Aging, self-image and weight-training

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How old do you feel?  How old do you look?  If you’re past the age of 40, in your minds-eye, what version of you is your self-image based on?  Maybe this is a purely masculine thing, but if I was honest my “mental avatar” is me, albeit circa 29 years old.  I mean that is the physical template my mind accepts as my true physical manifestation.  It’s not that I don’t accept myself as I am now, I do, but if I can’t help notice a subtle mental recalibration going on in the background when looking in the mirror.  It’s my subconscious going, ” Ok, the dude in the mirror?  That is actually you so get with the program. ”

Why 29/30?  Why not 21 or 35?  Perhaps it corresponds with some Jungian idea of male archetypes (anima, hero, etc).  There must be a reason.  Am I happier and wiser now than when I was 30?  Hell, yeah.  Was I at my physical peak back then?  Yes and no.  I was in pretty good shape in a very superficial sense.  I had a six pack, some development of the “disco muscles” (shoulders, arms, chest) and decent cardio-vascular shape.  But I could have been in much better shape had I, for example, followed the same training program I do now.  Therein, I think, lies the answer.  29 or 30 years old represents a sort of sweet spot in mental, intellectual and physical maturity.  It is, was or should have been you when you had the most raw potential.  You’d have completed years of education, should be at least 8 or so years into a career, and hormonal health is still firing on all cylinders.

I was orders of magnitude wiser and happier at 30 than I was at 21.  I remember thinking I wouldn’t go back to 21 for anything.  And that trend has continued while I do have to make some concessions to aging.  In my case, I don’t lose weight as easily as before, my eyesight got a little weaker and my temples went grey.  Other than that, the main difference between my 30 year old self and me now is “life wisdom” which is both a burden and advantage.  Youth, the saying goes, is wasted on the young which I interpret as while you’re getting wiser and happier, your physical vitality is waning.

It does, but I think how quickly it does is something you might be able to control.  Partially its genetic, yes, but it’s a least 50 percent lifestyle choices.  Purely coincidentally, I became serious about weight training in my 40s.  As a flood of recent, peer-review studies has shown,  strength training with compound movements (deadlifts, squat, presses, etc) is probably the single best form of physical training for older people.  It builds muscle, maintains bone density, ramps up hormonal efficiency (production of testosterone, human growth hormone and others) and increases metabolic efficiency.    This is not news to any of my middle-aged powerlifting brothers and sisters.  Honestly, what is cooler or flat-out funnier than getting really strong at an age when most people take up golfing?

Personally speaking, I unwittingly had 2 advantages when I started lifting.  First, I had no expectations or ego when I began.  Started really light and added a little bit of weight each week – classic linear progression, though I hadn’t heard the term at that time.  Anybody can do it and everyone will inevitably see results of they keep it up.  Secondly, hormonal health has never been an issue for me.  As a young man, it was a problem in that high levels of T meant I had bad skin.  (Interestingly, subsequent studies have backed up anecdotal evidence from dermatolgists that former acne sufferers’ skin ages slower than the average populace due to longer alleles in their genes.  Seems to be my case as well, so perhaps the universe does have a sense of justice).  As an older man, it meant that, to my surprise,  putting on muscle wasn’t too difficult.

Whether or not you have an advantage when you begin lifting, the result will be the same for everyone.  If you put in the work week in and week out, your body will change.  You’ll gain muscle and feel physically vital (Ok, except for those mornings after a heavy squat or deadlift sessions when crawling out of bed while groaning is the norm).  I’m 51 and I feel great, I feel strong. I feel as if I’ve made some progress towards exploiting my physical potential.  I could have easily spent the last decade doing nothing.  Had I done that, I’m fairly certain that I’d feel a lot weaker, a lot more frail…old, if you will.

