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.

 

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.

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.

The 4 rules of the SQUAT

 

I had an epiphany a few days ago.  Thanks to time, rehab and mobility training, I have recently been able to perform back squats for the first time in 11 months.  I knew that I was going to lose strength in squat…and I sure did.  What surprised me, however, was how much my technique had gone to sh^%.  So I called M,  our coach, powerlifting guru/evangelist and all around nice guy, and asked him to meet me at the powerlifting club.

Using experience, the naked eye and a bar tracking app on his Iphone, M confirmed what I already knew; that while I wasn’t back at square one, I was definitely on square 2.  On a bar tracking app(which draws a line on your video denoting the bar movement), a textbook squat should appear as 1 straight vertical line.  The squat should travel the same path going up as it did going down.  In the beginning, my squats (via the app) looked like skinny ovals, but after a few hours and many reps later, they began to resemble really skinny “V”s.  They felt a little better, too, more in the “groove”.

This should not have been that surprising as a powerlifting squat is an athletic move.  One would not jump back in a boxing ring after 11 months off and expect to spar at the same level as a year ago.  You can shadow-box and hit the heavy bag all you want, but nothing replaces that 3 minute round with a real, live opponent.  Similarly, all the deadlifts and safety-bar squats I did in the interim helped to keep me in shape, but maintain my squat they did not.

The squat is not just an athletic movement, it’s a test of character.  I know a lot of people who are freakishly good bench-pressers or deadlifters.  While they do need to work hard to improve these movements, they generally have certain physical attributes that give them a certain advantage.  I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I’ve never seen anybody walk off the street and almost automatically squat impressive weight.  Rule number one of the squat:  you must put in the work.  95% of the people you see squatting impressive or at least heavy weight have plodding their way, slowly and methodically, towards lifting more kilos.

Rule number two of squat:  Technique is paramount.  Most trainees who weigh between 80 and 100 Kgs can rep out 130 or 140 kg squats after about 4 or 5 months.  This proves that, yes, they’ve put in the sheer work.  If, however, they also emphasis training for correct form at some point their squat weight will make huge jumps – from 140 to 180 kgs in a relatively short space of time.  This is because they’ve applied their strength to a more efficient way of moving the weight.  A highly trained welterweight boxer hits a whole lot harder than some 100 Kg slob throwing haymakers.

Rule number three of squat:  Confront your fears.  First, you need to confront your fear of hard work.  You need to confront your ego, and make sure you’re up to sucking at something in the short-term.  And, finally, when you do finally start lifting some considerable weight..it’s scary.  It shouldn’t be, if you squat in a squat rack, have learned how to bail by this point and are not attempting a weight 40kgs above your PR.  Nevertheless, taking some pretty heavy weight out of the J-hooks…there is something sort of crazy about it.  6 months later, that “crazy” weight has become something you do for 5×5.

Rule number four of squat:  Ain’t no half-repping.  Only squat that weight which you are able squat slightly below parallel and back up again.  You may argue that quarter squats or half squats are valid training movements (er, and I’d disagree). If you half-squatted 200kgs with aid of knee-wraps, smelling salts and your gym-bro posse yelling encouragement and filming you for the “IGs” than kudos to you, old boy.  You did not, however, squat 200 Kgs.  You did something else.

 

 

 

Return of the prodigal Hamburger

People with German ancestry are the single largest ethnic group in US.  Yet, it’s a testament to their ubiquity that it’s often not understood by Americans themselves just how subtly German popular culture has influenced their own.  My mother’s family are typical German-Americans as they live in Midwest in a semi-rural setting. German-americans largely live in “fly over” country, not the coasts.  My great grand-parents immigrated to the US shortly before World War 1 and made a bee-line to Midwest and it’s promise of relatively cheap farm land.  My Grandmother spoke a dialect of German (similar to Luxembourgish or Blatt in Alsace) with her parents and 14 brothers and sisters.  While she continued to speak German with her sisters into old age it was very much a private, behind closed doors activity.  The last thing she would have ever considered was teaching her own children to speak German.  World War 2 comprehensively denatured a whole generation of Germanic Americans.

In the Americas (aka the New World), the word “European” is used almost as a snobby superlative.  There is common delusion, for example,  that all Frenchmen are chain-smoking philsophes with 3 mistresses and a fine wine cellar.  Germans are coldly efficient techocrats, and so forth.  OK, there is some truth to stereotypes, but most “culture” is low-brow, and Europeans are no exception.  I put forth to you that much of Midwestern US “redneck” culture is German popular culture, crudely grafted to a new location.

