Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.

 

 

Age/Injury, women who lift and who’s that fat f*%$ in the video?

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Yesterday I filled out an entry form for the first powerlifting meet I will do in 2018.  It takes place in early April.  I had to grapple with the fact that my nagging injuries will, barring a major miracle, have not healed so I while I enrolled for the traditional powerlifting (i.e. the 3 events) I also will compete in the stand alone bench press.  Therefore if my injuries still preclude from me competing normally I can still compete for bench press.  It also made me realize that, damn it, at 51 years old I shouldn’t train like a 25-year-old.  Maybe all those world-class powerlifting coaches with decades of experience knew what they were talking about after all.  I can say this, while I cranked volume, weight and intensity of my training to 11 last fall, there was a good 6 week period that I felt bullet-proof.  I was hitting some serious numbers in squat and bench, and finally edging towards not embarrassing in deadlift.  Weighted dips, pull-ups, overhead presses, heavy rack pulls,  etc…I was going to town.  Until, of course, it all came crashing down when I seriously f’ed up my left rotator cuff –  3 weeks before the competition.  I could not lift my arm above my waist without pain for a few days, and then it eased quite a bit.  So naturally I didn’t bench any more but continued to squat which, in retrospect, was really, really stupid.  So here I am a few months later, with no real end in sight regarding my rotator cuff.  The silver lining is that I am doing a lot of safety bar squats but, damn, I miss low bar squats so much more than I’d ever imagined. The take-away lesson from this is while I may be immature, I need to respect that my physical manifestation on this mortal coil is indeed beginning its 6th decade.   Sigh.

Women who lift:  I love women who lift.  I really respect a woman who has realized that getting stronger is where it’s at.  I think any woman who picks up any weight is a rock star, but I especially love those who go for it and test their limits by lifting heavy.  When I see a woman in a squat rack and she’s loading some weight that is not just for “booty” purposes, I’m intrigued.  If she then hits the bench press and proceeds to challenge herself with some real weight, my jaw just about hits the ground.  If she proceeds to then pull respectable deadlift numbers, I’d probably look away, do an embarrassed cough and try to find some way to repair my fragile male ego.  Seriously, though, every woman I’ve ever known who’s applied herself in the weight room ends up looking awesome and, better yet, feels awesome.  That combination is very, very attractive.  You know what, I respect the dedication, etc of figure and/or bikini competitors, but it’s not the same.  I want to know what you look like when you’re strong and not starving yourself.  A few years ago I dated a former female bodybuilder.  She was from the era when female bodybuilders were not roided out monsters but definitely had some muscle.  She was more about definition than bulk.  You can be feminine and still be noticeably strong.  I’ll be honest, there is a limit, at least for me..  Huge shoulders, a big back, and bulging quads, NO.  Luckily, that wasn’t her case.   (Full disclosure – I don’t think over-developed dudes look great either).  Bottom line, athletes, with the exception of marathon runners, are sexy.  Food for thought.

Last night I took a few videos of myself was I was lifting alone at the powerlifting club.  I did this for 2 reasons.  Primarily, I was going for a bench press PR so I wanted proof for them gym haters (kidding of course) that I hit those numbers, but also I realised that, post holidays and birthday, I was carrying a few extra KGs, so I figured seeing myself on video would provide the motivation I required to shed that flab.  (NB:  the powerlifting club has benches with “protection arms” to catch failed attempts so benching alone is not as risky as it seems.  If you don’t have these at your disposal, please, please do not bench press alone.  It’s the single riskiest thing you can do in the gym.)

Result – I hit that PR and, daaaaamn, the form was on point.  It looked silky smooth, on video, easier that it actually was.  On the other hand, I looked like a God-damned beached whale.  Bench press angles are far from flattering, and this one was no exception.  However, there was no escaping that if would have been a bit less egregious if my belly wasn’t spilling out of my t-shirt.  #fatold*%$k#landwhale#layoffthebeer.  Not into body shaming, but you got to be honest with yourself.

Most Embarrassing Gym Stories

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Gyms are a sub-culture unto their own.  The reason that some people find Gyms, and especially specialized Gyms/Training facilities, so daunting is the mini-“culture shock” of learning parameters of this subculture.   These are the “do’s and dont’s” that allow one to avoid “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, aka complete social humiliation.   Sometimes, however well-versed one is in gym culture, we all fall prey to the occasional faux pas.

A few years ago, when I first started getting interested in powerlifting, I trained exclusively at a big commercial “Globo” gym.  My enthusiasm for squats was matched by only by my complete, blissful ignorance of technique.  So there I was in a squat rack – completely raw – no knee sleeves, wristwraps, shoes or belt – but on the other hand the weight I was lifting probably didn’t warrant that.   In those days my benchpress was many kilos more than my squat.  To my credit, though, I was wearing Chuck Taylors, and not spongy running shoes.  I was also wearing those sort of thin nylon running trousers, the type you wear to go running when it might rain a bit.  They were the only non-shorts gym bottoms I owned and they had a drawstring that I could tighten to avoid the dreaded “carpenters’ crack” at the bottom of a squat.  They were not, however, very heavy-duty.  Anyway, I am at doing my 5×5 squats at 6:30PM on a Monday night, the height of gym rush-hour.  I am on the 4th rep of the last set, coming out of the “hole” when I hear an audible tearing noise, then a pop and, suddenly, a cool breeze invigorates my nether regions.   The trousers had split wide open from the waistband down to my knee.  The ‘back end” of the trousers had ceased to exist. You know how mothers always tell their kids to wear clean underwear in case they get into an accident?  Words to live by, y’all.

