As long as the Data Scientist worked out for twenty minutes a day, things would more or less be fine. That’s what he said propped up against the headboard just before eleven. His wife thought he was saying it to himself, but when she saw the way he was smiling, that he was staring at the book in his lap called Data Science/Data Leadership but his eyes weren’t moving across the page, she took it as a confession. Is there more, she asked. Of course, he said, and I’ve got it to a place now where I can tell you. She was filling out a card for his father’s birthday dinner the following evening. The Data Scientist didn’t want to go and his wife was making him. She asked him to fill it out half a dozen times since the previous morning, and finally resolved to simply corner him in bed when the effort of escaping would be too great a sacrifice. But now he was standing over the bed, emptying the nightstand, splaying out charts and graphs of his rides on the Peloton or his walks with the little colored weights along the treadmill. She saw the dates highlighted, little red numbers scrawled above them with arrows rocketing marginward. He reached under his wife’s pillow where his phone was smooshed and brought up the latest pandemic numbers. These, he traced his finger along a plateauing line, were all twenty-minute-ride days.
He returned to papers he’d emptied from the nightstand, and held one toward her. Suddenly his finger tapped a thirty-minute-workout day and slid it to another sheet to a ski-slope spike in pandemic cases. He pulled another graph, pointing out a fifteen-minute day corresponding with last week’s tsunami in Southeast Asia that wiped out three hundred thousand people in exactly the time he started his ride till the time he gave his forehead a concluding little pat with his hand towel. What do you make of that, he said. The Data Scientist’s ten-minute warmup ride from three weeks ago ended with the Peloton instructor announcing that Arizona, Oklahoma, and Ohio had completely run out of available hospital beds, while the occupied hospital beds themselves were infected with an aggressive skin eating bacteria. The onscreen spin class gasped. Some people were crying, tearing at their Lulus. A light fell from the pipe grid. Who did they vote for in those states, the Data Scientist asked his wife when he got out of the shower, has it ever occurred to you that maybe they deserved it? His wife shrugged, she didn’t watch much TV.
It was, he said, about two years ago he first noticed that if he worked out twenty minutes a day, things seemed to stabilize in the world. He had just needed time to prove it, to convince himself even, and now enough time had passed. The new-cases line flattened, yes, but it was more than that––fewer dogs passed away, there were fewer divorces, restaurant attendance increased, the planet cooled, however slightly. People looked at him differently. His wife asked to see more pages and more evidence, more data to support his fantastical claims. Go get me something to show you aren’t just cherry-picking the data to fit your desired narrative, she said, but before you go, why don’t you sign this card? He hesitated for a moment and then went out to the study and returned with two large trunks, the kind they must have inherited from someone with a score to settle. Page after page unfurled onto the bed, each twenty-minute session producing a continuation of a case-count plateau, declining steadily over time. Each longer or shorter duration causing some new horror to hatch into the world and he began to recite them off an annotated list, the pages zigzagging down to the floor as he discarded them.
His wife interrupted him after learning that a forty-minute elastic band class had corresponded with the trash avalanche that soaked up the entire East River and nearly canceled the Westminster Dog Show. All this misery was overwhelming her so close to bedtime and she wanted to tear the list from his hands and sit on it. She slammed her hand on the nearest hoodoo of paper. Whoa nelly, the Data Scientist said. With her finger outstretched in accusation, she asked the Data Scientist if all this nonsense (superstition was the word she used) was the reason they hadn’t been on vacation in over a year. The Data Scientist slumped onto the bed, his beard seemed to wither as his deflated limbs slithered around through the A3 foliage and came up with the data from their last vacation fourteen months earlier, when she refused to allow him to ship their Peloton to the Mexican resort with a view of Dead Man’s Beach. That week, back in the USA just one state over from home, an entire midsized city near the dilapidated nuclear power plant and active airline testing field was wiped out due to a high school graduation’s white dove release gone very awry. At that time, the Data Scientist was experiencing fifteen minutes with the mindfulness section of the Peloton app. You’re kidding, his wife said, my god that was that week, I remember watching the coverage at the resort. The Spanish language channel had dubbed the birds to have very mournful voices as they flocked and wheeled toward their tragic destiny. The footage was from a cellphone someone found souvenir hunting between the fourteenth and fifteenth explosions. It was like watching a sad song performed for the first time, his wife said on the flight home. Imagine seeing Auld Lang Syne for the first time, the Data Scientist said, now that’s a sad song. He didn’t look up from the notes fanned out over his seatback traytable. Now that she thought about it, the Data Scientist was scribbling in notebooks for the entire five-hour flight, rustling papers and keeping them turned away from her just enough so that she couldn’t accuse him of hiding something without sounding paranoid. His window shade was pulled all the way down.
