Tulum – Douchebag mecca or victim of it’s own success?

If one were to magically procure Admin rights to Istragram and was able eliminate all post from Tulum, I’m fairly certain that’d reduce total content on the platform by at roughly 30 percent.  Why is that?  What makes makes Tulum the ideal backdrop for the willfuly self-obsessed narcissists weirdly expending a great deal of energy to convince strangers they are “living their best” lives?  Is it Tulum’s fault, or is this once sleepy beach town in Quintana Roo the victim of the creeping, malignant douchery that has infected global culture since the invention of social media?  Sit back and relax, dear reader, as your fearless correspondent attempts to “downward dog” in this particular minefield.

But first, full disclosure:  Your scribe is of a certain age, so what follows is a bit of the ol’ obligatory “things were much better in my day”.  Sure, but bear with me, there is a reason for it.  In any event, I’m not unfamiliar with Mexico, but let’s face it, I am still very much a gringo.  I claim no deep cultureal knowledge of Mexico and only a slightly better understanding of issues in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo states.  My Spanish, once half-way decent, has atrophied by many years in Europe.  Suffice it to say, however, that my first travels in that area were decades ago, roughly around the time (or perhaps before) most of the IG influencers in question were born.  I had just resigned from my  job and was taking an extended, hyper low budget backpacking trip with Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.  We had crossed the border from Belize into Chetumal and were looking for cool, but above all, cheap places to visit.  In those days internet technically existed but it was not the tool it is now.  There was no social media or forums where one could get travel tips.  There were, however, travel guides such as Lonely Planet and, of course, word of mouth.  Once you were “on the circuit” with other young backpackers, people exchange information and “humble brag” about the places they’ve visited.  The modus operandi of this form of travel involved taking cheap buses to whereever you wanted to go and then, once onsite, immediatly hitting cheap guest hostels that you had heard about to procure a room, bunk or hammock.  As an interesting cultural aside, in 7 weeks of travelling like this I ran into very, very few Americans or Canadians.  My fellow travellers were almost entirely European, Aussies, Kiwis and Israelis.   For one, Yanks and Canucks have very little vacation time in general so to take such a trip would be (as was my case) an exception.  “Gap years” is not a thing in North American culture.

In any event, as we made our way up the coast we made plans to stop in Tulum to see what sounded pretty cool – a pyramid on the beach!  At that time Tulum was a little bit out of the way and from what we heard, a bit of a gamble in regards to lodging.  We had heard there wasn’t much, so the concern was if we got there too late we wouldn’t find a cheap room, or whatever, and would be stuck because there weren’t lots of buses on a daily basis.  We made it, however, and were able to score lodging.  Tulum was really, really basic back then, what I remember most about it (away from the beach part) was the dust.  It was pretty hot but that’s to be expected in the Yucatan in August.  The pyramid was definitely worth the trip, though, for the setting as well as wildlife surrounding and/or in it.  There were some hippy dippy, cheap new agey backpacker type hostels and cafes that were a fixture of this whole “circuit” but they were relatively few.   Most of what you see now in Tulum, whether in the town itself or on the “fabulous” beach zone, didn’t exist yet.  There were no high end boutique hotels, no condos, and no real fanfare about the place.  I remember thinking, indeed, this place is cool but not really great for an extended stay unless you had a car (and could visit the surrounding area which as many interesting things) or was a hardcore beach lover.

Anyway, we eventually made our way to Playa del Carmen which back then was going through it’s “Tulum” moment, although much more under the radar as the whole “hype” machine was not as efficient back then.  It was the anti-Cancun.  Small, affordable, laid-back village that was still “identifiably” Mexican.  None of the silly adult Disneyland vibes.  It was just a big village on the coast with really, really nice beaches.  At that time there were these big palapas on the beach and you could rent hammocks for roughly 2 bucks US a night.  It was bigger than Tulum, for sure, but still very manageable.  There was no city vibe at all.  Yes, there were  the same hippy, new agey backpacker establishments that we’d seen in other places.  I don’t remember any high end hotels and certainly nothing over 2 or 3 stories.  It reminds of Progresso as it is now, only the town was less grubby and the beaches much, much nicer.  Kilometers/miles of unspoiled beaches and a really special vibe.  Mexico was and still is a pretty socially conservative culture yet, for some reason, a pretty permissive feeling reigned over Playa del Carmen.  At this time, topless sunbathing was still a norm in much of Europe and therefore, due to the high concentration of European backpackers, it was tolerated in PdC.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Sleeping on a hammock on the beach, grabbing cheap beer and food from taquerias and surrounded by scads of attractive, scantily clad eurobabes.  I remember taking a long walk on the unbelievably beautiful beach ( no sargasso seaweed back then) one day and stumbling accross a nude photo shoot.  It wasn’t close to the action, sure, but it was not that far.  It was a professional affair with the requisite photography paraphenalia and 2 two breathtaking, butt nekkid models.  However, no gawkers or weirdos… people would might stop to look briefly but it would have been deeply uncool to sit there and drool.  Was this an example of cultural and economic imperialism?  Yep, it probably was.  Nonetheless, it was cool vibe without descending in some of the tackier and dodgy “druggy” vibes that you often encountered in backpacker “towns”.

