Detours – why getting there is half the fun…

Last Christmas, as an after thought, I bought my 10 year old son a somewhat crappy skateboard as a sort of oversized stocking stuffer.  I have no idea why I bought it nor did I have any clear indication that he’d like it.  And, in fact, when he opened this present he literally said “why did you get this for me???”.  He was genuinely puzzled and freely admitted he had absolutely no interest in skateboarding.  The next day, for the heck of it, we went to a covered garage with plenty of smooth concrete so he could test out his new skateboard.  My son put his leading foot on the skateboard, pushed off and, I swear to you, you could see a visible “Aha, where have you been all my life” moment as it happened.  He loves skateboarding, he is OBSESSED by it.  In the short space of 5 months he has racked up hours and hours of practice, innumerable  bruises and a growing number of tricks in his repertoire.

As any skateboarder, on parent there of, can tell you , the absolute foundation, the bedrock upon which modern street skating is built upon is a maneuver called the Ollie.  The Ollie is sort of hard to describe and, trust me, much harder to master.  The skater basically pings the back of the skateboard off the ground, jumps and simultaneously leads the front the skateboard with his lead foot so it levels off and creates “jumping motion”.  This allows one to jump onto obstacles or, even cooler, off of obstacles.  It’s an absolute bitch.  There are no short cuts, if you want to Ollie, you must pay your dues.  I have played a number of sports but I’d be hard pressed to find an example of a movement that is as timing and muscle-memory dependent as an Ollie.  As you might imagine, the past few months I have seen my son try to Ollie thousands of times.

Fast forward a few months, hours upon hours of practice, some broken then upgraded skateboarding hardware – my son can Ollie.  He ollie’s onto things, and off….and does all the other tricks he has already mastered and others that he  continues to master.  No other skill in any other team sport he’s played has been so hard won, nor so self-taught.  The victory, then, is that much sweeter for being so personal

Flashback many decades, I walk into a karate dojo at roughly the same age as my son when he discovered skateboarding.  This was the late 1970s when absolute ignorance regarding the martial arts reigned.  I went to the lesson as a lark, but I can tell you the “aha moment” is real.  I felt it, and was absolutely hooked for a numbers of years.  Almost nobody understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it…until such a time that I became demonstrably good enough to win competitions and garner other residual sorts of attention.  I realized that the desire to learn and to get better at this passion meant that other people would notice, as an almost unintended consequence.  Then you become known as the person who does that thing, and either you are comfortable with it, or not.  In this example,  I eventually succumbed to physical and, I suspect,  a morale burnout.  I regret doing that, perhaps a more mature person would have dealt with it better.

Fast forward a number of years – my son is happy with team sports but really finds himself, expresses himself with his skateboard.  His sister, my daughter,  has been competing for many years in international gymnastic competitions.  She is, at this actual moment, traveling to a competition in Northern Italy.  I remember her “aha” moment as well, when I brought her to gymnastics lesson when she was  7.  It was plainly obvious then, as it was with me and my son years later, that this was “her thing”.  When I was competing in Karate tournaments or boxing rings, I always had an opponent. In sports like Gymnastics, you are the only factor, the only point of judgment.  I respect the guts it takes to get up in front of hundreds of spectators.  She handles it far better than I or her brother would.

So, yeah, I powerlift.  Trust me, nobody is more surprised than me.   I love getting stronger, I love the challenge and difficulty.  I never would have predicted this but, then again, you can’t predict “aha” moments.  The trick is in appreciating the detour.

Random Musings on Gym Behavior – Part 1

30 years ago I joined my first gym.  It was a hugely overpriced affair located in Boston’s Financial District.  It was filled to the brim with big, bright,  shiny machines (Nautilus was a big deal in those days) and entitled Type A douchebags.  Forget even approaching the bench press in those days as: a) there were very few of them and b) they were permanently colonized by Roided out curl-bro neanderthals who had a predilection for silly baggy multi-colored “work out” pants.  This was decades before “leg day” entered the lexicon.  Since the gym was always, always crowded you had to learn a form of gym etiquette very quickly to avoid, shall we say, “unpleasant” experiences.  But it was there that I realized that gyms are amazing places to study human interaction.  African wildlife documentaries  always have watering hole scene as it’s an easy way to film a large number of species interacting in a relatively small space.  And I put to you that if I was young Sociology or Anthropology student, I’d do my field work in a gym for the same reason.

