Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

More Is Less

I notice how frequently I negotiate with myself in the gym: you should do more reps, more sets, more weight.

This is good so more must be better.

This is flawed thinking. I am still working my way back and, frankly, also searching for a smarter, new normal. What I did before was good but not always optimal.

I still have a lot to learn but it seems what my psyche is teaching me now is to do enough.

Enough is enough.

More than enough is too much.

Take your progress to the bank. Come back tomorrow — or the next day — and make another deposit. You cannot, should not, spend all of your energy all at once.

To be sure, it is not always easy to know what is enough. And, no doubt, perfection — whatever that is — is not the goal.

But you know enough as soon as you cut your set short.

You also know enough as soon as you do one rep too many.

The voice in your head tells you. The body tells you. They may not always be right. But usually they are and, besides, they’re all you’ve got.

The Endless Search: A Life Story

There is death happening all around me.

After I found a couple of carpenter ants in the house, I called an exterminator. Mostly, he put down preventative — he’s trying to thwart the ants’ pheromones; trying to make them think otherwise about taking up residence here with me and the little buddy. It’s a sort of Jedi mind trick for creatures without nervous systems. No, you do not want to go over here. You want to go over there.

Also there may be a nest in my ash tree. There the goal is not scent confusion but rather execution. I have nothing against ants, carpenter or otherwise, and I don’t think they mean to do me harm. But they could; they could cause damage to my home and that leaves a guy with no choice.

To be sure, I don’t have a problem today. I am simply taking steps to make sure I don’t have one tomorrow.

The stuff went down two nights ago. Earlier this afternoon I thought about a carpenter ant I found crawling up the side of my living room wall, the reason for my call. He was all alone roaming and moving his tentacles, crawling this way and that, headed up, over, back, up, again, up. If you look close — or try to catch one in close quarters — there is an intelligence there. They may not know how to conjugate a verb or make a TikTok, but ants do know well the business of being ants.

We think we are so smart but are we so different from ants roaming around on a wall?

Of late, when even friend gatherings are conducted through a screen, I have stood back — which is the advantage and disadvantage of a Zoomed experience; detachment — and observed smart, thoughtful, sensitive people as they wrestle with intellectual and emotional challenges of the sort that have challenged human beings for millennia. You see lights go off during moments of clarity that you know will be fleeting; you see projections of hopes-fears onto others; and you see good questions that want answers but don’t have them. And, well, we’re all roaming and moving our tentacles, crawling this way and that, headed up, over, back, up, again, up. (If not, all of us, thankfully, on my living room wall.)

That is the point of writing for me — to crystallize thinking, to consolidate experience, to see what I am too distracted or distorted to fully process in the moment — so that my experience registers more keenly, leaving me (hopefully) a wee bit more conscious of what it means to be alive. This is possible whether I’m looking at an ant — or at the guy who appears when I stand before a mirror, the one who finds fleeting clarity and casts projections, and asks questions without answers.

The same questions, by the way, that have always been asked.

And may always be asked.

We’re all roaming about along the vast terrain of uncertainty.

Monster Mash

American exercise habits seem to fall into two predominant camps at present: many people seldom move beyond that which is absolutely necessary and many others don’t think they have gotten a good workout unless they are unable to easily move their extremities the next day.

One sign you worked out well is that the next day you don’t feel sore. That’s right. You should not. Feel. Sore.

Pain is your body telling you something and that something isn’t “more, please.”

Now maybe in certain muscles you exerted strenuously you will, 12 to 36 hours post-workout, feel a tightening or a mild level of soreness — when you specifically move those muscles. So, say, the morning after leg day, you might feel a dull sensitivity on your way down a flight of stairs. Or after doing some overhead presses, you extend your shoulder to reach for a shirt in the back of the closet and you feel it in your rear deltoid. That type of sore is fine — let’s you know, in fact, your muscles were exerted. But if the pain is constant, you went too hard, used poor form, or both.