Fast foward a few years, I was installed in Europe and had convinced some European and US friends to meet me in PdC for a 2 week holiday.  My first impression, not surprisingly, was that travelling to Mexico all the way from Europe is a big, long deal.  It’s perhaps even easier to go Asia from here than go to Mexico.  When I arrived in Playa, the town had grown to, I guess, a small city but it was still recognizable as the place I had seen before.  A few more hotels, cafes and bars, but still not Cancun-like by any means.  I remember looking for the palapa where I had rented the hammock, and I think it was gone.  The vibe was a little less “backpacker” counterculture than it was previously, but it was fine.  Restaurants, bars and clubs were cool but without the “exclusive”  vibe or preciousness that would later install itself in Tulum.  One day I rented a jeep so my friends and I could go Sian K’aan and check out Tulum on the way back.  However, when the day came my friends were all sleeping off hangovers.  I had one too, but since I had reserved the jeep I felt obligated to go.  It was a really cool trip, at one point I was on a single track road in the jungle near (but outside of) Sian K’aan and I was just surrounded by thousands upon thousands on butterflies.  On the way back I stopped in Tulum.  It had grown, but it still was still small-scale.  It reminded of PdC when I first visited.  In fact, I thought to myself that it’d be cooler to stay here now but we were locked-in hotel wise and besides some of my friends were not fans of the backpacker hostel on a jungle beach thing.  (Two of them fruitlessly searched for any place that served Champagne in PdC and couldn’t find any.  Oh, how things have changed…).

Years pass, I now have a family and am back in Mexico visiting some family and friends who live there.  They tell me how Playa del Carmen has exploded and indeed has become the fastest growing city in Mexico.  I couldn’t really conceive of this, but, I said to myself, I guess it was only a matter of time.  Even over multiple trips to Mexico during this period I didn’t make it to the “Mayan Riveria” right away.  I did land in Cancun each time though, and I’d note that the sign posting on the highway  for PdC and Tulum(!) which I noted with interest.  Anyway, roughly 7 years ago I went to a very secluded bunch of beach huts in Sian K’aan with some family and friends.  As the crow flies, the beach huts are not that far from the Tulum but given the state of the road it was good, bumpy 2 hour drive.  Anyway, on my way from Cancun airport I stopped at the PdC ADO bus station to pick up a friend…my brain was literally wrecked.  I could not equate the place I knew before with this big sprawling city.  As we continuted on, we inevitably arrived in Tulum.  Yes, it had grown, but not like Playa del Carmen.  To get access the Sian K’aan road you must past through the Tulum beach hotel zone.  It had changed, it was more upscale in design and no doubt pricewise, but it retained the jungle beach feel.  The clientele seemed to be mostly youngish, as before, but not of the backpacker sort.  There were lots of tanned, ripped Abs gay dudes cruisiing around (in both senses of the word) on fat-tired beachcruiser bikes, and lots of quite frankly really hot, bodied up yoga bunnies trailed inevitably by straight dudes who seemed to be feverishly dreaming of strategies of relieving said yoga bunnies of their Lululemons.  Man-buns, pork-pie hats, signs for yoga retreats and fucking pretentious locavore organic restaurants chef’d by gringos were everywhere.  Tulum was still cool and the natural setting still beautiful, certainly, but the vibe had become more”exclusive” and therefore douche-ier.

Nonetheless, it was fun to chuckle and play hipster bingo during our visits to Tulum every few days for supplies.  One day, I even went to Tulum with a friend in an attempt to “go out” for an evening.  We tried, we really did, to hit the beach hotel zone first to get a drink and then dinner.  And, yes, it’s very pretty and there is, to paraphrase 10,000 IG posts, a sort of special energy that is perhaps a product of the natural setting and, if you want to get more “woo-woo”, maybe even the pyramid a few kilometers away.  But holy shit, the clientele, that has changed.  Not everyone, but a significant minority, acts as if they are being trailed by invisible camera crew that are documenting the utter fabulousness of their lives.  There is energy, for sure, but some of it seems forced now.  Instagram, let’s be honest, is used for presenting an airbrushed, photoshopped versions of most people’s lives.  Hanging out in beach zone was like inhabiting a surreal IG live-feed.  And I get why so many people were and are posting almost obligatory pics from Tulum.  It’s cool, it’s hipster, it’s the anti-Cancun.  The subtext, which is not very subtle, is  that I’m not one of those obese, infantile lobster red masses wallowing in low brow massed tourism.  But there is now an strong undercurrent of “trying too hard” that would have frowned upon before.  We just couldn’t hack all of the fabulousness and forced smiles so we went into Tulum town for some beers and seafood – and had a grand old time.

Another reason Tulum is THE grand-daddy of all IG tourist spots is an absolutely brilliant marketing strategy which I think was discovered accidently but is now being overtly executed.  If you are easily trigged by non-PC truths, dear reader, please skip this paragraph.  In any event, because of it’s setting and probably also a well developed new agey scene in Mexico itself, Tulum slowly started to attract yogis, massage therapists and other sort of new agey types. Yoga, massages, organic food, crystal therapies, visits to cenotes to vibe with “positive energy” etc, is the sort of stuff that attracts straight women and a certain type of gay man.  A byproduct of all that yoga and well-being are a clientele that are relatively fit.  In short, Tulum became known as a destination filled with yoga MILFs and their gay equivalent hotties.  And that, my friends, attracted the dudes (straight, gay or whatever).  Which leads to more “peacocking” and and exclusiveness as said dudes feel the need to compete.  And, yes, also some of the women are shallow as well and require “cute, trendy cafes and shops”, etc.  Shallow, yes, simplistic, yep.  But true, yeah, it is.  Take a look a most of the leading establishments in Tulum.  The marketing strategies are exclusively targetting yoga yummy mummy and IG hottie demographic.  For real, read the promotional drivel and ask yourself if somewhere there is a straight 30something man going “wow, that sounds like exactly what I’m looking for”.  No, the establishments attract the women.  Some of these women are IG , ahem, influencers.  They post a few butt pics from the beach to score IG credibility points and/or because of a promotional deal with a hotel.  IG puts it out there that this place is filled eye candy.  The hotels and other establishments don’t need to market to guys.  If they attract the flowers, the bees will come.  Kudos and a golf clap to all those involved.