The most obvious vestige of this German heritage is food.  Much of what we think of as generic “American” food is German; Hamburgers, sausages (including the ubiquitous hot dog), inordinate fondness for bread, dill pickles, potato pancakes, fried fish and beer to name a few.  If you’ve eaten at a State fair in the US and then attended a similar event in Germany, the parallels are obvious.  Home style baking in the US is largely influenced by German, not British or French, tastes.  The German fondness for big portions arrived in America and immediately took steroids.  The apfel doesn’t fall from the tree, y’all.

In my last post I mentioned that I took part in a 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation last weekend  https://wordpress.com/post/expatpowerlifter.com/1438.  The competition took place is a smallish town in a beautiful semi-rural setting to the north-east of Cologne.  In short, it was the German equivalent of the community that my mother’s family hails from in the US.  And, yes, it was a powerlifting meet, not post-doctorate symposium on String Theory.  It was a perfect setting to observe German popular culture in action.

First, however, a quick word about me and the German language.  I’ve never failed so completely to learn a language.  Experience has shown that give me a Romance or creole/pidgen language and I’m off to the races…so I’m not a language dunce.  It was therefore with quite a bit of hubris that I began my study of German…and failed spectacularly.  My kids speak (amongst other languages) German and my daughter has a special fondness for it, maybe because it confounds her parents.

Nevertheless, when I arrived in the parking lot of the facility that was hosting the competition, I couldn’t help but feel at home.  There was just a very familiar red-necky vibe…if I squinted a bit I might have been in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Literally,  as in some of them looked like cousins of mine, dark hair, stocky compact builds.  Beer, check, fried food, check, baked goods, check.  Talk about sports, check, talk about cars, check, crude jokes, check.  “Unique” grooming and vestimentary choices, check.  The attitudes, the facial expressions were uncannily like a backyard BBQ in Michigan.  Good people, for the most part, but with a pronounced insular streak, just like back home.  The event was only in German so good luck to the non-Germanophones.  I was the only non-European at the event and people couldn’t have cared less except for a few odd grumbles about my lack of German.   Again, just like you know where.  (The ironic part is that I am 1m80, fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.  So I while look the part in a central casting sort of way, the reality is most Germans don’t seem to fit the blond hair/blue eyes mold.  In my experience, it’s much more common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.)

I wish I could describe this feeling better.  I feel more comfortable in a similar situation in the UK or France, Belgium, etc because I speak the languages.  Yet, in spite of my profound ignorance of the language, this felt more “familiar”.  It felt like home.  Take that as you will.  Home is often far from perfect, but it undeniably informs who you are.

The reasons that absolutely nobody should be intimidated by strength training

We’ve all been there.  Most of us mere mortals have been in lousy physical shape at least once in our lives.  At some point we think “hmm, I should really go to the gym” but we hesitate.  A quick perusal of social media, YouTube videos and blog posts reveals that a big reason many people are reluctant to make that first step is intimidation.  Many people are intimidated by gyms in general and barbell training in particular.   Here’s why nobody should be intimidated by strength-training:

  • We are all beginners once:  Congratulations, you’ve made it to the gym and you want to train compound barbell movements.  There are many things to learn, but that is also why it’s so much fun.  Trust me, nobody is sneering at you.  If an experienced lifter does happen to notice, he or she is probably thinking “Hey, that’s cool”.  Here’s another thing you probably didn’t expect, experienced lifters are even a tiny bit jealous because they remember their own “beginner gains” period.
  • The gym is for everybody:  Literally, every part of the gym is for everyone.  The old stereotype is that the weight room is for guys and the cardio area/classes are for women but that’s silly.  You are not intimidated by going to the park, the supermarket or the cinema, so don’t be intimidated by the gym.  It’s a public space.  It should be selfish thing, it’s where you indulge in some much-needed “me” time.  You have as much right to deadlift or do a spinning class as the next person.  You may come across some poor deluded souls who think they have a right to judge, but see this behavior for what it is – truly pathetic.
  • Anybody can train with weights:  Those guys and gals you see lifting that serious weight started just like you.  They are not genetic freaks (well, most of them aren’t), they have just been lifting for a while and have gotten to that stage by slowly increasing the weight they lift.   Anybody can do this and everybody should, in my opinion.
  • Serious lifters are some of the nicest, most chilled out people you’ll ever meet:  I know, I know, this seems counter-intuitive.  In many gyms, most women and more than a few guys, feel that the free weight area is the preserve of aggressive anti-social hard cases.  The weird truth is that lifting heavy weight chills people out better than Xanax.  Yes, there’s chalk flying everywhere, AC/DC cranking, people grunting under heavy loads or yelling encouragement but don’t let that fool you.  Most of those “big, bad” lifters are totally chill and friendly, the opposite of aggressive .  Serious lifters really dig meeting people who share or are interested in their passion.  To give you an example, when I travel I often do my research to find the most serious gym in the area and, if possible, a powerlifting gym.  So I go into the gym, explain that I am in town for X number of days and ask if I can pay a “day rate” to train.  In a serious gym, the staff are usually lifters and more often than not they’ll find a way that I can train for free or pay a “promotional” rate.  As for the few powerlifting gyms I’ve found while travelling , I’ve never had to pay – people are literally that friendly.  Last year,  I visited a big powerlifting gym outside of Ottawa, Canada.  The staff was stoked that some random guy visiting from Europe took the time to look them up.  They hooked me up with a free 2 week pass and were super friendly.  I met the owner and some of the powerlifting team members, they offered to spot my squats and bench, we took pictures together, etc.  It’s like being in a big social club.
  • Weight training is not very macho:  True, you can see people lifting some impressive weight, but that’s only because they’ve been working at it slowly and methodically over a long period.   This isn’t sky-diving, MMA or Formula 1 racing.   You don’t need to be particularly courageous. (OK, at more advanced levels you may sometimes attempt weights that scare you, but still… ) On the whole,  it’s not as macho and hairy-chested as people believe.