What I can say about my workout yesterday is that I didn’t use poor form!

Alas, I am more sore than I should be following my most aggressive comeback sequence of squats to date: six sets of eight reps.

Specifically, I feel the Frankenstein leg stiffness not just on the basement stairs but also when I sit in the kitchen chair. That is a maneuver is should not have to consciously think about avoiding pain to perform.

At this point, I am fully committed to form. Of my 48 reps, there was one where I went a wee bit shallow. Otherwise, I went though the full range of motion with solid technique, no undue strain,,on each rep of each set. As this was quite a bit of volume for less than a month in, I must have been a bit too aggressive with my weight.

How much to push yourself is never easy to know — in weightlifting and in life.

Lift and learn. Lift and learn.

Badass

It’s strange to have a song stuck in your head when you don’t know the last time you heard the song, you haven’t before especially liked the song, and, in a way, the song predates you.

In fact, Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was recorded the year I was born. The following year it became the number one song in America. It ranked second on the charts for all of 1973.

Here I am at the end of a weekday more than four decades later, for reasons passing understanding, singing the refrain under my breath.

Upstairs, downstairs, backyard, shower.

C’mon, sing it with me. You know you want to.

And it’s bad, bad Leroy Brown/The baddest man in the whole damned town/Badder than old King Kong/And meaner than a junkyard dog

In truth, this is the only part of the song I know — the same part everyone knows.

Needing to expand my mindless lyrical range, I looked up the rest of the words. Turns out, the song tells a decent story, that of a man who commands respect — maybe even fear — all over town by way of his size (he is what the ladies call a “Treetop Lover”) and his manner (“meaner than a junkyard dog”). Leroy thinks, with his money (flashing his fancy clothes and his “Eldorado”) and his ability to intimidate both genders, that he can do and say whatever he wants. He thinks nothing, for one thing, of flirting with a married woman.

Eventually, Leroy gets his comeuppance. The woman’s husband takes Leroy aside and has more than a word with him.

Well the two men took to fighting/And when they pulled them off the floor/Leroy looked like a jigsaw puzzle/With a couple of pieces gone

As I said, I have never before voluntarily played the song — never before thought “I’m in the mood for Leroy.” So why is this song coming up for me? At all? Right now? So strongly?

I ask such questions because, of course, the universe is all about me.

Seriously, I can only truly view matters through my own lens … it’s all I got — to the extent I even have that.

I don’t have a great answer, which is why the question is, to me, worthwhile. Possibly I am being bad? Hmmm. Though capable, I have been pretty good of late! My demeanor doesn’t much intimidate — I don’t think — not even my own dog is intimidated by me.

Well, now that I think of it, sometimes I think I possibly present has having myself more to together than I do — I sometimes articulate myself well enough that I may sound smarter than I am. Maybe there is something “intimidating” there but it seems to be overthinking things a bit. Seems too literal of an interpretation to be plausible. The psyche is far more interesting than that. Most of the time, frankly, I do not have the means or the manner to be a modern-day Leroy …

… maybe instead there is a warning in here about the shortness of life. Croce himself died not long after this song was released. He would not have been able to play it live much …

… where I go, though, what seems truer to me, is I wonder more about tone. I can always use reminders to take life less seriously. Croce delivers the seemingly serious tale of bad Leroy in an upbeat, almost childlike, sing-song sound. Despite the adult themes — and at the time it was very rare, even controversial, to use curse words like “whole damned town” in a song that played on the radio — to be sure, “99 Problems” didn’t play in the background at the shopping mall — this is a fun tune.