So, the final question, has Tulum jumped the shark?  I havent been there in 4 years or so but it seems to have achieved terminal saturation on IG.  Reports of Tulum’s demise have been heralded repeatedly for the last few years but it’s still a contender and still hasn’t gone “Playa del Carmen” although the reasons for that are both encouraging and discouraging (It’d take another post to explain).  At some point soon, people will move onto some place “less discovered” and therefore cooler in the IG-sphere.  And there are indeeds spots like those, a few hours drive from Tulum.  The saving grace is that represents, unlike Tulum, a longish trip by car or bus from Cancun airport.  But inevitably those spots will go the same route of Tulum.  If it brings much needed money and infrastructure to local (most Mayan) populace, then I’m all for it.

 

Training after the Covid-19 Lockdown – First, the good news…

Depending on where you live in the world, things are either opening back up slowly or they are going to Hell in a handbasket because things never really “shut-down” in the first place.  If you’re lucky enough to live amongst a majority of people who don’t think that every possible issue is proof of a huge consipiracy and a have a modicum more self-discipline and sense of civic duty than sugar-crazed toddlers than chances are that gyms are opening back up.  And that, of course, is at least a small amount of good news in  seems to be an unending stream of bad craziness.  If 2020 was a person, it’d be that person you hooked up with very briefly in your early 20s before you realized they were absolutely bat-shit crazy…mad, bad and dangerous to know.  For a brief unsettling period you are on high alert, ducking and weaving,  as you scramble to extricate yourself and come out the other end with your sanity, finances, health and reputation intact. Yep, 2020 it a bunny-boiler of a year.  Adversity, sayeth the hackneyed cliche, is opportunity in disguse.  So what have we learned from this shit show, what nuggets of wisdom and metaphorical chicken soup for the soul can we glean?

  • Mindfulness – This is the biggest payback from all the  fear, loathing and general unpleasantness of this situation.  The best news?  You’re not trying and pitifully failing to become mindful (via silly apps, youtube videos, etc) – it’s a byproduct of the situation.  We’ve stopped taking a whole lot of things for granted and realized our true priorities.   Enjoy this time (yes, even now) with your loved ones.  Being present comes easier when we are forced to realize don’t have a lot a time in this mortal coil and nothing is guaranteed.  The rest, as the Buddhists say, is maya or as I like to call it, bullshit.
  • Gratitude – see above.  You can’t and won’t be mindful if you don’t have gratitude.  Are you and your family/friends healthy?  Do you have a place to live and enough to eat?  If the answer is yes, chances are you’ve been contemplating this a lot recently, and gratitude has manifested itself even in your bling, bling, cheeto-eating, Kardashian-watching vacuous lifestyle.  And we’re all the better for it.
  • Good habits are reinforced because, well, we don’t have a choice – Just before the lockdown, my Ex and I put our jointly owned appartment on the market.  As we wanted to show it “empty” she moved into my place for what was going to be 2 months, tops (the RE market was red hot where I live).  Yep, the sale we had lined up within 2 weeks evaporated like petri dish of water in Death Vally with lockdown (talk about bad timing).  Next thing you know, we are all stuck in lockdown at my place and we’re obliged to get along for an extended period.  She and I instinctively knew that we didn’t have a choice so we better buck up and be adults for the duration.  Patience, consideration and a sense of humor are the only way to get through a situation like this.  Ditto, self-discipline like making your bed and keeping the house clean all by your entitled lazy-ass self.  When your back is against the wall, you’ll rediscover those attributes.
  • Training related good news – Yes, you will have lost strength  It’s inevitable and you won’t be shocked or depressed when you finally return to the gyms as you know that a 3 month break in training does not equal mad gainz.  It’s also true that you’ll muscle memory is indeed a thing and you’ll regain the strength faster than you thought.  I’ve been back at the powerlifting club for about a month now and I’m encouraged by the progress.  Hell, I’m just grateful to be able to train. 

The best “plain” rice you’ve ever had

Probably the biggest sin for a Carribbean cook is to make boring rice. Carribbean cooks have, of course, a number of rightly famous and delicious rice recipes (red beans and rice, dirty rice, congo beans and rice and, of course, the inimitable Haitian riz djondjon to name but a few). Their biggest “hidden talent”, in my opinion, is to make absolutely amazing “plain” rice, so tasty that you’d happily eat just the rice by itself. In retrospect, this is a crucial skill in a poor country, when many times there isn’t a whole lot else to “go with” the rice.

In my world view, people are either “Team Rice” or “Team Potato”. At the risk of pandering to sterotype, in my experience and travels I’ve found it absolutely true that the Irish have an almost irrational love of all things potato. And Carribbean peoples are highly skilled rice cooks and, ooooh yes, critics. Don’t ever serve them plain old white rice, mes amis, you won’t hear the last of it…ever. Due to my upbringing, I’m firmly on “Team Rice”. My mother, a midwesterner of Irish/German heritage, is absolutely “Team Potato” in spite of many decades of living in “rice” dominant countries. I suppose one’s formative years play an important role.

I didn’t learn how to make rice until I left home and had moved to the States. I quickly tired of my own limited culinary skills so every time I came home for the holidays I was really motivated to learn so I coud recreate my favorite dishes. I learned this recipe many decades ago and have been making various iterations of it ever since. It goes something like this:

The Best Plain Rice

Serves 4 people (or 2, if they really like their rice)

1 coffee cup full of rice (or whatever measuring vessel you choose, the size or volume is up to you). The type rice you use is a personal choice but I find that long grain white rice works well.

