging lie our brains tell us in order to prevent us from doing the very courageous work of continuing to write. Distractions are only one element of this hindrance; the other is that the longer you work on something, the scarier it is to try to finish it. Because what if it isn’t very good? So far, it’s not as good as you pictured it being. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop now and start something else that, surely, will be better?

This is where I wish that the students could walk on a treadmill and write FORWARD, into the weird, ‘90s-looking oblivion of the Alphasmart NEO. I swear by this machine so much that it’s currently the only way I’m really able to write.

My gym habit is at a peak. I love this about my life; it makes me exponentially more OK day to day. This isn’t in my imagination: every study around exercise that has ever been done since the beginning of time (I subscribe to 85 or so women’s magazines, so I’ve read them all) comes to the same conclusion: Exercise is ONLY GOOD FOR YOU. It can solve pretty much EVERY PROBLEM YOU HAVE. It can and will keep you from getting depressed. It can and will keep you from getting a cold. It can and will keep you from feeling like you’re a failure as a woman because you never get up off your ass to attempt to make yourself thinner and younger-looking and more beautiful.*

I never went to the gym before we moved to Rogers Park, by the way. I really love the High Ridge YMCA. In contrast to our former YMCA, the Lakeview Y (where Luke still works, so no shade), there are, on average, zero ultrafit 30-something moms sprinting on treadmills or trying to jump on blocks here. It seems like adult special education programs come here a lot. There are whole families that show up to do the jump rope, but their bodies are not Traditional Western Hot, and that is so obviously not the point for them. There are a lot of folks who are older than my parents and who walk on the treadmill or lightly pedal the stationary bikes. There is one muscle dude who is always here, and he has a funny ponytail, and even HE seems a little bit like an exercise outcast. Right now, six of the eight treadmills are being used, and not a single person is running. This feels like a YMCA for people who like to move around because it’s good for them, not because they want their Lululemon influencer cred. 

I am including this details (and who knows, it’s possible I’ll edit it out after I upload it onto my computer, which is a pretty fun ordeal with the Alphasmart NEO**) to prove that I’m not so sure that exercising is the point. A mile is a good amount of time to write. It’s nice to be at a machine that doesn’t tell me about anything in Real Time. I love this machine; I love how non-judgmental it is; I love how it encourages me to move forward. Physically, sure. Mentally, definitely. Forward, always.

*I stopped writing this essay right here, because I’d walked a mile, and it was time to do something else. Then I came back to it a week later, and I wrote this:

I have returned to this essay after about a week. Let me take a moment to say that I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to feel about bodies and weight loss and weight gain and muscles and treadmills. Recently, the brilliant Julie Mitchell posted an excellent rant about how frustrated she is with intentional weight loss (I agree) and how she would like people to stop talking about holiday eating like it is a bad thing. Like a lot of women, I know roughly how many calories are in anything and everything that might come near my mouth, and I know how many I am “supposed” to eat to maintain or lose weight. Reading the paragraph above back to myself, I’m struck by my insistence that exercise is fixing all my problems. It definitely isn’t. One of the most irritating thought loops that pulses through my mind MORE THAN TEN TIMES PER DAY is, “I should exercise. Am I doing it for the right reasons? What ARE the right reasons? Won’t it make me feel better? Shape Magazine, to which I subscribe, says yes. But Shape is just trying to sell me stuff. I’m a slave to capitalism. If I’m being honest, am I going to the gym because it makes me FEEL better? Or is it because I want to look a certain way? Is it both? How can I know? Do I love my body? If I don’t, WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME? My body is so good to me. It’s a wonderful body. I almost never get sick and I can lift boxes when people are moving. Is my d daily weigh-in habit symptomatic of disordered eating? Is it fucked up that I can only write on the treadmill? I’m ungrateful. I’m disgusting. I’m super-privileged. This thought spiral has already gone on way too long. I’m a disappointment to myself, to women everywhere, and to all the Greater Goods I try to align myself with. Oh well. I better go the gym anyway.”

** The Alphasmart NEO comes with an industrial-looking USB cable that you put into your computer. You open a Word Doc (or an Evernote doc, or a blank email, or anything where you can type) and you hit “Send” and the machine sends the text document letter-by-letter to your computer. It takes about five minutes for something this length. You watch it being typed at you as though an amazing genius is creating this document VERY QUICKLY in real time. The novelty has yet to wear off for me.