Until somewhat recently, the Data Scientist believed the other variables didn’t matter. The important factor was how long his workouts lasted. What other variables, his wife asked, like what you were wearing? The Data Scientist counted on his fingers: what type of music was playing, how many calories he targeted, which instructor was leading his class, what kind of workout activity. The Data Scientist stopped for a moment and laid out three very specific pieces of crisp paper in their own little section of the bed. His eyes moved rapidly, coaching his brain in a final dress rehearsal before they took his findings on the road to the lips. His wife realized she still had his father’s birthday card in her lap with the pen in her hand and worried she might be coming off as selfish, so she put the card aside to signal her undivided attention.
He had taken two walking classes on back to back days with a new instructor, Chase Tucker, and both days after the session he arrived at the University campus parking lot to find there was an end spot available in the first row near his office. His first class was at eleven AM, so this availability was absolutely unheard of. But it got weirder. On the sidewalk affixed to a metal pole he had never seen before was a Reserved for Employee of the Month sign with his name on it. His wife congratulated him. Employee of the Month usually came with money, she assumed, and the Data Scientist had won very little since their second date at the balloon dart stall at the state fair, when he won a large stuffed Tweetie Bird dressed in a camo headband that said 100% Attitude. I’m a tenured professor at a university, he said calmly, we don’t have employees of the month, it’s not a thing, I already won. On the third day after riding twenty R&B-soaked minutes with Robin Arzon, he arrived back in the parking lot and found that both the sign and the parking spot were gone. Poof, he fluttered his fingers above his head. There wasn’t even a cemented-over hole in the ground where the sign had been. An attendant rode by in a golf cart and motioned for him to roll down his window. This lot’s full, Daddy-o, the attendant said. That sounds humiliating, his wife said. It was difficult, yes, the Data Scientist said. A week later he walked twenty minutes with Chase again and would you look at that, his Employee of the Month sign had reappeared. He pushed his phone across the bed, on the screen was photographic proof from that fourth day.
Since then he had spent every day trying every variation and combination offered through the Peloton application. Different music with different instructors, different programs within each type of workout paired with different caloric-burning goals. He wanted to catalogue the ways things changed immediately after each workout combination. Besides the length of the workout, all other factors seemed to affect the Data Scientist personally. Luckily, he said, it was all mostly positive, especially in light of the results of what happened if he was feeling even a little lazy on any given morning. Each and every time he deviated from the twenty-minute duration rule it led to unspeakable global disasters––the extinction of species, the flooding of cities, the liquidation of economies. It was regrettable of course, but he had to be thorough. It was necessary, he said, for science. In total about a thousand variations were fully tested, analyzed, retested, and fully defined. Now the data was all charted and soon he was planning to have it laminated after some final tweaks before presenting it at a conference in Dallas where he was expected to give a talk on the origins of data life cycles and acquisition in evolutionary biology. Boy, wouldn’t they be surprised!