Vegetable Oil or Coconut oil

2 or 3 cloves of good pugent garlic

1 bouillon cube – vegetable bouillon if you want to keep it vegan/vegetarian, otherwise chicken bouillon is a good choice. Maggi cubes are, of course, the Carribean cooks’ “gold standard, if you trying for “authenticity”.

1 respectable heavy duty cooking pot with a heavy lid.

Optional but highly recommended:

2 or 3 heaping tablespoons of Epis/Sofrito (see here for my version):

1 whole Scotch Bonnet pepper

Put a decent amount of oil in a decent size heavy pot or sauce pan. We are going to infuse this oil so you must put enough oil in the pot, a generous amount to cover the bottom, but don’t exaggerate. Put the burner to medium.
As the oil in the pan heats up, give each garlic clove a decent whack with the flat of chef’s knife and throw them in the hot oil. Using a wooden spoon, move the garlic cloves around in the oil so they do not burn and, more importantly, infuse the oil. You don’t want the cloves to burn or blacken, but a slight crispy note is about what you are looking for. This should take maybe 2 minutes.(At this point, you can add the optional epis/sofrito and mix it with the infused oil/garlic for another minute or so. )
Now add the coffee cup/jam jar/whatever of rice and mix it with the infused oil in the pot briefly so all the rice grains are covered by the oil. Turn the burner heat up to high and add your water, which would be 2 times the volume of the rice, so in this case, 2 coffee cups full of water. As the pot come to a boil, add the bouillon cube and stir the mixture sufficiently so that the infused oil and bouillon are diffused. Once you’ve achieved the boil, immediately reduce the heat by half, or maybe even just a tiny bit less than that.
At this point, you can add the optional Scotch Bonnet pepper. If you do add it, make sure it’s whole, with no rips or tears and preferably with the stem still on it. Put your tight fitting lid on the pot. It’s important that lid is tight. In a pinch, put heavy stuff (within the bounds of reason and safety) on the lid to make sure it’s doing it’s job. Let the rice cook for roughly 10 minutes. Never less than 10 minutes, and possibly a little bit longer. Once you are familiar with the rice and the pot that you use, you’ll have a feel for how long it takes. DO NOT, under pain of excommunication from Team Rice, lift the lid before the rice is done.

That’s it, the rice is ready to eat. Lift the lid and carefully extract the optional scottch bonnet pepper, if you added one. Grab it by the stem, if possible, and chuck it in the trash.

** Nutrional Commentary

I get it, white rice is just sort of nutrionally barren carbs and the bouillion cube adds sodium, etc. However, I think the infused garlic oil not only makes this dish tastier, it helps make it healthier. If you add the Epis and/or Scotch Bonnet pepper, the tastiness and nutrional value goes up exponentially.

Hello DOMS, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…

Over the weekend I had the profound pleasure of actually taking part in a privately held, very much improvised, socially distanced barbell workout.  A friend of a workout buddy owns a warehouse so 5 of us gathered to lift some weights for the first time in 2 months (Note: in the country where I live,  gatherings of up to 6 people are allowable under new measures as of last week).  The barbells were most decidedly not regulation size or weight and all of the other equipment, such as it was, was a monument of ingenuity and making do what was on hand.  Nevertheless, I was absolutely thrilled to take part.  Man does not live on bike rides alone…

“So”, you might ask, “how did it go after no heavy barebell training for the last 2 months”?  Honestly, not as bad as I had thought.  Yes, I am detrained and, yes, I lost strength but I was pyschologically prepared.  You can’t expect miracles if you’ve lifted nothing heavy in 2 months.  Also, the lifting itself (deadlift and bench press) was made more difficult by a short, non-standard 8Kg barbell instead of a longer, 20kg standard one.

Deadlifts were tough.  The weights were shorter than “bumper” plate height so consequently we had to bend down further than usual to pick them.  I did 5×5 at weight that would have been very easy 2 months ago, and it proved to be challenging. I was moderately gassed by the 5 rep of each set.  After convential deadlifts,  we put the barbell between stacks of pallets to do “rack pulls” at varying heights

I was pleasantly suprised with the bench presses.  I did 5×5 at a moderately heavy weight relatively easily, especially considering the short bar and the improvised bench set-up.  I guess muscle memory is a real thing and training the movement over years does pay off.  Hopefully I’ll be able to train in this improvised manner twice a week until gyms open again.

The funniest side-effect of this training was the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) that I encountered the day after the training.  My entire posterior chain (basically the muscles from my hamstrings all the way up to my Traps) were well and truly sore…And I was as happy as a clam.   I was correctly recruiting all the required muscle groups on my deadlifts, so my form hasn’t completely degraded.  Interestingly, I had no soreness in my chest, shoulders and triceps although in relative terms I was lifting heavier for bench presses.  Anywho,  it was great to be back in the saddle, metaphorically speaking by challenging my body once again.  Hobbling around and groaning like an old man is small price to pay.

Look, the confinement has meant that making baked goods and binging on Netflix are almost laudable, socially responsible activities.  I can dig it, however to enjoy the Yin of serial couch potatoing, I need the Yang of regular physical stress (aka training).

What not going to the gym feels like.