Not long after the “Flapping in the breeze” incident, another ignominious event took place at the same Globo gym.  The gym was packed and I had just completed a killer training session.  I was more than a little light-headed as I proceeded to the showers with my brand new towel, which I had literally just bought at a store just before going to the gym.  The showers in this gym have towel hooks to right of each shower stall (which are enclosed by doors).  So as I faced the shower I hung my towel on the hook to the right of my shower door and took a nice hot shower.  As I exited the shower with steam and water in my eyes, I reached to my right, grabbed the towel and vigorously dried every damp nook and cranny.  This towel went from dry and pristine to wet and befouled in roughly 20 seconds.  As I opened my eyes, I realized to my horror that I had just besmirched somebody else’s towel.  Just as this dawned on me, the owner of said towel exited his shower.  No, he was not pleased and no, he would not accept my brand new, never been used towel in exchange…nor my apology.  Some people apparently lack social graces as well as the common sense to take an unused new towel.  Oh well, lesson learned, always drape your towel of the shower stall door so it’s impossible to mistake.

Finally, in the embarrassing but unavoidable category, I once tore a hamstring muscle by freak accident during a powerlifting competition.  It was so painful that I could barely walk.  I thought this meant that I couldn’t deadlift and consequently would not finish the competition (meaning my other lifts (squat and benchpress) wouldn’t count) until another competitor pointed out that I could just lift the absolute minimum once.  So I went up to the organizers table and told the nice ladies that I wished to change my first deadlift attempt to 70kgs.  I had to say it 3 times as they thought they hadn’t heard me correctly.  I explained that I had hurt my leg but I sort of still got some side-eye.  Anyway, the message didn’t get to the team loading the plates so when my name was called they had to take plates off and leave, I believe, just 2 measly blues on the bar.  Most of the spectators didn’t I know was injured so the scene must have looked faintly ridiculous;  some burly dude walking out for a 70kg deadlift in a competition.  So I “hammed” it up a bit as I hobbled out to the bar, sort of did my deadlift set-up, and invented what might be a new deadlift form – the modified Bulgarian split deadlift.  I did the lift, got 3 white lights, and informed the nice ladies that I wouldn’t take my other lifts.

What are your most egregious gym gaffes?

Resolved.

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One cannot swing a deceased feline in the fitness-related blogosphere without hitting a few dozen posts about “New Years Resolutioners”, aka the 2nd most well-known seasonal flood after the Nile.  (OK, the construction of the Aswan High Dam largely took care of that phenomenon – just wanted to make sure you’re paying attention).  I don’t really have a dog in this fight since gym newbies typically do not gravitate to power racks or barbells.  If anything, it’s nice to see some new faces in the gym and I wish them well.  Also, it’s not quite the deluge that some would have you believe.  I’ve seen an uptick of new faces the last few weeks but mostly a lot of gym rats I haven’t seen in months have mysteriously reappeared.  Do gym rats migrate, following cheaply priced protein powder sources the same way blue whales follow krill blooms?  Where is David Attenborough when you really need him?

The reason people pick on the “new year, new me” crowd is that you need real motivation to train hard or stick to radical lifestyle and/or dietary changes.  A vague idea that you need to “get into shape” ain’t going to cut it.  So inevitably a big percentage of people will eventually give up.   The funny thing is, motivation is easier than ever to come by these days.  Google or youtube people who share the same goals as you –  after a few hours of watching videos from the thought leaders of your particular area of interest, you will learn about the basics you need to master to attain your goal.  If you really want get stronger, more jacked, lose weight, whatever, you’ll pick up a number of specific goals before even entering a gym.  If you’ve done your homework, you might even search out a specialized gym that would allow you to meet those goals.  “Getting jacked” is an idea – it’s the goals you set as you work towards that idea that are powerful.  It’s not “hard work” if you’re motivated.