 

Been down so long looks like up to me

hill-meadow-tree-green.jpg

To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).

 

 

 

 

The Safety squat bar – the best exercise you should, but don’t, do

safetybar

Pros:

  • It will straight up make you stronger for squats and deadlifts
  • You’ll be the vegan of your powerlifting crew, that condescending dude who has staked a claim on the moral high ground (could also be considered a “con”)
  • Physique gainz, son

Cons:

  • Really hard
  • Not for beginners
  • When coming out of the hole, all bets are off, just brace like you never braced before
  • Ego killer (could be considered a “pro”)

In Globo gyms, the low bar squat is the king of exercises; everyone talks a lot about them but very few people actually do them…and only a small subset of those people do them to depth.  Similarly, the safety-squat bar is the 2 ton elephant in most powerlifting gyms.  Everybody knows it’s there but everyone does their best to act like they haven’t seen it.  It’s the best thing that you should be doing that you probably won’t do…and for  good reasons:  it’s really, really hard, technique is secondary and it’s an ego killer to strain under far less weight than you can low-bar squat.

I am the first to admit that I first picked up the safety squat bar under duress.  I injured my left shoulder/biceps in November of 2017.  The last time I squatted significant weight was on November 11…my injury is healing, albeit very slowly.  I realized quickly that the only thing worse than safety bar squats would be to resume squatting after 8 to 9 months of no squat like training.  3 and 1/2 months of squatting with the safety bar has taught me the following:

Safety bar squatting is very, very different from low bar squatting.  The way the bar sits on your shoulders changes the leverages radically from a low bar squat  As such, it shouldn’t be taught to beginners unless they, like me, have injuries that preclude them from low bar squatting.  There is no “sweet spot”, nobody has ever said “that felt really good, it moved well” after a heavy safety bar squat.  Technique, such as it is, consists of bracing absolutely everything and grunting it “out of the hole” with a sort of hybrid squat/deadlift/ dog taking a **** technique.  “Hip drahve”, as the Starting Strength community like to call it, just won’t cut it.  Unorthodox, to say the least, so you can see why it’d only confuse beginners.

The cambered bar means that your entire lower body and back are constantly fighting to balance the load which means gainz of all sorts.  After a heavy safety bar squat session my hamstrings, glutes and abs are comprehensively fried in way that I never experienced with back squats.  The constant battle to balance the bar high up on the shoulders is somewhat like a hinge movement and consequently involves your “deadlift” muscles as well.   I’ve seen such activation in those muscles that I now understand why this bar has a following among bodybuilders.  I’d even venture to say that the “booty babes” at the Globo gym would be better served by dropping the hip thrusters and picking up a safety squat bar.

Another thing you need to wrap your head around is that relatively light weight will feel very heavy.  If your 1RM for a back squat is 190kg, don’t be surprised that 110kg feels really heavy on the safety bar.  It’s an ego killer to grunt and strain under a seemingly easy weight.  The ignominy is compounded by ignorance as not everyone has used this bar.  You might get a few incredulous looks like “Really?  It’s just 130kgs, man” from people who haven’t tried it”.  So it’s kind of lonely to be doing a hard, misunderstood lift for less than “glory” weight.  Soon, however, your growing realization that you are doing something harder than most people are willing to do will develop your condescension muscles to near vegan levels.  You will struggle to keep your disdainful sneer in check when interacting with the low bar squatting hoi polloi.

Seriously, though, safety bar squats have been the silver lining to my injury.  Like low bar squats, they really suck at first.  After a while, however, you begin to savor the challenge. When I finally return to low bar squatting I anticipate that the safety bar will be my go-to accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.