In short, I don’t feel 51 so I assume that is why my minds-eye reflects somebody a bit younger.  I don’t mean to imply there is anything wrong with aging.  It’s part of life.  It’s how you react to aging that makes the difference.  One of the benefits of age is gratitude.  The older you get the more you know how often life doesn’t go as scripted.  So many things can go wrong at any time.  To be alive and to have relatively good health for yourself and your loved ones is already such a blessing.  Physical training is not a “drudge” or hard work, it’s an almost decadent opportunity to turbo-charge that blessing.

Do you even lift, bro?

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“Do you even lift, bro?” was the cliched, but very real, sarcastic put-down of a heavily Italo-american US East Coast bodybuilding subculture that thrived from the early 80s until roughly 5 years ago.  The pathos in this phrase is self-evident (to everyone except the person asking it) and Broscience Life is the brilliant comedic Youtube channel that mined this rich vein of comedy gold.  Fitness trends change so the roided out curl bro simpleton is rapidly fading in the rearview mirror of cultural significance.  In the current zeitgeist, it’s apparently Crossfitters who have picked up the gym douchiness mantle.  Nevertheless, the phrase remains as it touches a very raw nerve socioeconomic nerve.  Namely, do smart successful people lift weights to the point that, gasp, “gainz” are obvious?

When I first starting going to gyms in the 80s, the last thing I wanted to do was resemble these dudes.  For one, you’d probably catch a beating if you ever went near the bench press or any thing that’d allow to work chest, shoulder and biceps – so it wasn’t easy.  Also, and I hate how this sounds, these guys were, in my mind, ridiculous.  In the US, if you are over 18 but not quite 21, the only clubbing option are these “under 21” clubs which don’t serve booze to the underage and, since it’s the only game in town, forced many different youth subcultures into close quarters.  The roid boys and I weren’t going for the same young ladies and, yet, I couldn’t help but notice how some of the most faux Alpha of these guys ended up with some pretty attractive young women.  Maybe these young ladies couldn’t trade bon mots like Dorothy Parker, but they weren’t hideous.  Hmm, I thought, every woman I know swears these guys are ridiculous so how is it that….?

From the 80s to the 90s I went to the gym as well as ran a fair amount.  I’d do chest, arms, abs at the gym and rely on running for the lower body.   Boy, in my 20s, this worked like a charm.  I was lean but with a reasonable amount to upper body definition that didn’t draw undue attention either way.  My legs (quads, etc) were not bad but I realize now my posterior chain (lower back, butt,etc) was seriously weak which set me up for issues when I hit my 30s.  At this point I realized that given half a chance ( weird for a former painfully skinny teenager) I could put on muscle relatively easily.  Since I was often in caloric deficit and muscle mass was not something that I prioritized, I didn’t care.

Fast forward some years, I get married, have kids and all of a sudden the six pack, good 10k times, etc goes out the window.  At first it was strangely liberating to, you know, get sort of chubby.  It was fun, I was exhausted anyway, and I was convinced that I could lose those extra Kgs anytime I put my mind to it.  The older I got, of course, the harder it was to lose that weight through good old steady state cardio, aka running.  In my mid-40s I finally got close the shape I was in my 30s.  Then, predictably, body parts began to fail me due to the uneven stress they were subjected to.  I developed very serious tendonitis in my right knee which effectively stopped my running career in its proverbial tracks.

There I was in my early 40s with a bad knee and chronic bad back issues.  I could no longer run so it seemed that I was doomed to some sort of pre-obese doughy dad-bod state.  As as last resort I thought, hell, might as well go to the gym to work out those body parts that can be exercised.  At the time, I thought that my knee and lower back issues could only get worse.  Nevertheless, my arms, chest, shoulders and back really responded well.  But the machines like leg press and quadriceps lift did indeed made my back and knee pain worse.