Personally, I’ve never done a New Years resolution.  This is probably because today, my birthday,  comes soon after New Years and that is usually the day I reserve to declare my nebulous well-intentioned self-improvement ideas.  Call them wishes, because in my book once you’ve done your research and put a plan in action,  you’re doing, not “wishing”.  If resolutions are “wishful thinking” or percolating ideas for which you have not yet formed a plan, I resolve the following:

  • I will create 2 meaningful, well crafted blog posts per week.
  • I will get back into “active dating”.  Or at least come out of a self-imposed “social hibernation”.  Maybe I’ll start with micro-goals to drum up the motivation.
  • Read more – I used to read at least 2 books a week and this has slowed to a crawl in the last 2 years. Reading is a book, a real book, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  Books are a lifeline, sometimes the only one, that can get you through difficult times.  Really good books, the classics, are like squats for your intellect.  If you’ve read the likes of Melville or Homer and have squatted some heavy-ass weight, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

2018 plans that are already in execution:

  • Compete in 3 powerlifting competitions this year.  The first one (in a few months) may have to be bench only due to my injuries.
  • Recover from injuries and actively incorporate more mobility work.
  • Do a long-term, gradual cut (see above re: finding motivation.  There is a lot to learn before implementing a plan like this).  I am back down to my November competition weight already.  I can easily get down to 90 to 92 kgs without impacting my strength. I’ll still be in the same weight category, but such is life.  Might nudge into the high 80s – but dropping any more weight would impact strength.
  • Implement external business plan by end of Q3.  (More on this as we approach the implementation date).

Anyway, if you happen to be one of those people who is getting back in the gym in January, kudos.  If you already have your micro-goals mapped out then you’re 50 percent of the way towards your goal.  The physical effort is the easy part.  If you haven’t mapped out your goals, take a few hours to do the research.  Above all,  if you are going to a “Globo” gym, don’t let a trainer set your goals for you.  If you want to learn to squat, for example, and he’s insists on the Bosu ball and TRX,  find another trainer.   You’ll save time, money and frustration.    You might just adopt a lifelong “habit” or interest.

That’s it, I’ve taken the day off to chill, read and get through an extended deadlift and accessory exercises training.  I have a sneaking suspicion that some sort of dinner is planned for this evening.  Have a great weekend

 

Negativity as motivation

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As we ease into the 2nd week of 2018,  I contemplate my upcoming workout.  Rotator cuff issues mean that I still can’t low or high bar squat so my workout today will feature safety bar box squats and the Wenning belt squat station for a reasonable amount of weight and volume as well as working up to some heavy triples on bench.  On the bright side of the injury report, my hamstring seems to healed to an extent that I can start easing into some more meaningful lower body training.  2 days ago I did my first deadlift training in 7 weeks for light to light/medium weight as the objective was to see how the hamstring felt and above all concentrate on form, form and more form.  I did snatch grip DLs, conventional DLs and then high rack pulls and barbell shrugs with a bit more weight.  I also did glute ham raises and some farmers carries.  The surprising result is that my legs feel fine (perhaps because I have been training them continuously with light weights and/or body weight) but my upper back and traps are feeling it.  My rotator cuff injury means that a lot of back/shoulder exercises are out of the question for now which makes exercise selection a bit of a challenge.

Two simultaneous injuries suck, but powerlifting is life so off I go to the powerlifting gym.  It’s a bit of a hike from my house but I will go there today primarily because it has the specialized bars and stations I need to do the exercises listed above.  Also,  we can blast music at improbable volumes and use healthy amounts of chalk all in a pleasantly mirror free environment.  The best things about this gym, though, are  the people and overall vibe.  It’s overwhelmingly positive (much of this is thanks to M, the gym’s inimitable owner and head coach) and it’s a blast to be surrounded by motivated, like-minded people. It’s sort of like Cheers, everybody knows your name.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I still go to a commercial gym about half the time as it’s close where I live and work and therefore convenient. One of my team-mates recently told that she avoids this (commercial) gym like the plague because, even though it’s very well equipped, because it’s awash in negativity and gym haters.  She’s not wrong.  Many commercial gyms, and this place is no exception,  have the social dynamics of a middle school playground – cliques, rampant gossip, dirty looks, the works.

In a weird way I enjoy the dysfunctional ambiance which is useful as I’m obliged to train there so often.  It’s a dose of Yang to balance out the Yin of the other gym. There are a lot of type A personalities and some inflated senses of entitlement, both in the locker room and out on the floor.  It’s a struggle to stay Zen sometimes.  I find that it’s almost a form of moving meditation as I try to block out the extraneous foolishness and focus on training.  I just navigate around the gym in my ratty t-shirt, Chuck Taylors and track suit bottoms with the tell-tale heavy-duty wrist-wraps and chalk bag in my pockets.  (Chalk is sort of frowned on but to the gym’s credit, they haven’t hassled me about it.).  And, yeah, there are the odd fun moments when you quietly install yourself on a bench next to a bench being used by some Instagramming, lycra clad bros and, slowly but surely, use their 1RM for paused-rep triples.

A certain amount of stress is required as a catalyst for growth.  This is the underlying principle of strength training, of course, as well as one of life’s greater truths.  As the French say, to make great wine the grapes must suffer.  As a man, you will not meet quality women or do anything else of note if you fear rejection.  You have to really embrace rejection or failure before you can see that it’s your fear, and not failure itself, that is holding you back. Fear is the mind-killer, the gains-killer and the get me some of that fine booty-killer.

So, boo-hoo, I’ve got 2 simultaneous injuries that are the direct result of me having enough time and resources to train in an activity I really enjoy and – gasp – I sometimes have to do such training in a big well equipped gym surrounded by the terminally shallow.  First world problems, to say the least.  If confronting your fears is important, so is gratitude.