We are 2 months into this pandemic and gym rats the world over are agonizingly jonesing for an “iron fix”.  Yes, not being able to train really, truly sucks.  Some of the ways it blows are obvious and there is also some unexpected “suckage” which I will outline shortly.  Suprisingly, though, there a few silver linings to this flab-inducing, gainz-stealing cloud.  So, with no further ado, here is my take on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the great Covid 19 Gym Drought:

Obvious Suck Factors:

  • Bye-Bye Gainz:  You consistently train for years and months and are forced to throw it out the window.  This is beyond frustrating.  Literally 2 days before everything shutdown I did all time Bench and Deadlift PRs in the gym.  I was on track to smash  competition PRs in my scheduled May competition but alas…
  • Home bodyweight workouts just don’t cut it:  Sammy Hagar won’t drive 55 and I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for dreary, lonely bodyweight workouts.  Look, if that’s your thing, my hat’s off to you.  I do them, but no as regularly as I should and with little joy.
  • There goes what little social life the majority of weirdo Powerlifters have in the first place:  Hey, we all miss the social aspect.  If you spend that much time at the gym training it’s de facto part of your social life.  For many of us the daily routine was work, gym and then  home and now it’s work at home with no gym, for the vast majority of us.   Hello, cabin fever.
  • Endorphin withdrawal:  For most of us, training was a sustainable, effective method to relieve stress.  Also, the emotional satisfaction of hitting training goals and achieving PRs was/is indescribable.  It’s no surprise that alcohol consumption is sky-rocketing which, is unfortunate.  Alcohol as horrible, extremely short-sighted and wildly counter-productive method of stress reduction, but I get it.  The only reason I know this is I drank all the beer, all of it, and so am uniquely qualified to report that it don’t work, folks.  If I was still on the sauce, you wouldn’t go wrong buying stock in the beverage company of your choice right now.

Less Obvious Suck Factor

  • No more “Super Power”:  Okay, this going sound funny to the uninitiated..and hell, maybe I’m the only who feels this way, but here goes.  When you train in powerlifting for a while, you get strong, and it’s actually a lot of fun to be strong.  Lifting heavy stuff is a real gas.  And, let’s face, there is is more than a little pride mixed into the equation.  However, if you’re not training, you’re getting weaker and it’s a bit a pschological hit.  Not a major one if you’re relatively well-adjusted, but a bummer nontheless.
  • Going from Fuscular to, er, well, flabby:  Powerlifters do not train for aesthetic reasons but nonetheless one does get jacked from training, albeit perhaps still somewhat “fleshly” for some of us.  If you’re not training, you’re losing muscle, which means you’re just another Cheeto eating slob watching Joe Exotic on Netflix.

Silver Linings:

  • Injury Recovery – Let’s face it, if you train seriously for any period of time, you are walking around with a series of injuries in various stages of recovery.  2 months off of “forced” recovery will allow you to heal.  I am finally resolving a nagging shoulder issue, so there’s that at least.
  • More time for family – I am spending more time with kids which is great.  Before, during the work week it was work, gym, home, fix dinner, bed.  Now it’s it’s work, go biking with the kids in the early evening, make dinner with them and, yes, bed.  This is priceless, especially since they are teenagers.
  • (Re)discovering other physical activities – As I said above, biking is one of physical activities available to us, as is hiking.  We live near a number of forests so that is an incredible bonus.  There is no better stress reliever known, not even power-lifting, than walking or biking deep in a forest on a beautiful spring day.  I used to do this quite a bit before my kids were born and now we can do it together.  Also, and this is weirdly specific, I’ve become fixated on my ab-roller when at home.  I used to avoid ab training like the plague, but now it almost seems “new”.

Are you even listening to the song?

What is so ^%$#ing hard about actually listening to a song?  One of the pettiest of my pet peeves are people who manage to completely misinterpret the meaning of some very popular straight forward pop songs.  To be clear, we’re not talking about acts like David Bowie (who the hell knows what he’s talking about most of the time) or, say, Pearl Jam (great band, but who can understand what Eddie Vedder is actually saying.  His style is more in the emotive delivery than in the words he’s singing).  Nor am I referring to those songs which are famous for “misheard lyrics”.  No, I’m talking about songs in which the singer clearly enunciates and the lyrics themselves are, you’d think, hard to get wrong.  And yet, there is apparently no shortage of sheeple who seem to be incapable of interpreting a clearly stated message.

Yes, there is the argument that the excellent thing about art is that it’s open to interpretation and great art draws you in and, in doing so, makes you apply your perspective to the artists’ message.  That’s a nice way of saying that in the cases I will cite here, lots of people were just listening to the pretty music and/or (possibly) the refrain, while absolutely ignoring the lyrics as a whole.  Hey, whatever floats your boat.  Also, there is one mitigating circumstance:  some people, like my dear sibling, are congenitally incapable of hearing lyrics as they are sung.  If that’s your case, you are hereby exempted from this screed.

Most famously, there are those pretty songs which sound – and are – melancholy but which some people completely miss the much darker theme and derive rather more positive messages than it seems the artist  wished to convey.  Case in MF’ing point:  Angel, by Sarah MacLachlan.  This is a song about addiction, the reasons for addiction but ultimately hopelessness and a terrible downward spiral.  The arms of the angel, folks, it’s heroin.  Listen to the song – the meaning is not at all hidden.  There is nothing remotely uplifting about this tune.  It’s not about puppies deserving a better life and whatever the ^%$# some people seem to think it’s about.  MacLachlan ain’t no fool, she knows the majority of people have no idea what she’s singing about but she’s not about to kill the cash cow so of course her response to the music critics is “it’s about whatever people want it to be”.

Comfortably Numb, by Pink Floyd, is another one in the same vein.  It’s literally about numbing one’s self to the reality of life and the inherent sadness and loss of potential, of past and present, that is addiction.  The song is told from 2 different view points, the doctor who is administering the drugs and the rock star patient.  While the drugs take effect and the patient’s physical pains recede, his mental anguish does not.  The disconnecting  from reality, one senses, forebodes something worse. It’s as sad as they come:

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone

And yet there are lot of people who somehow derive a positive message from this song.  It’s as if they listen to the amazing guitar solo and the refrain about being comfortably numb and think “sounds great, sign me up”.  Ironically, this song sounds, to generations of high schoolers puffing their first joint, like it’s promoting drug use.  It’s more about why people use, and the consequences.