Purely by chance, I stumbled on Stronglifts  5×5 and Starting Strength at the same time.  The message was clear, being stronger was infinitely better than “bodybuilding” lifting – and compound movements are the way to get stronger.  So I started down this path and haven’t looked back since.  My knee and back problems disappeared very quickly.  One of the by products, however, of getting stronger is getting relatively more jacked.  Let’s keep it real, while I’m not 7 percent body fat, I’m not fat either so regular shirts, coats, trousers, etc no longer fit me.  If I walk into a corporate meeting room I realize that, at my age especially, developed shoulders, arms, back, glutes, etc make you stand out somewhat.  Not always in a good way, either, as there is still a socioeconomic bias against a visibly developed musculature.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, I’ve had a decent amount of negative feedback in my social circle regarding this increase in muscle mass.  I understand where they are coming from as held these opinions for many years. Here’s the issue:  I really like getting stronger and building goals that involve strength training.  If this means I add muscle mass, so be it. I am the same person, with or without the extra muscle mass.

Let’s be honest, now.  If you are jacked, there are a certain number of women who will notice.  In fact, you will get much attention from some of the same women who loudly professed such disregard for such a primitive look.  Women are complex, finicky creatures so can I say that the “jacked” look has contributed to recent success? Oh yes indeed,  and not always the ones that most people would suspect.  I sometimes get “felt up” on the arms, shoulders and back during conversations with people.  Not complete strangers but not necessarily people I know really well either.  I know it’s a thing because it didn’t happen to me at all before.  .

Which brings me back to the original question.  In those days, “Do you even lift, bro?”was a put-down to suggested that nobody noticed your gains.  These days it’s more nuanced as too many gains=knuckle dragger in certain circles.  I will never be mistaken for the bodybuilder but I’ve got far more muscle than the average.  Nobody will ever ask me these days if I lift, but I am sometimes asked why.  I do it for me, to get strong and, quite frankly, how you feel about it doesn’t enter the equation.

 

 

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.

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

 

Year End Random Musings

As the year 2017 draws to a close and the world is trying it’s utmost best to go hell in a hand-basket, I share with you the following utterly random and sometimes shallow observations:

  • Adversity“There is neither happiness nor unhappiness in this world; there is merely the comparison of one state to the other. Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss.”—Alexandre Dumas”   I know this sounds like a proud parent speaking (guilty as charged) but my daughter is highly intelligent, motivated, outgoing, opinionated, athletic, pretty and inquisitive.  She is self-driven and constantly striving to learn new things.  Consequently she has encountered a lot of success in school, sports and is a natural leader.  She hasn’t really encountered that many bumps in the road in life until now, with the exception of her parents divorce (which was amicable as those things go).  Recently she has encountered a health issue that, even though it’s temporary, is the sort of thing that  puts you on a crash course for learning some of life’s hard truths.  She’s learning a lot about the importance of character, both in herself as well as others.  She has always been a popular kid, but this experience has allowed her see who her true friends really are. (Lo and behold, her true friends “just happened” to be the ones her parents liked – to paraphrase Richard Pryor’s Mudbone “you don’t git to be old by bein’ no fool”).   Life is not fair and it’s periodically filled with physical and/or emotional pain.  She’s learning that sometimes the only thing to do is to hang on and to keep fighting.   Both her mother and I faced more than our share of adversity when we were my daughter’s age.  My Ex used that experience to forge an absolute iron will to succeed which she still has to this day.  I used my experience as an excuse to go off the rails and add self-induced adversity to the equation until I finally smartened up.  I’m happy to say that my daughter takes after her Mom, her Grandmother (my mother) and her Aunt (my sister) in choosing the correct reaction to adversity.  She is fighter, she knows her worth and she’s nobody’s fool.  I couldn’t be prouder of her.
  • Injury:  On a somewhat lighter, more sports related note, I recently injured my left rotator cuff in the weeks leading up to a competition, and then tore a muscle in my right hamstring a minute before my first squat in said competition.  The rotator cuff injury happened 3 weeks before which meant I couldn’t bench anymore (my best lift) and to be honest I probably shouldn’t have been squatting either.  I continued to train the movements I could do and hoped that I’d be able to compete in some, albeit diminished, form.  On the day of meet, I realized that I was able to bench if I respected absolute strict form (always the best policy anyway) and utilized lats, triceps and leg push as much as possible.  Then, a minute before my first squat, I managed to tear my hamstring simply by taking a 25kg plate of the bar when I was off-balance.  It literally hurt to walk.  While it was a stupendously stupid move, I continued the competition and was able to do a good squat of my opening weight on my 3rd attempt.  To say it hurt a great deal would be pretty close to the truth.  I then was able to bench press and consequently set a world record (WR) for the age\weight category in the federation that I compete in.  By this time, I was literally hobbling so I deadlifted 70kg once (a very humbling experience) to finish the competition and called it a day.  It’s funny, but I got much more props from fellow competitors, team members and judges for that injured squat than I did for the WR bench.  Fast-forward 6 weeks – my hamstring is healing nicely due to regular physical therapy sessions and intelligent training.  My rotator cuff is more of a longer term issue.  This effectively means I can’t do any movement that utilizes the shoulder to a great extent (low bar squat, overhead press and dips, for example) and I haven’t really been training legs hard due to my injury.  Faced with this reality, I’m doing what I can:  light safety bar squats, Wenning belt squat machine, strict form flat bench, farmer carries, glute ham raises (carefully).  I am also using machines for things like leg extensions and “light” leg curls, which is something I don’t normally do.  I’m concentrating more on core training than I usually do.  It’s frustrating, but doing nothing is out of the question.  Lessons learned:  mobility work is essential and tis a far, far better thing to listen to your body and back off a set than to be out of the game for a few months.
  • Dating or what’s with this older man/younger woman thing :  I know this going to sound disingenuous, but I never seriously considered dating a much younger woman until recently.   Let’s be honest, if I went on a dating app and stated a preference for pretty 25 year olds I’d get absolutely no responses except for catfish scams.  Unless, perhaps, I took one or two casual pictures in a recent model 911 with an understated Patek Phillipe on my wrist.  Sadly, as I know from at least one acquaintance, this approach works albeit it attracts exactly the sorts of women you’d expect.  It’s baldly “transactional” in nature, but provided he gets what he wants, he isn’t complaining..  In any event, about 2 years ago I stopped actively trying to rustle up dates as  I’ve been busy with work, my kids’ activities and, of course, powerlifting.  Also, I won’t sugarcoat this, dating women my age when I was 42 was fine but 8 years later it’s another situation entirely.  I know this is unfair and I know only too well how hard menopause hits some women physically and mentally.  A dear friend has been dealing these changes for about 2 years now and I can see how she is being whipsawed by the experience (see above re: adversity).  So a certain percentage of women my age are undergoing disorienting physical changes and consequently they’re not really in the mood for dating.   Almost completely by accident, I have dated some women in their mid-20s recently.  All of these situations were initiated by the women themselves and came about, I think, simply because I was out there, pursuing my interests and having fun.  I literally spoke to these women the way I’d speak to anybody else and wasn’t even considering an ulterior motive.  Yes, I understand one of the main reasons younger women date older men but I wasn’t picking up the tab any more or less than I’d do normally with woman closer to my age.   (News flash – some women, irrespective of age, will expect nonstop expensive restaurants, trips and gifts, while most others won’t.  When I was freshly divorced I fell rather hard for a physically attractive age appropriate woman who expected wining and dining of a certain level, nothing less was acceptable.  Never again.  I am not cheap, it’s the crassness and lack of imagination that I find objectionable).  So, other than money, why would a younger women date an older guy?  Maybe it’s because the 50-year-old me is probably a better guy to date than the 25-year-old me (more confident, more accomplished, happier, wiser and still in half decent shape).  Perhaps it’s because older guys know what they want, have certain amount of experience with women and are less likely to be drama queens.  Maybe it’s because these women are still in an experimental phase whereas women in their 30s are much more focused on getting married, preferably to somebody just a few years older.  I don’t really know.  And the end result in these cases was really quite positive.  Again,  had I gone on a speed dating or an internet site to meet these women, it’d have never happened.  Attractive 20 something women have a power of attraction that is akin to something like a super-power (this is a fascinating subject – the positive and negative aspects of this power – how it affects the person in question – and what happens when it wanes).  Pit that power against a few cheesy photos of a 50 year old man – it’s laughable, not a snowball’s chance in hell.  If I hadn’t been out there, pursuing an interest, displaying some sort of “worth”, absolutely no chance.  I firmly believe, also, that had I treated these women as potential “hook ups” it wouldn’t have happened either.  Finally, these women don’t “do” dating sites or speed dating – they really don’t need to the same way the The Flash doesn’t need to take the subway.  Nor do I have a need to date a younger woman at all costs.  I’d like to think that we see are capable of seeing each other as unique human beings and not as a type.  I find it creepy when people of either gender express a clear preference for a certain race or type to exclusion of all others.  Needless to say, I don’t discuss this older/younger thing that much with my female friends as it tends to be, as they say in French, “un sujet qui fache” (Loosely translated, a touchy subject).  For the record, y’all, I’d love to meet a happy, in-shape, cultured and intelligent woman closer to my age.  It’s just that those situations are not presenting themselves.  To be continued…
  • Training goals for 2018:  My goals for the upcoming year are to recover full use of my right hamstring and left shoulder, squat and deadlift for reps at least 60kgs more than my 1RM for bench, add 10kg to my 1RM bench press and, finally, to drop about 9 kgs bodyweight while preserving strength.  By the end of the year I want to be clearly the only game in town regarding my age and weight class.  As an aside, I have always found bodybuilding-style training tremendously boring, but since I’ve recently been unable to low bar squat, deadlift, overhead press, etc I have had to concentrate on more body building style training that targets isolated muscle groups.  You know what, I get it now, sometimes esthetic gains are nice and that whole pump thing is fun.  But being strong is more fun.