The Data Scientist went quiet and starting gathering up his papers into flush piles. Wait, his wife said, how could you keep all this from me, after all the work we’ve done on our communication with Dr. Rob. He sighed. I thought you’d think I was nuts, he said. or at least making a leap or two in logic, I needed this to be locked down and bulletproof, forgive me, I wanted to tell you, I did. He took her hand and ran his thumb over her knuckles. This is, and I don’t want to startle you, but this is the biggest find in data science in some time, maybe twenty or twenty-five years, we’re going to be set for life. That’s when he called himself the Oppenheimer of Data Science. His wife nodded. Dr. Rob had taught her about active listening. This all did sound promising, but there was something else she needed to know. So what about all these combinations, she said, what exactly did they do for you? She was up now and pacing. Disappointingly small potatoes, he said. If he listened to the 80s playlist while strength training it meant he wouldn’t have to wait in any line all day––just a straight shot right up to the cash register. If he rode bikes with Jess King while listening to jazz, there would be no traffic coming home. A twenty-minute walk with soul music while working out my arms, he blushed, meant that you would throw yourself at me when I got home. He spoke on about rekindled friendships, and grocery stores suddenly fully stocked, of certain kinds of rare wildlife passing through their back garden, of free dinners, and grateful and deferent (he didn’t say flirtatious) emails or conversations with graduate students and advisees he thought long indifferent to his advice.
Only one variation terrified me, he said lowering the piles of paper back into their trunks, that day I mentioned where I rode twenty minutes with Robin Arzon to an R&B playlist and my Employee of the Month parking space vanished was the day my Uncle Ted died unexpectedly. Oh my god, his wife said, we didn’t even go to the funeral–––so you think that variation kills a member of your family? Then the landline rang down the hall.
She looked at her husband and he nodded for her to answer it as he continued to pack away his pages of data. He wondered if the face he had forced registered as surprised enough when the phone rang. She took her time but left the room by the fourth ring. He didn’t have the courage to answer the phone himself. He was still terrified and had been all day, possibly much longer. That morning he had returned to Robin’s R&B cycling class for the first time since the death of his uncle because he had long realized a fatal flaw in that particular instance of data––that he had hated his uncle down to his very bones, so in theory, twenty minutes in Robin’s R&B cycling class could lead either to the death of a family member or a lifelong enemy. There was no way of knowing except to run the test again. He had put it off for as long as he could, he had defined every other variation, and finally, there was just one left to retest and he dreaded it like his own death. His wife picked up the phone. There it was. She sounded upset. He closed the second trunk even though half the papers were still on the bed and he stood and waited with his heart beat rooting down through him into the floors feeling for signs of her returning. Then she was back in the doorway in tears, absolutely coming apart. It’s your father, she said. He was gone, found by the night nurse slumped in his favorite chair shrouded in black and white reruns. She sat with the Data Scientist on the bed, his face burrowing into her shoulder or away from the realization settling over the room that he would have to return to Robin’s R&B cycling class a third time. Just once more and that would be it, he promised himself. You know that I love you, he said. He kept both hands flat on the bed.
About the Author
Garrett Saleen is a writer and visual artist from Southern California. His fiction has appeared multiple times in the Santa Monica Review, as well in Funicular, The Collagist, and elsewhere. His collage art has appeared in venues and ventures in Washington and California. He is editing his first collection of short fiction, entitled Yuppie Nightmare Cycle.
The data that inspired this story was produced by a Peloton stationary bike. The data was accessed through the Peloton online platform by the user and shared with our team in a spreadsheet. Out of the many types of data collected, we selected four: Type of workout, Duration of workout, Time of workout, and Instructor name.
In this story, we proposed that the writer reflects on how data is translated. From home to machine to writer and back to home, data transformations are invariably touched by humans (the inhabitants, the researcher, the writer). In this last volume of Data Epics, we encourage the writer to think about the human presence in meaning (and) making of data.
This graph visualizes the Peloton Instructor for the occupants’ workouts between November 7th to December 7th 2021. This data was used by the author to write this story.
This graph visualizes the occupants’ workout types between November 7th to December 7th 2021. This data was used by the author to write this story.
All of a sudden I was like: what if I wrote like a treatment for a Twilight Zone script, for this story? Keeping some of the technology and the gender dynamics between the two characters and keeping it artificial, like that it all takes place in one room. So that’s what I decided to do; to write a Twilight Zone episode.