Not sure. Maybe clarity will come. Or maybe it won’t. In the meantime:

And it’s bad, bad Leroy Brown

Preparation Not Procrastination

Looking for something to listen to as I dosed off — something that didn’t involve Trump news — I stumbled last night upon close to the opposite: “Roy’s Writing Tools,” a “podcast” version of the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark’s book, Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Exactly eleven years ago today tool No. 41 dropped: “turn procrastination into rehearsal.” In it, the well-known and highly regarded journalism instructor asks a provocative question: what if we viewed procrastination not as a vice but as a virtue? All writers procrastinate to some degree, he says, but what if procrastination were constructive? Maybe even necessary? While he suggests things to help combat procrastination — write right away in the morning, write early in the process, and discount nothing — I found this a useful frame. It’s another example that we almost always have a choice in how we think about something. I am not sure I will use the term “rehearsal,” but the idea is the important thing. What if I am preparing? Building? Gathering? Of course, there are limits here — many people never write the essay, the manuscript, the book. But if you stay close to a project and not sling too many arrows at yourself, it can be that there are right times — better times — times when we are strong enough — to research, draft, revise, and rewrite. In other words, it’s OK to wait. It might be important, in fact, not to rush through the space between idea and execution.

Be Careful What You Wish For

While I am not in favor of destruction, and I take a strong stand against accidental death — most especially if innocent animals are involved — I do like me a good summer storm. Give me rolling thunder and flashes of light that cut through windows and bounce around the room. Rain. Is there any better way to sleep than to the steady patter of rain on your roof?

I lamented aloud to colleagues last week that in recent years, or so it seems, we have been slighted our share of storm time. When the thunder clouds do come, they don’t stay long. As soon as you settle in, you look outside and see the post-game glow.

As I write these words, it’s been storming off and mostly on for seventeen straight hours and, well, I just woke up from a nap. Usually, storms calm me, inspire me, yet this one has left me low on energy and not especially high in spirits. The little buddy and I missed our morning walk — I still would have gone but he’s not the fan of rain I am — and life is not the same when we miss our morning walk.

We still do have the couch. On it, we stay close. I keep him stable and he keeps me comfortable. No destruction here.

Attention!

Mindfulness is all the rage right now.

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but for some time I have noticed a mild but adverse reaction arise inside when I hear that word. This even though I know — even though I have seen in my own life — that locating oneself in the present brings about myriad benefits, not the least of which is a focus on the only moment that can be reconciled — this one.

Yet word I like instead is attention.

What are you paying attention to?

What has your attention?

To attend to something or someone.

Perhaps it’s a semantical distinction only but the difference between the new-agey “mindfulness” and the old-school “attention” (the word the Stoics used) processes in my mental gear-shaft differently. Attention is less a calming technique and more a word that speaks to and helps fuel a person’s purpose. To be mindful is to observe; to pay attention is to apply that observation — to act, specifically, in a deliberate and conscious manner. Mindfulness is airy, attention is practical.

(I have no doubt that a mindfulness expert, and I am decidedly not one, might parse the word and its application differently than I am here. I want merely to note my observation/reaction. If you owe something to mindfulness I do not, to be sure, wish to take it away.)

Attention, too, to me at least, speaks to choice. You are not merely allowing the proverbial river to run — the proverbial clouds to pass gently by, carrying with them all your ego-driven thoughts — but rather you are engaged in the writing, the speaking, the listening, the reading, your relations, your work.

Certainly, you could pay attention to frivolous things. But if you are, you have chosen to do so. Besides, it seems unlikely if you are one who pays attention that you will fritter away much off your time. I could be wrong.

Time: that is what we are talking about — right?

How are you using your allotment?

This seems not an insignificant question for every person.

Of the infinite options we have with our minutes, are we making wise choices?

I have a complicated relationship with time. On one hand, I have long held a keen sensitivity to its finiteness. I know life is short. I don’t have to be told. On the other, as a result, I have sometimes placed too much weight on every moment, downplaying endeavors I value thinking that I should not. Another way to put it: Unless I am doing significant things, I am wasting my time. And, well, life is full of mundane moments. It’s a high bar to think you must clear high bars all day long.