Happy holidays, everyone!  If you’ve made it to the end of this post you certainly deserve an eggnog or any other libation of you choice.  All the best to you and yours in the new year!

 

Divorce and dating across cultures.

restaurant-alcohol-bar-drinksRoughly 7 years ago I had one of those “damn, we’re really going to get a divorce” moments when you realize that something you’ve pondered so often is actually going to happen. Even if part of you welcomes the divorce, it’s a very strange feeling, especially after many years of marriage. It was a mutual decision and, while I was well aware of the disadvantages (we have 2 kids) I realized that, at the very least, I could start dating again. At this point I will put my cards out on the table: I never cheated on my ex-wife, not even close. If you think that enthusiastically searching out sexual partners(at least in short-term) is lame and shallow than you, dear reader, have never lived through the last few years of a dying marriage. So, yes, I was overdue and was I ever motivated.

There are many reasons why I have lived in this city for the past 20 years but one of the nicest is that it’s extremely cosmopolitan, the sort of place that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some sort of expat or immigrant (I guess you could say I’m both). It’s very similar to some neighborhoods in New York or London, only on a smaller scale. It’s the sort of place where you can constantly meet people from literally all over the world. This meant that in my roughly 3 to 4 year stint of post-divorce dating I met women from enough nations to get a quorum call at the UN General Assembly.