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In the past 30 years I have worked out in gyms across North America, South America, Africa and above all in many countries in Europe.  I’ve noticed some behavior is fairly universal while others are what you’d call site specific.  Some of these include:

  • Nudity in the locker room – Ah, the locker room…stomping ground of the archetypal Naked Old Dude.  Yes, they exist in ever single country I’ve ever visited and, no, they didn’t give single f***.  Clipping toenails, drying their hair (or worse) and engaging in extended conversations all whilst butt nekkid.  As for the under 65 crowd, I’ve noticed some cultural differences.  People from Germanic influenced countries and cultures are by far the most at ease being naked, at not just in the locker room.  Think of them as Naked Old Dudes in training.  In the US, Latin America, UK, etc people generally are not phased by it given that you go, take your shower, get dressed.  If you want debate last night’s game, for God’s sake put some clothes on.  And, perhaps surprising to some, the most reserved are Europeans from the “Romance Language” countries.  Wearing your boxers into the shower is very common.  I am, of course, a product of the cultures I am exposed to the most so I admit on more on US/Romance language side of the spectrum.  Ok, yes, one has to get nekkid to change clothes or take a shower but why, oh, why do you need to be over by the sink, shaving, without a stitch of clothes on.
  • Working “in” with a stranger – This is very common, necessary practice in US gyms, especially in bigger cities.  What this means in practice is that you very nicely ask the person who is using the equipment you’d like to use if you can work in as she or he rests between sets.  In Latin America and Africa this is fairly common as well.  In my experience, it’s fairly rare in “commercial gyms” in many Western European countries.  Not coincidentally, I find that Western Europeans are also much less likely to engage in conversations with random strangers than those other cultures.  The exception to this rule (speaking of Western Europe) are specialty gyms – power lifting, strong man or Olympic lifting.  The difference is you’re then in a subculture with its own norms.
  • Using the gym as a pick-up joint – I haven’t noticed much regional variation for this behavior.  Yes, there are some men and women who do, but it’s actually far less common than people think.  The big whopping exception to the rule are personal trainers.  I have known people who own and/or managed commercial gyms and judging from the “behind the scenes” tales they tell (as related to them by their staff), it’s probably even more soap opera-esque than people think.  Note:  I am not referring to strength training gyms as they don’t have “personal trainers”.  They have coaches whose job it is to teach the proper form and programming you need to achieve your sporting goals.  Personal Trainers work in commercial gyms and, aside from making you look ridiculous on a Bosu ball, I’m not sure if they serve a useful function unless it’s the service alluded to above.  Finally there is universal Gym archetype number 2 – the creeper.  This is generally a guy who is more interested in staring at women than achieving a new PR.  At a commercial gym, it’s undeniable that 95 percent of the women are there to take class of some sort and or run on a treadmill.  They avoid the weight room it can be intimidating to the uninitiated but also, I imagine, because it’s populated mainly by dudes and thus the chance for being ogled is that much higher.  Which is a shame as they are depriving themselves of a chance to get stronger.  If a guy is doing his thing in the weight room, chances are he’s all business and goal oriented.  I’ve seen many guys more interested at checking themselves out in the mirrors or taking Instagram pics than ogling the few women that venture into the weight room.  That lone guy in your Zumba class, though….

 

Stranger in a strange land

In my first post I touched briefly (albeit not very coherently) on the the notion of nationality, cultural identity and, I suppose, the idea of diaspora.  What makes it strange for people like me is that Americans think of themselves of the immigrant nation par excellence.  People, according to this narrative, are literally dying to come to the US.  The notion that Americans would choose to live elsewhere, perhaps permanently, does not register as if it’s some sort of fringe activity.  Yet there are millions of us: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_diaspora

If you take the lower estimate, that means are more US diaspora than the current population of the Republic of Ireland.  Nevertheless, even if we take the higher estimate of 9 million, that is a small fraction of the current US population. As globalization continues, the phenomena of US diaspora may one day be more than a blip on the US cultural radar.   My point is that having lived quite a bit in countries that have a very large diaspora population, I know what the general consensus tends to be from the folks in the home country:  Yes, they’re like us, but not entirely.  There’s something a bit off about them and, besides, they aren’t true citizens of (fill in the blank) because they haven’t been living here, sharing our experiences.  This is a fairly common sentiment that I’ve seen in many different countries.  The flip side of the coin is the experience of the diaspora – he or she is the perennial outsider.  They may master the language and culture of the country where they live, they are “not from here”.  And they aren’t entirely accepted back home either.   For now, most Americans don’t have an opinion regarding diaspora simply because they’re not that aware of it and don’t know anybody personally living outside the country.