For example, I find writing to be a worthwhile use of one’s time — a way for some of us to discover and synthesize our thinking, to make use of an effective form of communication, and a means to move the world a little (such as with the creation of art or any thoughtful utterance). Yet not every sentence is going to sing — not every thought is worth putting into words, not every story is worth telling. To be a writer is to squander time on a whole lot of bad work. Sometimes the shit turns into something. Sometimes you are just shoveling shit for seemingly no reason.

There is, of course, a reason — it’s a necessary part of the process.

Yet it’s not easy to be, ahem, mindful of this when you look at the clock and see that you have spent two, three hours putting sentences together that aren’t worth sharing or preserving. (More than once as I have read through this very post have I wondered whether these specific sentences fall into that precise category.)

I have little in the way of grand conclusions here. What is coming up for me is that it’s pretty hard to write — even if the writing is shit — if you are not paying to your thoughts and the words that aim to uncover and convey those thoughts. In that way, writing is, in its essence, a form of — a way to pay — attention.

And so in that way is its own reward.

All the Way Down

The guy working in the rack next to mine the other day was back-squatting. He had more weight on the bar than I did. He was younger than I am. What he wasn’t doing was getting as low I do. He wasn’t going through the full range of motion. He wasn’t even going through close to the full range of motion.

When he brought his butt back, he did not get low enough to sit in the proverbial chair. Not really close to sitting the proverbial chair.

My goal always — and I can confirm it was achieved in all five reps of all five sets in my squat workout this morning — is to go below parallel. There is a sweet spot down there, from which you seemingly “bounce” back up. Bounce even with three-plus plates on each side.

It takes trust to go so low.,There is a chance you won’t come back up. Such is life — nothing is a given, certainly not when you’ve got more than your body weight on your back.

Possibly this young lifter was injured or recovering from injury. Or maybe he plays a sport — like basketball– where there is value in the half-squat. There was no visible sign of injury and he didn’t look like basketball player. But I did not know him; I did not talk to him; I cannot say anything about him for certain. While I watched him I felt a tinge of arrogance — as though I know, he doesn’t, I am smart, puff-puff-puff, haughty me, oh my.

You know, it was one of those moments we use to secretly inflate our self-importance so as to build up our egos falsely, possibly to compensate for something we don’t like about ourselves.

Yet I do not find this nameless lifter in my thoughts days later so as further put him down but rather to remind myself what I do know: that how much weight you put on a bar is not the only factor in on how strong you get.

Form and tempo also play a part. I think it’s fair to say that they play a larger part. Especially the former, form. The body doesn’t know how much weight you have on the bar. Seriously, it doesn’t. What the body does know — what it responds to — is how much resistance you place against it.

The parallel to the rest of life is obvious.

Do somwthing well, do it right. Don’t worry what number you have on your back or what amount you can write in your log.

How you do something matters so much.

The Intellectual Gymnasium

This morning between sets of deadlifts and overhead presses I pulled out my copy of The Manual for Living by Epictetus (Hallmark edition). I did this in response to a discussion during book club last night. We are reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy by David Robertson. In a chapter on the history of philosophy, the author describes the ancient gymnasium as a place where men* worked out both their bodies and their minds. That is, they did gymnastics as well as mental calisthenics.

I like the idea of of combining exercises of the mind with those of the body. I am not sure why or when our culture separated the two. For years I have been asking people, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, to tell me where the mind ends and the body begins (and vice versa) and no one seems to have an answer. This is likely because the distinction is impossible to discern. Yet we seem to strongly desire to keep them separate.

There are few more freeing moments of intellectual stimulation than those immediately after one has just engaged in vigorous physical exertion. Why we plant the butts of kids in chairs for 90 percent of their learning lives is beyond me. Listen to a poem (or another form of music) while walking. Try a math equation after a few push-ups. Have recess all day and you will never stop learning.