Famously, US Republican candidates often coopt songs for their campaigns that are usually diametrically opposed to the candidates’ actual views.  The candidates probably don’t know or care, safe in the knowledge that analysis of even the more simple concepts in life is not what their consituency is noted for.  A classic example of this was the Reagan campaign’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s song, Born in the USA.  Hilariously, this song became a sort of patriotic anthem to infantile meatheads everywhere.  It’s an anthem, yes, but to bitter disillusionment, dashed dreams and hopelessness in the face of a corrupt system that doesn’t care about the little guy.  It’s about the protagonists bitter disappointment in taking part in a pointless war (Vietnam) as well as official and societal indifference to the problems faced by Veterans.  Say what you will about Reagan hastening the end of Cold War but the union busting, market unshackling Cheerleader for the military industrial complex was anything but the Pabst Blue Ribbon swilling buddy of the “little guy”.  The message in this song is literally the opposite of blindly chanting “USA, USA”.

Finally, some people think that Sir Mix a Lot’s “Baby Got Back” is a mere one-dimensional paen to one man’s fondess for women with prodigious, round buttocks.  It is that, for sure, but it’s so much more.  In it’s own way, it was a much of a cultural bellweather  and antiracist political protest song as NWA’s “F### Tha Police”.  It was funny, yes, and incredibly catchy but if you listen to lyrics you can’t escape the positive message of glorifying one’s own community and refusing to buy into narratives or esthetic values the denigrate that community.  And, it must be said in this era of rampant “Thicc-ness” that Sir Mix A Lot was prophetic, ahead of his time.  Big ol juicy Nicky Minaj, Kim  Kardashian booties were not a thing back in the early 90s.  This song ushered in the dawning of the Age of Badonkadonk.  And for that, Sir Mix a Lot, we all you owe you an immense debt of gratitude.

No country for middle-aged Goth dudes.

The country I live in is small by any standards and the capital city is more of a largish small town.  It reminds me of when I was living on an island in that you constantly bump into the same people.  It’s the sort of place that when you are in a public place and wish to gossip about somebody, you look over both shoulders as there is a very good chance the person may be close by.  In such an environment, those of us who march to a different drummer, who let their freak flag fly, stand out just a bit more than they would in a normal urban environment.  Human nature being what it is, you can’t help but notice them, to be visually drawn to them.  God bless ’em  for following their path, it can’t be easy to live under the microscope.

One such person is a gentleman my kids and I call “Middle-Aged Goth Dude”.  Now, we don’t know anything about him, not even his name, but we’ve been crossing paths with him for years.  My kids have grown up with him and I even I remember him from when I first got here 23 years ago, when neither of us were middle-aged.  He was just a Goth dude back then, not THE Goth dude, as those of his ilk were more numerous back in the day.

Middle-aged Goth Dude is always, invariably dressed, styled and coiffed the same way no matter the season,  vagaries of weather  or of vulgar, pedestrian fashion.  He’s relatively tall, roughly 1m85, clad head to toe in black (need you even ask) and his jet black hair (dyed, for sure) is left in a kind of long haired Mohawk.  In other words, the sides of his head are completely shaved and the hair in the middle of his head is held down with gel and is about shoulder length.  These days I’ve notice a growing bald spot on the top of our protagonist’s head, so it’s a good call he’s tall and it’s not something readily apparent.

His Gothiform consists of black jeans, a black longsleeves shirt, a long black wool coat (the heyday of which was some time in the mid-80s) and a pair of pretty cool black leather engineer boots.  The de rigeur black eyeliner and black lip outliner (or whatever you call that stuff) is present, of course, but relatively discrete and used to good effect.  One wonders if age has imparted wisdom and craft to our protagonist’s maquillage technique.  The deathly pale pallor is, it seems, in no way enhanced.  It’s just a byproduct of living la vida gotica.  You won’t catch Middle-aged Goth Dude pool-side in Ibiza any time soon.

Normally, one runs into Middle-aged Goth Dude either on the bus, or on the street where he is invariably whizzing by on a black (naturally) electric scooter.  In 23 years, I’ve only seen him during the day, never at night and therefore never, interestingly, at concerts or nightclubs.  Not even once.  Nor have I ever bumped into him a in a working (like a said, this is a small town) capacity, not in a shop, restuarant or bar.  I don’t remember ever having seen him with somebody else.  This gentleman seems well adjusted, polite in social circumstances and is well-groomed.  But, otherwise, he’s a complete mystery.

What does Middle-aged Goth Dude do for a living?  Is he independently wealthy?  Why does he seemingly never go out at night? Is he happy?  Depressed?  Vegan?  Carnivore?  What inspired him to adopt “Goth” as a longterm lifestyle?  What’s he think of Robert Smith (of The Cure fame) since he became nutjob fascist?  So many questions…

Last year I saw Fun-loving Criminals in concert, a band I last saw in concert in the late 90s.  I did a doubletake when I entered the concert hall – hey, what are all these fat-ass oldsters doing at this concert.  Then the band came on and they too were old..and not exactly svelte.  Oh.  As I ordered a drink at the bar, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  Oh…yeah….me too.  Aging is a bitch, and nobody is immune to it’s effects. So, yes, middle-aged Goth dude is aging.  He’s gained a some kilos, his hair is thinning and his face is getting puffy, his eyes sort of watery and bloodshot.  Middle-age is a time a when one’s bad habits come back to roost with a vengeance.  I can’t help but wonder if drink is part of the equation or if that’s just me projecting.