So, I’m not saying my experience is analogous to an economic migrant.  Far from it, most American diaspora live outside the US due to circumstances other than economic.  For me being the outsider is sometimes curious state of being but it never weighs heavily.  At worst, on a rare trip back to the US I feel like a character from the Twilight Zone – somebody who fell asleep in 1997 only to awake in 2017 to a country that is both familiar but at the same time radically changed.

Random Musings

 

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The topics for this blog will range far and wide but suffice it to say I’ll spend a fair time talking about strength training, politics, culture, the expat life, languages, cooking, wine and anything else that strikes my fancy.  For now I’ll do this on a somewhat anonymous basis as I plan to keep it real and I’ve better things to do than deal with legions of Red Bull-guzzling trolls.

Firstly, I suppose, I should introduce myself.  I  could only probably call myself middle-aged if I believe I’ll live to 100.  I am American (born to American parents) but I wasn’t born in the US, spent a decent part of my childhood outside the US and now have spent the majority of my adult life outside North America.  The word “expat” often connotes somebody who goes “abroad” for a year or so, interacts to varying degrees with the new culture/language and eventually goes “home”.  That is not my situation.  If you met me today and we spoke English, I have an undeniable North American accent, albeit a non-regional, neutral one.  The way I talk, my mannerisms and many of my cultural references are American.  In my experience, you have to live in a country for fairly long time to even begin to understand it.  Conversely, not living in country for extended periods of time means that you lose context and a shared cultural history, even in the internet age.

I work in the financial services industry in what, I suppose, could be considered a middle management post.  Don’t panic, that will never figure in any blog posts but I mention because it because one of my recent areas of interest is sports and social class.  The classic example would golfing.  In my experience, if you want to network effectively,  golf is unbeatable.  Running or training for endurance sports are well-regarded as well and offer many opportunities for professional “bonding” over lunch time runs.  Strength training…not as much.  The truth is, in certain social circles, if you strength train to the extent it’s obvious to casual observer you’re regarded as a sort of emotionally-stunted freak.   I strength train (mostly powerlifting) because I love the mental and athletic challenge.   I love the team spirit and atmosphere in a good powerlifting gym as it’s similar to a serious dojo (except for the music cranked to 11 and abundant chalk dust).  While increased strength is the ultimate goal, increased muscle mass is indeed a byproduct.

How people react to this “mass” is, I think, fascinating.  It’s like a Rorshach test in many ways.  Nobody feels free to walk up to visibly gaunt ultra-marathoner at a party and say things like “What you’re doing is so unhealthy and visually unappealing.  Furthermore, women really don’t like this look.  Do you have a psychological problem that compels you to run distances that I find extreme”?  Put on a bit of muscle mass, however,  and it’s open season.  In my lifetime I’ve been thin to gaunt (running and martial arts), normal (less running and bit more general aimless gym time) and had of period of “few years into your marriage/young kids at home/total lack of exercise” induced pudginess.  Not once during those periods was I ever approached by friends, family, acquaintances or total strangers at a party and given what amounts to negative feedback.  It’s not all negative, there is plenty of positive (ahem) feedback too.  That’s what so interesting  – why have a strong reaction either way?

For those of you not familiar with strength sports, powerlifters by and large would never been confused with bodybuilders.  While some are pretty jacked, the most common look is what’s known as “fuscular” i.e. there’s s six pack in there some where under that layer of fat.  Aesthetics are not a priority.  I’m in the latter category.  I could be leaner, perhaps, were it not for my diet.  That doesn’t mean I eat crap, though.  I eat “clean”, cooking most of my food myself from organic sources whenever possible.  I also take pains to eat balanced, nutritious meals and take supplements (fish oil, vitamin d3, creatine, maca) judiciously.  I don’t take PEDs, but not from a moral standpoint.  Rather, my body still produces things like Testosterone in pretty decent quantities.  Why introduce exogenous sources for a short-time and risk f**king up my hormonal health long term?  No thanks.  That being said, I drink wine and beer like they aren’t going to make any more.  Yes, yes, I know it’s bad for you.  We are dichotomous creatures.  Yin and yang is an actual thing.