I have written before about parallels between my primary pursuits, intellectual (writing) and physical (lifting), and I am curious to further explore the possibilities of combining these two practices. In the current climate, in which I must and want to limit time spent in the public space of the gym, I am mindful not to linger unnecessarily at the squats rack. Yet I do need to take time between lifts. To get stronger, slow down. There are small spaces of time in which I can pick up a book when I am not holding a barbell. At least I tried that today, to good effect.

The current theme of my bodily training, as I continue my restart following the lock-down shutdown, is “don’t do too much.” It is counter-intuitive to most, myself included, but, when it comes to resistance training, more is sometimes less. You should seldom even try to reach your limit. You want to stop a couple reps short of failure. Always. Leave something in the tank. Perform enough to push yourself to grow but not so much that you cannot recover in order to do so.

It’s about the every day, not the single extraordinary day.

With barbells. As with books.

 

* Women were not allowed. Most thankfully, this wrong has been righted.

Starting Over Again

Editor’s Note: The intention here is to start a Workout Journal. Who will want to read such a Journal is not especially clear. Mostly, the benefit of such a journal is likely to be entirely the author’s, When it comes to fitness, he considers himself a learned Everyman — one who aims to feel good, look good, and foster longevity. Be warned that, like most long-term projects undertaken by the author, the odds are good execution here will be erratic and may, in fact, cease altogether without warning.

I went to the gym this morning. Let me repeat: I went to the gym this morning.

I had mixed feelings when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz amended the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on fitness facilities, allowing for a return to operations with modifications. Suddenly, I had to decide whether I was going to use my membership — i.e., regularly go to the gym and increase my risk of exposure to coronavirus — or cancel my membership. I definitely want to support the place. I am not, I’m afraid, in a financial position to pay for services I don’t use.

One thought: maybe put my membership dues toward additional in-home equipment. An advantage of working out at home, of course, is time — you don’t have to commute to the basement, to the backyard, the garage. I don’t, however, have an ideal place to put a rack and plates, and, well, there is no way to replicate the gym’s intangible. Namely, having a place to do this one certain thing. When you go to a gym, you are there to exercise and so is everyone else you encounter for that hour or whatever. This creates a motivating and energizing energy. The energy of a place is a highly underrated factor in where we spend our time.

I decided I would try — I would see how I felt when I was there. Besides, I had to go at least once: I had a locker full of shoes and gear and shampoo I was not going to leave behind.

This morning’s workout was not my first time back. So I guess that answers how I felt; I was surprised at how good it was to squat with a bar on my back again. I went from March 16 to June 11, so not quite three full months, between gym sessions. I have since been a half-dozen additional times, including this morning‘s session.

While I remained active during the hiatus, trying to take advantage of the greater opportunity for frequency that is possible when you workout out at home, there is no doubt I lost muscle and muscle memory in my months away. I absolutely believe you can get a good workout anywhere with any amount of equipment but, after the early weeks of adjustment, which I made fairly easily, my enthusiasm for progress turned to mere obligation. I simply did not work as hard or as well. Those welcome-back squats felt so good the other day, yet the amount of weight I was moving was much less than I put on the bar three months ago. No doubt, I have regressed.

In many ways, then, it feels like I am starting over.

Rather than deflate me, this fact has, surprisingly, invigorated me.

My gym did not open back up with its previous hours. This has limited my opportunities to go — I can’t go everyday or, really, more than three or four times per week — and when I do make it I can stay for no more than an hour (per policy). Even here these limits have been blessings rather than barriers. They force me to focus while I am there and take much-needed time off to recover when I am not.

I have so far kept my workouts short and moderate. I have planned my visits at times when the gym is not even at the 25-percent allowed maximum capacity. I use a minimal number of bars. I focus on the foundational, compound lifts to get the most bang for my buck.

I love when I come at something I know a lot about with the Beginner’s Mind. The time off forced me to restart my approach and re-evaluate my priorities. I now have the advantage of being able to see positive change without putting forth excessive effort. I can leave several preconceptions behind. I want to think I will be better, smarter, about my workouts.