Goth is, essentially, a movement that is best left to young people.  It’s all about morosity, decrepitude and navel-gazing narcissim, which as a look and way of life can really only be pulled off successfully, if at all,  by those in the flower of youth.  Youth, as the cliche goes, is wasted on the young.  Goth’s natural home was London and NYC (with St Mark’s Place being the US epicenter) and as a movement it crested in the late 80s.  And yet here were are in 2020, in a smallish city in continental Europe and Middle-aged Goth Dude just keeps on keeping on.  Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.  Here’s to you, MGD.

Life imitates meme…or why the gym is always packed the first week of January.

It commonly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  And yet, in spite of decades of gym-going experience every December I find myself tut-tutting at all those lame “new year’s resolutioners” memes and snarky posts to forums and Facebook groups.  Every year I tell myself that this phenomenon is exagerated, it’s not really a “thing”.  After all, human beings aren’t lemmings and human behaviour, even group dynamics, is often far from being predictable.  Finally, and this is probably the biggest reason, I find it hard to believe that somebody would wait until January 1 to do anything.  I’ve started, and failed, quite a few good resolutions in my time but never have I waited for an arbitrary date to do so.

So I felt supremely vindicated from January 1st to 5th, as I trained away at the Globo gym near my work.  All the “usuals” were there, as as we always are, week after week but there was no tsunami of Gymshark-clad noobs.  “Yaaassss”, I thought, “people are rational, idependent minded beings after all”.  We aren’t swallows going back to Capistrano or salmon swimming upstream driven by some antediluvian instinct.

Then I went to the gym on Monday after work.  Or should I say, I spent 15 minutes trying to find a parking space any where remotely close to my gym (there are 2 other gyms within a 3 block radius as well) before giving up and parking far, far away.  As I battled my way past the front door the scene that presented itself was part Lord of the Flies, part Star Wars bar scene and part outtake of a “Black Friday riot at the Tulsa Walmart” youtube video.  Everybody and their actual grandmother was there, resplendent in fresh from under the Christmas tree gym-wear.  Heck, even the Prime Minister was there…Ok, to be honest, he’s a semi-regular so his presence was far less remarkable than the sheer mass of humanity that managed to pack itself into the gym that night.  No joke, I began to wonder if we hadn’t attained the building’s occupancy limit.

Unfortunately, it was my night to train bench press and yes, it was Monday (aka International Chest Day) so the six flat benches were all taken by the time I got there.  Luckily, it didn’t take long for a bench to free up because, as is always the case in this scenario, the following happens:  Noob approaches the bench, doesn’t think a second about warming up with, say, just the bar… and slaps on what he thinks is a good working weight but is actually much closer to his 1RM.  The young gent (feet up on the bench, of course, never planted firmly on the floor) then attempts to bang out a set but barely manages to get the bar off of his chest for 1 rep.  He then reduces the weight, but not enough, and manages to squeeze 2 or 3 more reps before deciding that the Pec Deck looks more inviting.

Back, however, to the subject at hand.  So, yes, a crowded gym in January is not just a cliche or urban legend.  It’s a fact of life, in the same way that airports are crowded just before Christmas.  It’s also true that by Febuary things will be right back to normal.  Aside from the glaringly obvious (guilt over holiday excesses, corny resolutions, promotional deals by gym owners) I honestly don’t why it is such a thing.  Gym training, like running, is not seasonal.  And speaking of running, the sidewalks aren’t suddenly clogged with joggers in January.  So, what gives?

In the end, I suppose, who cares?  I’m glad they are there, whatever their motivation.  It’s nice seeing some new faces and, quite frankly, I’m hoping that as gym going becomes more and more the norm, the market will mature and prices will drop in the country where I live.  I pay extortionate rates at my Globo gym and (considering the amazing value) very reasonable rates at the Powerlifting club. And finally, as somebody who is considering entering the industry at a future date, it’s comforting to know there is an absolutely reliable annual cash cow.

The evolution of a Powerlifter.

I happened upon strength training almost by accident.  I had been going to the gym for a number of years, nay, decades, more or less consistently.  So I went to the gym regularly, but aimlessly, without clear goals.  I’d do whatever I felt like doing once I arrived at the gym and the exercise choice was largely influenced by whether a machine or bench was free.  Typical bro splits, chest, arms and abs.  Nary a leg was trained nor a squat squatted.  A good program was something one watched on TV.

Then, one day some years ago, I couldn’t stand it any more.  I was bored, really, really bored with the gym.  The gym, or rather a big commercial gym, is a fairly ludicrous space in the best of times.  I’d feel faintly ridiculous wandering around from exercise station to the next, bro tunes cranking in my headphones, trying to get my pump on.  I came to the realization that there had to be a better way of training or, if there wasn’t, I should find a better activity to spend time and money on.  Like everyone else on the planet, I resorted to the time-honored method of Google searching solutions to my problem.

Hmm, powerlifting movements sounded interesting and I thought, hey, it might finally provide me with some structure.  I’d actually be training with a purpose.  I’d set goals and try to attain them.  Solid, I thought.  This was just seemingly minutes before the big powerlifting Youtube boom, so I initially combed through loads of forums and a few books to glean as much information as possible.  There was, however, one slight problem.

To whit, my bench press was somehow, from a technique perspective, not bad.  I had no idea, however,  how to squat or deadlift, I didn’t know anybody who did those exercises and, to be honest, it was intimidating.  Nevertheless, I began my first program (5×5) and gingerly stepped into a highly underutilized (in those days) squat rack.  My squats were ugly, but at least I felt I was on the right track.  In spite of all I had read, I still had no clue how to properly deadlift.  My deadlifts were dreadful: mad, bad and dangerous to know.  Furthermore, I was usually the only person in the gym squatting or deadlifting outside of a Smith machine.  You know how every gym seems to have a Vibram Fivefingers guy?  I began to wonder if I wasn’t a variation on that theme:  well-meaning but slightly misguided.