Disclaimer: What follows are some personal very generalized (the better to protect the privacy of everyone involved) observations. Certain examples might cleave to a cultural stereotype of that person’s nationality and, if they do, it’s because I did indeed observe this behavior. Nobody is walking national stereotype but culture is very strong force. If you belong to a culture you will share at least a few characteristics with people in that culture. Also, this particular post will be stupendously shallow. You have been forewarned. OK, so now on to the good part…

  • General Dating strategy – You’ll have realize that I was many years out of the game so my dating game was weak. Even in my earlier single days, my game was pretty bad. I was able to date some pretty fantastic women, but it was almost in spite of myself. I quickly realized a few things: a) I’ve more money and lots more life experience than I did in my 20s b) I managed to stay in shape and consistently look younger than I should do in spite of ingesting a Lake Superior of booze in my lifetime c) I was going to learn from past experience and not date people from work and d) I was going get out of my comfort zone and be more outgoing. So I did what just about every one does in the situation; I looked up old girlfriends, I did online dating and I forced myself to widen my social circle by meeting as many people as possible. What follows are the results of those strategies.
  • Looking up Exes: I don’t care what anybody says, this works like a charm. If you were decent person in the relationship, the sex was good (or great) and it just so happens your Ex is not in a relationship at the present moment, your chances are excellent. What’s more, no surprises and no illusions about the future. I have had newly single Exes look me up, and vice versa. You therefore have a pleasant time together (sex and companionship) and eventually go onto to other things. It’s more a friends with benefits sort of relationship. I have moved on, as have the Exes in question, but in most cases we remain on very good platonic terms.
  • Online Dating: This might be the most interesting facet, especially given the multilingual/multicultural angle. One complicating factor is that I am really not a fan of getting my picture taken or the whole Selfie phenomenon. The best pictures of me are invariably “action” shots taken while I am doing something else than waiting for my picture to be taken. I eventually found 1 or 2 recent pics and worked on creating concise tag-lines in 2 languages. While I find this sort of blatant hard sell abhorrent I find the idea of being celibate ever more so thus I jumped in with both feet. It was a funny experience and I met loads of women that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I certainly don’t regret it but I won’t do it again because a) it takes a lot of time and b) the type of people I met in person tend to correspond more to what I am looking for. Dating sites are the shotgun approach to dating. I did met some great women, some of whom remain good friends. I met a lot of characters and at least 1 or 2 women who had, shall we say, a somewhat tenuous grasp of reality. And I met some women who were just all about sex, asap (yes, ladies, it’s not just the men). Please note that I’m not complaining about that part as it’s one of my stated goals. However, when you walk into a cafe, talk for a few minutes or so and the woman says “Ok, let’s go, your place” (this actually happened to me once) alarm bells start to go off. I also met women who felt that a first date should be a “how serious are you” interrogation, seemingly forgetting if the date is not a fun experience, I’m not going to repeat it. I met women who, on a first date, would regale me with a litany of complaints about their ex-husband or who would try to grill me about my ex-wife. I learned a very valuable lesson from a few women, namely how to cut and run, done with class and consideration. Internet dating is a crap shoot and there will be times when you meet somebody and realize within the first few minutes that this person is not for you. At first, I’d suffer through a fairly long period (out of consideration) and then bring the date to an end. Women have much more experience rejecting the opposite sex and can usually do it decisively and tactfully if they so choose. Men, conversely, are much more used to rejection and we appreciate a “no thanks” when done with style. Bringing a non-starter date to a swift but considerate conclusion is a must.
  • Meeting women the old school way – This includes having friends introduce me to their female acquaintances, meeting women at parties, the tried and true method of going out to bars and clubs with friends and finally, from time to time, starting open, non-committal conversations with women in random locations . Considering all the time I spend in gyms, I’ve never dated or attempted to date women I meet at the gym. There are many reasons for this but primarily I work hard in the gym so I am a sweaty, red-faced mess most of the time. I met less women via the old-school methods than via the internet but there were distinct advantages. I wasted much less time and also I could perceive women (and they could perceive me) at face value, and not the result of some filtered internet search. In general, I find that I usually have more in common with women closer to my age. Via these methods, though, I often met and sometimes went out with women who were both younger and (a little bit) older than me. It’s easier to keep an open mind when the person is right in front of you.
  • Results: Bear in mind that during this period I was highly motivated. The end result was that I met quite a few women…and I slept with a quite few women. I easily slept with more women during this 4 year period than during my entire post high school/pre- marriage single period. In spite of no longer having the six-pack I did back then, I have a much more positive attitude which made an enormous difference. Concentrate on having a fun experience and chances are the sex will come. If I met somebody cool and interesting but did not have sex, that was fine too. Wasting my time on a dud date (no chemistry, conversation, negative vibe, etc) was really the only down-side. Conversely, rejection is not a big deal – everyone has the right to say no. Yes, some women I thought were cool turned out to not think the same of me. And that was fine – and makes me wonder why I dreaded that result so much as a younger man. Also, I was able to flip the script. A few times, as I attempted to politely say no to another date,etc , I’ve had a woman just lose her shit and get nasty. My loss, right, no reason to get worked up about it. It’s a virtuous circle, the less you fear rejection, the more fun you will tend to have. Final result I don’t necessarily feel the need to “met” women at any expense as I did “post-divorce”. If was fun (for the most part) and it pushed me out of several comfort zones which is something I think every divorced person needs.
  • Cross-cultural Observations (AKA is he really going to validate cultural stereotypes): I found that, in an extremely broad sense, cultural stereotypes tend to have some truth to them. Latin American, African, Asian and Eastern European women tend to expect and appreciate that you play the “man”, you take initiative make the decisions, open doors and, yes, pay for most things. No joke, You will reap benefits, shall we say, that would almost be unthinkable with upper middle class Aglophone (US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc) women but you must first Prove Your Worth. North-American women want their cake and eat it too – meaning that they expect full equality while at the same expecting you to pay for most things and still “take charge”. Sometimes. When, where and how to take charge is highly variable and woe unto he who misinterprets the signs. Western European women are somewhat closer to the North American end of spectrum meaning they appreciate their independence while still acknowledging that there are innate differences between the sexes. That being said, both groups tend to be lower maintenance which can be a real breath of fresh air.