Soon, as my program progressed, I got those sweet, sweet beginner gainz.  My benchpress shot way up and even my terrible squats and deadlifts improved.  By this time, powerlifting had started to become a thing and people like Mark Rippetoe, Mark Bell and that crazy Ask Elliot guy were putting out content on Youtube.  So while I hadn’t yet met like-minded people, I could at least watch them train and pick up some pointers.

While it seems funny now, my training partners viewed my squatting as a ridiculously girly thing to do and deadlifts as needlessly complicated.  They’d make a few wisecracks, shake their heads and go back to their cable-pulls.  I was still in the “bench much more than you squat” club but nonetheless my squats and deadlifts had progressed to the point that I felt I required real coaching before I hurt myself.  So back to google I went.  When I had first started training squat, bench and deadlift, there were literally two powerlifting gyms in my area and for a variety of reasons, including proximity, I wasn’t going to train with them.  A new one had opened up in the interim so I decided to give it a shot.

If many people are intimidated by the idea of going to a gym, many experienced gym goers are intimidated by the idea of going to a powerlifting gym.  In your mind’s eye it’s going to be like Westside Barbell with a bunch of shaved head, tattoed convicts and snarling pit bulls. That’s ridiculous, of course, but if you don’t walk through the door you’ll never know.  I walked right in and said, ” look, I am an absolute noob. Tell me what do and I’ll do it.”  It was revelation to meet people interested in the same obscure thing.  We could sit their and talk for hours about belts, shoes, programs, technique, you name it. My squats and deadlifts finally started outpacing my bench as they should.

Fast foward a few years, I had done some competitions and inevitably, been injured a few times.  I’ve set some PRs that I’m proud of and once briefly held the benchpress WR for my age/weight group in my federation.  Sometimes, however, life has a way of interfering with one’s best laid plans.  For the last several months I’ve not been able to train seriously due to work and family issues.  I still go to the gym whenever I can, but I’m not able to stick to a serious, challenging program that would allow me to increase PRs.   My motivation to train for competitions wanes periodically, but my motivation to powerlift is unquestionable.

I realized a few things in the past year. I don’t think I’ll ever stop powerlifting style training.  I truly enjoy it and believe it’s an integral part of a healthy life. Furthermore, lifting heavy weight is sufficiently taxing and radical that it acts like an unerring weathervane for other parts of your life.  Not eating or sleeping well?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  Not focused due to emotional turmoil?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  It sounds funny, but lifting gives me extra motivation to get s*** together, if only to lift better 🙂  And finally, the best thing about powerlifting is not setting a PR, it’s the process itself.

 

 

Gym may be life…but keep it to yourself.

As I’ve said in previous posts, if you want to stick to a strength-training program it’s absolutely necessary to find your motivation.  Strength-training, per se, is not necessarily fun.  People who stick to strength-training programs are those of have developed an interest in which weight-lifting plays a part.   Often, these are athletes in heavily strength dependent sports such as American Football, Rugby, Highland Games, Track and Field, etc.  However, the most fervent gym-goers tend to be those whose sport is specifically gym-based, such as body-building, Cross-fit, Power-lifting and Olympic weightlifting.  It’s very common, once one has developed an interest in one of those sports,  to go through “gym-bore” period.  You’re excited to find this new interest that has a major positive impact on your life and you’re as giddy a kid on Christmas morning.  Do your loved-ones and co-workers a solid, though.  Keep it to yourself.  Here’s why:

  • It’s boring:  Yea verily, it’s boring.  Of course, it’s interesting to you and your gym buddies but nobody else on God’s green earth cares about your deadlift PR or your new programming.  We’ve all heard people droning on about their new diet..how captivated were you about that endlessly fascinating subject?  If the subject somehow comes up when you’re among non-gym goers, keep it brief and change the subject or you risk coming off as a narcissistic bore.
  • Gym is not LIFE, it’s part of life:  I don’t care how good you are at your sport, never forget it should only be one facet of your existence.  Outstanding champions such as Muhammed Ali, “Arnold” and Zydrunas Zavickas (Strongman) accomplished quite a bit outside the arena of sports.  Unless you are a coach and it’s your job, droning on ad nauseam about training makes you look one dimensional.
  • The douche factor:  Let’s face it, if you speak about your powerlifting training to people outside the sport, you might not only come off as boring but also like you’re bragging. Hence, douche-y.  Things are commonplace amongst powerlifters (say, a 200kg squat for reps) sound somewhat extreme to the uninitiated.  So, while maybe you’re not really bragging, but it’s going to sound like you are. And if people think you are literally “flexing” on them, you’ll either turn them off or they respond to what they perceive as intimidation.  “Oh yeah, we’ll I benched 360 lbs before…in high school”…
  • The frustration factor:  See above – if you get caught up in a “I’ve lifted mad weight” conversation with somebody who, shall we say, doesn’t look or speak like they have experience with training, just smile and agree with them.  While you may be tempted to press them for details, don’t.  For one, it’s an inane conversation for adults to engage in.  Really, 360 lbs?  Full range of motion?  Pause at the bottom, no chest bounce, no help from spotters?  Like quarter-squatters, just let them be.  It’s frustrating and a little bit silly, but that’s not your problem.  Also, if it just so happens they did lift that weight with proper form, you’ll look the world’s biggest insecure tool for trying to call them out.
  • Chick magnet, it’s not:  Note to the heterosexual males out there – the babes will appreciate those six pack abs and wide shoulders, but preserve some of the mystery.  She doesn’t need or want to know about drop sets and how much you spend monthly on creatine.  And for my powerlifting boys out there, women could care less about your righteous PRs, you lard asses.  Dudes will care, perhaps, but women…nope.  Sad, but true.  So if you think blathering on about your training will make the fillies come a-running, guess again.