I should note that class differences were minimal. The women I dates tended to have the same level of education and professional development – if not more in some cases.

Pleasant surprises – Russian women are invariably pretty and expensively dressed, yes, but in my experience are also very cultured as regards to literature, dance and music. They can have dark, off-beat senses of humor. Romanian women are some of the most fun women in the world. They combine Slavic and Mediterranean looks while preserving a more sociable Mediterranean warmth. They can, and will, talk your ear off but it will never, ever be boring. Know that a 50 kilo Polish or Irish woman can drink your punk ass under the table, all day, any day. Anglophone women and women from Western Europe tend to be somewhat less drama prone than women from other cultures that I met.
Wow – didn’t really expect that: When I was freshly separated from my soon to be ex-wife, the idea that I could meet and eventually sleep with a decent number of fairly interesting, attractive women seemed, if not far-fetched, at least a tad overly optimistic. I soon learned that this is not the difficult part. The truly difficult part is the karmic price you pay. A quick example that happened to me no less than 3 times. Married female acquaintances made it clear that I could help add some spice to their daily routine. For so many reasons, this is a horrible idea so I didn’t…until, of course, I did, for all the usual reasons. 9 & 1/2 weeks territory, as in indulging in the majority of fantasies one has harbored for quite some time. I ended it before things could truly go south but in the bargain I felt like a real asshole for doing it in the first place. Gentlemen, know that if your marriage is going stale or on the rocks and your wife/girlfriend is attractive, well, she can indulge herself at the literal snap of a finger. To the “other guy”:  Don’t ever be the “3rd person”, ever.

Lessons learned – Do not take rejection personally, stay true to yourself and your morals, have fun and above all, “be in the moment”.  Don’t do things you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to do them with. 

Finally, the city I live in is sufficiently small and cosmopolitan enough that one meeting and dating somebody from another culture was\is pretty much a constant. Everyone is doing it, not just out of necessity, but also because they can. It’s fun and exciting. Yes, long-term relationships between people who share a culture can be easier (less misunderstandings, for one). All I know is that I’ve never been one to take the easier path.